JETAAi Volunteer Day – Rikuzentakata, Iwate
Posted: October 26, 2011 Filed under: From the Front Lines, Rikuzentakata, the BIG CLEAN, Tohoku Relief
OTSUKARE! and a BIG thanks to Il son for all the pics!
October 23, 2011 – I wasn’t in Japan when the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit. Even so, the loss, the pain, and the grieving, I sympathized whole-heartedly with the country that I had grown to love when I had studied abroad less than a year before. While in America, I helped anyway I could through relief efforts and donations, but I knew, especially after being accepted into the JET program that I wanted to volunteer, however I could, in the affected areas. I was always asking people, “What can I do to help?”
My first chance at this came this past weekend when JET alumni that are part of JETAAi, partnered with current JET’s teaching in Akita and Iwate, came together and slipped and splattered around in Rikuzentakata. Most of us had to be awake at 4am so that we could meet with our fellow volunteers in Kita-Kami at 6am. There we loaded onto a bus and headed over to Rikuzentakata. Even at 6am, not generally a human-favored hour, the drive was beautiful. Fall is at its peak right now and the colors on the trees are some of the best I have ever seen. Tohoku is truly beautiful.
Then you turn a corner.
Images prepare you for what you will see. Television provides firsthand accounts of the sadness and pain of the people living there. Nothing can prepare you though for what you’ll actually feel when you are there. Only a few buildings remain, and they are empty carcasses that remind you of the tragedy. There is no noise but the occasional car that is zipping by, rushing to be free of the silence. Even smell, the odor of fish that many seaside towns possess has disappeared. There.is.nothing.
The Rikuzentakata Volunteer Center outfitted our group with equipment, which included: shovels, wheelbarrows, boots and rubber gloves. Then it was go time. Time to help, time to do our part. For several hours, we trudged through the muck, sticking our gloved hands into it and then trying to figure out if what we pulled out was burnable or not. We found everything: tires, teacups, bed posts, clothes, rope, photo negatives, lamps, cards, puzzles, an entire house. While going through the items, developing a profile as to what kind of people lived in this house, I kept thinking, “I wonder if they’re alive…I really hope that they’re alive.”
Being there is sad. Seeing the ruins of a once very populated city is hard. Yet even amongst such destruction and disaster, there is a very prominent feeling of hope. I felt this when we were digging through grime, sweating from our efforts and getting so frustrated at these green sheets of metal that were intertwined with the dirt and wood, making them almost impossible to get out. Even through the frustration and emptiness, we were still smiling. It was pretty funny to get splattered with mud and exciting when we finally separated something from the grips of the earth. Being together, working towards a goal, doing our part to help this city, and seeing the progress that has already been made in the cleanup and recovery is something to smile and feel hopeful about. We also looked and smelled fantastic!
Our day ended after we met Futoshi Toba-san, the mayor of Rikuzentakata. In all honesty, I expected him to be sad, old and weighed down by the magnitude of everything that has happened to him and his city. He couldn’t be more opposite of this. He is young and vibrant, a leader and believer that his city will recover from the destruction. Best of all though is that he smiles and he laughs. He wholeheartedly appreciated our efforts of the day, thanking us over and over again.
After meeting the Toba-san and working together with the other JET’s and JETAAi members, I know that my part in volunteering is far from over, because Rikuzentakata is not an empty wasteland. It is a blank canvass where we brought ourselves to fill the void of emptiness, our laughter to break the silence and the smell of our sweat to remind us that Rikuzentakata is alive and ready to be rebuilt. It’s not a question of “What can I do to help Rikuzentakata?” but a statement. “The next time you go there, you call me.”
(A special thank you VolunteerAKITA, JETAAi, the Rikuzentakata Volunteer Center, Toba-san and all the current JETs that went with me to Rikuzentakata. You rock!)