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Volunteering in Tohoku

Hello all! My name is Anna Morris and I am a student with the CIEE Tokyo Arts & Sciences program at Sophia University for the spring semester. I am a junior majoring in economics at Wellesley College, which is just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. You could say I have "family roots" in Japan -- my parents lived in Kobe, Japan from 1988-1990, and I was actually born there right before they moved back to the states. Since then, I lived in North Carolina all my life before going up to Boston for college, where I have spent most of my time for the past three years!

This semester, I am taking four courses: public economics, NGO management, an anthropology class on the recent disaster, and beginning Japanese. I really like all of them and have great professors. My NGO management class is taught by the founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan, which was started about 10 years ago and is the first organized food bank in Japan. It's pretty cool stuff.

I know the recent disaster is at the forefront of everyone's minds, so I might as well go ahead and address my experience with it now. I had an internship in Boston from January until March, and March 11th was actually the day I was scheduled to drive from Boston to NC to spend some time at home before leaving for Japan. Of course, everything changed when I woke up to the devastating news of the earthquake and tsunami. I finished up packing and moved through the motions of saying goodbye to people in Boston, but my mind was on Japan and how this was going to affect my semester. Once I got home the next two weeks were very up and down as tons of information poured out of the country (and the American media certainly did their part to make it seem like the apocalypse was coming). I had no idea when I was going to leave for Japan, if at all. However, the decision to postpone the program start date by two weeks was eventually made, which put me and my parents more at ease, and I finally made it to Japan on April 8th. Things in Tokyo are very safe and seem relatively normal, but last week for Golden Week I had the amazing opportunity to go up north and do relief work in Tohoku. Talking about it will make my first post on this blog relatively somber, but it was an incredible experience and I'm glad to be able to share it.

I was working in the city of Rikuzen-Takata in the Iwate prefecture, which is about an eight hours north of Tokyo (by bus). It is a costal town that was hard hit by the tsunami -- 5,000 of 8,000 homes were submerged, and over 70% of residents were reported dead or missing immediately following the tsunami. The coastline featured over 70,000 trees (mostly pine) before the disaster, but now one lone tree remains -- which has become a symbol of hope for the city and prefecture.

PhotoThe lone tree standing on the coastline

108_2342The backyard of a house in Rikuzen-Takata

I was with a group of about 30 other individuals from all different backgrounds and ways of life, and we came together to do what we could to aid the immense cleanup process. I was there for four days, and did about four hours of solid work each day. The campground we were staying in was about two hours away from the worksite, so the commute took a good chunk out of time out of the day. But, we did a lot of good work:  two of the days we were removing from rice paddies the trash and debris that were left on them by the flooding. We picked up everything from soggy newspapers to tatami mats to a mostly full vending machine (I watched the men move that one). Having followed the developing situation closely on the news, I knew mostly what to expect, but removing items like that was one of the hardest parts -- we found so many stuffed animals, articles of clothing, and everyday items that were remnants of the homes that used to stand there.

Cleared rice paddies with the piles of removed trash on the side

Most of the main roads in Rikuzen-Takata have been cleared and are driveable, but most everything else is still under a two-foot layer of mud that was left behind by the receding waters. So, Wednesday and Thursday we worked to clear the sidewalk of one of the main roads so that the children could use it to get to school. It was very physically challenging -- the mud was caked down so first we had to loosen it up with crowbars, and then shovel it all off, all the while pausing to pull out items such as blankets, tree roots, and even a kitchen sink that had been buried in the dirt. However, we made great progress and it looked great when we were done.


108_2347Part of the cleared sidewalk!

We also visited an "asaichi" (morning market) that has been set up in the town for anyone in the area to buy prepared food, groceries, clothing, and other everyday items. Some people from our group worked there each day, and on Thursday I got the opportunity to volunteer there. It was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. Thursday was Children's Day, so all of the koinobori (carp streamers) were hanging up and tons of local children were playing in the area. They all got a bag of treats and then we raised the koinobori that they children had decorated. It was very inspiring to see the children and their parents coming together in the face of tragedy and maintaining some semblance of normalcy. My Japanese is very limited, but I was able to talk to some of the locals, who mostly asked where I was from (I have reddish hair and am tall so I stand out), and then thanked me for coming -- both in Japanese and English. It was really humbling that they took the time to say thank you even given what they were facing.


Koinobori at the asaichi

Local children raising their koinobori

The trip was both emotionally and physically challenging, and it's hard to believe I'm back in Tokyo where there are very few reminders of what's going on up north. I caught up on sleep last weekend and am getting back into the schedule of class and homework. My birthday is on Friday and my family is coming to visit next week, so I have a lot to look forward to! I'll blog again soon about my adventures in Tokyo -- thanks for reading, and happy belated Mother's Day to all the moms out there!



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Nice to hear your experience Anna Morris..
All the best and good luck for your future.

This is an incredibly inspiring post. I think this must have been a unique and important time to study abroad in Japan and I am happy to see that the program was not canceled for the semester. Most impressive are the differences in these photos and the rest of the semester... it seems that everyday life is going on in the rest of Japan...

I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking all over for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thanks again!

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