Volunteering in Ishinomaki

This Friday I will join a group of volunteers bound for tsunami-devastated Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture.  Around hundred of us will take the bus from Shinjuku to spend a week helping with emergency relief activities.

It will make a strange contrast to tour leading, but I am glad of the opportunity to be doing something practical, rather than just watching the news and feeling helpless, and I am grateful that Inside Japan has given me the support, encouragement and time to do this.

Peace Boat, a Japanese nongovernmental organisation, will be the co-ordinator of my activities. They have been sending groups north for several weeks, during one week in April they sent 450 volunteers. But numbers have been dwindling, even though manpower is still desperately needed.

The reality apparently, “is far more serious and shocking than what [you] may have seen on TV footage”. On Sunday`s orientation meeting we were told 36,000 homes in the city of Ishinomaki alone need cleaning out. The Peace Boat operation has managed 400 so far, at a rate of 5 or 6 a day. If that seems slow, it`s because the cleaning is not a simple operation; I know that from tidying my bedroom.  Overall, it is predicted to take two years.

As well as clearing out sludge, Peace Boat prepare 2,000 meals a day for local refugees, and they have a major role in processing and distributing relief supplies. I might be spending all my time shifting boxes.

Most of the people at Sunday`s orientation were Japanese, young and old; a few foreigners were sprinkled around the back seats. Native or not though, all of us were told that we will be outsiders in Ishinomaki. We are dogsbodies for the local authorities, there to help them lead their own recovery.

Our job is to listen and try to understand. We were told to avoid excessive expressions of sympathy or encouragement. Refugees do not want to hear `ganbatte` (fight / keep struggling) anymore, they have already been struggling long enough.

I have met my group of 6 already, we have been emailing each other this week to co-ordinate what food /equipment we will each bring. We have to be self-sufficent for all the time we are there to avoid burdening the local community.

Our team leader is Shinji, a bilingual Japanese salaryman, also in the group is an engineer from Dublin, an English teacher from Leicester and a bilingual Japanese teacher working in Texas. 3 women were also involved, but they have already withdrawn for various reasons, I hope it wasn`t anything I said.

Peace Boat Earthquake Emergency Relief facebook page

Mission Ishinomaki video  – the home video of a family of half-Japanese missionaries volunteering in Ishinomaki in late March

A volunteers story published in the Japan Times