Sunday, July 17, 2011

Volunteering with Peaceboat in Ishinomaki

As you have all worked out by now, jules and I just spent a week volunteering with Peaceboat to help with post-tsunami recovery in Ishinomaki. Why Peaceboat? Well, basically because we found out that they were accepting non-Japanese speakers, grouping them into "international teams" and assigning bilingual volunteers as interpreters. When we first considered going up there some time ago, I worried that we might be more of a burden than benefit (especially when resources were scarce), but Peaceboat are now talking of a steep drop-off of volunteer numbers and seemed happy to accept us. Due to this effort to enable those of us who are not so confident of our Japanese language skills, about 10% of the Peaceboat volunteers are currently non-Japanese. For the week we were there, there were about 15 of us, representing about 10 different nationalities, mostly resident in Japan but several were actually visiting from overseas. It was interesting to meet such a diverse set of people with a wide range of experiences and motivations.

Our employer JAMSTEC also offered all staff up to 20 days of special volunteer leave in the aftermath of the tsunami, which is incredibly generous of them and for which we are very grateful. So we went to an orientation session in Tokyo, signed up for a week and got on the Friday night bus wondering what we were letting ourselves in for...

Our destination was the de facto volunteer campsite at Ishinomaki Senshuu University on the edge of Ishinomaki. The town suffered a huge amount of damage - some say it was the worst hit area of all, with several thousand dead or missing.

However, the inland suburbs were not reached by the tsunami, and although there is an apparently unlimited amount of work to be done, at least the process of rebuilding is getting underway. The surrounding coastal fishing villages, on the other hand, were virtually annihilated and many areas have barely started any recovery at all. Indeed it's not clear if some of them will ever be rebuilt. We spent most of the week on the Oshika Peninsula which juts out into the Pacific ocean, "up" the coast but in fact to the SE of Ishinomaki. Here's a Peaceboat article about this area.

A typical day started with a rendition of the Anpanman March followed by Radio Taisou in the blazing sun. The Japanese actually seemed to think this was a fairly normal way to start the day, which I suppose it is if you've done it every day from age 6 onwards. We then got bussed out to our location for the day, which generally took an hour or so each way. We only actually worked for about 4h per day, 10-12am and then 1-3pm, sometimes even less, and even in those short sessions usually had a break or two. However it was pretty hard manual labour, especially when we were stuck in full sun. It felt a bit inefficient at times, but on the other hand, I think we were all pretty tired by the end of the week. Also, 15-60 or more people working in a single area can make a really big impact in a short space of time. But there's so much to be done...

Day 1: Saturday
The bus journey was surprisingly bearable

and we arrived at the volunteer campsite at ISU by about 7.

Much of the morning was spent sitting around in the hot sun, being read all the orientation instructions again (and again). Eventually we dumped our stuff in the tents and set off in a minibus to the small village of Ogatsu. The area looked like a deserted, desolate, bomb site.

There were only about three concrete municipal buildings standing, the city office, a school and the hospital. The rest, rubble.

Our task was to clear debris out of a stretch of stream and it was very pleasant to be able to keep cool splashing about in the water.

Day 2: Sunday
This turned out to be our only day working in Ishinomaki itself. We were tasked with the dreaded ditch-digging, shovelling mud out of the "sokkou" drains that run alongside all the roads. Lifting the large covering slabs, shovelling wet mud into sandbags and carting them around in full sun was hot work, but we'd been promised a trip to the local onsen after work so didn't mind working up a sweat. However, we hadn't been working long when a small earthquake (I was sitting and felt it, but some others didn't even notice) was followed by a tsunami warning so we downed tools and walked up the nearest hill. A quick check on the internet revealed that there hadn't really been an official warning as such, just an advisory that a 50cm tsunami was possible, and we weren't even close to the shore. Time passed, the wave reached the coast and was measured at 10cm...and more time passed...and after another hour, the warning was lifted just as a junior foreign minister from the UK arrived with the Ambassador on a tour of the area. So jules and I spent some time talking with them, and it was lunchtime by the time we were ready to start work again! We got quite a lot done in the afternoon but still seemed to have wasted much of the day.

And then the onsen trip was cancelled, as it was really planned for Monday all along and the organiser had got her days mixed up...

Day 3: Monday
Back on the Oshika peninsula today and indeed for the rest of the week, in the oyster-farming community discussed in the Peaceboat article (though according to the google map, we were in the area a little further along the coast to the west called Sutachiyashiki). Today we were split along gender lines, as apparently there was special wimmin's work to be done. This consisted of threading scallop shells onto wire, with small spacers between.

