By Ben Brandau
In the early morning hours of June 21, 2014, some Fukushima JETS and other members of the international community gathered together in the coastal town of Odaka with the intent to help out those whose lives were irrevocably affected by the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Enabled by a Facebook group and led by Minamisoma resident, Kate O’berg, the volunteers gathered from all reaches of the prefecture. They came with work clothing, gloves,and masks demonstrating that they were ready to get down and dirty in order to help restore and reclaim some of what was ruined in the Tohoku disaster. These thirteen Fuku-strong volunteers worked tirelessly to give help to the prefecture they have been living in.
Approximately 700 kilometers of Japan’s coastline was affected the tsunami. The recovery process in Okada has been particularly arduous and in need of assistance because it lies within the prior exclusion zone of the Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Though the town is now open to the public, many residents have left and volunteer workers usually opt to help in areas further away from the plant. Three years have passed, but there is still a great need to clean up many areas in Odaka and along the Fukushima coast. Knowing there is a job to be done, these outstanding volunteers were eager to offer their time, talent, and muscles.
The day began near Haranomachi Station in the parking lot of a convenience store. Some of the volunteers had traveled hours to meet up with the group and so they were keen for their morning coffee which helped fuel the efforts to load up equipment and supplies for the workday that lay ahead. It was a gray morning with threatening skies, but the cloud cover provided the welcomed benefit of cooler temperatures for the hard labor that was to come. Everyone packed into the cars and drove out to the Odaka volunteer center where they were briefed about the day’s activities and where they met up with other groups of helpers. Tools, boots, and bright green penny shirts were dispensed to each worker. After signing in and prepping up, the details of the projects were meticulously explained in Japanese and enhanced by somewhat perplexing, but nevertheless entertaining visual assists. The chalkboard-drawn “battle plan” maps resembled surrealistic art or perhaps complex game strategies. Overall, the mood was cheerful and the energy high to begin the day’s mission!
The first assignment proved to be highly satisfying since it involved clearing out nearly all the contents of two abandoned family homes. These houses had been occupied by a family of four, including a sweet elderly woman who had hoped to return to the town where she had spent her entire life. The years and the ensuing mold had ruined what was left in the homes and so everything needed to be removed. Surely a daunting and depressing task for the family to do alone, but the thirteen volunteers formed lines and hustled to remove the remains out quickly and efficiently. Then came the task of the gomi-bunbetsu, where our crew bundled, bagged, and bound the trash to be made ready for recycling and trash crews to pick up. The family was both thrilled and impressed by the speed and thoroughness of the group who were able to finish their hard and hot labor by 12:30: just in time for a well-deserved lunch break!
For those who did not bring along their own meals, Lawson had provided an ultra-convini on wheels truck. Between mouthfuls, volunteers chatted about the next task at hand. This time they would join with other Japanese volunteers to reclaim property taken over by the undeterred growth of weeds and such. Armed with weed-wackers, hedge trimmers and rakes the group powered through the mess of what was once a well-maintained estate. It proved to be sweaty, grassy, grueling work. Some Insects got their share of blood that day, Bite marks were left, and after the continuous swinging of their rattling weed-wackers and pulling of rakes, the members had impressive bulging forearms. Just as the days battle was coming to an end, the sky opened up and poured down its content as if the rain were to say, “Otsukaresama” to the volunteers.
Everyone returned to the base station to wash down dirty tools and boots and to get debriefed about the next day’s planned events. The operation leader expressed appreciation to all who had come and worked so hard. He wanted us to know that he would like to forget about the disaster and the loss to his town. For him, it was important that people should not feed into the morbid interests of the disaster by taking pictures and gawking. He wanted to move on from the suffering and sadness as quickly as possible.
I would like to think that through the small gestures of help we offered that day, we gave some measure of hope and comfort to replace what was lost on March 11, 2011. I would like to think that bad memories can be overcome by good memories of kindness and sacrifice and that people can come together to help those in need to heal the hurting. Those good memories are the ones which hopefully remain the strongest in the minds of those who experienced the disaster, not only the victims, but also for the volunteers as well. The work isn’t always glorious, but through volunteering and working together with everyone we are all able to move forward together. I think we all shared a feeling of satisfaction with the day, which was hopefully accented by evenings trip to an onsen for relaxation. Good work to all those who have volunteered in any facet of the Fukushima rehabilitation effort!
If you feel you would like to volunteer also there is still plenty of work to be done! If you would like to volunteer in Odaka, you can contact the volunteer center at 0244-26-8934. Be on the look out for more organized trips coming up!