Sunday, March 10, 2013


Most of the world forgets a disaster. Sure, on anniversaries, all the news crews go back and do a two year anniversary special and probably give anybody with PTSD a really hard time by showing disaster footage again. And then most everybody forgets again, until the next anniversary.
OK. I can understand forgetting if you live far away and if you have no connections to Japan. I forget about lots of terrible things I see in the news too. But just try to remember something. There are so many problems and things to fight for. Just pick one. Remember animal cruelty. Remember poverty. Remember AIDS. Remember your local park. Remember domestic violence. Remember gun safety. Remember GLBTQ and marriage equality. Remember homelessness.
OK, so now that you`ve remembered, do something on a regular basis. Not because it will make you feel better, though that is nice. Not because people will think good things about you, though that is also nice. Do it because a person who does not have some kind of positive influence on the world around them is betraying a basic human responsibility. 

I mean, when you die, do you really want the most people can say about you and your accomplishments is “he was a nice guy?” I am not knocking being a nice guy, because being a nice guy or gal is a great thing, but do you really want that to be all? 
I know lots of people want to be great writers or great poets or great songwriters or great painters, and eventually most of them don`t make it. I personally spent a lot of time writing things to express myself, only to find out I didn`t have a hell of a lot to express in the first place. But if you`re like that, the good news is there`s still an answer to your drive to contribute in some deeper way. Just put down the guitar and find yourself an NPO. 

How about a couple of hours on Sunday? If you don`t go to church, think of it as church.
If you do go to church: think of it as church!

And to the people who are already fighting for something and have been doing it for a long time--thank you. Let us know how you`re doing.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Once again, I`m writing in this blog apologizing for not writing in this blog while I should be doing lesson planning work instead!

Q: Are you still volunteering?
A: Yep! HANDS is still going as an all-volunteer carpool between 1 and 3 weekends per month, depending on the month. I personally am going between 1 and 3 times a month still. We go to Kamaishi sometimes, but to Minamisoma once a month, and last time we went to Minamisanriku for the first time. The work depends on the volunteer center and day.
Recent jobs: digging mud out of ditches, taking rubble out of a house`s foundation, helping with an event (watching children), loading wood etcetera onto a truck to be dumped.

Q: Is it still possible to volunteer? Is volunteering still needed?
A: Yes, and yes, with a caveat. You can volunteer with us locally, or have a Japanese-speaking friend hook you up with another volunteer center still taking people out of prefecture. There`s also It`s Not Just Mud and a lot of animal shelters that need a lot of help (Japan Cat Network) and some other places I`m missing. Email me or ask Facebook group Foreign Volunteers Japan for details.
As for whether volunteering is still needed: I read a piece saying that volunteering in this area through a few larger groups was just makework, and maybe unnecessary, and I`ve tried writing a response but always end up getting so ticked off that I can`t finish it. The main thing I think is if you want to come up here as a short-term volunteer, understand that volunteer opportunities might be limited. You might not get the work you want, and you might get less work than you expected. Understand that what work is "worthwhile" or not is sometimes a matter of perspective. Understand that nonprofits and volunteer centers are working with limited resources to match work with whatever number of volunteers end up coming that day.
If you do not find your experience fulfilling and really want to help, choose a better organization next time, send money instead, or come back as a tourist and help the local economy. Or come for longer than two days. Please don`t tell everybody there`s nothing to do here anymore!

In other news, I`m moving to Morioka in April, but will hopefully be able to still volunteer through HANDS at least once a month. I`m also considering pursuing volunteering opportunities through Save Iwate or Kawai Camp.

For awhile I`ve been thinking about a way to help people on the coast while going to school at Iwate University to study Japanese. I would like to do something that directly helps with things like job development or improvement of quality of life in temporary housing, but between the language barrier, not having a lot of money, and not having an affordable method to get to the coast, my options are limited.

