Tsunami Disaster Relief Volunteering

The company I work for is organizing volunteer trips to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake region, to help with the tsunami disaster cleanup. The main factory of the company in Japan is in a town called Higashimatsuyama, which means as much as East-Pine-Mountain town. Because of the name similarity (I don’t know if there are any other reasons) Higashimatsuyama has a sister city called Higashimatsushima, which means East-Pine-Island town, which happens to be in Miyagi prefecture, which, together with Iwate and Fukushima prefectures is the prefecture worst hit by the tsunami after the huge earthquake on the 11th of March. Since the sister city was badly effected by the tsunami, my company’s relief effort is concentrated there.
Every two weeks, the company organizes a weekend trip to Higashimatsushima city. The employees give their time and workforce, the company provides and pays for the bus trip there, and also pays for the hotel and our food. The trips start on Friday afternoon, consisting of the bus ride to Higashimatsushima collecting employees from our various offices along the way. On Saturday is one full day of work, directed by the disaster relief center of the area. Locals affected by the tsunami can apply to the disaster relief center and describe what kind of work needs to be done and the center distributes the jobs listed by urgency between the available volunteers. On Sunday its work in the morning, back to the hotel for a bath and then six hours by bus back to Tokyo.
The bus route takes us some sixty kilometers past the now world famous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The power plant lies 220 km as the crow flies north of Tokyo, our destination Higashimatsushima is another 110 km further north.
We were 34 people this time and left Tokyo in the middle of a big thunderstorm.
The plan was to help a farmer with cleaning up his vinyl greenhouses – steel frames with vinyl over them.
We arrived at the hotel, the Hotel Taikanso in Matsushima at about 10 in the evening. Matushima is famous for its hundreds of small pine-tree-covered islands and it’s a major sightseeing spot in Japan. Compared to former times, the major city of Sendai a few kilometers south was much less lit than before the quake and the world looked pretty dark around us. The hotel is great, a bit old, but in good shape and its wide marble entrance halls are lit up bright as if nothing had ever happened. They have an excellent public bath with a rotenburo (a bath under the open sky) looking out over the Matsushima bay with its many tiny islands. The night of our arrival we of course didn’t see much yet.
They put four to six people into one room and I was in the room of the three foreign women of the team plus one Japanese lady.
Looking out over the bay in the morning, made the impression as if nothing much was wrong. In fact the many tiny islands and the shape of the bay fended of the brunt of the tsunami and the damage in Matsushima is minor.
We started at 7:45 on Saturday morning and a city official of Higashimatsushima city joined us for the tour. The gentleman has lost his wife and daughter (and his house) to the tsunami. Only he (he was at work) and his son (who was in Tokyo at the time) survived. Just five kilometers or so north of the Matsushima bay the picture looked completely different. HIgashimatsushima has no tiny pine tree islands and its wide open bay faces the wide open Pacific ocean. The land is flat and there was nothing much to stand in the tsunami’s way. It advanced inland for some five or six kilometers. I posted a few photos of the damage on Flickr.
The city official gave us a tour around the worst hit areas before bringing us to our point of work and all the photos are taken from inside the bus. Much has of course already been cleaned up during the past five months, but much is also still destroyed, as you can see in the pictures. I found the huge mountains of debris among the most impressive. It will take years until all that debris is being taken care of.
Flooded rice paddies cannot be used for three years, the city official informed us, the soil needs that long to regenerate.
At around 9:15 or so in the morning, we arrived at our place of work (pictures are again on Flickr). This spot is three kilometers inland and the tsunami was some two meters high at this point…
We spent the whole day cutting down the steel skeletons of the greenhouses dividing our group into three – the steel cutters, those who bring what they cut away, and the “mud team” to which I belonged. We were shoveling the way free for the rest of the crew and separated the debris into earth, wires, steel, vinyl and wood. During the process, we dug up a cartwheel and a drum with a water hose around it. Those items were completely covered with soil before we found them.
It was sunny and hot and we were sweating after ten minutes. I have heard from other volunteer clean up groups that in town the worst thing to handle during the clean up is the smell. Another group from our company cleaned up an elementary school in July. There, in town, all the sewer systems were flooded and of course the shit literally came out and spread over the surface. I had hoped that, since we were working in a field, not in town, the smell might not be so bad and indeed, it didn’t smell foul at all and I didn’t wear a mask the first day. Though at the end of our working day much dust had crept into my nose, which I noticed when I blew my nose – I guess you get the picture. Since more or less all of us are desk jockeys and we are not used to hard physical labor, we took breaks every half hour. Nevertheless, also due to the heat, all of us were exhausted and covered in sweat from head to toe, when we finished working at 15:30. We managed to cut down most of the steel frames but there was still a lot of work to be done and some parts of the vinyl houses, including their vinyl and steel beams are sunk a meter deep into the new soil that the tsunami left.
I am again and again amazed by the fact that the actual damage from the earthquake, which was after all some 7 magnitude as to what has reached us on the ground is negligible compared to the destruction the water caused half an hour later. Nothing much could withstand the force of water, it wiped everything away with the force of a bomb.
I never before enjoyed a Japanese bath so much as after our full day of toiling. What a contrast to sit just a few kilometers away in a rotenburo and have a nice view over the peaceful and idyllic Matsuhima bay with its islands.
The next morning we already started at about 7:30 and arrived at our workplace at 8:30 and started to toil. Beautiful weather, not many clouds in the sky and already over 25 degrees Celsius. I was kind of happy that on this day we would only work in the morning and sit on the bus home during the hottest early afternoon hours. We worked until about 11:00 and during our two days of work, we managed to dismantle the skeleton of the vinyl house and finished this workplace. Shortly before we left, the owner of the farmland came to thank us.
There are some bowing degree rules in Japan: from merely nodding your head over 45 degrees to 90 and he did the 90 degree bow, he also gave us a present, beer and soft drinks for the whole crew. The owner said he would now be able to call in some machinery to dig up the rest of the debris and to refill it with soil and he intends to grow vegetables again on the land. He promised to send us some vegetables, once stuff grows there again. It was touching to see the person we had worked for in person and it felt good to know that what we had done had helped someone to get back into business. We returned to the hotel, got a “public bath ticket” (since we had of course checked out in the morning), and at around 13:15 we started the long way back to Tokyo.

On the way back we stopped at a service station on the Tohoku expressway called Adatara, which is some 60 km as the crow flies from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Many of my Japanese colleagues bought cartons with fresh peaches at the service station, since that area of Fukushima is famous for its peaches. They looked good, but I must admit not having bought some. There is more and more of a defiance reaction in Japan. Many people try now to support the area by for example buying local produce.

Though lots of muscles hurt that I didn’t even know I possessed it was a great experience that I don’t want to miss (despite traffic jam on the way back and the whole bus tour taking some 9 hours in total…) When I have the time, I will go again as long as my company organizes these trips. As the tour through the destroyed area on Saturday morning showed, there is still a lot to do and the number of volunteers is steadily sinking. It will take years until the aftermath of the tsunami will be repaired and in Fukushima it will take decades because of the nuclear disaster. But I am sure that one day Tohoku will be again what it was thanks to the spirit of its people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *