Part 3: The Festival / Part 4: Oyster Farming / Part 5: Camp Life
Conditions in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture were both better and worse than I expected. The city has, in many ways, been the symbolic focus point for volunteer groups and the results are obvious. I had seen the photographs from March, and I couldn’t have predicted how far the area would come since then. Even volunteers who went a month ago expressed surprise at how successful the clean-up around the station had been.
But wake-up calls are common. You could be enjoying yakitori at a festival and suddenly notice that the car park across the road is flooding. Or sleeping after a rewarding day at an oyster farm with your fellow team members, when you’re woken up by a shindo level four earthquake and you worry about the fishermen you worked alongside that day. Or eating ice cream outside a workshop in a tiny fishing village, surrounded by scenic pine trees and tsunami wreckage.
I don’t think I could prepare you for volunteer work in Ishinomaki. but I’m going to try.
I brought eleven sachets of Pocari Sweat to mix with water in my Thermos for rehydration during the day. Eleven totally unnecessary sachets. Not even my massive roll of duct tape was needed. After consultation with people who had been previously, I’d brought waterproof trousers and jacket, insoles for boots and two types of gloves. I wore the jacket and trousers, if only because I could, but the rest went unused.
Circumstances really did change every week and my advisers had been the very same people who’d been told to bring individually-wrapped food for every meal. We were provided with bentos for lunch and dinner.
The lunch bentos were always the same. Two onigiri from a random selection of konbu, katsuobushi and umeboshi and a piece of fried chicken. Dinner was a large bento consisting of meat or fish, a few things seemingly chosen at random (shumai, spaghetti, sweetened lima beans) and a portion of rice.
So that’s the food. How about the portable toilets? My first experience was of using them in the dark, something I would never do again. I didn’t even find the “foot pedal” (located at knee height) on the first attempt. Later expeditions would see me roll up both trouser legs and turn on my head-mounted torch before entering the tiny cabin. On one memorable morning, I almost threw up from the smell. And yet, not bad considering where we were. Previous volunteers have worse tales.
We were busy with the festival on the first few nights, so it took us a while to find the Co-op, located about 25 minutes away from the camp at Senshu University. Inside, it didn’t look any different from a supermarket in Tokyo. There were snacks which I bought to share with everyone during the day and there were toilets too. Once the festival was over and the curfew had returned to eight o’clock, we found ourselves going pretty much every evening.
Most of us were staying for eight days, so we had to wash. For that, we went to an onsen (hot spring), where you have to get naked in front of a room full of people if you want to get clean. My situation was probably a bit unusual as I’m transgender, but I was too far gone to care by that point. Although I felt uneasy, I stripped off like everyone else. That was my approach to living in close quarters in a tent for over a week — I can deal with it and I can do it. And I did.
One of the most endearing aspects of camp life was our morning routine. Before Radio Taisou, we sang the Anpanman theme song [YouTube link]. The first time we sang it (on the second day), it seemed inspiring but benign. By the third day, volunteers could be caught secretly humming it. After that, people would try singing anything to get it out of their heads, all to no avail. It’s stuck there forever, guys.
You probably want to do this right now. Believe me, it’s an experience that will stay with you your entire life and help a community in need. If you’re confident about your Japanese, you can join the short-term volunteer teams. Personally, I wanted English help should there be an emergency (I imagined there would be many — there weren’t) and I joined one of the international teams. These consist of a number of English speakers, five in our case, and one bilingual team leader. The downside was that the short-term option wasn’t available to me and I needed to stay the full eight days.
I hope that Japanese companies, particularly those based in Tokyo, start realising the benefit to their business in allowing workers time to volunteer up north. While we were there, we also worked alongside teams from Toyota and Nomura, as well as school teachers. They’ve made a wise choice and I hope that dispatch companies (hakengaisha) who employ foreigners like me will follow their lead.
Anyway, you want to do all this too, right? Start here, with Peace Boat.