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4 months after, in tono

today is the 4 month anniversary of the tsunami. it feels like a long time ago, and that it was a completely different world back then. it’s hard to believe that was only 4 months ago, and hard to remember what it was like. before.

at the same time, time has passed without being noticed, and the disaster area continues to need help.

this trip I didn’t ever have any free time to write or read before lights out, so I’ll try to reconstruct the trip now, while I’m on the bus back to tokyo.

this time, when i registered, gakuvo asked if I could be the lead translator. I said sure, and when I saw the list of students going, there were only 4 international students, 2 of which cancelled at the last minute, so it turned out there was only me and A, my new friend from the phillipines, and 10 japanese students and our leader. so I was kind of a personal translator, which was great. being in a mixed English and Japanese speaking group was also great, as was our super genki leader Y chan and the other team members.

we went to tono, and worked as part of the large number of volunteers that are coordinated by magokoro net, an umbrella NPO. when I came to tono in april with K and M sensei, we also visited this center and joined the nightly meeting–at that time there 30-40 people total in the meeting room, with typed and printed handouts showing all the activities of the following day. of course the needs of residents at that time were different–the volunteers were delivering food to people stranded in their homes with no services, or shuttling them to a temporary bath. at that time I was amazed by the very Japanese organization of everything.

in the last 3 months, the number of volunteers has increased a lot– I think there were 100-200 at the most busy– we were there on a weekend, and number seemed to fluxuate with the largest number on saturday.

and, the volunteer center has become more…lived in. the daily meeting for volunteers in the gym, which also have several hundred volunteers, lead by one main volunteer coordinator. I feel like perhaps there are quite a few similarities with what I experienced at common ground in new orleans after katrina– issues of long term/ short term volunteers, burnout and exhaustion, the challenges of dealing with a large transient volunteer population coming from outside. but social bonds and mores of japanese society will go a long way I think, to keep everything running smoothly! and it is remarkable.

I think that local culture will also effect the relationships between the local folks and the volunteers–it’s a very interesting topic…

on our 1st day, we worked in a field outside rikuzentaka. there was garbage that had been mixed in with the earth, and we picked it up. some of it was rotting samma (saury?) fish. a lot of it was pieces and chunks of houses, bits of walls and plaster. after our break, and the local farmer turned over his field again with his tractor, the part we had cleaned was full of debris again– garbage that had been buried deeper before, and was brought to the surface. it seemed like a metaphor for recovery…

the next field over had been planted with sunflowers, which absorb toxins from the soil.

magokoro net forbids taking pictures in the disaster area, at least of anything that could be recognizable–this is very respectful of them, and probably a good idea, but it means I don’t have any photos of our work site.

because of the large scale of operations based out of tono center, we didn’t have as much contact with local folks as in past gakuvo trips.

there were a few other foreigners at the center, basically everything is in japanese, but everyone was very friendly.

because it was so hot, the work day finishes at 2pm. this is reasonable, but leads me to want to work more days, if I can’t work more hours.

on sunday (day 2) there was a magnitude 7.3 earthquake. there had also been an aftershock on friday night, after we arrived at the tono center, which was also the place I felt my first aftershock in april. but on sunday, when we where going to start work outside cleaning ditches in a village near otsuchi cho, there was a quake, a long one. the otsuchi disaster warning alarm sounded, and announced that a tsunami warning had been issued, along with instructions to evacuate. we walked up a hill to the evacuation area, where we waited for 2 hours until the warning was lifted. it was my first tsunami evacuation, a new experience. everyone was very calm, including a few local residents who also evacuated to the same area. I’m not sure how many times there have been warnings issued for aftershocks, but it can only be a nightmare for people who lived through it before.

during the tsunami on march 11, otsuchi city hall was completely destroyed, and most city hall employees lost their lives.

after the evacuation, and lunch, we wound up working for only an hour on sunday, cleaning up a bank of a stream that had been covered with tsunami dirt and now was full of weeds. other folks in our group worked on cleaning some ditches.

