Following 3/11 – The Great East Japan Earthquake: a volunteer’s Disaster Reconstruction Report [No.2]

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The tsunami has reduced people’s lives to rubble. Their struggle to remove piles of debris and rebuilt their lives continues.


This was my third weekend as a volunteer. We drove up on a Friday evening and set up tent in the early hours of Saturday morning on the athletics field of Senshu University, from where the main volunteer relief operation for Ishinomaki, population 150,000 before March 11, is being run.

The campsite is home to a fascinating collection of volunteers. They are not your ordinary salarymen. Ponytails, earrings, brightly colored clothes, individualism. Students, freeters, unemployed, self- employed, and others who have dropped everything to come here and help.

As the weeks go by, the campsite becomes increasingly international. There is a large team from Sri Lanka, who witnessed the effects of the Sumatra tsunami in 2004. In stark contrast, there is Bill from Hawaii, who has come alone and is living under a primitive plastic shelter for three months. Peace Boat has a highly organized contingent of 100 volunteers, on a weekly rotation. And the Church of Scientology has sent a dozen volunteers; whatever some might think of their “Church”, these young people are on the ground, providing valuable support to the evacuees.

Most of the organizers are young. They are not professionals, but these young people have matured far beyond their age in a matter of weeks. After registration at 8:30, the organizers shout out for volunteer teams, anywhere from 5 to 20. We get given an address, a simple map, and an outline of the situation. “75-year-old lady, single, all furniture, clothing, 40 tatami mats, debris, mud.”

We collect tools from the warehouse – spades, wheelbarrow, crowbars, scrapers, and 200 rubbish bags, and we will fill most of them. We find the house, with the 75-year-old lady looking forlornly at the destruction. She has walked from an evacuation center to meet us this morning. We use crowbars to prise open swollen wooden cabinets and drawers. Seawater bursts out onto the floor, revealing beautifully wrapped kimono, now worthless. Sodden photo albums, children’s stuffed toys, memorabilia from her youth. “Out. I won’t use it now anyway. Throw it away.” Within the space of one morning, we do just that. Throw this woman’s life out onto the street, where it joins towering piles of other people’s lives. It is utterly heartbreaking.

By three months after the disaster, the nature of the volunteer work has changed. Those houses that have not been ripped in their entirety from the foundations now have signs – “scrap me” or “keep me” – for the wrecking machines are stalking the area, tearing down houses that cannot be salvaged. The hotels that have reopened are filled with construction workers from across Japan. And therein lies contention. Some people complain that these outside workers take paid jobs away from the local firms that remain. Meanwhile, hundreds of volunteers are now cleaning mud from roadside drains, which is the job of the city office.

There is no correct answer. The scale and cost of the disaster are unprecedented, and the more hands that help, the sooner evacuees can move out of school gymnasiums and start rebuilding their lives. These Tohoku people are tough, and rebuild they will.


Julian Ross
Julian Ross has lived in Japan since 1990 and works as a freelance technical editor.
(When not working, he can usually be found hiking in the mountains with his dog, also from the UK.)

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