Going back to my tsunami-hit homeland

Japan, January 23, 2012

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  • Going back to my tsunami-hit homeland
  • 2.jpg
    Many buildings in Rikuzentakata were completely destroyed by the tsunami. Photo: Chie Togo/Mercy Corps Photo: 2.jpg
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    Even lamposts were bent to 90 degrees, and it was plain to see where the raging water had torn through buildings. Photo: Chie Togo/Mercy Corps Photo: 1.jpg

When the earthquake and tsunami hit my homeland last March, I was devastated. Though it had been twenty years since I left Japan to move to the US, I knew I had to go back and help.

Ordinarily I work for Mercy Corps Northwest, the part of Mercy Corps that helps people in Oregon and Washington here in the US to increase their economic self-sufficiency and integrate with the community. But I heard about the work the Mercy Corps and our partner Peace Winds Japan were doing to support communities recovering from the tsunami, and asked if I could spend my vacation helping. It took a while to arrange, but eventually late last year I finally managed to make it out to the northeastern region of Tohoku to spend a week with the teams there.

When I arrived at the station in Ichinoseki, I was met by falling snow and bitter cold temperatures. I worried not only about the week-long volunteer stint that lay before me, but what impact the freezing temperatures would have on our efforts. But when I made it to the office and saw how hard everyone was working and how welcome they made me, I knew everything would be okay.

At first I spent some time helping in the office in Ichinoseki, helping to translate from Japanese to English. Then I travelled with the team to Kesennuma, a coastal town decimated by the tsunami. As we got off the train, the station itself looked like nothing had happened. But beyond it was a different story. In fact, it was worse than anything I’d ever seen. As we got closer to the seafront there were destroyed buildings, wreckage and debris as far as I could see. Every streetlight was bent at a 90-degree angle. I could see where the tsunami ripped through the insides of all the buildings. It looked like a huge bomb had been dropped just days before.

Before I returned to Japan, I read media accounts admiring how quickly communities there were recovering. But I learned firsthand that some areas haven’t even got the basic functions of a town back in place.

At an elementary school in Rikuzentakata, we saw a schoolyard filled with prefab units temporarily housing people who had lost their homes. Mercy Corps’ partner organization, Peace Winds Japan, had distributed space heaters to each family living there and we were checking that everything was working as planned. A grandmother in one unit invited us in to chat. She offered us tea and homemade pickles, and told us how she’d lost her home, friends and community, but that she felt so fortunate that she survived at all.

Mercy Corps and Peace Winds have been working hard in places like Rikuzentakata to help local people recover. I saw for myself the work that’s being done: providing people who have lost their homes with much needed supplies and vouchers to buy groceries; helping young children play and get back a sense of normality with arts and crafts; supporting mobile shops to reach communities who have none of their own left; and helping to reopen fish markets to keep the local economy going.

It’s been ten months since the disaster, and to outsiders it may seem that life in the areas affected has stabilized. But even with our help, grandparents, parents, children and the whole community are still suffering and struggling. Most of them have been forced to change their lifestyles and expectations and nothing is the same as when the earthquake hit. But the survivors are all being very patient and dealing with issues one day at a time.

I would like to thank the wonderful staff in Tohoku for accepting me as a volunteer for the week and making me feel like I was a part of the team. There’s a lot still to be done, but I have never been so proud of being a Japanese citizen — and a part of Mercy Corps — as I was during this visit.