I plan to record a series of interviews from people who live(d) on the coast and people who are familiar with the coast. The interviews will center around descriptions of places, especially public places like schools and restaurants and parks, that are no longer there. This is not only to preserve the history of places that are gone now, but also to help people who want to remember a place now to remember it more clearly. I`ll listen to the recordings later and make a list for each recording of what places were described. Maybe I`ll separate each recording out into tracks for each place, not sure yet.
At first I was only going to take interviews about Rikuzentakada, but now I think that`s kind of a stupid idea. All areas that were lost are important, so I will take interviews about anywhere I can get, including those about Miyagi and Fukushima.

Of course I don`t intend to go knocking on people`s doors for this. I`m going to start with friends and acquaintances and then hopefully branch out to other people through a system of introduction. I think I will label recordings only with first name, age and hometown, though I will explicitly ask each interviewee what information is OK to use. I will protect private information and figure out how to make a Japanese consent form.

Sometimes I wonder if this would really be a valuable use of time, but I honestly think it`s important to preserve the memories of a place and help people remember. It`s a horrible thing for a city to disappear like some cities did.

If you have any ideas or concerns about a project like that, or know someone who might want to be interviewed, please let me know.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Go after then while they`re weak

We are in Minamisoma, Fukushima, covered in mud. We`re trying to clear the gutter around a person`s house, but it`s filled with tsunami mud and some kind of oil. Worse, some kind of fat-stemmed weeds have been growing in the mud, so we have to pull out the weeds before we start work on shoveling the mud out.

It`s been more than a year since the disaster, but some areas of Minamisoma haven`t been cleaned because they were previously inside the exclusion zone. I check all the frogs to see if they have extra legs, but everyone at least looks healthy.

We`re almost done, and filthy, but still trying to clear out the drainage pipe under the road so water can drain to the gutter on the other side.

While most of us are resting, and a few are scraping away at the openings with shovels and things, a clean-looking van with clean-looking people inside slowly drives by. The painting on the van says they are Christians. (Denomination unknown.)

My volunteer buddies (Japanese) look at the van as it drives away and say to each other "That`s the worst. Go after them while they`re weak."
If you`re wondering what response people in need have to say about the good word, it`s that, if you don`t want to get your shoes dirty and help people first.

The first people I ever invited to volunteer were the LDS missionaries* in Kitakami. I was so proud of myself--I couldn`t wait to be patted on the back for bringing in all those volunteers! Because these were RELIGIOUS guys, so this kind of stuff was right up their alley! I thought. They`d be pouring in every week. Stronger moral compass or something.

But after they said they`d call me back, I never heard from them again.
I know these guys are mostly really young. I know they get orders from their church, probably pretty strict ones, about how to spend their time and what risks are and aren`t acceptable. I know they only get one day off a week. But I was still really surprised and disappointed, because it`s false advertising. What`s the point of being spiritual if you don`t give a damn about other people, or enough of a damn to act?

I just wish some people on religious missions, and self-described Christians in general, would think a little more in depth about what kind of message it sends when a bunch of atheists and agnostics and such are going to help a disaster area and they (the missionaries, or Christians in general) aren`t lifting a finger. I and everyone else I know who is a regular, at least in my area, is not religious, let alone Christian.

You know who actually practices what they preach? Caritas Japan. We`ve worked with Caritas Japan volunteers many times in Kamaishi. They`ve always been very nice and polite and hardworking. Caritas Japan has bases in many disaster-struck cities including Ootsuchi and Kamaishi. They are dedicated to helping long term (read: not just coming in for a week and then going right back home). They don`t force their religion on anyone. In fact, they don`t mention religion at all unless directly asked.
But do you know who knows that Caritas Japan is a Christian organization? Exactly everyone I`ve talked to. Christianity is unusual here, so they know, and they remember. Just like I`m sure they remember those jerks in Minamisoma and I remember the missionaries who wouldn`t do anything.

