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The Power of a Song

July 30, 2011 at 8:49 PM


After a series of overnight bus journeys I finally arrived at our camp in Ishinomaki (one of the towns most badly damaged by the March earthquake/tsunami). I am with the Japanese team of the PeaceBoat NPO which also has a foreign volunteer group. I can see the Japanese members are puzzled to find a weird bearded foreigner in their section. Our hundred plus group splits into four man teams and I find I am going to spend the next eight days dependent on and supporting a thirty year old geisha, a nineteen year old university student and a forty year old salaryman. I am the token violinist...

As we assemble in our lines for the preliminary meeting we are all a bit puzzled to be asked to sing the following children's song from a rather old Japanese animation called `AnPanman.` (All you really have to know about him is that he is made of bread and he saved the world from famine by letting people eat him.)

That's right! Don't be afraid?It is for everybody's sake?All you need is courage and love, because we're all friend

What really makes your smile shine through??what kinds of things do you like to do??Ending when don't even have a clue?That kind of thing is no good!Your dreams are thing you musn't forget?And try not to let your tears spill down?And if you don't it'll be as if?You're flying wherever you goThat's right! Don't be afraid?It is for everybody's sake?All you need is courage and love, because we're all friends?An, an, anpanman?Such a kind, friendly hero?Go, fly! Up in the sky, protecting all our dreams

Anyway, we make a hash of the song and then are told that we will sing it together every morning because the camp is surrounded by temporary housing full of old people who are desperate and lonely. When they hear this song they are touched very deeply and able to remember happier times for just a few moments.

The hundred plus team is divided into three broad groups and I find myself in the `support the fishing industry ` section. Perhaps a little ironic for a vegetarian of thirty years, although I have no idea what the support will entail. We get on our minibuses and head up into the mountains on the steepest, winding roads you can imagine, only wide enough for one vehicle. They are cracked and broken with the sides collapsing down into sheer drops of hundreds of meters. This does not seem to faze the traffic coming in the opposite direction at high speed. We pass houses with `SOS we are starving` written in huge letter on the roofs.

To understand the effect of the disaster here on has to vizualize the geography. Almost flat coves at virtual sea level used to contain little fishing villages of a hundred or so houses. These are backed by really steep mountains covered in trees. The tsunami swept in unchecked and destroyed all the houses and ships killing on average about twenty residents who didn`t make it to the mountains. Up the slopes of the mountains are deposited thousands of tons of rubble and broken ships. After the disaster these hamlets were cut off for weeks until the Japanese army built gravel roads about one meter above sea level which we have to cross. Its very scary because massive aftershocks are still occurring on a daily basis and a new tsunami would be the end. During our work on a few occasions there was a big shock and we had to down tools and run for the mountains until the all clear was sounded. The work itself consists of three basic stages: clearing tons of rubble and machinery, digging out the drains and rebuilding/laying new oyster beds. Of our group two people suffered serious leg injuries during stage one. The oysters themselves are grown on the shells of large shellfish which are strung together and suspend on ropes in the bay. It is back breaking , mind numbing work to thread thousands of these shells onto wires then carry them to the ships to be laid out under the water. I chat with the head of the hamlet and he tells me we are the first volunteers to arrive to help since the disaster. He talks about his family and it takes me a moment to realize the wife and child he is speaking of so proudly both died in March.

I can`t quite get my head round things so I keep pestering people to explain exactly what we are doing. In the small picture it is like a miracle. Our four man team spent one day in 42 degree heat digging mud out of the foundations of a house. It took all day but it was done. From there the owners can try to rebuild and repair a little. 25 four man teams is 25 houses so we have done a lot of good but the scale of the damage and the number of villages is so vast I cannot see the big picture.

Finally I get it. All the displaced families, the old people living in temporary boxlike `homes` with no friends, the many thousands suffering massive bereavement basically need a small light to follow. At the end of the day, if they can see hundreds of people trying their hardest to rebuild and get things moving they take heart and have a tiny glimmer of hope for the future.

Like AnPan Man says

Ending when don't even have a clue?That kind of thing is no good!Your dreams are thing you musn't forget?And try not to let your tears spill down



From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on July 31, 2011 at 2:03 AM

And you still sign off with "Cheers".  May your team and your work bring at least a small bit of cheer to these poor displaced people.  A couple of hours ago I heard on the evening news there had been another major aftershock, 4 1/2 months after the first earthquake.  When will it end?

From Emily Liz
Posted on July 31, 2011 at 1:32 AM

 God, Buri, your blogs have been so beautiful and heartfelt lately. Thanks so much for sharing.

From marjory lange
Posted on August 1, 2011 at 2:27 AM

 I have never heard you play, but I've followed your words since I joined this site.  As well as you write and empathize, it would be a joy to hear you play, as well.  Peace.

From Kim Vawter
Posted on August 1, 2011 at 4:16 AM

 Most exciting to follow your blogs. This one really moved me to tears. I can't think of anything to say except that there must be many more of us reading your blogs who never comment.  If you ever decide to publish a book, I would be there in line to buy it.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on August 1, 2011 at 9:12 AM


It's hard to believe that this far down the track, these teams are the first to come in to assist in rehbilitating the areas.  Such a long time to be left with nothing.

Take care, there, Buri.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 2, 2011 at 12:16 AM

 The SOS we are starving really got to me.  Is there anyone left in those houses?  Most of the rest of the world has moved on to the next crisis. How can we help?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 2, 2011 at 12:46 AM

 Thank you for sharing these incredibly important accounts of what is going on. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on August 2, 2011 at 1:33 AM


sorry if the SOS message was a bit misleading.  Those are reminders of the weeks when people were cut off from any kind of help or supplies.  As far as I know there is no-one stranded without any aid getting through.  Although there are many areas where the people are only getting the equivalent of what we would call a stravation diet,  even now.

The problems from here on include getting these villages back on their feet (even though there is literally -nothing- left of them) and far more insiduous difficulties that are less obvious.  For example  next to our camp site which is actually the campus of a big university are a substantial number of temporary houses.   These box like homes are not at all attractive and many of the people who have moved in are single aged who have lost their family.  To a Japanese ,  being taken out of ones community and stuck in these is a kind of nightmare, but also they have no real access to shopping,  so badly situated are the hmes.  I was visiting the elderly at night and they are completely dependent on volunteers for food etc.  

The supply of volunteers is drying up. Indeed, one of my colleagues told me that people in his area expressed surprise that he was going to help.  They are under the impression that with all the money ade available and the houses built the problem has been solved and ieverybody should just move on and forget about it.   It`s not that they are particularly insensitive (well  I suppose they are...) but rather a combination of media disinterest and and compassion fatigue.   Its just too much for everyone and so it`s easier to get on with one`s own life.

But that doesn`t allow for the ongoing hardships and trauma of thousands and thousands of people, in particular the elderly.  rebuilding in this sense means not only a long range plan for the area (which the politicians in Tokyou are screwing up with their arrogant ennui) but a massive sustained effort y the whole country,  for the whole country.  For example,  I have been proposing whereever possible that university credits be granted on the basis of performing volunteer work in the area.  Similarly companies might link promotion or work experience to similar programs.  It`s going to take an enormous amount of energy and imagination to move on from here and Japan is as notoriously strong in the former as it is weak in the latter.



From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 2, 2011 at 4:21 PM

 So powerful, Buri. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on August 3, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Thank you, Buri, for being so strong and sharing this with us!

Take good care of yourself too.


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