Volunteering in Tohoku after the 2011 tsunami
I didn’t feel the Earth move at 2:46pm on that day in early 2011, but I remember exactly where I was when it did; I was just finishing up my last lesson before lunch, a lunch break I’d be mostly wasting rushing out to buy white chocolates for my female coworkers (for White Day, a kind of Japanese follow-up to Valentine’s Day a month earlier).
As I did so, racing along Kyoto’s bustling Sanjo-dori shopping street, a wall of water was racing across the Pacific towards Japan’s northeast coast, and then decimating the towns, villages and lives it encountered when it got there.
Hurrying into the staff room just in time to drop my bags off before the 4pm lesson started, I was told by one of my colleagues there’d just been an earthquake.
“Never mind that, I’ve just blown 5000 yen on these bloody chocolates for you lot!” I replied, not yet grasping the gravity of the situation (earthquakes were a commonplace enough event that I assumed it was just another wobbler).
“No, it’s a big one, it looks really bad,” she explained, and then I noticed the grim expressions on the faces of all in the room, the hushed voices, the subdued atmosphere.
The same grim expressions were on all the students’ faces that evening, and I quickly stopped asking how anyone was doing. Everyone was just going through the motions, stunned by what they’d seen, there but not in spirit.
Something terrible had clearly happened, but it wasn’t until I got home at 10pm and checked the news that I realised just how terrible. I sat and watched video after video of the ocean pouring in over seawalls, a relentless stream of black liquid driving through towns and transforming each of them into a swirling mass of debris, cars and houses crunching together as they were pushed along in the torrent.
Many of those cars and houses had people in them.
When I finally remembered to check, of course I had a flood of messages from concerned friends & family back home who’d seen the same terrifying footage but perhaps without knowing I was hundreds of miles away from there. One in particular stands out in memory: “Mate are you ok? Looks like the end of the world over there.”
And for some 19000 people, it was.
Nineteen thousand people were taken by the ocean that day; drowned, crushed, in most cases simply gone. Nineteen thousand.
Entire town districts were ripped from the ground, picked up and crushed together, swirled and crunched into jumbles of twisted metal before being deposited again in crazy piles of the debris of lives that once were.
And then it became apparent that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was having some sort of meltdown. As was eventually understood, it was indeed a meltdown of the nuclear fuel after the cooling systems failed due to the tsunami knocking the power out. But at the time, we didn’t really know what was going on or how bad it might get.
From 350 miles away in Kyoto I didn’t feel too panicked, but reassured my understandably alarmed parents I was ready to leave at short notice should Fukushima explode. One of my friends did actually leave during those first couple of days, but the rest of us just kept on going to work as news continued to come through of both the nuclear plant and the scale of the tsunami’s destruction.
It was a bit different up in Tokyo, where the closer proximity to Fukushima led to a lot more people leaving, either overseas or to western Japan as per their nationality & circumstances.
I guess the majority of international media coverage in the subsequent weeks & months focused heavily on the nuclear contamination from Fukushima, and probably made a lot of people think it was even worse than it was, but as someone who was in Japan (but a fair distance away) it wasn’t such a huge deal after the first few days of uncertainty. They seemed to have it under control, and beyond a little panic buying & hoarding (bread, bottled water, and toilet paper were unavailable for a few days) life in Kyoto wasn’t really disrupted.
Although, thinking about it, the first time it rained I do recall everyone being scared to let the raindrops touch their skin in case it was radioactive. That was perhaps a bit ridiculous, but another warning I did heed came from a student who was a food safety inspector by profession – she gave me a list of foodstuffs I should avoid from Fukushima and its neighbouring prefectures for the time being, and she helped me do so by showing me the kanji for reading food labels.
But far more than worrying about food safety, what really occupied me was that I wanted to help. Just a few hundred miles away people were suffering, really suffering, and surely there was something I could do. I felt I should but didn’t know how, and as my Japanese was very basic I didn’t feel I could just turn up and be of use – just getting in the way wouldn’t be helping.
