I arrived in Ishinomaki about 1pm yesterday. A lot has changed in the last two months. The city seems to be very busy, the area around the train station still has a lot of shuttered shops, but energy is high. Only a couple of quick stops before heading out to the peninsula.
On the 21st of this month a temporary store opened on the Ogatsu peninsula. The first time people have been able to do any local shopping since March. The bridge that was destroyed at Okawa has been rebuilt and I saw cars moving across it yesterday. I met with Nakazato san in Funakoshi. They are fishing again, and took in 250 fish the morning I arrived. The women at Funakoshi are making jewelry, and that has turned into quite a cottage industry for them…
(Rob Mangold writing from his 7th trip to Tohoku on November 24th)
Wow, the people up there are amazing. No-one is sitting around waiting for help, they are out there doing it themselves.
(From Rob’s report of his fourth trip to Tohoku last May)
As winter sets in, it is time once again to consider the plight of people in north-east Japan, for Tohoku winters are cold and long. One Kyoto-based organization, that continues to work tirelessly to assist them, is IDRO JAPAN. As regular readers know, IDRO’s volunteers have done some incredible work over the last nine months helping the victims of 3/11 rebuild their lives. Here from the IDRO website is a review of all they have achieved:
Sponosored 7 relief trips from Kyoto
- distributed immediate relief supplies
- distributed carpentry tools
- distributed electrical appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators and microwave ovens
- replaced glass windows in Funakoshi Elementary School
- participated in local volunteer relief activities
Sponsored a 7-week summer work camp for volunteers
- organized over 50 volunteers
- provided relief supplies
- participated in local clean-up and assistance activities
- assisted in home repair and maintenance
- assisted in cleaning of the Miyagi Sanriku coastline
I think you will agree that that is a pretty impressive tally of results, and all of it was largely organized by one man: IDRO’s founder, Rob Mangold. A few weeks ago I sat down in Tadg’s pub with Rob, and over a few fine craft beers we talked about IDRO’s achievements thus far, and about their ongoing long-term goals. I also wanted to get to know Rob himself a bit better.
The word that springs to mind when I look at Rob Mangold, is a Japanese one: 逞しい (takumashii – or stalwart). Rob is takumashii in both appearance and character. His quiet smile, steady gaze, and solid stance suggests a man who is ready to battle giants. Here is a practical, reliable man who doesn’t mess about. Rob Mangold is also a man of many talents; a fluent speaker of Kansai dialect, a trained carpenter, antiques dealer and a family man. His home, an old ryokan that he renovated himself, is in north Kyoto, but originally he hails from Oak Harbor, Washington State. He first came to Japan as a young man, when he was in the Marines, and somehow felt a connection. Though he had traveled widely, and all over the States, he says Japan “was the first place I thought I wanted to come back to. I felt at home.” After leaving the military, and then university, Rob came back to Japan, worked with a construction company for a number of years, and gradually built up his own business, the Kura, dealing first just in furniture, but then moving into ceramics, paintings, armour and Buddhist pieces. This year, however, he has sacrificed a lot of business and family time for his work in Tohoku.
The First Trip North
I asked Rob, “How did it all get started? And Rob told me of how in early April of this year, he and his friend Mike Barr went up to Tohoku with just “a map, an i-phone” and “a truckload of stuff”. As well as distributing much needed supplies of food, clothing and toiletries, and helping out as volunteer workers, they wanted to scout out the general situation: “We had an intention to see what could be done, and what people could do from here, if they went up there.” And as for choosing a location, they were pretty thorough:
Mike Barr and I, when we first went up, we weren’t going to go to the cities. We wanted to go to the countryside. We thought less supplies would be getting there. So we drove the entire coast from Kesennuma, past Kamaishi. And we rode every single peninsula, every little inlet, we drove the entire thing. And we stayed with that idea. That we would help people outside the cities.
At that stage, Rob hadn’t quite envisaged getting involved to the extent that he eventually did. However,
When you got up there, and you really saw the scale and the totality of the devastation, you just went – Jesus! – you know, you have to do something. At that point, that was probably all that we were thinking. We have to come up here again and do something.
After Rob and Mike ran out of supplies to distribute they went to the volunteer center in Kamaishi. They would work all day and after finishing work, they would go to the store to buy supplies that people had ordered and then drive out into the country to deliver them. It was on the journey back to Kyoto that they came up with the idea of starting their own NPO. Here is how Rob tells it,
While we were up there …one of the things that struck us was, we’d go into these towns and it’d be like, “Well look, we’ve got a vanload of stuff and we wondered if you guys need anything.” And they would be like, “Who are you with?”
“Oh, we’re not with anyone. We just came up here.”
“Oh well, we can’t take it then.”
“Why? It’s in the van. Just take it.”
“Yeah, but we can only take things from an organization.”
“Oh well actually, we are with the Kyoto Gaikokujin… Tohoku… Tasuketai Gundan…”
“Oh, Ok! Unload the car then!”
This situation was repeated several times. And it was like, you know what? This is still Japan. No matter what the situation, you’ve gotta have a meishi. So on the way back, it was like, “If we had an organization, what would you call it? And we tried to think of acronyms that sound catchy. And we came up with “International Disaster Relief Organization Japan”. So that was it!
