Last year on March 11th, I was in America at my university studying for final exams, when I began getting notifications from Japanese friends about a large earthquake that happened in Japan. Earthquakes are quite common in Japan, so I didn’t think too much about it initially, but I checked the news anyway. After that, all I could do as I watched live online news footages of the tsunamis consuming houses, cars, and fields was sit there, powerless and in shock.
That overwhelming feeling of helplessness left a deep impression on me, and later when I saw reports about the swift response of volunteer groups and their work in the disaster areas, I swore to myself that when I go to Japan that coming summer to study abroad, I will do everything within my power to be able to do the same. However, coming to Japan and asking the Japanese students I met, I came to realize that it wouldn’t be easy. While many schools sent groups of student volunteers up to the disaster areas immediately following the earthquake and tsunami, by the time I reached Japan in the end of July, the numbers of those types of events have greatly decreased. There was also the option of joining volunteer bus tours, but I was told that because those could cost a bit of money, participants are given quite a bit of hospitality so those could end up being more like vacation trips, and that was not my aim. Then there was the problem that I did not know enough Japanese to participate in a volunteer event done all in Japanese. If I couldn’t understand all the instructions properly I would end up becoming a burden to the volunteer group, and I didn’t want that either.
Left without many options, I had begun to give up until I received an email from ICC in January regarding a joint volunteering event between ICC and WAVOC to a disaster area in Iwate Prefecture. I had participated in ICC’s English Outreach programs before (which I also recommend!) and this event was to be held in both Japanese and English for both Japanese and international Waseda students. It was as if ICC had somehow read my mind and put this event together, so I took the opportunity and I signed up immediately.
All the student volunteers signed up without knowing exactly what kind of volunteer work we would be doing (this is mainly because the needs of the affected areas differ by the day), and many of us most likely signed up with the image of volunteers clearing debris like what we see in news reports about disaster volunteers. When we arrived at the site and found out that our task was to shovel snow, many of us were somewhat disappointed. “Isn’t there anything more useful for us to do? We came all the way from Tokyo just to help with the everyday chore of shoveling snow?” was most likely what many of us thought as we proceeded with the task, but with only a limited amount of time for work ahead, I did my best with the work we were given. As we shoveled, the strain and time-consumption of the task became apparent. With most of the people remaining in the area being in elderly age, it is possible that an everyday, mundane, yet indispensable task like shoveling snow could be challenging. Our volunteer group was able to clear multiple paths and emergency housing areas of obstructing snow within hours, and I was surprised at our productivity. Though our work would not be lasting, with the prospect of more snowfall, perhaps what we did was useful after all, even if it is only for a day. While I was initially disappointed, as my first experience volunteering in a disaster area, I came to be able to feel content that the work we did was able save the residents a little bit of work.
Visiting the disaster area was also an experience. There were so many things that we saw and feelings that I felt that wouldn’t have been if I had only seen it on television. As we drove by the remains of buildings that made up a downtown area of Kamaishi City on the way to the volunteer site, we saw many buildings marked with a red circle and an ‘x’ mark. We were later told by a volunteer leader that the ‘x’ mark meant that a body was found in the building and the circle mark meant that the body had been removed. (Note: For other areas and volunteer groups, the circles and x’s may have different meanings.) The haunting image of the red, hastily drawn circles with the ‘x’ marks left a deep impression on everyone. One can only imagine the feelings that went with the drawing of each circle and ‘x,’ as well as the stories that went with each unfortunate body that was found. It is astonishing every time I think about it; all this damage and wreckage of communities and lives that have taken so long to build were torn down in an event that took less than a day.
Upon reaching the volunteer site, I came to find that it was interesting that while we, as outsiders, were shocked and in awe at the sight of the remains of what had been rows of houses and a thriving town, the people who continued to live there have already gotten used to everything and were carrying on with their lives alongside the wreckage. Seeing this, it led me to think that perhaps humans are really strong, adaptable beings, and it gave hope that with time, things even in the affected areas could gradually return to a state of stability again. Perhaps with volunteers like our group doing the laborious, everyday tasks, the villagers would be able to focus more time on rebuilding their towns, communities, and lives.
I am incredibly thankful that I was able to come across the opportunity to participate in this ICC and WAVOC joint event. Despite its short length, it was enough to be thoroughly thought-provoking and I felt that it was a good, initial stepping stone towards bigger volunteer events. Before leaving the Tohoku area, we visited the Shiogama Bible Baptist Church, where we received very inspiring talk from avid, charismatic volunteers of the Hope Miyagi volunteer organization. One of the many things a speaker told us was that it doesn’t matter what kind of work we did as the first time volunteering in a disaster area, the most important thing is actually going and seeing the area with your own eyes, and with this program, I felt like I was able to do just that. Through my participation in this event, I was able to be associated with the WAVOC volunteer group, through which I have since participated in a volunteer program at a March 11th memorial event in Miyagi prefecture. It has been a year since the disaster, and while volunteer groups and organizations have been actively working all year and have made much progress, there is still much work left to be done. I have less than half a year left in Japan but I hope to be able to continue participating in as many volunteer events as possible with the time I have left.
What I have learned from participating in ICC’s volunteer events as an international student is that you will definitely end up taking away more than you initially thought. If a similar ICC event is created in the future, please don’t hesitate and sign up!
The Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC) Web site (Japanese Only)