So I got in touch with friends and friends of friends in the Osaka/Kyoto region who I’d heard via Facebook had done a supply run by car – they’d hired a van, filled it with food, basic medical supplies, diapers, and so on, and driven it up and deposited it all with one of the relief agencies. They were planning a follow-up trip which I said I’d join, but it fell through.
However, one of their number – a Londoner by the name of Jamie – had taken the plunge and quit his job in Osaka in order to volunteer full time in the disaster zone. He was living in a tent, volunteering by day and writing a blog – titled It’s Not Just Mud – in the evenings about what he was doing and encouraging others to join him up there. I first got in touch with Jamie through his blog, and eventually when I could finally arrange the time off I made my first volunteer trip to Tohoku on the night bus from Osaka to Sendai.
I wasn’t the only one to do this – far from it. Many others were reading Jamie’s blog and sending him messages saying they wanted to help but didn’t know how. His response to all of us was just come, just get up here and I’ll help you get settled and sorted with useful work. After a while arranging volunteer visitors ad hoc he realised he could make a much bigger contribution by getting properly organised to coordinate dozens (eventually hundreds) of volunteers than he could just by shovelling mud all day with his own two hands (not that he stopped doing that either), and so the INJM blog eventually morphed into a full-fledged volunteer organisation with NPO status and two damaged houses in Ishinomaki’s Watanoha area (temporarily) donated to serve as HQ and living quarters.
When I first visited INJM had just made the move from tents to the first house, so from Sendai I took the bus to Ishinomaki Station (the railway line still being out of service), and a couple of INJMers drove down to pick me up and take me back to the INJM house.
I remember how the area around the station looked pretty much normal, but as we drove out to the Watanoha district the signs of a recent catastrophic event got more and more obvious; mangled street rails, ruined buildings, gaping holes in the ground where drain covers had been ripped out. It looked in places like the set for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie or something. I arrived too late to join that day’s work detail, but was made to feel very welcome for the evening meal.
Next day we went out to clear a plot of land for the erection of a temporary public bathing facility – most of the town was still without running water at this stage. I think it was previously a car parking area, now covered over with dried tsunami sludge and random debris – CDs, toys, rotten books, smashed up electronics… we shovelled the mud into bags for removal and cleared all the debris, and you couldn’t help but think as you did so – who did this stuff belong to? What became of them? Did they survive? No way ever to know.
For the remaining few days of my first visit we were shovelling the tsunami sludge out from under the floorboards of a hair salon. This was the most common type of job for us – although many buildings were destroyed, there were many that remained structurally intact but badly damaged and full of sludge and debris due to the water having flooded the lower floors. Some owners gave up on them and pulled them down, while others cleared them out and repaired them; this was an expensive job, especially as most people didn’t have insurance that would pay out for a tsunami, and we helped by doing the initial clearing out and sludge shovelling for free. The government would then disinfect it, and after that the owner could get the walls and flooring rebuilt at their own cost (that part required professional work obviously, so we couldn’t do it for them).
One evening on that first visit I went for a wander after work and found this boat in a field, a good half-mile inland:
I remember that as I stood taking that photo a kid came past on a bicycle, and while I was staring in amazement at this boat in a field he was staring in amazement at me! It struck me that he was clearly completely used to seeing crazy tsunami debris lying around everywhere, was so desensitised to it that seeing a foreigner standing there was more remarkable than the boat in the field. Not so surprising really when you think about it – I guess in circumstances like that the brain just has to quickly accept the new reality.
Here’s a few pics of some damaged houses in the neighbourhood around the INJM house – the brown lines on the wall in the first pic show how high the water reached in this area, a wide open space so it didn’t hit the 20m heights seen in narrower bays elsewhere:
After that first visit, I couldn’t wait to go back. It ended up being a while as I was working full time and it’s pretty far from Osaka/Kyoto to Ishinomaki, but when I broke up with my girlfriend (and thus decided to leave Kyoto) I moved to Tokyo for the specific reason of being able to go up to volunteer on my days off (it’s just 90 minutes on the bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai, or 6 hours for the direct night bus from Tokyo to Ishinomaki).
