Wednesday, June 8, 2011

the comedown

I'm back in my nice Tokyo apartment, feeling like a very lucky human being with my safe, healthy family, modern appliances and a kitchen full of food, electricity and wi-fi and functioning washlets, restaurants and shops and the dry cleaner down the road all open for business, trains and buses and taxis at my disposal. The big city, a world away from the Tohoku disaster zone, is getting on with things. The boys are in school, so the apartment is quiet and I am sitting at my computer and thinking about last weekend, its purpose, how to use it as a jumping off point to do some more volunteer work. The kinds of things I'd like to do, I can't do, because they require running away from home and abandoning the spouse and offspring. Oh to be unattached and between jobs... wait, I don't really want to be that, just sayin'.

This is Kenta, fellow gutter-worker (we took turns shoveling the slimy black stuff and holding a bag open so the other could drop it in -- eeeyewww). You can see the concrete covers resting there like fallen dominos, which the bigger/stronger members of our team removed and placed to the side so we could get into the muck. But to the left are some pieces of plastic and slate and glass covered in all that black gunk that were stuffed into the gutter as well. We had to pry those out with a crowbar (well, Kenta did that while I watched and admired his skills).

This was one of Kenta's last days volunteering with Peace Boat. He had spent the last month camping in a tent on Ishinomaki Senshu University grounds like so many other volunteers. He turned up shortly after quitting his job, which he said he was planning to do anyway, before March 11, to bike around Japan. (He has since postponed that trip). Kenta joined our group as a seasoned hand, and I was lucky to work with him on that second day of our 3-day tour.

On Sunday we did not work, but instead went to see some of the other things Peace Boat has going on in Ishinomaki, and then out to the more severely devastated areas along the coast. And for that, there are no words. Well yes there are words, such as, obliterated and astonishing and incredibly sad. Japan's Self-Defense forces are still looking for bodies in the rubble here. There is no rebuilding happening, and no word about when it might start. In these hardest-hit areas (we were in Miyagi prefecture but the tsunami also destroyed parts of Iwate, to the north, and Fukushima to the south), the local government hasn't decided where it should allow people to rebuild, where it will be safe to rebuild. Survivors are in limbo.

The stench in Ishinomaki's coastal Minato-ku is ghastly -- a lethal combination of sewage, rot and decay, I imagine, more potent than the gutters we cleaned (you had to bend down and get close to that gutter sludge to smell it, while here a face mask isn't enough). At least in the neighborhood where we were working, a few kilometers inland, many of the houses are still standing (if partially structurally damaged) and the roads are clear for vehicles to get through. We saw one car wedged between two small apartment buildings and another stuck in a tree. We saw piles of trash and a couch near a boat in a dirt lot. But there's just no comparison.

Earlier in the day we stopped at the base for a glimpse at part of Peace Boat's takidashi (emergency feeding) operation -- an izakaya in Ishinomaki city where volunteers cook the food that is then picked up by delivery van and taken to nearby evacuation centers, three times a day. Our group gathered in a small upstairs tatami room (sleeping quarters for some of Peace Boat's volunteers) for a look at the area map they had tacked up onto the wall. "Junior" Yamamoto -- Peace Boat founding director Yoshioka-san's right-hand man up there -- pointed out the fishing village we would later be taken through, including Onagawa, which must have been one stunning little coastal town right on the coast surrounded by green forests and beautiful mountains.

Yoshioka-san -- who spent most of the day with us -- told us that once survivors move into temporary housing, which is already starting to happen, they are no longer eligible to receive these hot meals they're providing at the centers because, the thinking goes, they will then have their own kitchens in which to cook for themselves. Trouble is, most don't have cars anymore (as they were all washed away and busted up by the tsunami) so can't get to a supermarket (the few and far between that are actually open and stocked) and anyway they have little funds with which to buy any food, because there are no jobs so there's no income. Doesn't give much incentive to leave the evacuation center. Yoshioka-san said he was thinking of starting up a food-delivery service to the new homes, much like the 'Meals on Wheels' program in the U.S. that brings food to poor house-bound elderly. He just needs the money and the manpower and the vehicles....

It is quite discouraging to see all that is needed up there, the enormity of it all. But also inspiring to see those who are working their tail off to get relief and recovery efforts going. There are Peace Boat volunteers who are living there, without pay, working day after day, week after week, month after month and sleeping on factory warehouse floors or in tents in a field, like my new friend Kenta. Not that our group didn't work hard, but we were in and out in three days and had private cozy hotel rooms and hot showers, electrical outlets in which to plug in our iphones, a 7-Eleven down the street and an izakaya around the corner. (Sendai city proper did not experience the effects of the March 11 quake.) We took the bullet train there and traveled locally by luxury coach. At least we gave the Chisun business hotel in Sendai some solid business. And I'm sure the izakaya that a dozen of us kept open late on Saturday night appreciated our bloated bar bill. So our presence was a not insignificant infusion into the local economy. Oh and we were told that the money we paid to go on the trip included a 15,000 yen donation to Peace Boat, so there's that as well.

Since I've been back I've been thinking what else I could possibly do, from Tokyo and during school hours. Lots of people on our trip said they hoped to return to Ishinomaki with a whole bus load of colleagues, which is good, because fewer folks are heading up there these days that did in the weeks immediately following the catastrophe. Numbers peaked during Golden Week, when there were three national holidays in a row (so volunteers needed only take two vacation days in order to spend 8 straight days pitching in). But there's been a dramatic drop since then, and student volunteers are not expected until the summer holidays (late July-August).

But Tohoku needs more than just day laborers clearing debris out of public parks and people's yards and taking toxic slime out of street gutters. They also need people to help with the big-picture stuff, like getting the fishing industry back on its feet, and local businesses up and running again. Question is how, where, who, how. They need international corporations with expertise and resources. How to make those connections and get that stuff going? I'm out of my depth here but maybe there's a small role for me to play, if only to write something that someone else reads and then decides to take action. So I am looking at ways to do that.

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