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The journey from donation to voucher to survivor in Japan

Japan, July 28, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shelter for tsunami-displaced families in a local school gymnasium. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Putting vouchers for the Sun-Lia department store into envelopes for distribution to tsunami survivors. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A volunteer helps move household supplies into temporary housing for tsunami survivors. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

If you were a resident of Ofunato City on March 11 when the tsunami hit, and if you were one of the almost 20 percent of the inhabitants who lost your home, you probably moved into an evacuation center. You lived in a high school gymnasium or community center with a couple of hundred of other people.

At first it was very disorganized, and very cold. Then families started to delimit their living spaces with unfolded cardboard boxes or folding chairs. The donations started to come in, hot meals made and distributed every day, piles of clothes to pick through. A routine formed; folding up your futon every morning, spreading it again every night.

During the day, maybe you went back to look at the ruins where your house used to be.

If you weren’t on the northeast coast of Japan on that day, but decided to support the survivors by sending money, some of that money might have gone to the Mercy Corps/Peace Winds Japan voucher project. A tiny percentage could have gone towards paying the salaries and costs of the staff who did the initial assessment, figuring out whether local shops had enough capacity to support a voucher project, whether the printing and distribution would be possible. Some could have gone towards the time of the Peace Winds Touhoku team leader, Binnaka, when he went to local government offices to explain the project and convince government officials unused to working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to collaborate with Peace Winds by sharing information.

Some of that donation could have gone to the salary of a Peace Winds staff named Yohei, who until the tsunami was living in a hut in what is now the independent country of South Sudan. After being called back to Japan, he worked on setting up the system for the voucher project, meeting with representatives of stores to request their cooperation, deciding how the distributions would work.

Peace Winds bought the vouchers from the Chamber of Commerce, paying for the printing costs. The Chamber of Commerce needs the money; they lost their offices, equipment and data in the tsunami, and are now trying to support their members from a rented space in one of the only department stores left in town. Yohei convinces his colleagues to join him in that space for hours on end, counting and double-checking the packets of vouchers to make sure everyone gets the right amount.

Assisting him in this was a young man named Takeshi. When the massive earthquake hit, he was just finishing up his college studies in Sendai, without knowing exactly what he would do next. After the disaster he started working as a driver for Peace Winds, since he knew the area and the roads but — since he is smart and hardworking — he was quickly moved to the program team. Now he works long days printing out receipts for each family with the correct number of vouchers on them, writing letters informing recipients about how to pick up their packets, and checking names at distributions.

If you were one of the displaced people in the evacuation centers, by this time you might be moving out into temporary housing. Maybe you didn’t make it into the first few lotteries for places; or maybe you didn’t put your name in, preferring to give more chances to the elderly, or families with small children. Maybe, despite the lack of available housing, you were able to find an apartment on your own, and take part in a program through which the government pays your rent for two years.

When you move into the apartment, you find it not empty, but crowded with a futon for each family member, some bowls and chopsticks, a plastic container with towels and toilet paper and other basic goods, all of which were lugged up the five flights of stairs by Peace Winds staff or maybe volunteers. It means that — instead of arriving in an empty apartment after four months living in a high school gym — you are arriving in a place where you can at least sleep in comfort.

Still, though, you lost everything with your house. You have no clothes other than what you picked out of the donation bin. You likely have no books, notebooks, shoes, cooking supplies, cameras, boxes, slippers, make-up, pens, games, or sunglasses. And so when you get one of Takeshi’s letters in the mail, inviting you to come pick up your voucher worth US$120 of goods in almost any of the shops that are still left in town, you take careful note of the place and date.

You go to the department store, wandering up past the grocery store, the bakery, the small rest areas with massage chairs (which cost 10 yen — about 12 U.S. cents — per minute) and vending machines, the clothing displays and handbags, and find the temporary Chamber of Commerce office. You are greeted and registered by a volunteer who drove up from Niigata Prefecture to help out, registered at the volunteer center, and was given this task when Peace Winds requested some help for the distribution. Then a foreigner hands you an envelope with a couple of carefully practiced phrases, and you sign your name to the receipt.

After that, you make your way back out into the stores to buy something you need — or maybe something you want.