I finally did it. But only for two days. More must come.
Imagine digging out every inch of an entire town with a spade—and that’s not a metaphor. It’s exactly what is gradually happening throughout Tohoku.
My friend Lori, who has been laying the groundwork for Phase 2 economic relief to Tohoku through the BCCJ, posted a plan to volunteer in Ishinomaki on Facebook a few weeks ago, and I jumped at the opportunity.
My friend Jacob had gone up in April with all of the gear I hadn’t been able to use in my first failed attempt, but now that it’s no longer freezing and the Peace Boat provides food, water, helmets, gloves and the lot, all he had to offer was a set of earplugs. Of the roughly ¥50,000 worth of stuff I’d bought for the first trip, the only things I took were my boots, because I knew they fit, and my solar-powered LED hat, which I didn’t end up needing anyway.
I still thoroughly over-packed. The least useful item was things to do on the bus: the driver shut off the lights within thirty minutes of our 10:30 departure, and there was nothing to be done but sleep. We even took an extra hour or so to idle in the dark right outside Ishinomaki.
Blinking in a sudden burst of sunlight as the bus’ curtains were thrown open around 6:15 the next morning, we stumbled into an open yard with a stately row of port-a-potties to the right and ranks of shovels and wheelbarrows to the left. Barely aware that we’d arrived, we were instantly gathered together like new conscripts and read a thirty-minute list of rules. I wanted to be serious, listen carefully—but after a night of rotating between three uncomfortable positions, my mind kept wandering to how much I wanted to use the bathroom and where I could brush my teeth.
We each claimed a space in a small warehouse with tatami mats placed on the floor, laid head to foot like sardines, with a women’s section separated by a curtain of tarps.
We met at 7:45 for instructions and morning stretches, after which it was off to our respective work sites. Some groups went off by bus to clear out gutters, but our group was assigned to a memorial site a 10-minute walk away. The interceding route revealed a gutted gymnasium, occasional piles of debris, and houses that looked like they had been raked by giant tigers. However, other houses in the area looked spotless. In the evening we were even able to walk 15 minutes to a fully-stocked convenience store, passing half a dozen perfectly serviceable love hotels on the way. With so much of the town functional, some wondered aloud if our help was really all that necessary.
Our work site looked like an ordinary unused plot of land, overseen by the slumping remains of an old-fashioned house. Behind us, many of the newer houses had been boarded up on the first level. The owners wanted to fix them, but a zoning decision was in the works that might restrict all the land by the sea to industrial use, so everyone was still in limbo.
The watchword of the weekend was hedoro, which is Japanese for “sludge”. Clean-up involved shoveling, bagging, and hauling away mounds of toxic dirt. The top layer was dry, while underneath we would excavate the reek of decaying rice and maggots. This mixture was sprinkled with frequent pieces of tile roof, concrete, rock and metal that had to be removed separately.
Most of us wore masks, but goggles would fog up in the 30C heat, meaning we had to look away when the wind picked up the dust. There was no shade, though we discovered that rolling down our black rubber boots got us a little extra ventilation. The veteran volunteers tended to wear T-shirts and shorts, though we had officially been advised to wear long sleeves and pants. I opted for long sleeves anyway; the ten minutes in which I tried bare arms made them feel like sausages on a rotisserie.
We took water breaks every hour. Around 11:30 we went back to the base camp for a lunch consisting of two onigiri (rice balls) and a piece of kara-age (fried chicken), courtesy of Peace Boat. Our total payment to Peace Boat for the trip was all of ¥1000, which was ¥400 less than the cost of our volunteer insurance.
Work continued until 4:00, with curfew at 7:00 and lights out at 10:00. Back at base, flies settled on everything left standing still, including us—despite all the body, facial, and hand wipes we’d been drowning ourselves in, we all smelled like decaying sludge. The flies disappeared in the night, but reappeared to give us a wake-up call around 4:30 in the morning.
In the afternoon of the first day, we were offered a bus tour to Onagawa, about 20 minutes away from Ishinomaki. We had to get out before 5:30, because when the tides come in, the road is under water.
Doing our morning exercises on the second day, the first back stretch was met with a universal, “Ough!”
With a day’s experience under our belts, everyone seemed to have developed an opinion on what to do, why we were doing it, and how best to go about it. It made me envious of how easily the Japanese team beside us had fallen into line from the first minute of the first day, clearing out a huge swath outside the grounds while we’d only made a few pathetic-looking well-holes on the interior. But our meeting bore fruit, and by the time we were done at 4:00 we had isolated most of the fallen gravestones, extracted a Buddha sculpture, and flattened the ground beneath what had emerged to be a recognizable memorial site. When we’d walked in, the place had been buried under so much earth and grass that we hadn’t been able to imagine what it should look like. At one point we’d spent ages carefully cleaning around what seemed to be a part of the structure only to find out that it was actually a huge hunk of a temple roof, which four people then had to carry off.
The locals gave us drinks and ice cream, and they started to open up with their stories. One middle-aged man told us how he and his father had been picked up in their car by the tsunami, only coming to rest, at about a 45-degree angle, on their own family grave. The man went on to express contempt for the press, who he said would cut off their TV interviews just before they started talking about something important.