on monday, we spend a few hours helping clean the volunteer center before heading back to tokyo.



back to tono, 7/9/11

tonight we are in tono, staying in the volunteer center. the women are sleeping in the tatami room, the guys in the gymnasium.
I first came to tono, to this building, with K and M sensei, in april. we sat in on the daily evening meeting, and at that time, I felt so strongly that I wanted to volunteer, to do more than research, or documentation, or learn from the recovery experts, that I wanted to be one of the volunteers, coming back after a days work in the disaster area. and that time, it seemed almost impossible—how would I be able to get to this place on my own, navigate an entirely Japanese system of official volunteer registration…

and yet, amazingly, here I am! as a volunteer, in this center. everything feels connected. this is my 3rd time to volunteer with gakuvo/nikkei youth network, and I’ve even been given the prestigious title of head translator–although it turns out there are only 2 international students on this trip. 13 people all together.

there was a small aftershock a little bit ago–the ceiling rattled, but no shaking.

the fist time I came to tono in april was also the first time I felt an aftershock, outside this building. I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing the progress since april.

NYN/gakuvo (batch #8) day 2

today I was 1 of a group of 4 girls who cleaned B san’s house, where we were staying. he sorted through all the things that had been put in the first floor, telling us if they were to be discarded, kept, or moved to his new temporary house. in the past, they held all important events in this house, weddings took 3 days, with separate events for different groups of people depending on how closely the guests were related to the family. for this kind of event, each guest would need to be served on their own laquer tray and place settings–we moved boxes and boxes of these. the last time they had used these was for his daughter’s school entrance ceremony, about 30 years ago.

while we were cleaning, we came across a photo of when the family’s main house (up the hill) was built in 1943. after we were done cleaning, we went up the hill to this house, where the other B San (they are cousins) was preparing for the barbecue we had later. the main house is huge, with very large built in shrines not usually seen in private homes. I’d heard that families in this area have this kind of large main family house, located up a hill, and during the disaster, other familiy members whose own house may have been damaged return to the main house.

in this area, they have kept the word ‘buraku’ which is usually used as in ‘burakumin’ which is group of people, like an untouchable caste in japan, who have been discriminated against for a long long time, and in history related to the most unpleasant jobs. but in this area, they use the word buraku to refer to their neighborhood group–B buraku in this case. I’m not sure if all the members of this buraku are part of the B family–seems likely!

while taking a tea break from preparing the food for this evening’s BBQ, mrs B told us about what happened after the earthquake. they had gone to the evacuation center for 1 night, but there was no food there. so they came back to their house, along with 40 people who stayed with them for 10 days. the children were hungry–there was no food at the shelter. they cooked for everyone during that time, using an old-fashioned kind of stove that she had never used before, and cooking brown rice which they had on hand. everyone who could move (meaning except the elderly and bed ridden) helped. the women cooked, and the men went to fetch water by hand, which was also quite an ordeal. they filled 2 liter plastic bottles with hot water for water bottles at night, since it was so cold. it took quite an effort and time to heat the water for hot water bottles for 40 people. Mrs B was clearly the force behind this operation, all of it. her elderly mother (or mother-in-law) who is also sitting at the kotatsu, and gets around using a walker, mentions this, and Mrs B brushes it off, saying she didn’t do anything special, and that everyone helped. but in her eyes, and her voice, it’s all too easy to imagine the exhaustion of that time, and the work that followed. M chan, a japanese volunteer, jumps up to offer Mrs. B a shoulder massage; Mrs B closes her eyes.

