Sunday, 29 January 2012

After the flood - volunteers and friendship

One of the volunteers dispensing cold drinks and towels for tired volunteers

A very big thank you to everyone who came to help clear up in the days and weeks following the flood in Kaneyama-machi at the end of July 2011. It was very touching to see so many people working together in adversity - but then don't they always? Many came long distances from around Japan. Some travelled long hours from where they had been helping with tsunami debris. We even had volunteers who were residents of the tsunami hit areas who wanted to repay the fact that we had been volunteering in their area of Fukushima over the last three months. The tasks they undertook were usually unpleasant and tough jobs like digging out mud from between floorboards and cleaning household goods of mud, or digging out drains. It was good to be part of this culture-changing volunteer movement, with people realising, sometimes for the first time, what pleasure and satisfaction is to be had when you reach out beyond the bounds of your own life.

UK volunteers who travelled a long way from working in a tsunami-hit area
The first job was to empty the houses of the chaos of ruined furniture and tatami mats and a deep layer of mud. This was hard and filthy, and was done before any volunteers arrived from outside. The next part was to take up the flooring on everyone's ground floor and dig out the mud underneath. This had to be done as if left it would rot the wooden floors and bacteria in it might cause health problems. The underfloor areas were then sprinkled with white powder, which may have been caustic soda as it burned my skin, the fine powder settling on sweating arms and rubbing at the edges of gloves.

The hardest job - very awkward and dirty
Digging the mud out was heavy work, as it was wet, like cocoa butter or damp clay, and it was hard to manoeuvre between the floor joists. It then had to be carried outside and either piled up  or put in bags for later collection. Whoever has the contract for those bags will have made millions in Tohoku - they are used everywhere.

Fancy a go? Our kitchen, and no, that is not my cooking

Our first two volunteers were locals, members of the All Okuaizu Network
We had volunteer help from the first day. Many of the older people had family who answered the call until outsiders arrived, and my wife's uncle (our landlord), and her cousin got stuck in. We also had two guys from the All Okuaizu Network which was founded locally to respond to the 3.11 disaster and to help develop Okuaizu in the long term. We are members and I had been over to the coast near Iwaki-shi with them a couple of times to work on the tsunami damaged area just outside the nuclear evacuation zone, never thinking I'd need the same help in a few weeks.  One brought us a fridge to borrow, and he advised me not to worry about others until our house was done. This was a kind thought as I felt that I should be helping the oldest people first, and I also felt very bad that I was away volunteering at Fuji Rock in Niigata (also flooded) as part of my Strong Children art project with Fukushima's children, and couldn't get home to help until the second day.  They both worked hard to help get the mud out before moving on to the next house, and continued day after day.

What's that saying? Something about a creek and a paddle?

One of our neighbours surveying progress
People from Okuaizu are very physically strong and resilient from generations of hard work in difficult terrain and heavy snow in the winter. They are used to helping each other anyway, and can keep going when city folk would be keeling over, and they got through a prodigious amount of spadework and lifting. Some who had escaped the flood neglected their own businesses and households over weeks in order to help the older people to get their houses into at least a temporary liveable state, as many had no usable kitchen, bathroom or toilet. It was exhausting work.

The council used systems already set up to support nuclear evacuees in the previous months to send round portable stoves, instant rice and noodles, bottles of water and basic hygiene equipment, and began assessing damage and people's needs. Council workers concentrated on the public infrastructure. I remember thinking how much worse it would be for it to happen somewhere very poor without organised help - and since it happened there have been far worse floods in various places around the world where people have to fend for themselves for weeks. 

As floors were cleared, ripped up, dug out and disinfected,  upper floors were re-arranged for camping in, with various make shift arrangements and use of unaffected neighbours' facilities. The next phase was salvaging as much as possible, which wasn't much, and cleaning it all several times.

Two of my son's school staff pitch in to help clean our stuff
Dust became a worrying problem as everything dried out and the heat returned with a vengeance
There was no let up for affected households as it was very  time-consuming, and when you look at piles of your stuff covered in mud you just feel like you have to keep going every minute until it is done, otherwise when will life get back to normal? No-one anywhere likes their home and possessions despoiled, but the fact that Japanese people fastidiously preserve a complete separation between 'inside' and 'outside' made it all the harder as a taboo had been broken too. People's concentration began to suffer in the heat and there were several injuries, and people began to get more and more tired. We were all a bit dazed, especially on top of the underlying tension there had been for the previous months because of Fukushima Daichi. What a year.

The cavalry arrived after a week or so in the form of hundreds of people from across Japan, organised into teams and allotted tasks by a volunteer centre set up in a nearby village. Everybody knew the drill as most had already volunteered somewhere else in Tohoku.

Volunteer squad from further afield
Various vans providing refreshments and good cheer were doing the rounds, and the spirit between everybody was pretty special, people couldn't do enough. This will be one of the great positive legacies of the 3.11 tragedy for Japan, and it will be interesting to see how all these shared experiences based on volunteering affect society over the next few years. It changes you.

Some of our stuff headed for the tip
Watching possessions that you have allowed to become part of your identity disappearing into a dump truck changes you too. It is a timely reminder about priorities and life's temporary bargains with chaos. Now, every time I buy something I just think "Yes, more dump filler." What really matters? It was difficult watching everyone breathing in the billowing dust that we know contains  a certain amount of caesium 137. There was no way of keeping it out, and you can't keep clean either. As I write in January 2012 the government's controversial policy of 'decontamination' rather than evacuation means that thousands of workers and volunteers will be going through this same process: handling debris, soil, leaves and mud, and breathing dust in areas of eastern Fukushima with substantial levels of radiation. There is evidence that it won't even work sufficiently well, and we won't know for years what the health impacts will be. In the meantime fathers, daughters, sons and brothers will be risking their health - and to me that really matters.

The way friends rallied round was a great comfort in this time uncertainty and worry. At least our son was away from the dust being looked after for several weeks by the Ichikawas, parents of one of his school friends - so kind! At a time when there was a bit of family pressure about what should be done, in what priority order,  and exactly how it should be done (you know how that goes...), at least my friends turned up to help in any way they could. Like Iwata-san, Tokyo-based museum producer and cyclist, who gave up his weekend in the middle of a project rescuing and cataloguing the collection of Sendai museum. He looked cool in his rescue duds! And Shigemura-san, local friend, fellow cyclist and good egg who likes nothing better than helping, even on an ordinary day. They helped clear the debris-filled garden and did some cleaning up.

Iwata-san and Shigemura-san: heavy lifting and washing up a specialty
Then there was Yoshida-san, another friend from Arai cycling club 250km away in Saitama who gave me a weekend of his time in the big push to get what was left of the house perfectly clean after everything had been taken out ready for our move to Kansai. Not the most interesting or rewarding form of volunteering, not much to see for your effort compared to digging mud or moving wreckage, but he did it with a will and was good company. And Abé-san at the garage, who helped trying to find us a roof-rack and wouldn't take payment as usual. Useful though everyone's practical help was, the most important thing was the feeling that they had gone out of their way just out of simple friendship. They were just there. This was something else that really mattered to me.

So to everyone I say again, thank you. It was great to be a part of it, and I will remember as long as my memory lasts.