Mayumi Matsuba, a single mother of two boys, had never thought her home in Sendai to be vulnerable to tsunamis.
But when the waves struck last March 11, her maternal instincts quickly kicked in – the 39-year-old thrust her younger son atop a cabinet to save his life, before her consciousness began to ebb in icy, swirling waters. Her son’s cries for mother kept her going over the eight hours it took for firefighters to reach them.
The story, though common across Japan’s northeast coast amid the March 11 disasters, moved Aiko Watanabe, a 60-year-old homemaker, Sendai native and volunteer group member, who visited Ms. Matsuba at Sendai’s Asuto-nagamachi temporary housing district for those left homeless by the tsunami.
It’s a story – and others like it – that Ms. Watanabe and fellow members of the Gozain group recount for visitors to Miyagi prefecture’s devastated seaside towns, in a modest bid to aid the community’s recovery. The volunteers, conversant in English, offer guided tours and interpretation services to Sendai’s visitors, be they tourists, foreign volunteers, journalists or academics researching the disasters.
Gozain – meaning “You’re welcome to visit” in local Miyagi dialect – was initially formed by Sendai officials two decades ago to help facilitate a Japan-U.S. mayoral conference held in the city.
Now an independent organization – comprising professionals in their early 30s, middle-aged homemakers, and even retirees in their 70s – Gozain typically appealed to its 46 volunteers with an offering of a jovial, communitarian setting in which they could polish their English-language skills.
All that changed after the March 11 disasters.
“We have received more requests for interpretation services around the tsunami-affected areas, rather than tour guide services to the historic spots in the city,” Gozain’s leader Kimiyo Hozawa said.
The group’s members often spend a full day, sometimes longer, with foreign guests, taking them to specific disaster-hit locations on request, and also to do some sightseeing at Sendai’s cultural and historical attractions. Besides the satisfaction from supporting their community’s recovery and providing a much-needed tourism boost, the volunteers take but only token sums to cover their travel expenses.
To prepare for their work, Gozain members have also fanned out on fact-finding trips across the Tohoku region’s coastal townships – including in Miyagi’s neighboring Fukushima prefecture – to get a grasp of the devastation wrought, and understand the survivors’ struggles in rebuild their lives and communities.
“We Japanese are now being tested for our determination, on whether we can share the victims’ plight and hardships,” said Ms. Watanabe, who volunteers with Gozain about two to three times a month.
“We are like citizen diplomats… We hope we can help make good contributions to help rebuild our badly-damaged hometown,” she said.