If a picture is worth a thousand words, seeing it in person is worth at least a million. Yet there were no words good enough to describe the devastation seen in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.
After a four-to-five hour drive along the tollways and highways through the mountains, our volunteer group of ALTs arrived and stayed at an eikaiwa, in Ofunato. The first half of our group had already volunteered their weekend. Inspired and energized to do more, they stayed on with us to continue the work during Golden Week.
We arrived in the wee hours of the morning and curled up for naps, only to wake up just a few hours later. After a quick breakfast, we all piled into cars and headed over to the volunteer center. Along the way, we saw evidence of the destructive force of the March 11th quake and tsunami. Still, you could see the amount of work already done, as streets were cleared and piles of debris were shown in both disarray and some semblance of order.
Our assignment, that Tuesday, was to clear the riverbed and banks of debris and trash. Keepsakes were to be handled with utmost care and humility. There was everything from plastic bags and bits of paper and cloth, to buoys and metal supports. The men of our group proved themselves capable of handling heavy duty work, and us girls were able to lend a hand or two.
The roughest part of the work, for me, were the piles of rotting fish. Most had luckily been dried out by the sun and dry wind, but some had been under wooden boxes and left to the rank odors that come with moist decay.
Later that day, we drove through Ofunato and neighboring Rikuzentakata, which itself was literally wiped out by the brutal force of the tsunami. Splintered buildings, personal items, urban fare, and everything in-between were thrown asunder, and yet carefully piled so that roads could be used once more. Decals from various volunteering allied armies marked the buildings, dated along with the surveying country.
We saw many things, that day, which seemed so unbelievable: A baseball field, swamped so that you could barely see the ring of the edge of the tallest section of seats. There was a huge pine that had been stripped of its branches and hung off the side of a hospital’s third story building. In another building, an apartment complex, four floors had been washed out; their windows and doors missing and the fifth floor presumably swamped as well.
Being down in the debris field, seeing horizon to horizon of what could be termed as post-apocalyptic, the enormity and awe of that terrible day left its mark. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the fact that miles and miles of coastline looked just as bad as that scene.
The next day, a combined effort between our group and other volunteers from around Japan was to clear out and sanitize a lady’s traditional Japanese home. She had but a small room’s worth of possessions left to her, with the rest of the house having to be stacked outside. It was hard work, but it felt good to know that we could help her find a new beginning. The house will be refurbished, with new floors and walls, doors, tatami mats, and new things to fill it. She at least, still has a home, even if it needs to be rebuilt.
On the third day, there wasn’t much work assigned to us. It was assumed that volunteers would return home, as it was the last holiday in Golden Week. We did basic yard-work, clearing the riverbed of reeds, so that debris would be easier to get to later. The ride home was twice as long as going up, but it was well worth the trip.
Volunteering has reinforced within us our duties as JETs. We are here to teach, but we are also here as ambassadors and to exchange culture. Doing this kind of work gets at the very root of that exchange. It goes beyond differences in culture and language and reminds us that we are all just human.
It will not take years, but decades for the people of Tohoku to rebuild. They are strong people and very admirable in their ability to carry on. However, they need help. Help from their neighbors, help from others in the world. Help from us, too, what little we can contribute. Donating money or time to supporting the groups who send volunteers is useful.
Helping each other in such times of need, we learn much about our hosts in Japan. We learn much about ourselves and the situation up North. If you can go there, if you can make a difference through direct participation, it will change you. We can prove the power behind the word ‘humanity.’