As regular readers will remember, in early March I spent ten days up in Miyagi prefecture volunteering with IDRO JAPAN. As the charity sale for IDRO approaches, I think it’s time I finally sat down and wrote about the work I took part in up there, and put down some thoughts about my experiences. So here goes…
The Importance of Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
First off, I’m a very unlikely volunteer. Having failed to go up last year with the excuse of a bad back (actually true), I had pretty much settled into that excuse as a way of avoiding getting out of my comfort zone. If you are familiar with the first chapter of The Hobbit – pre-adventure Bilbo Baggins is pretty much me (minus the hairy feet); I’m lazy, I like my routine, I like my own space and I don’t even like traveling all that much. Too much hassle. I told myself I could probably be more effective raising awareness through my online activities than actually heading north and doing some hard work. However, as the months went by, an incipient feeling of guilt crept up on me, and finally pounced when I was interviewing IDRO founder Rob Mangold for a prospective Kyoto Journal interview. Fellow KJ member Jen Teeter, also present, said to me, “You should go up there” and Rob followed up with “You wouldn’t even have to do any volunteer work! Just go up there and meet those people and talk to them! Somebody needs to record all this!”
He had a point. How could I possibly write about the work that IDRO was doing if I didn’t go up and see it for myself? And also Rob had said that the time for unskilled volunteers was coming to a close. This could be my last chance… I resolved to go, follow Rob around a bit, and try not to get in the way to much, and so a couple of weeks later found myself staying at the INJM houses, with over 20 other volunteers, my private space gone, my normal routine fully broken, forced to socialize with all kinds of people at all times, and doing all kinds of work (in all kinds of weather) that I would never have imagined doing before. It was good. I’m glad I did it. It woke this sleepy hobbit up.
First a short word of explanation for those unfamiliar with the two organizations INJM and IDRO Japan. They are not the same (!) but they do work quite closely together. IDRO Japan, set up by Rob Mangold and his friends, has regularly sent up relief trips since the disaster happened, but key members having both business and families here, it remains based in Kyoto. INJM however, represents a younger generation of volunteers, many of whom, like INJM’s founder Jamie El-Banna, have effectively given up their previous lives, and moved to Ishinomaki to devote themselves full-time to disaster relief. Both organizations have been involved in a range of activities over the last year or so, but I think it’s fair to say that whereas INJM is moving towards more community-orientated support, IDRO Japan is now largely focused on sending skilled workers to do pin-point building work and renovation that can help resurrect the local economy. That may well be an over-simplification though, and the boundaries between the groups can be vague. IDRO volunteers having been staying at the INJM base recently, and while I was there Jamie and Rob would coordinate their activities nightly so that the most suitable people for a particular job would be sent appropriately regardless of their “official” group membership. INJM member Andrew Hough for example, having a natural affinity for building work regularly took part in IDRO jobs, and I, though an IDRO member, also took part in some INJM jobs.
Here are the jobs I took part in.
– A Baptism of Mud
Fresh off the bus from Sendai, I was soon put to work digging out the mud from in front of this school and very soon a lot of that mud was on me. I only spent a couple of hours at this, but I think it was the only proper way to really get started…
– The Koba Project for the Sasakis
This was a project that we spent a few days on; building a workshop for processing edible seaweed, that seasonal workers would also be able to stay in after working hours. We did this for the Sasakis, a remarkable couple – but more about them later. When I arrived the walls and roof were done and we were just getting started on the floor. Within a few days, and with the help of some super-efficient marines we had it floored and insulated.
And at the start of April Rob posted this picture of the finished workshop, ready for occupation!
– Making bamboo lanterns for a memorial service at Onosaki
The way Rob told it, Onosaki is a town that sits between a lake and the sea, so when the tsunami came it simply pushed everything into the lake. Those who managed to get to higher ground in time, had to spend the night there listening to people screaming for help, unable to do anything as their pleas gradually faded away. A lot of people died here, and remembering those poor people whilst showing our support for the survivors seemed like an important thing to do. We spent a couple of days here drilling holes into bamboo, threading LED lights through them and tying them together…
A lot of different groups seemed to be involved in this project; among them INJM were basically helping out Megumi Japan, who in turn were working under the artist Kenshi Mishiro and he oversaw the whole thing. I didn’t get to see the memorial service myself, but if you watch this video and fast forward to about five minutes in, you can get a glimpse of it and hear local people speaking about what it meant to them.
– Building an office for the fishermen’s co-op at Nagatsura
Of all the jobs we did, I think I felt proudest to be a part of this one. Nagatsura was completely devastated by the tsunami, and the ground having sunk by over a meter, it is flooded daily. It remains impossible for people to return to their ruined homes. In the midst of all this we built something new. Only a little wooden building, but one that would help get the local fishing community back on its feet and I have to tell you, when we had finished it, on the morning of 3/11, even from a distance it really seemed to stand out in the landscape as a tiny beacon of hope.
What I Saw
When I first saw Nagatsura, it was from a distance across the water from Onosaki. As we sat and had our lunch between working on those bamboo lanterns, I remarked on how pretty it looked. “Just like Switzerland,” I said. what I didn’t realize was that the community of houses nestled in those hills across the lake had been completely devastated and those pretty little houses were ruins. Only when I got closer did it strike me, “These were people’s homes…”
This whole area was so completely devastated and isolated by the disaster that roads had to be rebuilt just to reach the area. Numbers left on the houses mark the date that the rescue services finally made it out here to recover the bodies…
Not far from Onosaki & Nagatsura is the town of Okawa where 74 elementary school children and ten teachers lost their lives while attempting to evacuate across a bridge. Some of the bodies have still not been recovered and while we were there the police were still conducting a search. The ruins of the Okawa elementary school must be one of the saddest places on earth.
