journal, oshika peninsula, photos, volunteer

5/7/11 journal, return to tokyo

after 3 days in ishinomaki, ojika hanto, my thoughts are jumbled now, as we ride the bus back to tokyo. the bus is quiet, most people are sleeping. I find myself thinking about a lot of different things, and often my mind just becomes blank. maybe overwhelmed.

I happy to have joined this trip. since golden week is a holiday week in japan, I had expected all volunteer groups to be full, and when I first found out i had been accepted on the one was the first time I felt happy about anything after the earthquake. I hadn’t realized how much i want to do this until that moment. more that just the chance to volunteer, I was really excited to be part of a group of students, both because of my interest in the role of students and the academe in disaster recovery, and also because I am here in japan as an international student, and I love the fact that NYN is mobilizing this group. after the kobe EQ, japanese disaster volunteering is well organized, but there are a limited number of opportunities for foreigners to volunteer easily. likewise, there are some gaps in international support for the disaster area; my feeling is that the groups that are bridging this distance and connect international support with local people most successfully are japanese NPOs, like peace boat, peace winds, JEN, and the Nippon Foundation, who have experience working in other developing or disaster stricken countries, and for this reason also have substantial bilingual capacity within their organizations. I’m very interested to see how non-japanese groups, like all hands volunteers, or habitat for humanity, or architecture for humanity can also successfully bridge language and cultural gaps in the coming recovery phase.

I feel grateful to all the people involved in preparing and hosting our trip, and touched by the local people’s willingness to let us in, and their gratitude. and also the other volunteers. last night in the lobby, one of the japanese boys was telling A San about his feelings about being a volunteer (he also had experience in niigata after the EQ). a few others gathered around, listening quietly, as he teared up. he said part of the reason for his feeling and the effect of seeing the local people in trouble is because “we were born in the same japan” meaning we are all Japanese. I understand that this is a strong feeling, and speaks to a cultural unity that we don’t have in the u.s. but I also feel “we are born the same, humans” and our response to human suffering is the same, although from there we choose how to respond.

one local woman wrote a message to our group:
“now the cherry trees are blooming, and thanks to your smiling faces, I can feel that spring has come. in my heart I will remember these two things together”

this disaster is so big, the scale is so huge, the challenges faced are so enormous and complicated.

the work we did was so small, in the overall context, that it can feel hopeless. so many shells, buoys, anchors moved, but they are just a tiny fraction of what must be done. and then there is the time, and the question if the village can rebuild it’s industry, and where the people will build their houses…etc. etc. not to mention the mental and phsychological suffering…

yesterday I saw the stones marking previous tsunami, a warning left by ancestors. it said:
“when an earthquake comes, be careful of tsunami, protect against starting fires, and gather the children and elders.”

in tohoku, they also have a local evacuation wisdom: tsunami tendoku, which means that everyone should evacuate immediately, without going back to check on family members–as this causes everyone to perish. it’s a kind of trust, in your loved ones to evacuate themselves. it comes from past experience of past generations, a lessons learned the hardest way there is.

yesterday, S San said that while now the JSDF (self defense forces) are still looking for victims, its hard to find the remains of children, because their bodies are too small, and destroyed during the tsunami. several weeks earlier they were cleaning out a school, and the grandmother of a child who is still missing came to the school everyday while they were working…she couldn’t leave, just in case they found the child’s body.

how does a community recover from a disaster that killed all it’s children? it happened in the Sichuan earthquake, and in Haiti. maybe there about 130 children orphaned by this tsunami.

right now, it seems like the most important thing is to dedicate my actions for the tsunami survivors, the small amount that I can do with my 2 small hands, and my smiling face, which I understand now. it’s what I have, what I can use. I want: to be helpful by building something; to go back again, soon, regularly, and in a meaningful way; serve as a link between japan and folks in the u.s. who want to help; work for and with the ‘right’ organizations (there seem to be many good ones), build something meaningful both physically and socially.


About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.


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