*I hope nobody is thinking, "Well, it`s just because those Mormons are such-and-such" because while I am not at all fond of the LDS church, there are plenty of churches that waste a lot of time and money that could be used to help people on mission trips that are primarily for evangelism. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Recruiting November 10, 11, 17 (Fukushima)

HANDS taking volunteers so far on November 10/11 and 17th (Fukushima). No news on further dates in October, but as always, we can easily sign you up for Kamaishi (Fri-Sun) or Rikuzentakada (except Mon or Tuesday) if you can make your own way to the volunteer centers!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

In for the long haul

After a year and a half, the adrenaline has worn off. I`m faced with a long, slow, uncertain path that I continue to go down for various reasons. Out of habit. For maintaining friendships. Because I want to help. Because I want to eat ice cream at Toono. Because I still remember what Kamaishi looked like. Because I want to meet the people who live there. 

The more time passes, the more things change. Before we just had to get in the car to shovel the mud and rubble away, whenever we could find the time to go. We had a small nonprofit that had secured funding for rental cars and had staff to lead us at volunteer sites. We had overworked but trustworthy leaders. I assumed those leaders would tell us a month from now, or a year from now, what we needed to do. 

I thought the regulars and the leaders were all united for a common purpose. I thought we would volunteer no matter what the work was, if it helped the coast. I thought I would never miss a weekend.

HANDS was made and and has always been run by people who already have full-time jobs. It was made, I think, because of Kitakami`s location. Kitakami is on the shinkansen line and within driving distance of cities like Rikuzentakata and Kamaishi. The people who started HANDS saw a need for organizations getting a steady flow of volunteers to and from the coastal areas.

The only full-time paid staff member we had stopped working for HANDS last March and moved on to a recovery-related position in Iwate University. One leader from HANDS has basically become part of Kamaishi volunteer center and does not keep in touch with many of the regular volunteers. The other leader continues to help register us with the volunteer centers. Instead of a funded rental car driven by staff members, the volunteers use personal cars and everyone chips in for gas money. 

Kamaishi volunteer center has steady work on the weekends, but it`s sometimes not as physical as we`re used to. When HANDS started, all the work was back-breakingly hard and exhausting, and I think we all learned to enjoy that kind of work as an outlet for physical strength and aggression. We certainly have a running gag about everybody in HANDS being a masochist. 

For almost 6 months, we`ve been running on the steam of a handful of drivers who can still take their weekends off despite working full time and having families. We started off going every weekend per month, but have now transitioned to maybe two to three weekends per month. There`s been talk of limiting trips to when volunteering is the kind of work we want to do (read: physical), and considering the workload these drivers have been put under, I don`t have room to disagree. 

We run off the masochism of middle-aged men and the tolerance of their wives and families. We run off ice cream and sadness and beer parties and friendship. We are no longer a nonprofit, we`re just a volunteer group. 

I miss weekends sometimes. This weekend, I`m going to an amusement park and to an onsen, and I`m going to finish the book I`ve been reading. I have a boyfriend and a full time job and my best friend is going to leave Japan for good come Christmastime. I want to spend time with the people I love, and relax and do my laundry. Then next weekend, I want to volunteer. If you want, you can come too. If there are no drivers, you can easily take the train. 

There are still almost 330,000 people in temporary housing. People ask me if there are still a lot of people in temporary housing, or if everything is OK by now. Many people in inland Japan ignore the situation on the coast, foreigners and Japanese alike. People in the US this Christmas probably won`t mention the tsunami at all. 

I am uninterested in your guilt and know hinging my self worth on your enthusiasm to help is a stupid idea. I only wish you wouldn`t ask me if everything is OK now, like you`re idly asking if I finally got that wart removed. Use your imagination, or use Google. 

Last week, I volunteered for the 77th time. I`m a bad blog writer and I never update, and this next weekend I`m going to a slacker, but please don`t confuse that with giving up. I`m going to muddle around volunteering when I can and keep working toward a way to help full-time. I still go between 2 and 4 times a month, and I still help register people who want to volunteer with us. 
But tomorrow: I ride roller coasters.