The idea seems to be that the oyster eggs attach to the shells and the narrow spacing provides some protection as the babies start to grow. Meanwhile the men were clearing rubble from around a house that was still standing but which had had the ground (first) floor flooded. There had previously been three families living in the three rooms upstairs, but now just the owners were left. We then spent the afternoon collecting more shells off the beach for the women, and the onsen that night was very welcome!

Day 4: Tuesday
Today we had a minor tragedy when Renz (one of the other volunteers) and I teamed up to break his pinkie. I really don't think it was particularly my fault, it was just one of those things that happens when people are working too fast and a bit carelessly. We were tasked with clearing a small cove not far from the previous day's work. It was not obvious why at first, but as we dug through the debris and reached the foundations of a small building it became clear that a fisherman had had a shack to live in here and was intending to rebuild.

There were about 10 large anchors part-buried in the shingle among the rope and netting, and it was while Renz and I were trying to work them out of the ground (me heaving on the free end to work it loose, him trying to dig out the buried bit) that he got his pinkie squashed between two of them. While he got driven off to the local hospital jules and I easily finished the job with a little more brain and a lot less effort, which just shows how silly the accident was. That evening we all had a long meeting with the local leaders, who said they had considered shutting down the whole operation(!) but had decided to continue. It all seemed a bit over-the-top to me (and I think most others), as although inconvenient, a cracked pinkie is hardly a major medical emergency - I dislocated and cracked mine in the middle of the rowing season as a student, and just strapped it up and carried on (eg). Even more surprisingly, the next day's job was to help on the oyster boats which seemed potentially rather more hazardous to me.

Day 5-7: Wednesday-Friday
Oysters take several years to mature, and the beds had been destroyed by the tsunami. So the fishermen face a pretty bleak and uncertain few years. However they were working hard to rebuild their industry. In contrast to Ogatsu, the Koamikurahama area could almost be described as bustling, with several boats going to and fro and fishermen on the bank reconstructing the lines for the oyster farm. It transpired that some "seeds" had survived the tsunami and they were desperate to get them planted(?) as soon as possible. However, although most of the boats had survived (by heading straight out to sea at the tsunami warning) they were very short of manpower with many families having moved away, at least temporarily. The scene was also a bit surreal at high tide, as the 1.2m of subsidence means that the new high water mark is well above the level of the harbour and adjacent road. There's another article about the work here.

The Oshika area is also known for whaling (eg), and one night at dinner Satoshi offered round a tin of something he suspiciously described only as "meat"...however my kanji-skills have got as far as 鯨 (kujira, whale) which was printed prominently on the label. I think it's the first time I've (knowingly) eaten it here, and very tasty it was too but I digress.

In a turn-about from Monday, the work on the boats was apparently only suitable for men, because there was no toilet on the boat, or women would make the oysters go bad or something nonsensical like that. After the baby oysters had hatched on the scallop necklaces, these are lifted, the shells are pulled off the wires and spliced at intervals into lengths of rope. These ropes are coiled up (to give the oysters some protection) and suspended off lines. After they have grown a bit (a month?), the coils are hauled up, opened out into strings which are then suspended again to allow the oysters to grow to full size. It was this hauling, uncoiling and re-hanging job that we were helping with. While the sexism seemed pretty silly (with shifts of 2h in the baking sun, I doubt anyone even thought of a toilet break) it must be said that it was heavy work. Here's a Peaceboat article about our work, unfortunately only in Japanese but if you look carefully I can be spotted lifting one of the coils.

At first, each boat (with a crew of two fishermen) was assigned about 4-5 volunteers. The drill was that the pros would tie up the boat fore and aft with the grappling irons and ropes, then we would all help haul up the coils and stack them in the boat. When the boat was full, we would go a bit further offshore to where the empty lines were waiting for the strings. Us volunteers were (quite wisely) not allowed to tie up the strings, but instead just opened the coils over the side of the boat and passed the top ends to the pros who could focus just on tying them. By the end of three days, more boats were working, the volunteers were spread 2 to a boat and I really felt like I'd got into the swing of things pretty well. As well as comfortably out-hauling the fisherman I was working beside (not that much of a boast, with an advantage of about 15kg and a similar number of years), I had graduated to helping him with the ropes and grappling irons. It was a shame to have to leave them and come back home.

