Many people I know here in Tokyo have a strong urge to jump in the car and drive up to the devastated areas with a carload of kitchen appliances or donated bicycles or other items that can help displaced persons restart their lives. Some have already done so. I say go for it -- as long as you've made contact with somebody who's there and knows what's needed and can guide you and help you stay safe. With 200 km of northeast coastline destroyed and 27,000 dead or missing, I imagine the relief orgs could use all the help they can get. The March 11 tsunami submerged 443 square km of coastal areas (!), sweeping across cities, villages, farmland. A half million people displaced! It's said to be the worst humanitarian disaster since WWII.*
Not having a car of my own, or much ability to read/write/speak or understand Japanese, I lack the means to go rogue -- I also don't have the guts. (Oh, and I've got two young children to look after, besides.) The only way for me to physically help out is to go with a group, for a limited time, under the supervision of an organization already working in the affected areas. Which is what I'm doing this weekend while Terry stays home with the kids. I'll be traveling up to Sendai then on to Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture (one of the worst affected areas) along with 40 or so other volunteers, mainly young professionals who responded to a call from the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ). Each of us attended the required orientation and paid 88,000 yen to cover train fare, bus transport, hotel stay, meals, insurance, supplies and a donation. (For 35,000 yen you could sleep on a factory warehouse floor; for 115,000 yen, you sleep at the Westin.)
ACCJ has arranged for us to work under the supervision of Peace Boat, an NGO working with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. They've brought 2,000 volunteers into the area to date -- all of whom, it's worth mentioning, returned unharmed, according to Yoshioka Tatsuya, the founding director. (This guy made one helluva presentation at the orientation last week, which I'll recount in more detail later. For now I'll just say that during the safety briefing/warning portion of that evening, after somebody shared that there had been some 120 volunteers deaths reported -- folks falling off a roof or being hit on the head by falling debris, that sort of thing -- Yoshioka-san reassured us that none of these unlucky souls had been working for Peace Boat.)
The ACCJ contingent has been grouped into teams of six, each with a bilingual leader; we are to wear waterproof jackets and pants and knee-high rubber boots (I got all three at D2 for less than 6,000 yen) and hardhats (provided); towels to help sop up the sweat, and a bandanna on hand should anybody need a tourniquet (to quote the packing list).
We will be cleaning up people's homes and shoveling mud. This is the manual labor phase of the recovery -- soon efforts will turn toward resuscitating businesses and local governments. Yoshioka-san told us at the orientation that by wiping dirt off someone's family photo album, or scrubbing a kitchen floor, or making a living room inhabitable again, we will help restore some hope and dignity to those who lost both on 3/11. I want to believe him. I'm just one person, and I'm probably not strong enough to carry one end of a rolled-up, ruined tatami mat out to the trash heap, but I can do other things, and so I am going to go and do what I can do. Wish me luck.
An article about the ACCJ program ran today in The Japan Times. Click here to read it.
*Source: Peace Boat report entitled 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Emergency Relief Operation