Sunday, September 30, 2012



·      仮設住宅の現状はどか、どのよに変わってきたか

·      回答者は震災の時詳しくどこにいたか、そしてその後どう行動したのか

·      収入源と仕事探しの優先性

·      将来のお住まいの計画大槌の町内、町外に住むか、高台へ移転する予定があるかなど

·      大槌町と自分自身の復興の程度








町が欲しいです 病院とか、店とか。」


















前より改善したか、悪化したか 今は前より悪くなったと思います。去年は危機状態で生きることに精一杯でした。今はも話す相手がいなくて、よく眠れないです。前は仕事をしていましたが高血圧のため休息しています。」













友達で盛岡とか遠野とかに住むようになって、「遠野に住めば? 一緒に盛岡に来て!」と誘われますが、遠野に住みたくないです。盛岡に住みたくないです。大槌に住みたい。」

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Survey: Ootsuchi

    A few weeks ago, I participated in a four-day survey for temporary housing residents in Ootsuchi, Iwate. The survey is in its second year out of three years, and asks a range of questions.

*How the living conditions in temporary housing are now and how have they changed
*Details about where the respondent was during the disaster, and what their movements were afterward
*Their income sources and what their priorities are for finding a job
*Their plans for housing in the future
*Their assessment of their own recovery and the recovery of Ootsuchi

    Last year, a total of about 1300 residents from 40-something temporary housing units took the survey. The majority were in their 50s to 70s, and a third were on retirement.

    I participated in the survey as mostly a listener, paired up with a nice college student named Tomite-san. Tomite-san would ask the questions, and I would hold up an enlarged print-out for multiple choice questions as needed. All I had to do (mostly) was just focus on listening and taking notes, so I really owe a lot to Tomite-san’s patience in letting me tag along.

Beautiful, Inconvenient Location
    I was relieved to see that the temporary housing units were in beautiful areas. Out in the country, surrounded by trees and fields and mountains. Often I could hear birds singing, or see little tree frogs crawling around. Some of residents themselves said they were in a nice area.

Sometimes I go out at night and look at the stars. It’s nice here, you can hear bush warblers and pheasants calling.

Father here goes out at night to look for fireflies. They come out here at night.

    The problem was, many of these beautiful areas were remote. They were far away from the highway, away from shops, and most often at the end of a really long, narrow driveway branching off from a regular road. It was inconvenient if you had a car, and even worse if you had no license. Some units had shops, but that depended on the unit.

Transportation is inconvenient, and there’s no post office nearby. It takes ten minutes to get to the post office. I want more stores nearby.

I want a city. Hospitals, stores.

The dentist around here is so crowded. I had to wait 3 hours to be seen.

There are no shops nearby, I’d like some shops. There are some mobile shops that do come around.
It’s hard to go inland by car in winter. I’d like the train to come back.
Luck of the Draw
    It seemed like everything depended on the unit. Many people we talked to in different units had gotten bath temperature controllers, so they could run a bath earlier in the day and it would still be hot for other family members later. But other things, like stores, and number of rooms, and whether there was a storage unit, depended on the area. One temporary housing unit had a garden. Another had some kind of playground.  Some units were having trouble with flooding, while others had no trouble at all.

I can’t live here long. I’m worried about floods. It’s not high enough ground here, and the drainage is bad.

I’m worried about rain and flooding in this area. During the big rains we had recently, I heard from other residents that parts of their house were flooded.

We have storage units installed here and a temperature regulator for our baths.

They say we’re going to get storage sheds, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen.

    The things that everyone seemed to agree on about the housing units is: that they were hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and cramped. There wasn’t enough space to put things, and there weren’t enough rooms.
Good Neighbors, Weakened Community Ties
    Most people had nothing but nice things to say about their neighbors. Some people would get together with neighbors for sewing circles and for potlucks. The little old ladies we talked to, especially, had very positive things to say about the coffee/tea salons set up by volunteers so people can have a place to chat.
    Two people even said that the disaster had had a positive effect on people: that before, people hadn’t greeted each, but now everyone greets each other. Everyone is equal now.
    On the other hand, everyone we talked to agreed that the bonds with people in their community had been weakened after the disaster. One woman explained that there was an older lady in her neighborhood that had taken care of her children, and both she and her children wanted to contact her, but couldn’t because of privacy rules. They could know if the woman was alive, but not her location or address.