I thus became part of a rotating crew of regular volunteers and weekend warriors coming up from Tokyo to supplement the core crew living in the INJM house full time and running the ship, along with the many others who came from around Japan and from around the world to stay at the house and volunteer for however long they could offer (some stayed a few days, some stayed for months). Some I met just once, others regularly, and I came to positively look forward to my visits – despite the tough work and the sometimes heartbreaking scenes of devastation (or perhaps because of them), INJM felt like a family, the work & camaraderie was genuinely enjoyable, and despite the awfulness of what happened there I personally have fond memories of my time in the disaster zone. We even had our own Mama-san, Hashimoto-mama, a local in the neighbourhood whose friend’s house was one of INJM’s first jobs and who then took it upon herself to provide regular home-cooked feasts for hungry volunteers in the evenings. Her cooking was always an absolute treat, and INJM even published a lovely cookbook of her recipes. On the days she didn’t lay dinner on for us we made a communal job of cooking, eating, and washing up, and sitting around the table in the INJM house chatting over plates of curry rice was something I genuinely missed when I was back down in Tokyo eating for one after another mundane day of teaching English lessons.
It seems a little perverse to say it, really – the people there had seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed and had loved ones taken by the sea, and there I was enjoying myself. Fact is, smashing walls down is a lot of fun – and when you’re actually supposed to be doing it as a way of helping people, even better.
I know couples who met while volunteering in Tohoku, and there are children here in the world today as a result… not entirely sure where to go with this train of thought, but basically the tsunami, for some people, actually brought happiness – a sliver of silver to line the darkest of clouds.
For most of the population along the Tohoku coast it didn’t bring life and laughs though, it only brought death, destruction, and suffering. When the tsunami hit it was freezing up there, snow falling in the immediate aftermath as survivors sought shelter and searched for their loved ones in the rubble. Sometimes – or rather, frequently – in the course of a day’s volunteering we’d have a timely reminder of what people had gone through. The JR worker in the station who stopped me to say thanks for coming and then volunteered a haunting story about all the bodies he’d seen that day; Hashimoto-mama’s harrowing stories of the water level rising in the house, not knowing if it would stop; the mind-boggling scenes in Onagawa (see the pic at the top of this post); and above all, the town of Minamisanriku.
I only went there once, and the day we drove up there started like a fun day out, a road trip with friends, windows down and the wind in our hair as we drove in the sunshine through all that beautiful scenery and enjoyed meandering conversations, Florence and the Machine blasting out of the speakers (not only Florence, all sorts of tunes from an assortment of gadgets, but the Florence album Ceremonials is the one that soundtracks my INJM memories). And then we got to Minamisanriku. The scale of the destruction, the seeming totality of it, was just absolutely numbing. Standing on top of the shattered sea wall, a totally inadequate concrete defence which had been completely overwhelmed by the water, and looking across the forlorn open space that had been a fishing port of some 13000 just months earlier was utterly spirit-crushing – around 10% of the town’s population was eventually listed as missing or killed, and 95% of its buildings were destroyed. One large building still stood, partially demolished, with a ship on the roof where the ocean had dumped it; and there, in the middle of this desolation, stood the skeletal remains of the Minamisanriku Crisis Management Department Building.
It was from that building that the alarm was sounded and the evacuation announcements given over the tannoy, and it was in that building that 25-year old Miki Endo died at her post, continuing to announce the evacuation until the water took her. She didn’t die alone; dozens of her co-workers perished there with her despite evacuating to the roof, as with the water reaching a height of 20m in Minamisanriku the 3-story building was completely submerged bar the rooftop mast. And now the bare skeleton remained standing there, a makeshift shrine to Miki Endo and the others who died with her, and by extension all those lost that day, and we all stood in front of it weeping, together yet so alone, weeping at the enormity of what had happened. I’m weeping as I type this. It was an overpowering place. The remains of the building were the subject of much debate about whether or not to keep it as a permanent memorial, as for many of the locals it was simply too strong a reminder of their heartbreak; however it was eventually decided to preserve it as part of a memorial park.