Of the Okawa Hospital, Rob told me, “In that hospital, all of the patients, all of the nurses, the doctors, the staff, everybody – everybody died.” Stories like that can’t help but stick in your mind.
One day Rob took me out to Funakoshi. When IDRO volunteers first came out here they stayed in the ruins of the elementary school where the local people had also taken refuge, and built a little wooden bathhouse for them. Today, most of the residents are living in temporary housing but there are plans to rebuild the town on higher ground. Here again the fabulous marines were hard at work scavenging useful materials from the local wreckage. Toyama-san, the only mechanic left on the Oshika peninsula, said of them “These guys are the best team I’ve yet seen! I don’t have to explain anything to them – they just do it!”
It wasn’t all devastation and despair though. Miyagi is a beautiful part of the world, especially round the Oshika peninsula with it’s heavily forested inlets and coves. Every day I would see a view that took my breath away. It’s not hard to understand why people would want to stay here, despite all that has happened.
– INJM & IDRO volunteers – Every one of them a sweetheart in his or her own way. I couldn’t possibly list them all, and I’m bound to offend someone by missing them off the list if I even tried. All I can say was it was a pleasure to spend time with each and every one of you.
– The Marines!
I tend to take a bit of dim view towards the American military, due to their bases being everywhere, and their country’s rather unfortunate foreign policy, so it was a good eye-opener to meet some individual members of the military in person. What do you know, they are regular human beings just like you or me – except super-efficient when it comes to team-work and getting things done! The younger ones we were working with at the Sasakis’ place were just ordinary kids, cracking jokes and chattering away excitably all the time… All of them had volunteered for this and endured a 19 hour bus journey up from their base in Iwakuni at the far south-west of Honshu and they worked damn hard too. Fair play to them. They were a good bunch of people and they got a heck of a lot done.
– Shigenori & Miyoko Sasaki
Special mention needs to be given to this remarkable couple living in Kobuchi-hama. Though they survived the tsunami, they lost their home and Shigenori Sasaki lost both of his parents; his mother being swept away and his father dying later in hospital of hypothermia because there was no electricity. It must have been a super tough year for them, but they remain astonishingly steadfast, positive and super warm and welcoming to all the volunteers. Currently living in a converted garage, they used the space their old home stood on to build a workshop for their seaweed processing business. Despite their reduced circumstances though, they were the best hosts ever, always bright and cheerful, Mrs Sasaki always preparing good things for us to eat and Mr. Sasaki constantly laughing and cracking jokes. One night we went down to their house for a party and they put on the most amazing spread of food and drink – and Mr. Sasaki had us all laughing till the wee small hours… He told me, “The volunteers give me power!”
– Rob Mangold
The man is a legend. And it’s only when you see him in action that you realize what that means. The whole time I was up in Miyagi, I never saw him stop. He would get up earlier than anyone else to pick up some equipment, spend the day focused on one or more projects, and he wouldn’t stop until the day’s work was done to his satisfaction. On the way back to base he would stop at a hardware store to pick up more equipment, grab a bite to eat at the INJM base and then be off again meeting various groups and organizing the next day’s activities. At the end of the day, as the hours dwindled towards midnight you would find him sleepy-eyed, but still at work typing up a progress report on the IDRO blog. And then the next day – he would do exactly the same thing again. He was a very patient teacher too, taking time out to explain to we novice builders how to do things and why we were doing them. He described these things as life skills that we could use later on, because he believes in investing in people too. Clearly he takes a great deal of joy in his work and the smile on his face and the look of satisfaction when a project was complete said it all. I have a lot of respect for Rob and the work he has done and I know a lot of other people up in Miyagi do too.
The Day of the Anniversary
On a sunny March 11th, in somewhat high spirits having finally finished our Nagatsura project we headed back to Ishinomaki. Most of the other volunteers had gone to some kind of memorial ceremony in town, but Jamie was still there and he suggested going up a local mountain where it would be more peaceful and we could get a good view of the city. What he didn’t know was that there was to be a simple Buddhist ceremony up there too, and by chance some of his friends from other volunteer groups were also present. The view over the city was beautiful and the weather after a week or so of wintry cold was suddenly warm and spring-like. At 2:46 we stood at the top of the mountain facing out towards the city and the sea, and down below us throughout Ishinomaki and the north-east coast we heard the sirens go off. I hadn’t expected that and it sent a shiver through me, to hear the sirens that had called one year before. I felt connected to that moment a year before in a way that I hadn’t expected, and so after the alarms had faded I took part in the Buddhist ritual; remembering the dead, and pouring sake over standing stones. Afterwards it seemed like a great heaviness had lifted. The worst was passed, the sun was shining and life could move on. I saw a man playing with his dog as they returned down the hill. I felt very profoundly: cherish every moment you have; every moment is precious.
Many thanks to Jamie for taking us up the mountain that day. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
The worst may be passed but the work continues. It will take at least five years and maybe longer to get the communities of north-eastern Japan back on an even footing. IDRO Japan (and INJM too!) still need your help! We’ll be holding a charity sale and musical event for IDRO this weekend (May 5th/6th) that I hope folks here in Kansai can attend. If you would like to volunteer your services for either organization please find out more about them at the following links:
Click here for details of the Charity Sale.
Click here for IDRO Japan’s website.
Click here for INJM (“It’s Not Just Mud” in case you were wondering)
Click here to view an American news report on IDRO’s work in Nagatsura.