Grain of Salt
    Sometimes residents were told conflicting things about what they could or couldn’t do. Measures to make things more convenient or fair sometimes worked out, but sometimes didn’t. Reading the fill in the blank responses from last year’s survey, some respondents had already stayed in shelters where supplies weren’t distributed fairly. The people in charge of supplies would take what they wanted for themselves, and give the rest to everyone else. 
    I could hear in  the residents’ voices that they were taking everything they heard with a grain of salt. “They say they’re going to give us this, but who knows?” “This is what I want, but will that ever happen? While I’m still alive?” 

We wanted drawers, because if you don’t have drawers there’s not enough space to put things, but they said we couldn’t have drawers. Then, they said we could have drawers, but by that time my husband and I were both working and we were too tired to put them in!

They said, you can build your home in its original spot. Then they said, you can build there if you make the land higher. Then they canceled and said we couldn’t build there at all again.

They built a small roof so we could dry our laundry in the back, but it’s too short! So it’s kind of meaningless.

There was a problem with parking. Residents had their own parking spot, but then new residents came in and used reserved spots because there was no other place to park. It’s been sorted out now.

“Everyone Has Lost Someone”
    The survey from last year had already asked respondents if they had lost a family member, and more than a quarter had responded that yes, someone was dead or missing. More than 10% said they had been injured, and almost 40% said they’d experienced psychological damage and couldn't live their lives like they used to.
    This year’s survey didn’t repeat the question, but many people said to us they had lost someone. Siblings, aunts and uncles, a little niece or nephew, cousins, parents. One woman we talked to said she had lost her husband. 

My friends are gone. They were all washed away, and I lost a son.

Everyone around here (temporary housing unit) has lost someone.

Is it better now or then? It’s worse now. Last year I was in emergency mode. Now, I have no one to talk to, and I can’t sleep…I had work but I’m resting now due to high blood pressure.

Sometimes my eyes snap open in the middle of the night.

    The most overwhelming impression I got overall from the survey was longing. Longing for a real house, for friends and family, and for Ootsuchi.
    Many people we talked to had lived in Ootsuchi their whole lives, or since they got married.
The older people, who live on retirement, didn’t have the income to take on loans for a house, so they had to move into public housing, but again, when was that going to happen? Were they still going to be alive when it happened? 

I don’t know where anything is in Ootsuchi anymore. It’s all been torn down. You can tell by seeing tiles or something, “Oh, OK, that’s where it was.”

I’d just newly decorated my place and it was washed away.

I’d like a house! All the places here look the same. You mistake someone else’s place for your place! Though that may have to do with my age, too.

    It seemed like, as a general rule, a two person household would get two rooms, and a three person household would get three rooms, but that didn’t leave enough room for children and grandchildren to stay during the holidays, or just when they wanted to come and visit. One family we talked to said that when their daughter came to visit, the father slept in the car outside because there was no room for her to stay.

I live alone, but I just happened to be assigned to this housing unit and get two rooms. That’s nice, so my daughter can stay here.

There’s no place for our children to stay, so we just use phone and email to keep in touch.
    Listening to these people talk about their houses and their families and their city, I thought about my own life. How exciting it is to have my own apartment and my own things, to have friends and a community. To start to build a life with someone.
    How lonely it is living so far away from my family, but how comforting it is to go back for the holidays. Sit on our old couch, and pet the old cat and grab something from the refrigerator. Take a stroll through Silverton, get a cup of coffee and maybe a bagel, look at the churches and the murals.
What if I couldn’t have that anymore?
Many people want to come back.

I want us to have matsuris again. We can get strength from matsuris, and the kids come back.

I’d say my recovery is 0-20%, and Ootsuchi’s recovery is 0-20%. I love Ootsuchi.

I don’t know how much Ootsuchi will even recover.

Some of my friends have moved to Morioka, or to Toono. They tell me, “Come to Toono! Why don’t you like in Morioka!” 
I don’t want to live in Toono. I don’t want to live in Morioka. I want to stay in Ootsuchi.