Gambare: Volunteering in the Tohoku

March 11, 2012

What can one person do?

When he’s faced with something of this magnitude…


The international media has practically forgotten about Japan. Remember that potentially dangerous nuclear situation over at Fukushima that no one could shut up about last year? Well, the reactors are still very much damaged, and the fuel rods did melt down. With the exception of coverage on how a typhoon might have affected the nuclear power plant, the land of the rising sun has been overshadowed by politics in the United States, and mounting tensions with Iran. I understand how news organizations can behave as though as they had ADD, but the population at large? We should know better than to simply jump to the next big story, giving the impression we only have so much empathy to pass around, and apparently, Japan had had its limit.

I didn’t have the luxury of forgetting about what was going on the Tohoku region; having lived in Japan from 2006-2008, I had friends in Tokyo and elsewhere, and I felt strong ties to the country, as my first experience living abroad. I had never known a people so giving and friendly, and even if this hadn’t been the case, I have a feeling there still would have been a drive for me to return to help, to see how those responsible were handling the situation, and to reconnect with the community… but, as selfish as it sounds, the main reason I wanted to volunteer in Japan was to see the disaster area. To make it real for me. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to use whatever skills I could offer to help the Japanese people, I wanted to connect with a new volunteer organization, I wanted to make friends with locals and show them I cared, and I wanted to remove all the misconceptions the media had placed in my brain following March 11th, but my intention was to see the wrath of this tsunami with my own eyes.

One thing you just can’t pull from the images of destruction on streaming video is the smell. The stench of dead fish was omnipresent, with the supplies of packing plants and boat cargo all washed ashore in the wake of a ten-meter tsunami. Instead of distributing fresh fish across Japan, as was the original intent, that day’s catch found itself scattered across most of the eastern shore. I had been working on getting floorboards removed from a traditional Japanese house – sliding doors, tatami flooring – since 8:30. A tatami room provides a soft walking surface and excellent place to set up a kotatsu, central floor heating. But whatever sense of warmth and security this house may have provided in the past, it seemed almost every board we violently dislodged from the structure revealed something new: an unopened bottle of green tea; an envelope with five thousand yen; photographs of different families; more dead fish. The owner, Konno-san, had been rather fortunate when the tsunami struck, as his house was relatively far from the coast and only hit by two meters of water. When it finally receded, debris and mud found its way into the open-air foundation of his house and most of the wood on the first floor was a lost cause.


In fact, nearly everything in Ofunato that had been within half a kilometer of the water was a lost cause. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures: houses washed completely away, to find themselves intact but in a different town or more likely torn to pieces; fishing boats that had settled on top of three-story buildings when the water finally withdrew. I had a whole day to do nothing but scout out the damage to one town, and I barely scratched the surface. What stuck out most was a street sign, overturned and obviously displaced, stating “Estimated Tsunami Inundation Area”. Though I must admit, I felt a little more disconcerted at finding a Super Nintendo controller alongside a child’s belongings. What happened to this boy? Did he manage to escape? Or was he one of many fished out of the wreckage days later? I never found out.


I’m getting ahead of myself, leaving more questions than answers. Just as every American has his story of where he was when the towers fell, so too does every Japanese remember where he was on 3/11/11. Not quite identifying myself as Japanese or completely American, I was working as an English teacher on the rural eastern coast of South Korea last year. At the time residents of Tokyo realized this was not a simple earthquake, I was in a classroom playing Scrabble with 9-year-old Korean kids. I didn’t even learn about what had happened until I saw the news coverage playing over my butcher’s head that evening as I stopped to pick up some pork for dinner. And just like 9/11, I was glued to the TV (and Internet) for hours on end: Were my Japanese friends ok? Where had the tsunami hit? Was Tokyo safe? Was the shinkansen (high speed train) still running? You knew things were serious if the trains stopped running for a long time.

Before this had happened, it was my intention to visit Japan in May with a friend for some lighthearted fun: singing karaoke, taking pictures of cosplay teenagers, doing everything a tourist is expected to do. With recent events and CNN shedding light on a volunteer organization I could join, I changed my plans.

