A very large surprise party

Japan, May 23, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Peace Winds staff move new household and personal supplies into temporary houses that tsunami-displaced families will soon call home. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

It was my first time in Kamaishi, a three-hour drive north from the city of Ichinoseki where the Peace Winds Japan team is based. After seeing a familiar landscape of destruction every day in Rikuzentakata and Ofunato, it was a fresh shock to see the same wreckage in a slightly different topography. Somehow I had been able to focus only on the cities I was seeing, but Kamaishi reminded me that the utter desolation extends up and down the coast, far beyond the places I’ve been, repeating the pattern of loss and courage.

Kamaishi is overlooked by a giant statue of Kannon, shining chalk-white on a rocky point above the bay. There was a strong smell of rotting fish, from the processing plants and factories that stopped work, abruptly, two months ago.

We were in Kamaishi to help out with a distribution of basic goods into temporary houses. At the site of the houses — rows of identical prefab rectangles with corrugated roofs — we met up with the trucks carrying the goods and with five or six volunteers who had come to help out. The truck drivers opened up the back and started unloading boxes. I pulled on the white cotton gloves I’d been given and we started sorting.

Each household would receive a set of items: towels, toilet paper, a rod for drying clothing from the hooks provided in the rear of the apartments. Then each individual within the household would get a futon, the sheets for the futon, and a set of bowls and chopsticks. After the representative from the town hall had unlocked all the apartments, we scampered up and down the rows with our burdens, dropping a futon into an apartment, running back for another. The Peace Winds staff member managing the distribution, Kazu, checked his list to make sure we put the correct number of individual items for each household.

With more than 200 deliveries to make, we were working quickly, but even so I took quick looks around the empty apartments. They had one, two, or three rooms, depending on the size of the family, as well as a kitchen and a bathroom with a deep Japanese tub. The floors were covered with a thin rug and a deep closet was set into the wall of one of the rooms. There were curtains hanging from the windows, and that new house smell over everything.

I started to imagine the people opening the doors and stepping into the apartments for the first time, after two months of living in a high school gymnasium with hundreds of people, or staying uncomfortably in the house of relatives. The temporary shelters are assigned by lottery, and most people don’t find out they have won until a day or two before they get the keys. They have no idea what the apartment looks like or what goods are provided. Trying to stack the bowls and packets of futon sheets with care as we rushed in and out of dozens of houses, I started to feel a little Santa Clausy, or like an event planner for a very large surprise party.

While handing each other boxes and bags, I talked a little with the volunteers. They came from distant prefectures of Japan, like Toyama and Fukuoka. Unlike me, they weren’t receiving a salary for being there; they had taken holiday from work or closed their businesses for a week.

Unlike me, their travel and hotel weren’t paid; one of the men I talked to told me he was sleeping in his car, although he didn’t seem unhappy about it. He had driven up from Toyama alone and registered at the town volunteer center, and when Peace Winds asked for help with the distribution they told him where to go. Without thanks or payment, in most cases without even meeting the people he was helping, he was spending a week of his time lugging boxes or cleaning up garbage, and then he would get back in his car and drive back to his life.

When we had finished the distribution we gathered in a circle and bowed, each of us murmuring, “thank you for your effort!” Then we separated quickly into our vehicles to go on to the next task.