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Volunteering in Japan

June 12, 2011 at 5:31 AM

 Volunteering with an NPO in Ishi No Maki.

` will need goggles, face mask, helmet, protective insoles in long rubber boots with steel toe caps, first aid kit,....`

Mmm. Seems a bit over the top for chatting to old ladies and pouring them a glass or two of water, but better safe than sorry I suppose.

As the bus passes Sendai international airport on its ten hour run to INM (Ishi no Maki) I am surprised by three things in quick succession. First the villages and towns we are passing seem to have a high percentage of blue roofs. Our leader explained that during the quake many tiles fell off and since people don`t have the time or resources to repair the damage, they simply put the now infamous `buruu purastic,` sheets on the house and weigh them down with rocks. Next I notice that the long sweeping expanses of rice fields were a rather odd brown color sporadically dotted with cars. I asked why the cars were not being removed. `What is the point?` I was asked in return. The earth is essentially dead, due to salt content, for the next two years or so, making basic food production impossible- A hidden and terrible aspect of the tsunami.

Finally we passed what I call `garecki mountains.` `Garecki,` basically means rubble, but for me it is a convenient term for for post-tsunami detritus which includes rubble, fridges, TVs , cars and the like. The mountains are a unique color and smell which have come to symbolize the whole disaster for me.

The first camp we pass is a huge JDF base, but there are no soldiers around. The next camp we see is around the university where the main NPOs are coordinated from. These are hard-core volunteers who camp there for longer periods, and we see groups of young people such as `the peace boat,` coming or going from work. Very serious, very organized. We are allocated work (did I mention very serious, very organized?) and our bus drives off.

I look out the window and recognize that we are in the exact spot that was on live TV as the tsunami smashed into the city. Media images becoming reality is spooky. The actual height of the tsunami is easily understood when one checks the watermarks on the side of buildings. One has to look up from the bus window to do this....

We pass though what I called `Hades version 1.` Think of any film with post-apocalypse scenery (Terminator, etc.) and you have got it. Buildings with the first floors washed away somehow leaving the second floors standing on stilts, shops and houses not only damaged beyond repair but without anything to tell us that this was once a popular bar or local stationary shop. We pass a house balanced on just one corner, intact and jammed in between two pumps of a gasoline stand, and then a car misshapen and battered beyond belief but still recognizable as a taxi. The bus drive stands up and shouts `Ganbare Sendai Taxi Drivers!` For some reason, it seemed the right thing to do. One of my colleagues said, 'Wow! They have cleared this up a lot since a month ago.` I asked what she meant, and she observed it was now possible to drive through fairly easily.

The roads suddenly deteriorate markedly, and we enter `Hades version 2.' There are no buildings, but thousands of grey foundation stones where people used to live, work and play. It`s all dirt-brown and stinks. The SDF soldiers are everywhere, working like hell, but clearly exhausted.

Finally, we arrive at our designated area and get a terse, no-nonsense set of directions from a coordinator. (Did I mention very serious, very organized?)

`You can`t see any building higher than two stories. Thus, if there is a major earthquake and tsunami, drop everything and run like hell in that direction. (I presume he was pointing away from the sea....) The possibility of injury in this work is very high. You may be cut but broken glass, have something fall on you, or break an ankle or wrist. If you are cleaning houses, don`t go in without an experienced volunteer, move around as little as possible and do exactly what you are told.`

The specific area we are allocated looked rather like Pompei. Houses still standing, except they are a dirty brown and covered with mud inside. I look up and see a telegraph pole sticking sideways out of the second floor wall of a house. Our group is doing drainage ditch digging. You know the drains that have to be cleaned by the neighbourhood once a month? These are completely blocked and have to be cleared because people are desperate to return to their homes. It is a major undertaking and is scheduled to be completed by the end of August.


When one sees firsthand that this one fundamental thing is just one of a million that needs to be done, yet it is an enormous project in its own right, one begins to understand the nature of what a disaster is.


What is in the ditches? Lots of rice from a local rice storage warehouse lies on top like billions of maggots. Then about three centimeters of brown soils, then thick, heavy black clay/mud that looks and smells like excrement. You know the adage? If it looks like a zebra it probably is. Quite a few recognizable stools in there.

Underneath that, the water makes the black excrement into a runny black goo, which covered everything and everybody as the day wore on. Masks are needed to protect us from dangerous bacteria, and we are warned not to touch our faces or eyes. There is very little in the way of washing facilities. Just a weak hosepipe 300 meters down the road. Okaaaaay. I can dig. I come from a nation of ditch diggers anyway.