This railway tunnel was flooded, these days it’s been turned into a dedicated bus rapid transit system, but the tracks were still there all twisted and mangled when we visited:
The dead trees alongside the railway indicate how far the tsunami came (the salt water killed them):
This was one of those moments that had me thinking, whose car was this? Did the purse & fan also belong to them, or were they dumped in the car by the tsunami? Did the owner(s) survive?
The view from the remains of the seawall:
The crisis centre:
While the hardest-hitting, Minamisanriku was far from the only place to drive it home. The school gymnasium near where we volunteered in Higashi Matsushima that was used as an evacuation assembly point, but which was nowhere near high enough or strong enough and instead of providing safety became a death trap; the school in Ishinomaki which caught fire and burned out; the small town of Onagawa, seemingly completely erased when I first saw it (much like Minamisanriku), with entire concrete office buildings having been tipped, still intact, on their sides.
We enjoyed the camaraderie, rolling our sleeves up and knocking down walls and ripping up floors and shovelling out mud, enjoyed the cold beers and communal meals and baths at the ends of long, hard days; but the devastation all around, the evidence of real and recent suffering on a massive scale, was inescapable. Certainly a time of heightened emotions.
And yet, hope. Gradually, incrementally, the chaos became orderly, the wreckages were torn down, the surroundings slowly ceased to look like the set of Full Metal Jacket and more like Japanese fishing towns again – albeit still with all those empty spaces where you knew homes once stood. I took to regular evening bike rides around Ishinomaki’s Watanoha district where our HQ was (we had a good number of donated and salvaged bikes), sometimes taking new arrivals out to show them the lay of the land and check out some points of interest – the beach, the seawall and the thoroughly obliterated district it had failed to protect, the pile of wrecked boats which was gradually shrinking, the garbage mountains which had first grown to astonishing sizes before also starting to shrink, the Manga Museum and surrounds, what was left of the railway tracks.
This random Statue of Liberty was originally from a pachinko parlour and damaged during the earthquake. It stood for a while in front of the manga museum:
The manga museum is this UFO-looking thing on the island in the river – if you look at the riverbank you can see in the second shot from 2018 that I was standing on a significantly elevated bank of earth raised where those damaged buildings were in the first shot from 2011:
Ishinomaki’s most famous son was manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori (correction, he was from the nearby town of Tomei but often visited Ishinomaki) and the Mangattan Museum commemorates his works along with life-sized statues placed around the town:
As time went by with each subsequent trip I made to Ishinomaki, these things slowly improved. The train line reopened (at first partially then eventually all the way to Onagawa once the new replacement Onagawa Station was complete), the wrecked shells of buildings became empty plots, and some new houses started appearing on some of those plots. It all said, life here does go on, these communities will endure, things will eventually be okay – not exactly as they once were, but okay again.
The riverside in 2011:
And the same area in 2018:
The restored railway line to Onagawa shortly after it reopened as far as Watanoha:
Progress in the riverside area around the first sludge-shovelling job I worked on at the hair salon. In 2011 it looked like this:
The small town of Onagawa (out at the end of the railway line from Ishinomaki) is particularly heartwarming to see these days. The damage there was staggering first time I saw it, but the levelled waterfront area has been rebuilt as a shopping district complete with a handsome new railway station, a craft beer place, various restaurants & cafes, my friend’s bar Sugar Shack, and even a handcrafted guitar shop selling instruments made from local wood. They’ve done a really nice job with it and they’ve managed to avoid the exodus of young people to the cities that’s been such a concern in so many of the damaged towns.
