There is too much to tell you and not enough words.
Everyone who was here on 11 March must have a story to make the hair stand on end, about where they were and what they saw, who they lost and where they found the strength to continue. Every empty plot of land, ruined shop and smashed car has its own story, of the people who lived or worked there, the journeys they took together and their hopes and fears for the future that never came, washed away on a tide of mud and debris that overwhelmed manmade defences too easily. The lines on the buildings tell their own tale of how high the waters rose.
I wasn’t even sure I should go. I’m not strong, not good at digging, not a builder or a carpenter and worried I would get in the way of those that are. My Japanese is so lacking that I can’t even read enough to book the bus tickets. More than once I convinced myself I should leave it to others. Then I read the Frequently Used Excuses page on the It’s Not Just Mud website, send some emails and almost before I know how, am getting off a bus into the crisp, cold air of the most gorgeous morning I have seen since I arrived in Japan. Taking a deep breath because here I am in Ishinomaki, the city we have all seen countless times on the news, yet everything looks – well, kind of ok.
Parts of the city are relatively and reassuringly normal. The pachinko parlour, konbinis and petrol station are open, while the streets are full of gleaming new cars. I come from another northern port, so when I see a broken window high on a warehouse, I don’t automatically think of quake damage. I know the wear and tear is harder here than in the pampered capital. As you would expect, the busy streets around the central station have been repaired first, so the first-time visitor is spared an immediate surprise. That’s reserved for the drive out to INJM’s HQ, located in the suburb of Watanoha, where the scale of the destruction begins to make itself known with every empty tract of land. The really dramatic damage you remember from the press –boats left in the middle of the street and broken timber strewn storeys high – has largely been cleared. What is left is somehow worse, houses standing alone where once they would have brushed up against their neighbours, and plenty of new car parks.
But there isn’t much time to dwell on such thoughts. The INJM day starts with the more experienced hands welcoming that day’s arrivals over breakfast. British volunteers will be happy to note there is a plentiful supply of Yorkshire Tea and no shortage of toast and jam either. Suitably refreshed and following a quick update on the work schedule, it is time to begin the sometimes mammoth task of getting people and equipment into one of the pool of cars the group has commandeered. INJM works with other organisations such as Samaritan’s Purse, and has a variety of projects on at any one time, so it is only possible to give a general idea of what you will be doing if you join them. While I was there, volunteers were cleaning a damaged community centre ready for a forthcoming concert, removing mud from documents and photographs belonging to local people and ripping out damaged parts of houses ready for rebuilding.
Cleaning mud from documents and photographs is perhaps the perfect job for a writer. I found myself alternatively marvelling that they were intact and speculating whether a computer’s hard drive would have survived so well. It was also impossible not to wonder what had become of all the celebrating people in the photographs, enjoying sports days and cultural events. Or while working through a file of financial records, to keep from thinking about where the hand which had idly scribbled notes across a page was now. In the ‘to be cleaned’ pile was a schoolbag, identical to the one that all my young students have, still with mud-encrusted toy attached to the zip. I found myself hoping that its owner was somewhere missing it, in spite of knowing that the death toll from schools in the city must make that impossible.
There are two Japanese words quoted in Jake Adelstein’s book, Tokyo Vice: setsunai and yarusenai, which are translated as ‘a physical feeling of sadness’ and ‘a sadness that you can’t clear away’ respectively. When working in a city which is still a disaster zone, feelings like these are never very far from you, however, I believe the most practical way to deal with them is to get on with helping the survivors. Each person does as much as they can and tasks tend to get assigned via a process of ‘can you do…’ ‘Yes, fine!’ ‘OK then, do it!’ It works well. Breaks crop up exactly when you feel most in need of them, teas and coffees are produced, a bag of Kit Kats handed around and there is time for a chat before getting back to it. In a Tohoku winter, there is a lot of incentive to throw yourself into work until your muscles hum and you don’t notice the cold or that the clock has ticked around to midday. The lunches at INJM were some of the best I’ve eaten in Japan, which should give you a measure of exactly how good they were. Warm, nourishing and served up with good humour by Hashimoto san, whose house has become an unofficial second home to the city’s volunteers. Her kotatsu heated table was also a joy to the toes.
Donating your time and energy to help Ishinomaki via INJM in no way means living a Spartan existence. After the afternoon’s work, brought to an end around the time the light starts to fade, everyone heads towards the onsen. There is running water at the INJM house, but the queues and rage that would no doubt ensue from 20 people trying to get a shower mean that it’s much easier and far more pleasant to use the public baths for a scrub and a soak. The evening draws to a close with more eating and chatting, maybe a couple of drinks to soothe us off to sleep, without causing too much of a headache in the morning! Then the only job that remains is to find a space to set up your own array of futons, blankets and quilts – saying a quick prayer to make sure you don’t snore please – before the lights go out ready for another early start on the following day.
If you are wavering about going, don’t. Yes, if you are strong, speak good Japanese, can drive or dig, or have any experience of building, you should definitely go! But even if not, go anyway. You are needed, people will be happy to see you and you will leave feeling that you have done something, even if it is only a fraction of what needs to be done. By everyone who can taking on a little part of it, what could appear to be an overwhelming task becomes that much easier. A lot has already been done, but there is more still to take care of. Maybe it will happen without you, but maybe it will take even longer.
And if you need any further incentive, did I mention how good the food was?