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!
One of the coolest Japanese instruments has got to be the taiko drum. Just watching a group of taiko players leaping around hitting drums in unison is an amazing experience in and of itself, but some of our local Fukushima JETs have joined taiko groups and have performed it themselves!
The term “taiko” in Japanese refers to all types of drum, and the term “wadaiko” specifies the traditional Japanese style of drum. They can range in size from the shimedaiko (about the diameter of a large dinner plate) to the huge festival o-daiko whose face alone can be almost as tall as the players themselves! Accompanying the drums are a variety of other instruments, such as small gongs called “atarigane,” and bamboo flues called “shinobue” or “takebue.” The performers’ voices themselves can be part of the song, chanting or yelling to add to the rhythm, or signalling a change in the song.
Diana Truong, a fourth-year JET in Showa-mura, Aizu, has been playing taiko for almost four years. “During my first year, I heard about a local taiko group in one of the towns that I teach at. I was invited to join the group by one of the local families.” The taiko group members include some of her elementary and junior high school teachers and students. “I really enjoyed spending time with my students and some of their parents outside of class! It is also a good stress reliever,” she jokes.
Fifth-year Shirakawa JET Emma Gibson joined her taiko group in a different way. “I told my BOE kachou when I first arrived in Japan that I wanted to learn something traditional while I was here. I was thinking ikebana. He suggested taiko because his friend was the kaichou of a local team. I had no idea what it was… so I said yes.” She has been playing with this group for almost five years now! “I love my team members. After such a long time you get very close. I also love that I’ve been able to travel and perform. I’ve performed in Okinawa, Ishikawa, Saitama, Kanagawa, Yamagata… and all over Fukushima.”
Playing taiko involves a lot of time and commitment, to both practices and performances. It is impossible to play taiko casually without giving it your full effort. “Once I’d proven that I was serious, the senpai accepted me and taught me. It took a long time to get that acceptance, but now my senpai are like my Japanese family,” Emma says.
Of course, in the beginning you will be at the bottom of the totem pole. Emma explains, “I’ve learnt a lot about status. When you start you are at the end of the line. You play in the back corner and clean the floors after practice. But slowly over time you move towards the centre of the stage and someone else has to wipe the sweat off the floors. And eventually (for me, after four years) you finally get to play the solos and really become an essential part of the team. It’s a good feeling when you get to that stage.”
And of course the taiko songs themselves can be a challenge. Diana says, “It can be difficult playing your part simultaneously with completely different rhythms being played by the others. It’s easy to get lost! Also remembering so many different pieces!”
Despite these challenges, Diana believes that taiko is a great representation of Japanese culture. “The beating of the drums represent the sounds of the Japanese in its own unique way. Often times, the pieces are reflective of the nature and culture of Japan. When you hear the songs, you can picture a story from the mixtures of melodies produced by the drums, flutes, cymbals, and the shouts of the performers.”
Emma agrees, “Our main performance piece is called Natsu and is about the samurai horse races. You can hear the thundering of hooves and the rising tension as we play.” You can hear this piece at this year’s Soma Nomaoi Festival in Minami Souma City on July 26th, Saturday night, 9pm with the fireworks. “We are/were the local team from that area and it’s the first time we’ll be back at the festival since the Great Earthquake. I’d love to see everyone there!” For more information about this festival, see the link here: https://www.facebook.com/events/516502978476094/
Diana has this advice for JETs: “If you’re interested in experiencing new things, I definitely recommend trying out taiko. You will easily fall in love with the rhythmic beats. If you are not sure where you can find a taiko group, ask your predecessors, talk to the locals and teachers (especially at enkai), go to festivals and keep an eye out for local groups and ask them about it. Once you become a member, just keep beating and enjoy the sounds of the drums.”
By Kate O’Berg
“It’s been over three years and there are people that still need our help. We will help them until they don’t need us.” That is what’s running through the mind of August Hergesheimer, founder and chairperson of The Save Minamisoma Project. August, a Tokyo business man, jumped into action shortly after hearing that there were people literally starving in the Minamisoma area after the disaster. While other organizations were afraid to come close to the “zone”, August quickly gathered funds and located volunteers. He bought enough food for 1,000 people and led his team to Minamisoma. He didn’t expect that there would be thousands more people needing his help.
Even three years on, the same method of gathering funds, volunteers and donations is used, because the people here still need the assistance. It may not be for the same reasons as in the past, but it is still important and relevant. Volunteers and donations are still needed. The Save Minamisoma Project has been a true mental staple in the temporary communities and will continue to play a role for years to come.
On delivery day, locals fill the air with a buzz of excitement as the caravan of volunteers and delivery trucks approach the temporary housing units. Some locals pick out volunteers by name, others by the smile on their faces. As the volunteers set up the tables and unload wheel barrels to prep for the delivery, locals line up. Children run about, excited for their package of goodies brought by volunteers. That’s when the fun starts. When you’re standing in line, with wheel barrel in hand and a local standing beside you, you’ll feel an array of emotions. Every person is different, but I would say there’s a sense of gratitude between both the volunteer and the person receiving the donation. Some people who receive the donations are silent, guilt stricken that they’re receiving assistance, but there are many who’re grateful and look forward to sharing their stories. This brings to light that it’s not only food they need now, it’s the mental care that this project provides.
People don’t like to feel forgotten. It’s one of the worst feelings one can go through, but that’s exactly what locals living in temporary homes go through daily. With the Save Minamisoma Project, our foremost aim is to not let people feel forgotten. The food is just a tool for bringing people out of their cramped homes and engaging in conversation. More than ever, conversation and a sense of camaraderie are needed here in Minamisoma. Volunteers are still needed for our biweekly deliveries. If you want to know more, please check out their facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/113980158685755/ ) or website: www.saveminamisoma.org. The next delivery is 7/20. Come out and get involved!