JQ Magazine: JET Turned Laborer – Giving Back as a Volunteer in Post-Disaster Japan

Rachel at work "gutting," or removing drywall panels and screws, in the stairwell of Wakadaisho, a sushi restaurant undergoing renovation in Ofunato, Iwate.

By Rachel Vigil-Garcia (Fukushima-ken, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Rachel works at the American Center for Learning in Chula Vista, CA. Contact her at ray3vigil13 [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Eight months have passed since a huge earthquake and tsunami crippled Northeastern Japan with mind-numbing destruction. In March, news video beamed entire towns going under, with cars and homes lifted in the deluge. But today, why does it seem like so many have begun to forget about this disaster? I know the JET and JET alumni community are an exception to this. Still, I hope that by sharing my recent experience I can encourage sustained support to that wonderful island nation and its ever-gracious inhabitants. It’s much too early to be letting Japan’s victims and survivors, and the hard work ahead, fade into the background.

When news of the events of March 11 reached my living room in San Diego, it took hours for the magnitude and scope of the tragedy to sink in. I sat, scrolling through unbelievable Internet images with an eerie sense of irony as my mind brought me back 10 years. Suddenly, it wasn’t March 11, but September 11. I wasn’t in San Diego. I was on a tatami mat in my apartment in Koriyama, as a JET in Fukushima. The 9/11 terrorist attacks gripped the world in complete surprise. I was glued to NHK and local Fukushima TV, wondering how something so awful could be going on back home while I was thousands of miles away.

The realization of this strange twist of events compelled me to take action this summer. I was an ALT in Japan during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ten years later I felt the same helplessness and fright for Japan, a nation not mine by birthright, but one that had become a second home. With growing conviction and a sense of obligation, I vowed to find an organization accepting U.S. civilian volunteers. I was determined to help Japan recover and rebuild.

I discovered All Hands Volunteers, an international relief organization, during an online search in mid-April. Six weeks later, I was on a plane to volunteer in Project Tohoku, Ofunato, Iwate-ken. I felt grateful for getting seven weeks off from work. I’d also managed to fund my entire trip—$2000 and counting—with contributions from friends, family and co-workers, including old friends from Japan. They made it possible for me to fly to Japan and give back.

I did a variety of tasks on All Hands Project Tohoku, often intense and physical. We worked six days a week, resting only on Tuesdays. Different job teams were available, and the organization expertly dispersed us among different sites, despite daily fluctuation in the number of volunteers (people came and went frequently, as All Hands accommodates volunteers for both brief and long-term stays).

Because of our language skills, volunteers speaking Japanese and English received priority choosing their work team. Every team needed a translator, who usually worked a site multiple days to provide consistency. I appreciated this, as it afforded me a chance to get to know local Japanese residents whose homes, businesses, or properties we entered.

On one job, I translated on a team tasked with cleaning up a warehouse storage site that had withstood the tsunami. Its owner, Mr. Suzuki, lived in a house on the lot next door. Sadly, his house was not stable enough to safely remain standing. The lot was now bare; Mr. Suzuki and his wife were living in temporary government housing, which held a two-year time limit. Mrs. Suzuki broke her leg in the chaos to get upstairs and escape the tsunami’s path. Her leg had healed nicely, thankfully, and Mr. Suzuki now focused on turning his former warehouse into his company office.

The first step was mudding, or crawling under the floor boards filling mud bags with dirt and debris deposited by the tsunami when it roared through. Amidst such physically demanding work, the atmosphere heavy with the gravity of such a recent tragedy, lighter moments often cut through. Mr. Suzuki was incredulous that his son’s surfboard and a few skateboards survived, unbroken, but caked with mud and tossed under the building. We became accustomed to finding the remains of small fish, shining iridescent against the dark earth. And I was amazed how many tea cups and fragile kitchen objects weathered the destruction intact!

On another job, my team spent three days in the sprawling yard of an older couple, the Oikawas. They lived along the main road heading to Rikuzentakata, a town hit especially hard. Only a handful of homes survived in the foothills, protected by elevation. The rest had been swept away, leaving a gray landscape of leveled buildings and rubble. People like the Oikawas and their neighbors, homes still salvageable, were steadfastly determined to stay put and rebuild. They’ve been there for decades, and many know the local carpenter who built their place. Yet two elderly people could not possibly be expected to sort through the wreckage alone. It could take months.

The Oikawas’ backyard was an overwhelming site at first. Imagine the entire contents of two or three Japanese homes just toppled and shaken out. There were kitchen cabinets to be emptied, overturned, then taken apart. There were water-logged tatami mats, rotting amidst zabutons, rice cookers, and small pairs of shoes. It was difficult to uncover item after item, imagining the personal tale that went with it. And then there was what to do with it all! Everything had to be sorted by material: metal, glass, plastics, paper and combustibles, wood, etc.

One ojisan’s comments brought tears to my eyes. He explained that when the children and relatives of Rikuzentakata residents gather at family cemetery plots every summer at Obon, he couldn’t bear for them to see an empty town, defeated by the destruction. Even if only a couple of homes could be saved, it was worth it for the honor and legacy of the town. Equally endearing were the words of another satisfied All Hands client. This grateful ojisan was impressed with our mudding job, which removed the rancorous odor from his house. Despite being well over 60, he announced with renewed gumption to study English so that when All Hands went to respond to the next international disaster, he could step up and volunteer himself.

These stories remind me of the giving spirit and deep hearts all across Japan, who deserve continued support and encouragement in what will likely be a recovery process that takes years. I would love to answer any questions about my trip, or how you can volunteer on any All Hands Volunteers relief project. And soon, I hope to visit Ofunato again, to witness the advancements and success in its recovery. It fills me with great pride to say that I helped Japan rebuild. And we are not done.

Visit All Hands online at http://hands.org. Click here for JET alum T.R. Pearson’s Project Tohoku experience.