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One Bag at a Time: Report from Ishinomaki

In my previous post from May, I reported Tokyo is back to normal. You may find the streets of Tokyo a bit dimmer than before, but the city is as busy and lively as ever. Ads for cars, laundry soap, and medicine have come back to primetime TV and sake events bring in big, enthusiastic crowds. It’s as if the time of self-restrain imposed by one city official never happened. I am so happy to see Tokyo in a state of what makes this vibrant city so attractive and truly hope it stays that way for a long time.

At the same time, I still tear up thinking how the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami changed so many people’s life in wide coastal areas of northern Japan. After one week of volunteer work with Peace Boat in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and meeting locals, I think of how much more needs to be done. For me, the tsunami is no longer a remote devastating disaster we watched on TV. It has became real to me. Two months after the disaster, the impacted area of the huge fishing town were not anywhere close to normal. We cleared debris and mud from heavily damaged houses and unclogged seemingly bottomless gutters filled with stinky sludge. Recovery seemed impossible, or seemed so far away as to be unreachable in any foreseeable future. But, it has to happen.

Working with Peace Boat
I was one of 130 volunteers with Peace Boat that left Tokyo on Friday, May 13th, two months after the disaster. We arrived at Ishinomaki by overnight bus on Saturday morning. I had read reports of the recovery effort, such as a fruit shop reopening on a shotengai street filled with old fashioned mom-and-pop shops. I hoped to see this happening. As we got closer to an old textile factory a few kilometers from the coast where we would stay for 8 nights, the view from the bus drastically changed. The totally normal looking suburban neighborhoods with car dealers, conbini, and houses standing intact were gone. We entered a war zone scene I had only ever seen on TV. We were transported from an everyday neighborhood of Japan to another planet.

We arrived at the base and walked to the first job site and the eeriness of the area hit me. We saw a few cars pass by and one person was out working, but dusty wreckage surrounded us in total silence. Smashed cars with shattered windows piled up face down against a big pile of debris. Very few homes had been restored or rebuilt. But, the first floor had been totally ripped from most houses. And, everything from furniture to muddy stuffed animals was piled around these homes. Everywhere we looked, we saw the aftermath of the tsunami. In many places, nothing has been done; we could see no trace of recovery. My first thought was how could the area get back to life without any people around?

The work week
As Monday came, I realized it had been the weekend. During weekdays, the major roads are quite busy with cars, trucks, heavy equipment, or construction people. Local residents walked along wearing masks against the dust. As the week progressed and I saw different areas, I felt Ishinomaki was even further away from the recovery. The unimaginable scale of the destruction and the sight of total demolition by nature blew me away. It felt like it was impossible to put things back to how it had been before that day.

During the seven days in Ishinomaki, I worked with five other dedicated and amazing and committed people as one team. Two of our team members traveled to Japan for one purpose–just to volunteer in Tohoku. Our daily routines were all dedicated to repairing damage caused by the tsunami. We cleared mud from rooms and from under the floors of houses. We removed the sludge from gutters and from gardens around homes. Then, we stuffed it all into bags one by one.

One day, we were given a break. We distributed donated relief goods and food services. But most of the time, we were back breaking mud busters, which in a odd way was a very rewarding experience. I really liked working at the houses better. At the end of each day, we saw the difference we had made. The piles and piles of white bags stacked outside and and just regular dirt left on the floor was fulfilling. Of course, the most rewarding moments were seeing such genuine happiness in the owners of a house once the chocolate fudge like layers of sludge had been completely removed. One source of their distress was gone, and they could see a future.

The people of Ishinomaki
We worked at six houses and all of the owners were in their late 60s to mid 80s. Most of them were very open to talk about their experience and their situation. Everyone we talked to preferred coming home rather than living at a shelter, even if the entire first floor was gone and they only had part of the second floor to live in. They all lived in total uncertainty-they were not sure what the local or national governments were going to do to the area or how insurance companies would settle their claims. “This is our home of more than 35 years. Where can we go?” one elderly couple said. People we met were barely surviving in houses that could not function as homes at all. All of them were trying to restore their houses by themselves, but simply couldn’t. Most of them had hurt their backs after trying so hard for two months and were forced to ask for help.