The Second Trip
The experience of that first trip left Rob feeling restless: “we came back and we were watching the news and talking about it everyday. And I said, “Jeez, I’m going to go back.” IDRO JAPAN was officially founded on April 17th and shortly thereafter Rob was on his way back to Miyagi. This time he went back with Tsuyoshi from Team Sake (the fish not the drink), and David Graham of Kyoto University Hospital. David had obtained 27 cases of water from a university conference that had been cancelled due to the meltdown in Fukushima. After distributing the water, carpentry tools and other supplies Rob and David volunteered to work in towns and villages up and down the north-east coastline: “We volunteered in each place to get an idea of what it was like working in the different cities, so that when we came back we could tell people what to expect if they went up and where people would be needed.” They soon realized that the area where their efforts were least likely to be hampered by bureaucracy and over-protective officials, was Ishinomaki and so that city became the base for IDRO’s future operations. It was also in Ishinomaki that the newly formed IDRO JAPAN was recruited by the Nippon Foundation (“the biggest private philanthropic organization in Japan”) for a big project on the Oshika peninsula during Golden Week. They needed people immediately for cleanup efforts on the beaches and for reclamation of fishing equipment, before everything was lost to the sea. Rob says, “we came back here, basically dumped out the gear, washed the laundry, put out the call, grabbed eleven people, rented a van – and went back up!”
Rob: This was when we were in full cleanup mode. Everything was still pretty raw, especially on the peninsula. We did everything: tore down buildings, knocked down walls, dug out ditches, separated piles of garbage into cement, black top, metal, debris, wood, plastics…
DK: How long were you working each day?
Rob: We probably worked from 8.30 till 5.30 at night.
DK: That’s a long day doing that kind of work.
Rob: Yeah, it was good days. Everybody really worked hard up there.
Of course none of this work was done in a vacuum. From the start IDRO has worked closely with a network of volunteer organizations such as Peace Boat, Kizuna, The Nippon Foundation, Human Shield Kobe, RQ, and more, under the guidance of the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council (IDRAC). Rob speaks very highly of the good communication and teamwork between these groups, though for the large part he tells me the Red Cross was conspicuously absent. During Golden Week and later during the seven week summer camp, IDRO would take assignments from these other organizations.
We would take orders, I suppose you could call them – 注文… IDRAC would ask the Nippon Foundation or Peace Boat to do stuff and then they would pass that on to us. Things like tearing down something, or removing floors, or fixing walls, or something like that…
The Current Situation:
DK: How are things up there now then?
Rob: I’d say that in Ishinomaki where we were working, it’s largely cleaned up. The need for large scale groups of unskilled volunteers has passed. It isn’t completely clean, but they need more skilled people now. What they need is people who can build things, people who can pour cement, dig ditches, or run machinery. They really need a more technical thing. Or they need people who can do what they call “心のケア” [kokoro no kea = heart care].
Rob: Counselling and stuff like that… And they need people who can explain the laws. How do you get the different types of 助成金 [Joseikin = aid grants] and 資金 [shikin = business grants] and stuff from the government.
There are also a lot of things that still need to be supplied. In October IDRO sent up a batch of kotatsu sets (a small table with an electric heater underneath) that will help keep people warm throughout the long Tohoku winter. They have also been collecting money to supply 50 families with water heaters and to pay someone to go up to Miyagi to install them.
UPDATE December 5th, 2011: Rob says, “Your words are encouraging and much appreciated. A footnote to the story, our plumber group from Daiwa is installing [water heater] units as I type this, and we are hoping that 30 units will be completed by the time they return.” LINK
The Next Step
IDRO’s long-term plans remain adaptable, “because the situation changes all the time”, but Rob says that one thing he would like to do is build some 工房: kobo or workshops where people can harvest edible seaweed in the spring. He is certain however, that IDRO Japan will be working in Tohoku for at least another year. And beyond that Rob sees IDRO as being ready to help out wherever they are needed. “We are not strictly a Tohoku organization, and we have got experienced members and the equipment and tooling to do that now.”
Rob himself has been up and down to Tohoku seven times now, and during the summer he was there for a full seven-week stretch. Even so he is still keen to continue this good work. Clearly, this is a huge personal commitment for a family man with his own business. I asked him what inspires him to keep going. He speaks fondly of the strong community ties in Tohoku, the sense of family heritage, and the deep connection that people have with the past and with their ancestors. He speaks of people’s kindness: “You ask yourself, ‘Why is it that I’m going up here to help people and I feel like I’m being the one taken care of?’” He told me that a lot of volunteers come back twice or three times, and others are even quitting their jobs.
The girl that used to work with RQ, Hanako, has now become head of “kokoro no kea” for the Nippon Foundation, and she has just taken another year off from university to stay up there. It’s interesting to go up there. You really do meet a dynamic group of people.
“It’s powerful,” he says. “Everyone who has been up there says it is life altering. These people are so grateful; just your presence there makes the difference, because you are encouraging others with your example.” Indeed a large part of IDRO’s work up there seems to be motivational. When Rob and Mike Barr first went up to Tohoku, he tells me, “we realized that actually it had reached this point where people were surviving…”
…They had survived and they’d realized that but they weren’t ready to take the next step. They were all sitting there going, “OK, look we’ve got a place to sleep, and we’ve got a shower or something, and we’re getting food now. Let’s just sit down and take a breather and see what’s going to happen next.” And we were in this zone, but there was nothing happening.
Clearly, Rob felt a need to help get things going again and he speaks movingly of how even just one day’s work can affect the people there. “One man said, ‘What you did in a day and a half, I can’t believe! If you can do that, then I can buckle down and renew my business…’ ”
The good people of northern Japan still need our help. Why not send them some seasonal good cheer in the form of a donation? If you would like to assist IDRO Japan with their inspiring work, either with donations or in a voluntary capacity then please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read about IDRO Japan’s work in more detail and check their latest projects on the website: http://www.idrojapan.org. Rob continues to blog from his seventh trip north at http://idrojapan.posterous.com/.
All pictures in this post are used courtesy of IDRO JAPAN.
Here’s Rob featured on Yomiuri TV’s morning show, Tsu Matan, June 2nd 2011.