Volunteering In The Tsunami Zone

ON my first morning, I am issued with work gloves and boots, a hardhat, a dust mask, and a red and yellow boiler suit. My team leader Dave Ludvik, being Australian, calls this garment a “onesie”. I already love my onesie, and I will later wear it to jobs that don’t really call for it. Today, Dave says it’s essential, as the two of us will be driving to the “gomi-yama”, or “mountain of rubbish” down at Ishinomaki port, where assorted debris from the great tsunami is still piling up, more than two years after the event. There is, in fact, a range of man-made mountains on that site, with separate piles for metals and plastics, wood and glass, vegetation and loose soil.

Full reconstruction of the Tohoku region is expected to take between 10 and 15 years. The centre of Ishinomaki seems to be recovering quicker than that, with newly repaired or substituted shops and restaurants opening all the time. But for now, there is still enough work in this city’s outer suburbs, and smaller coastal towns and villages, to sustain the ongoing presence of various non-profit organisations (NPOs) – some Japanese and secular, such as Peace Boat, others Western and Christian, such as Samaritans Purse. And then there are the members of It’s Not Just Mud. “We’re not hippies and we’re not religious,” says founder Jamie El-Banna, back at our headquarters – a flooded, gutted, and evacuated house in the badly-damaged Watanoha district, currently on loan from its absent owners. “There are a few really nice people here, but the rest of us are normal.”

What he means to say, I think, is that you don’t have to be a do-gooder to do good. Where volunteers are often seen as earnest save-the-world types – in part because so many present themselves that way – El-Banna himself is alternately shy and mouthy, an ironical young Englishman with a rude and sometimes cruel sense of humour. He tells me that he used to be a hustler on East London street corners. “Just drugs though, not my bum.”

The truth is, he used to transcribe foreign language interviews for British courts, police, and customs officials. Later, “out of boredom”, he moved to Japan, and was living in Osaka at the time of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. He came to volunteer on the stricken north-east coast soon after that, and kept a blog about his experience that he called It’s Not Just Mud – the name a respectful nod to all the homes and lives left buried in the black sea-bottom sludge that the wave had spread across the landscape.

That name then stuck to the grass-roots relief group he started with a few friends in the months that followed, despite being almost impossible for most Japanese people to pronounce. INJM, or “in-jim”, has since become the easiest NPO for both locals and foreigners to join in the area, with relatively open-door policy that admits even unskilled tourists like myself (on certain conditions, including valid insurance). For a daily contribution of 750 yen – just under £5 – basic meals and accommodation are provided at the house, and what few skills are needed can be picked up on the job. “If I can learn how to hang sheet-rock in a couple of hours, then so can you,” says El-Banna.

At least one of his long-term volunteers, a former supermarket manager from Avignon, has taught himself to be a master builder in the tsunami zone. His name is Yannick, and in the few weeks of my stay I will come to admire him as a kind of French samurai. He uses the bare minimum of words to convey instructions, and performs every task with a zenlike exactitude. On certain jobs, the rest of us are essentially his helpers – many of my teammates have little or no construction experience either. These include a Swiss air traffic controller, a Norwegian musician and film-maker, an American Japanophile whose pop-cultural geekery blurs the line into authentic scholarship, and a Tokyo office worker who takes the bus to Ishinomaki every Friday night, volunteers all weekend, then heads back down before business hours on Monday morning.

Two of the group’s Japanese coordinators are lifelong residents of the Tohoku region, and the rest of us can’t claim to have so much at stake in helping out, but there’s a common logic among the long-distance travellers – we could not visit Japan without seeing the destruction, and we couldn’t see it without doing something. Our work assignments take us to the worst-hit parts of the city and surrounding countryside. We plant multicoloured rows of pansies outside a reopened futon shop in the nearby Minato district, on vacant, overgrown plots where houses used to stand, about 200 metres inland from the shoreline. The owner tells us about the friends and neighbours who died here, and how he carried their bodies to high ground in the mountains behind us.

We build a so-called Playground Of Hope with another NPO of that name, for children living in the cramped and prefabricated “kasestu” or “temporary” housing units around Minami-Sakai. It takes a truckload of equipment and several days to assemble with impact wrenches and spirit levels. I shadow Yannick like a diligent apprentice and still make howling technical errors – we joke about this being a “playground of good intentions”, or a “playground of hope nobody gets maimed”. But the end result looks as sturdy and tactile as the Ewok village, and the kids swarm all over it with lunatic abandon, while I stand back and try to remember if I have ever accomplished anything so satisfying in my entire life. Other jobs aren’t nearly so labour intensive.

Once or twice a week we drive up the coast to the small fishing port of Funakoshi, which was mostly wiped out is now largely deserted. We sit on crates in the grounds of the empty junior high school, and file the edges off small pieces of roof slate from the ruined houses. Local ladies will paint designs on each piece, and sell them as charms to help fund the recovery. After their early morning catch, the fishermen often sit with us, chain-smoking as they file the slate, and telling apparently uproarious stories in a thick provincial dialect known as “zuzu-ben”, which even our Japanese team members can’t fully decipher. Whenever they fall silent, we can hear the waves, the birds, the wind through the bamboo and cedars. It will take many years to clear these forests and mountainsides for new homes at safer elevations. In the meantime, it is still a beautiful place. I am told that it is normal for volunteers to wish that they could stay – until the work is done, or longer.

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