the BIG CLEAN – Kesennuma Field Report


Cleaning photographs

May 28, 2011– A group of five ALTs left rainy Yokote at 5:30am on Saturday morning.  Unfortunately our hopes for better weather on the other side of the mountains did not quite materialise, but a few rain drops were not going to make us turn back! We joined a small army of waterproof-clad volunteers at the Volunteer Centre in Kesennuma, where Mel was quickly designated our team leader.  This time we did not join up with any other volunteers but instead we were given a job which came through for five people.

Damage inside the shop

At first, the area we were dispatched to seemed remarkably undamaged, with shops already open for business on one side of the street.  It was certainly obvious that a lot of clean-up work had already been done here.  We were working in a former shop, which seemed (so we thought at the time) to be a place where salvaged belongings were being brought to be cleaned.  Our task for the day was to clean photographs which had been damaged by the tsunami.  We were given a large cardboard box filled with packs of newspaper-wrapped pictures.  Each pack had to be unwrapped and sorted into dry photos and wet photos.  The dry ones were cleaned with a dry cloth and piled into clean, plastic boxes, while the wet ones had to be peeled apart and spread between layers of newspaper in another cardboard box.  Sometimes a pack had suffered minimal damage and could be dealt with quickly, but other times the entire pack was stuck together and each photograph had to be painstakingly peeled from the rest.  Sometimes just resulted in a discoloured border around the picture, but other times the entire image was lost in a swirl of ink.

The shop from the outside. He showed us a photograph he had taken soon after March 11th. The pile of debris was higher than the single-storey building next door.


Before lunch he brought a bag of keitai straps which he had made and let us choose one each to keep. One side says 'Kesennuma' and the other side says 'Minato Matsuri'.

Although the work was certainly less physically demanding than other clean-up work we had done, we all agreed that it was a truly unforgettably day, and over the course of our visit we realised how wrong our initial impressions had been.  This was not a centre for salvaged goods, but simply one man’s shop and his remaining belongings.  We were not just cleaning recovered photographs, but sorting through one family’s cherished memories and salvaging what we could.  At first, the owner seemed understandably overwhelmed by the five foreigners who had turned up on his doorstep, but slowly we began talking with him about his experiences.  From our conversations and the photographs we discovered an incredible man: Suzuki-san is a 51 year-old music shop owner with two children, who has surfed for 33 years, played taiko for 25 years, and travelled extensively.  His family are fine, but his house was totally destroyed on March 11th and he now lives in a shelter at his daughter’s junior high school.  His shop is still standing, and he proudly showed us three huge vintage speakers which were too heavy to be carried away, but there was a lot of damage inside.  The wave had come three times, he told us, leaving a thick layer of mud inside the shop and a pile of debris outside which was nearly as tall as the building itself.  Both had already been cleared, but inside the shop the waterline on the wall was so high that I could barely reach it standing on my toes and there were dents on the ceiling from the corners of floating objects.  The windows had been smashed and the clock on the wall had stopped at 3:55pm.  It was incredible that so much of his extensive photograph collection had survived with little water damage.

We were all overwhelmed by Suzuki-san’s strength, gratitude, and kindness, and we parted reluctantly with promises to return to Kesennuma soon to help again.  He also insisted that we come back for the annual Minato Matsuri (Port Festival), which he hopes will be able to resume next summer.

 – Nikki

Our group with Suzuki-san outside his shop


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