The terribly destructive earthquake and tsunami that devasted the Tohoku region of Japan, otherwise known as the "Great East Japan Disaster," occured last year right around the time that I and many of my fellow students in CIEE were considering coming to study abroad in Tokyo. Obviously it had great impacts on students who were already abroad in Japan (many from my own university were strongly encouraged to come home), but I remember being very concerned I might not be able to come to Tokyo at all. I certainly breathed a huge sigh of relief when the issues were cleared up and my university gave me its approval to go; however, the earthquake left an impression on me just as it has done for many others, and I knew that one of my goals for my time in Japan would be to go volunteer in Tohoku. This past March marked the first anniversary of the great disaster in Tohoku, and with plenty of time during spring break, I felt that I had an excellent opportunity to get a first hand look at the region one year later.
A few Japanese friends and I looked into the various volunteering programs that are available, and eventually decided upon one that would take us to Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, one of the towns most devastated by the earthquake. Unfortunately, these "tours" are relatively expensive, but include transportation to and from Tohoku, lodging, some meals and guides for help. I was lucky to be with friends, as well, because the tour was clearly meant for Japanese: no English translators here.
We left Tokyo on a yako (night) bus, and arrived around mid morning in Iwate, making our way through various small towns on our way to Rikuzentakata. Although we were exhausted from a night spent on the bus, the images we saw were enough to wake anyone up.
As we drove through the town, we learned a bit more about the current situation: much of the debris has been cleared away and piled into somewhat organized heaps of wood, totaled cars and other machinery, and more. Its fields are no longer covered in the destruction left in the wake of the disaster, but merely barren. Grocery stores, Businesses and restaurants are finally starting to return to the area, although they are running out of portables. Making our way towards the volunteer center, we caught a glimpse of the single pine tree left standing along a stretch once covered in them before 3/11/2011. Some in Rikuzentakata have taken it for a mascot of sorts, a symbol of solidarity, strength and perserverance in the face of adversity. I wish we could have gotten a closer look, but there was indeed something awe-inspiring about the silhouette of that tree standing alone amongst so much destruction and emptiness.
After arriving at the volunteer center in town, we were put to work. Our task was to clear dirt left on the shore of the bay the town lies on, packing it into bags and restacking them. Although I suppose I had hoped our work would be a little bit more hands on with the debris, my friends explained to me that such tasks are better left to the work crews with heavier machinery. As we dug, packed and piled, we kept an eye out for personal effects taken away by the tsunami's currents, particularly photographs, which are cleaned and ideally returned to their owners if they can be located. Although we didn't find anything quite so important, the occasional utensil or gardening label did turn up; indeed there is something powerful about holding another person's lost belongings in your hand and realizing that it made up a part of that individual's life experience. I came to feel that we were really digging for treasures of the memory sort instead of clearing dirt away.
After our day of work came to an end, we spent the night in a hotel before taking anoher trip to Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture. Here, we found the impact of the earthquake and tsunami was still obvious to the naked eye: lots where former buildings stood dominate much of the landscape in the worst effected part of town, and many of those houses that still stand lie disheveled and abandoned. The sheer size of the heaps of cars, metals, wood and other debris is jaw dropping, and makes you wonder at how much longer the work to clear it all away will take.
We were given an opportunity to get off of the bus and to walk around one of the former residential areas that was nearly wiped away by the disaster; personal effects still lie strewn about the former foundations of houses that may or may not have belonged to their owners. CDs, computers, shoes, toys and much more litter the area. Amongst the more powerful images I saw was a stove pot that looked as though besides dirt and muddy water, the remains of a lunch or dinner were still contained inside of it. Across the road was a former elementary school, as well as a temple, where the graveyard still remains in poor condition, its gravemarkers toppled over as if the quake had struck yesterday.
Although some of these images may be hard to look at or to believe, progress is being made. Slowly but surely, life is returning to these towns; in Ishinomaki, plans are being made for the conversion of the former residential area into a new park, and the sheer volume of volunteers flowing into Rikuzentakata (in the hundreds weekly, even a year after the disaster) are encouraging signs. I look forward to returning to Tohoku someday in the next few years, to see how things proceed from here. If I learned anything from my time in Rikuzentakata and Ishinomaki, it is that the Japanese of Tohoku are extremely resilient, courageous, resourceful and most of all selflessly generous. Full recovery will take time, but it will come, and I hope to be here to see it when it does.