On my first visit there were several of these massive reinforced concrete buildings that had remained structurally intact but were picked up by the tsunami and deposited on their sides elsewhere:
The tsunami here reached as high as the lower floor of that building up on the hill. Hard to imagine. This monument marks the high water level:
Another monument just next to it has nothing to do with the tsunami, but tells an interesting story – it honours the memory of the last Canadian to be killed in action in WWII, a pilot shot down in Onagawa Bay on the final day of hostilities. This monument must’ve been damaged by the tsunami, but has been nicely restored:
One time a crew of us took the ferry from Onagawa over to Izu Island to help out with a local festival. Lovely coastal scenery there:
In this one you can make out the Onagawa nuclear power station in the distance (the large buildings just left of centre), powered down at the time for safety checks following the Fukushima meltdown:
The new Onagawa Station:
…and the view from the station of the rebuilt waterfront area:
My friend’s bar:
…and catching up there with some of the old INJM crew on my last visit:
Poorly photographed here, but the train ride from Ishinomaki to Onagawa has some more pretty coastal scenery:
Even in 2018, this final piece of tsunami-damaged building remained lying on its side in Onagawa:
Eventually with the slow but steady rebuilding progress the nature of our work also changed – unbelievably, we actually ran out of walls to smash and sludge to shovel. The work became more focused on helping communities, supporting local festivals, and helping the local economy to recover. INJM had a close relationship in particular with the small fishing town of Funakoshi and we sent regular teams to help with their seaweed production, and with painting charms made from the local slate – the ‘Funakoshi Ladies’ started producing and selling these as the usual working life of the town was so disrupted. We worked in the damaged school building (which is no longer there), sorting seaweed downstairs and painting charms upstairs, and the charms were available on the INJM website. Eventually they were able to replace their lost fishing boats and resume their original trade. This wonderful documentary shows the recovery efforts in Funakoshi:
The clock in the Funakoshi school gymnasium, stopped at 3:25 when the tsunami arrived and knocked out the power:
Many thousands of people were still living in temporary housing units at this point, and we sometimes visited them to help out with gardening, while one of the INJM founders established a pop-up cafe to visit these temporary communities as a form of social release.
It was at this point that I no longer felt I had much to offer, being as I’m not such a great Japanese speaker – walls I could smash all day long no problem, but getting to grips with the strong regional Tohoku dialect deployed by the elderly folk was another matter entirely (it’s a bit like the Japanese equivalent of Glaswegian English). The amount of work that could be done by unskilled volunteers was winding down, and though there was still so much to do it was increasingly work for professionals and the local authorities and government. I was also wrestling with some big personal life decisions and it was time for me to leave Japan; I really wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back at that point, or at least not for a very long time. In the event that thought proved to be completely wrong as I went back to live in Tokyo again a couple of years later, and have made repeated return visits since leaving once more – and it’s always nice to revisit Ishinomaki and Onagawa when I have the time, to see old volunteer friends and to see the rebuilding progress in the towns.
Here are a few more pics of Ishinomaki from my most recent visit in late 2018. The rebuilt seawall (it was a construction site on all my earlier visits):
My old thinking spot after a day’s volunteering, sitting on the remains of the seawall and looking out to sea:
Raised earthworks and new houses in the Watanoha seafront area:
The mascot for Miyagi prefecture, an onigiri (rice ball)-headed samurai:
…and I’ve never been so stoked to see nice new drain covers! Or to be honest ever even noticed them anywhere else. But this was lovely to see:
We shovelled a lot of sludge out of those drains!
My last visit to the region was actually while researching the Kamaishi rugby stadium for my new website for the Rugby World Cup – Kamaishi was another town severely damaged by the tsunami, located a bit further north than the towns I’d volunteered in. It’s also historically a rugby town, so they’ve built a new stadium there and it’s hosting a couple of games for the upcoming World Cup in Japan. It’ll be nice to see the world visiting the Tohoku region to watch rugby – unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a ticket for those games!
Tohoku is also a great region to visit for its beautiful landscapes and rich culture & history, with some really cool places to visit – see my post here for some of the highlights. Well worth including on your itinerary if you’re planning to visit Japan – if even one person does so as a result of reading this, then it was worth writing. They’re still rebuilding and every tourist visit helps, both economically and more simply just by showing that you care… and if you do go, make sure to drop in at Sugar Shack in Onagawa and ask for Simon’s special cocktail…
Some further reading from fellow INJMers: check out this nice article in Japan Times by one of the INJM directors Shaun. Also see the Tohoku archive here on the Japan travel blog Notes of Nomads, which is written by a couple of INJM volunteers Jessica & Hai – I was never actually there at the same time as them so never met them, but anyway unlike me they already had a blog at the time so they blogged regularly about their volunteer activities in Tohoku and reading their archived posts will give you more detail on how the work was and how it evolved over time.