NYN/gakuvo (batch #8) day 1

today we worked all day to help clean a ditch. we shoveled sand and rocks and mud into bags, lifted them out, and they were hauled away. they used to use this ditch to catch eels I heard. it was filled with mud by the tsunami, and when we started, half of it have a few feet of soil and grasses growing. at the end of the day, the local folks seemed really moved and touched by the fact that it was cleaned out. it was definitely a job where having many hands helped.

one obachan, H San, showed us around. she is a tiny person, a bit bowed over by age, but witth a clearly indominable spirit and relentless energy! her former house was right across the road. only the concrete foundation remained. she showed us where the new bathroom she had just put in had been, and the octopus nets that were now stored in the foundation.

her husband is a carpenter, and was working in a shop set up under a blue tarp in front of the house. his tools had been in salt water, but still were useable. he was making tools used for fishing sea urchin and awabi. they were glass-bottomed boxes, that lets you see where the sea creatures are in the water. the other tools were long poles, to the ends of which hooks would be attached.

the local ladies made lunch for us, sushi rice and soup.

in the evening, B San invited a group of us to come over (he’s staying next door) and see a movie with compiled footage about the tsunami from a number of different places.

he told us that after the earthquake, he evacuated by car, by driving up the hill, and he could see the tsunami wave coming behind him, in the rearview mirror. he said he escaped by minutes. he said the tsunami didn’t look like a wave when it was coming after him–he showed us the part of the video that showed the similar scene to what he saw–it was like a brown dusty cloud. he said that since then, he’s seen the wave chasing him in a dream just one time. that night, after he drove up the hill, to the place he evacuated, there were 12 people, and 1 blanket. of course there was no electricity, heat, or news. it snowed that night.

he told us of another evacuation shelter, where 40 people evacuated to, but which was washed away by the tsunami.

and other story of a family, whose grandma, wife, and grandchild escaped to the 2nd floor. but then the house washed away, all the while they were yelling for help from the 2nd floor window. and the husband of the family watched, helpless as they were swept away.

the next village over was completely destroyed by a fire disaster–fires the broke out after the earthquake and tsunami.

nikkei youth network/gakuvo volunteer trip (batch #8) arrival

this was my 2nd time to join a nikkei youth network/gakuvo volunteer trip, the 1st time was at the beginning of may, during the consecutive holiday period known as Golden Week. gakuvo is a student volunteer activity sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, and the NYN (also sponsored by NF) in involved in bringing international students into the mix. I have a huge amount of respect for them for making the effort to do this, as well as for the idea behind the organization itself, and specifically how these programs are run.

we meet at the Nippon Foundation in Tokyo, sign in and have an orientation. this is my 2nd time to hear the orientation, which covers NF activities in the disaster zone, what it means to be a ‘disaster volunteer’ and more specific information about the area we will be going to.

they make a point of saying that the role of the disaster volunteer is to respond to the needs of the local folks, not just do what they (the volunteer) wants or thinks is important. they also emphasize not working too hard or too fast, that the most important thing is to match the pace of and not cause extra stress on the local people. this idea is not intuitive (I think we all innately want to work the absolutely hardest that we can–I think we all must feel like the time we can give is so small that we want to do as much as humanly possible) but after a few volunteer experiences it starts to sink in, a little bit.

11pm arrival
after 9 hours on the bus, we arrive outside of kesennuma, on what I am to find out later is the karakua peninsula. it’s a little more remote from the city, so help doesn’t find it’s way here as fast or in as large amounts as areas that are more accessible.

we will stay in the 2nd floor of B San’s house. the 1st floor was destroyed by the tsunami, but the 2nd floor is still intact. B San is currently staying next door, in the upstairs of a building whose use before the tsunami I don’t know. this house, this traditional Japanese house that we are staying in, that has huge timbers, and a built in kotatsu downstairs, will be torn down. later we see the B family’s main house up on the hill, which is much grander than this house. but still. a part of me wants to ask B San about his choice to tear down this building, but there’s absolutely no way I can ask him that question. it’s too personal.

there’s no electricity, although there is running water. there are 22 of us. this is the first time that the NF has brought volunteers here, so its a kind of test run. but the local connections have been well established long before we arrived, through a group called FIWC, Friends International Work Camp. they are young volunteers, and have been working with the local folks for a few months, and have an office/sleeping space up the hill from here.


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