jules adds: meanwhile jules and the girls (plus a few of the men) enjoyed another day and a half on the beach. Not as fun as it sounds, as we sweated in the hot sun, racing the tide as we worked through the layers and layers of debris. It was possible to saw through the thick ropes, to get them into pieces small enough to be carried away on the canoes, but a big mass of netting apparently wrapped round one of the anchors defeated us. We did, however, (I believe) get down to the fisherman's own rubbish which predated the tsunami, so it is possible we left the beach cleaner than it has been for many years! Lunchtime on Thursday we rushed off to the harbour where the boys were having their fun, but unfortunately wasted the afternoon as the organisation we worked with to clear a car parking area told us to do the wrong thing. Friday was much more constructive. We spent the morning putting more shells on wires. This time it was all volunteers, so the international team got to train a bunch of Japanese volunteers (who had just come up for the weekend) in this not so tricky skill. One amusing part was discovering the ineptitude with pliers of the city-living volunteers, as they attempted to tie off the ends of the wires. I'd taken a couple of minutes on Monday to work out myself how to tie the knot, just by looking at the knot on the other end of the wire, but they didn't seem to be able to do it. Must be a cycling scientist geek thing I suppose. That afternoon, more constructive labour, as a group went off to a nearby beach and constructed a floating frame that would be netted and used to hold baby fishies.

On Saturday morning, we sat around waiting for the new lot of volunteers to arrive, and then got the same bus back home, reaching Shinjuku some time after 5pm and Kamakura rather later.

General comments
Some details that we hope may be useful to others who are thinking of volunteering:

There is a really good, big (certainly by Japanese standards) Co-op supermarket 30 mins walk away - and a handful of restaurants/izakaya - so the food situation is nothing like as tough as we'd been led to believe. Next time we will still take enough food for a few days, but expect to stock up more fully there. The onigiri and bentos which Peaceboat had just started to provide were certainly adequate and it was very convenient to have food provided but I think most of us got a bit bored of them day after day. There is also a coin laundry.

As for kit, although boots are theoretically available to borrow on-site, there's a risk of not finding a pair to fit, especially in size 28cm or larger. A couple of guys wasted the first day in the river because of this problem. Jules and I got our boots via Rakuten here (here for smaller sizes) which did a good job. The widely-available thick blue (eg) or dark red rubber gloves are a reasonable choice but they did get cut up badly by the wet scallop shells and they also got horribly sweaty inside. Leather might be more comfortable (or even 2 pairs to swap). We didn't use goggles or masks at all - it was far too hot to consider them, even when it was a bit dusty. But we never had anything really disgusting to cope with, such as rotting fish. I worked in shorts all week, only putting on overtrousers for the wet days. A sun hat is essential in these conditions, along with sunscreen for all but the darkest-skinned. Heatstroke was never far off and in fact one Japanese person succumbed (temporarily) on a boat. I went through 3l of water or more per day. Physically it was as hard as you like, and felt rather like the week-long rowing training camps I used to enjoy (endure?) as a student, though without the slave-driving coach standing over us so people were free to work at their own pace. No-one who isn't scared of a bit of work and dirt should be put off from participation.

Tents are not needed, but having your own would bring some advantages, especially at the weekends when there are a lot of people there. The mosquitoes and flies were less of a problem than we had feared - in fact the mozzies round our house in Kamakura are much worse....

Peaceboat are continually appealing for more volunteers. We are planning a second trip, probably for two weeks towards the end of the summer.


Steve said...

As someone who criticised you for sounding too glib about the disaster after it happened, I'm pleased to see this.

It is a disaster on a remarkable scale.

James Annan said...

Maybe it did not come across sufficiently clearly, but my glibness was generally aimed at the Fukushima inconvenience (which was massively exaggerated in the overseas media), not the tsunami - which was obviously a huge disaster, but which was largely ignored in comparison. Of course even from the former, a lot of people in the immediate neighbourhood have lost their homes and livelihoods, but they didn't lose their lives...

Nancy Jenkins said...

Great post you guys. Thank you for keeping me sane last week - it seems a bit unreal being back in Tokyo when this time last week we were watching the tide come in over the pier and those poor people were living in 3 rooms in a condemned building. Did you see that Jannick said they are now letting wimmin on the boats? Desperate times call for desperate measures! Let me know when you are going up - we are trying to work out a weekend to go back up. The invite is still there for the pizza btw.

James Annan said...

Hi Nancy,

Nice to meet you too.

We are tentatively looking at the 26th Aug - 10 Sept but might slip by a week (and indeed Peaceboat may change their schedule, which isn't yet fixed that far ahead).

Perhaps it's not the time for smart comments about the tsunami finally knocking them into the 21st century as regards equality, but I'm tempted...

yea-mon said...

And a lot of the media, especially The Japan Times, have begun to almost exclusively focus on nuclear matters to the detriment of the tsunami survivors and their grieving relatives.

That said, the politicians were at it too - jockeying for power instead of organising the aid programmes the tsunami survivors desperately needed.

EliRabett said...

Well done

Freelance writer said...

Thanks for the description of your experiences. My wife and I are going up on Friday October 28 for a week's volunteering with Peace Boat in Ishinomaki. Hopefully the weather will be a bit cooler than down here in Tokyo...