The memorial grounds we were working on belonged to a family that had been instrumental to establishing the town’s industry in the Edo Period. The present descendant was a 70-year-old man missing half of his teeth who moved wheelbarrows of toxic dirt like nobody’s business. He had originally felt that volunteers would never be able to restore something as delicate as a memorial ground; stoic tears ran down his cheeks as he bowed to us at the end of the day.
I felt a bit poorly that all I could do was shovel dirt—something Lori had decried as merely being used as a “worker ant”. After our work ended, the actual BCCJ members left to attend another economic planning session in town, to return by train the next day.
A veteran volunteer was anyone who had already been at camp the day you arrived. One of our vets had been there only a week, and would be heading back on Monday; another had been there nine weeks and plans to stay until her visa expires in September. The Japanese group helping us on the memorial site had flown in from Fukuoka, Kyushu, at their own expense. For some, it was their third time to Tohoku. They even had laminated volunteer staff business cards.
The BCCJ group included a couple from Nagano who had been up a few times already. The husband had been part of the Peace Boat’s second wave, which departed one week before my own aborted attempt, and was hit by a 7.4 earthquake and a tsunami warning. The wife spoke of clearing out a fish warehouse, describing the stench and texture of each different type of fish like some kind of decaying sushi menu.
One evening I also had the chance to speak to a young local. He told me that most people from the city weren’t really volunteering—after all the effort it had taken to clean out their own homes, they just didn’t have anything left. Of course, this wasn’t universally true—one of the heavy lifters in our group had been a twenty-something local with massive dreadlocks.
Before we left on Sunday evening, we heard a talk from a tsunami survivor. Bannai-san, likely in his late fifties, had been driving toward the shore in Ishinomaki when he saw the tsunami coming. He attributed his survival to the lucky fact that there had been nobody behind him when he threw his car into reverse.
The first half of his talk had a simple message: “Run.” If you get a centimeter higher a second faster, it could save your life. He deplored the town’s blasé attitude toward tsunami, saying that many people in Ishinomaki could have been saved if they had simply taken the warning more seriously. They had always assumed that the Oshika Peninsula would absorb anything before it hit them, but the 3.11 tsunami washed straight over the peninsula like it wasn’t there.
Bannai-san outlined what he called “Inochi tendenko”, a simple principle that dictates that when a tsunami comes, you save yourself and don’t go back for anybody or anything. “There may be a child being carried off in front of you. It could be your parents being carried off in front of you,” he said. “It is a terrible thing. But if you go back, you cannot save them. You will both die.” He said that he had seen two people carried off after they had left safety to go back for others.
In the days after the quake, many survivors turned to despair, some saying it would have been better to have died in the tsunami. Then food and water began to reach them, and the roads started to be cleared. Volunteers arrived, and mud and debris started to disappear. “You have no idea how much we appreciated that,” he said. “It made us think that we, too, had to make it through somehow.”
Bannai-san went on to detail the town’s relationship to the ocean, concluding with defiance: “We get our livelihoods from the ocean. We won’t give up the ocean, no matter what it does to us.” I decided it would be rude to ask him about his occupation.
There was a debriefing before we got on the buses to go, during which, as far as I could tell, all of the other foreigners had wandered off to the convenience store. The camp leader asked if we had anything to say about the experience, and when nobody volunteered—typical for a Japanese group—a few people were called out by group number, and they each gave remarkably good speeches on the fly.
I was the only person to volunteer to speak. I came dangerously close to missing my chance. I described everything from my time in Hiroshima to my first aborted Peace Boat tour, my frustration with my own inability to help more, and my satisfaction at seeing so many people making the trip to help out three months later. I also shared the conclusion I’d come to while listening to Bannai-san: that what was needed now was a sense of hope, so that people in Tohoku can feel they’re not forgotten.
I confused the heck out of the other gaijin when they wandered back in to find me giving the Sermon on the Mount to a captive Japanese audience.
Right after we all piled into the bus, the local who had been swept away in his car clambered in to say goodbye to each of us. I don’t think we did all that much work, but it is fantastic to know that what little we did had made an impression.
When we made our first rest area stop on the way back, two university students tailed me as I sped through the aisles looking for something edible; I only noticed them when they started giggling at how ridiculously difficult I was making it for them to catch up to me. As it turned out, they had been chasing me down so they could thank me for my speech. They were the second and third; another person had done the same back in Ishinomaki.
With so much of the experience feeling like a lighthearted camping trip with friends, it had been hard for me to feel its significance. It was nice to feel that one thing, at least, had been the right decision.
We got back at 5:15 in the morning—just in time to watch the latter half of the Japan-USA Women’s World Cup soccer final, and for the first time since I came to Japan, I got to see us actually become world champions in something. Then I stood outside watching a massive billowing fire in Shinjuku, standing next to an amazing girl who’d been dancing through my brain all the way back from Ishinomaki, only to confirm that she did indeed have a boyfriend.
The entire weekend was a strange mix of emotions and exhaustion. Going back to work today felt like plummeting down to a fundamentally mundane plane of existence.