What`s in the excrement? Our spades keep hitting boards, cups, pipes, exhaust pipes, vases, handbags and so on. They get tangled up and we have to step down into the goo and  pull them out by hand. I am wearing industrial rubber gloves so am okay. I lend a couple of pairs to volunteers who only have white cotton work gloves. I pull out a tiny ornate perfume bottle with a beautiful picture painted on it. This seems to be the symbol of someone passing onto the next life and I place it carefully on the hood of a mangled mechanical excavator which is standing next to us.

Have a safe journey.

As the sun beats down on us, the stink become intolerable and then Yuko (our NPO organizer) turns up with 100 kilos of baking powder donated from her shop. We grab handfuls of it and chuck it all over the place because it cuts the smell down to a bearable level. It is quickly used up. The excrement is also full of huge shards of broken glass and other lethal items which we pull out gingerly. The black slime and mud is dumped in `mud bags` which are then dragged to the side of the road. Curiously, the men had to dig while the women held the bags and then tied and dragged them off. These mud bags are not waterproof and the black ooze quickly runs through them turning them black and they drip with stinking slime as you carry or drag them.

We take quick breaks and talk to other volunteer groups from all over Japan. I tell the guy next to me about the Sendai Philharmonic support group and he says he is a drinking buddy of the head of the SPO office.  I pass on our best wishes and my regrets that we could not meet.

It`s an eight-hour non-stop day, and when it`s over, we have connected up the drains of one block of a large area. The sides of the roads are heaped with mountains of `mud bags ,` and that terrible smell follows us as we return to the base camp.

Our bus is delayed and the temperature has shot up, so I lie down on a concrete platform which has the only available shade to wait. Ooops. It`s someone`s house, shop. I knock and ask if we can sit here. `Of course,` the young mother says. She is there with here two children and has just put a sign on her door saying `we will be open in five days.` I ask what the shop is and she says without irony, `Beauty salon.` A few minutes later, she come out with thirty cartons of juice and buns. `I`m sorry the juice is not refrigerated. I don`t have electricity.`

A battered van pulls up with a screech and a young guy jumps out and starts counting us. Seems harmless. `Probably just wants to practice his counting.` I muse. Ten minutes later he is back with with a large pot of miso soup and polystyrene bowls which he presses on us.

`Eat more. Eat more. Please come up to our matsuri (festival) in August. It`s very good.`

I am sitting on the bus at two in the morning thinking what I learnt.

I see again the mud covered streets with their mountains of stinking `mud bags,` and broken dreams. Then there is the young woman with no electricity who is going to reopen her beauty parlor in the middle of it. The young man with his miso soup.

Courage, determination and generosity. I bet it`s one heck of a matsuri.


From Emily Liz
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Buri, thank you thank you thank you for sharing this with us. Bless you for reaching out in this difficult time, and bless you even more for writing about it and sharing it with those of us who can't be closer. Take care of yourself. Sending my prayers to Japan.

From Vivian Hsu
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Wow, what a beautiful and heartbreaking illustration of determination and hope. Thanks for sharing, Buri.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 6:03 PM

Wow, it shows once again what an horrific tragedy it is... and the surprising will of people that can strike and survive in just about any situation!  When some people could become crazy, so many courageous ones work at doing their best... amazing.

Thanks for that blog

From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 12, 2011 at 8:58 PM

 What a powerful description, Buri. It's heartbreaking. 

From marjory lange
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 1:25 AM

 Your post--and the people you helped--bring an amazing dimension to "bloom where you are planted."  Thank you.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 6:16 AM

Buri, thank you!

From Marsha Weaver
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 1:38 PM

Buri -- Thanks for sharing the account of your volunteer experience with us.  My eyes were so filled with tears that I had to wait for several moments to begin typing -- couldn't see!!  My prayers are with you and all those impacted by the disaster.  Please be careful, and stay safe!

From Diana Yukawa
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 2:15 PM

Please support if you can;

Japan We've Not Forgotten You Press Release

Tickets are only £12 and the proceeds go to the Earthquake Appeal.

From Margaret Mehl
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 1:10 PM

Many thanks for sharing this!

From Christian Vachon
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 2:23 PM

Hi Buri,

The generosity of your involvement is a great example!  What a description!  Thanks!


From Rebecca Hopkins
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 7:31 PM

Reading your post makes me wish i could be there to offer assistance. I have no obligations until mid August, only a few personal projects feel a little ashamed for my leisure time , but no passport or money to travel or donate  either. That is how evocative your writing is. Thanks for posting.

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