Deep feelings
During the week, I was really frustrated and very angry. Why do these people have to go through this? They do not deserve this. There must be a better and faster way to give normal life back to these people. One day, in our morning meeting, the Peace Boat site director talked about the progress we are making. “It’s slow, but we are making the difference one bag at a time.” This stuck in my mind. We may not be able to do a lot overnight, but we can help Ishinomaki one bag at a time.

Through very small areas in Ishinomaki, I saw how much work needed to be done. It is nowhere near rebuilt yet. I believe other impacted areas are suffering, too. I do not have a simple answer how to save Tohoku, but I know these areas needs more manpower, resources, and time. They made a good start, but they have a long way more to go. I just received email from Peace Boat explaining that the number of volunteers is dropping drastically and so is their funding for relief efforts. They estimate it will take another two years for impacted areas in Ishinomaki to recover.

I am going back to volunteer with Peace Boat in July and I sincerely hope to see a difference from May. And, I want make that difference, even one bag at a time.

Ways you can support Tohoku

1. Volunteer in the affected coastal areas in Tohoku. Peace Boat is very organized and offers excellent English support, but there are other relief efforts out there.
Peace Boat Web
Foreign Volunteers Japan
– they seem to have good volunteer info.

2. Travel to Tohoku, the northern region of Japan. Outside the Pacific Coastal areas, the natural beauty of the area is untouched. Tourism tremendously helps the local economy. Even Matsushima Bay on the Pafific Coast of Miyagi is recovered and ready to welcome tourists.

3. Donate. Peace Boat needs money for tools, bags and lot more. They support people in need by coordinating volunteers, distributing donated goods, and providing meals.

4. Drink sake. You may think sake has nothing to do with the recovery, but sake breweries are always tightly connected to the local economy.

5. Spread the word. The areas directly hit by tsunami is far from recovery. Major roads are restored, but people need home and need to live life!

6. Finally, hire me as your guide in Japan. I donate 100% of all of my service fees as a tour guide to Peace Boat. Instead of getting paid for my work as a guide, I ask clients to donate my usual fee directly on the Peace Boat site, or I will arrange the donation on behalf of the client.

Ishinomaki Facts:
Population (as of Feb 2011): 162,822
Number of household (as of Feb 2011): 60,928

Loss from the 311 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami
Reported deaths: 3,025
Missing: 2,770
Number of totally destroyed houses and buildings: 28,000
Number of evacuees at peak: 111,295
Number of people living at shelters (as of June 10): 7,580
(source: Ishinomaki City web site: Miyagi Prefecture Web Site (PDF document))

Please visit
Video of Ishinomaki by fellow volunteer, Katie
Photo blog by Alex, our team member
About 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on Wikipedia


4 Responses to “One Bag at a Time: Report from Ishinomaki”

  1. One bag, one home at a time, you are a hero. Offline I have much to ask you. But I missed you in New York last week, got to see John and he urged me back to Japan this winter…

    Posted by Jocelyn | August 8, 2011, 5:20 am
  2. Jocelyn, Thank you! I am so happy to hear you were in NYC. I wish I were there! It must have been great to catch up with sensei and all sake friends! It’s so hot the las few days and the summer is definitely here.

    Posted by Etchan | August 10, 2011, 3:35 pm


  1. [...] Ishinomaki from May 13, and will be returning again from July 1.  This post is taken from her blog Tokyofoodcast – from the original page you can also see links to more ways you can support Tohoku (and how [...]

  2. [...] I mentioned in my last post, I am going back to Ishinomaki today for one week. For the group going there to volunteer with [...]

    » Survival Food - July 2, 2011

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