All Hands Volunteers had accepted me for a week in May, knowing my timetable was fixed, knowing I wouldn’t be able to provide decent skills as an interpreter. But I had the strength to get through a full day of labor. I had the endurance to last the week. And I had seen my share of disaster zones, having visiting Haiti the year prior. I had been assigned to work in Ofunato for three days, serving as both laborer and interpreter to the Japanese owners, who were on hand to help us help them. Many foreign-run organizations had trouble petitioning the Japanese government to allow them access to the disaster areas. This was not due to arrogance or some sense of xenophobia, as some reports indicated. Far from it. Japan isn’t Haiti. Japan isn’t a third-world country. At the time, it was home to the second-largest economy and, in my eyes, one of the most impressive infrastructures. The Japanese were certainly willing to accept help, but they didn’t need to be flooded with international volunteer organizations doing jobs locals were more qualified to handle, speaking the language and being familiar with the area and customs. They didn’t need religious groups coming in, trying to adopt orphaned Japanese children.

All Hands was fortunate to be one of the few foreign-run organizations allowed in so soon following the disaster, and I never saw them disappoint the people they helped. In their first few weeks, they found many homeowners and community leaders willing to let them clean the mud out of foundations and gut the first floors of homes and apartments to prepare for rebuilding.

I never expected to see such a variety of damage, for lack of better words. On the eastern front, as I approached the Pacific, the scene was very much as had been described in the media: roads covered in debris, nothing left to rebuild, the train tracks warped and torn from their embankment. Yet, at the fringe of this area, vending machines dispensed cold Coca-Cola for 120 Yen. A supermarket with glass display windows opened for business, its parking lot looking spotless, its shelves fully stocked. Farther and farther, the damage limited itself to cosmetic work: storefronts and walls were marked by thick brown lines where the water had finally settled. I could have traced the depth all the way to the edge of town, when it finally lowered to street level.


The second floor of a new complex remained untouched, its appliances and fixtures looking like they had just been delivered from the hardware store.


Half of Ofunato was in shambles, the other half operating as though nothing at all had happened… though that’s not entirely true: there were emergency shelters. The volunteers and I were housed at a rehabilitation center on the north end of town; many homes here were at a higher elevation. But convenience stores were open, classes were in session, you could even enjoy a beer and fresh sashimi at one of many izakaya.

The Japanese weren’t pretending nothing had happened. Far from it. The residents of Ofunato knew all too well it would be years until they would have their town back as they remembered it. Some who had lost everything and fled might never return. Yet locals like Konno-san greeted us with a smile on his face as we came each morning to rip out another piece of what once had been his proud home. Everywhere, from bookstores in Tokyo to minimarts in the small town of Ofunato, signs were hung encouraging “Gambaru, Sendai!!”, “Gambaru, Nippon!!”, “Gambaru, Tohoku!!” Gambatte, as it’s also known in Japanese. Keep your chin up. Don’t let things that can’t be helped get you down. Stay positive.

There’s a certain numbness I’ve been carrying with me since my return from Japan. Similar to those feelings all must experience when faced with extreme poverty or, in this case, calamity: I have the means to escape. I can go home if I want to. My surroundings following that week in Ofunato could not have been more different: an air-conditioned classroom filled with children whose minds were focused on nothing more than playing English games; my stomach was full; the muscles in my legs were satisfied by a morning barefoot run; the streets were clean; the air was crisp. There was still a strong smell of fish in the air, but it was fresh from boats that are likely to never experience a tsunami.

I think about what that week taught me about Japan and myself. During the two years I lived there, I found myself getting increasingly angry whenever I was treated like an outsider, a tourist. Volunteering in rural Japan wasn’t about enjoying the best hot springs, or taking pictures of shrines. This time, when I was on my early morning runs before taking the van down to de-mud Konno-san’s home, I encountered high school students, in their freshly-pressed Prussian-inspired uniforms, just as I had five years ago. This time, instead of shouting “HELLO! HOW ARE YOU!” at me from across crowded streets with no regard to discretion, something I had always considered to be intentionally loud and attention grabbing, those students greeted me in Japanese at a reasonable volume, and delivered the appropriate bow for a youth respecting an elder.

Even in the aftermath of the second greatest tragedy the country has even known, there was order and stability. It’s one of the reasons I found myself so attracted to staying in Japan indefinitely: despite all our differences, I felt safer and more comfortable in those two years than I ever had in my life.


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