Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Visiting the disaster area as a volunteer with SWTJ (2)- a report by Kanako Kai

【Taking part in SWTJ's September mission】

「The Buddha of Water, Hills, and Fields」 is one of the first words I encountered after arriving at Kyu Tsukidate Elementary School in Yasse, Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture where SWTJ is based for its activities in Tohoku. A local farmer at the nearby 'truck market' where locals buy and sell farm produce taught me the concept. People here live in awe of nature and gratefully harvest the produce of the water, the hills, and the fields. When we arrived, the rice ears in the paddies were heavy with grains, and tiny white buckwheat flowers covered the fields.  
However, a short drive from Yasse village toward the urban area and the coast of Kesennuma City reveals a different landscape. Half a year after the tsunami, salt water still stands high in areas where people used to live. Broken sewage pipes stick out of  of the mud. Especially areas around Kesennuma Port are still heavily affected, and much more needs to be done to clean up so that the odor will disappear (still, people say the odor has greatly improved compared to early summer).

Many volunteers were working in the area, mostly shoveling mud. Locals explained that the ground level at the coast had sunk by 90cm-120cm as a result of the earthquake. The level of the sea and the coastal road are now about the same.  Raising the road again to a level of 1.5m to 2m above the sea will take about 2 years, locals explained. Then, water and sewage pipes will have to be reconstructed. The tsunami destruction along the coast extends over several hundred kilometers. Reconstruction has hardly started. The task is enormous.

However, the coast is not the only place affected. Due to the Fukushima nuclear accident triggered by the March 11 Earthquake and Tsunami,  areas that are far away from the coast and that were spared by the tsunami now suffer the effects of both the real danger and the rumors regarding radioactivity. Even here in Miyagi Prefecture, the agriculture and fishing industry is struggling to survive. I talked to a local farmer who is raising calves. He said that the auction price for local cattle is now half the price it used to be. The sale of rice straw for cattle litter is strictly controlled. Together with the coastal areas in Tohoku, the hilly areas also still  suffer from the effects of the tsunami. 'Aren't you worried about radioactivity?' I asked. 'It can't be helped. What can we do?' was the usual answer of the locals. An emergency situation has become everyday life here. 

SWTJ brought traditional Kyoto sweets that were donated from traditional sweet shops in Kyoto to temporary housing sites in Kesennuma, Rikuzen Takata, and Minamisanriku. In Minamisanriku, we organized an afternoon community event where people could gather and enjoy sweets and tea. The speed for setting the table of the local ladies was amazing! They have been working together since last spring under extreme conditions-- their teamwork is perfect. The locals added some delicious home-made pickled vegetables to the menu. Everybody enjoyed the event.

The locals told us it was the first time since the disaster that such a community event had been organized. The appreciated the opportunity to get together in a relaxing manner where stories could be exchanged, ideas, advice or consolation could be offered, and where new ideas regarding the reconstruction of their lifestyles and living area could be born.
For someone like me who has not experienced the disaster, it will be forever impossible to understand the scale of sorrow, grief, and anger the people affected by the disaster feel. Even though, I would like to continue to listen to the words of the disaster victims,  help them make their concerns heard, and share the aftermath of the disaster with them all in some way. 
I feel I have received much more than given during the three days I worked together with SWTJ in the disaster area.

Text and photos: Kanako Kai (SWTJ Kyoto Office Staff)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Visiting the disaster area as a volunteer with SWTJ- a report by Kentaro Kushiyama

Photo: Kentaro Kushiyama
In September, half a year after the earthquake and tsunami, I joined SWTJ's Kyoto Caravan for its sixth activity week in Tohoku as a volunteer and SWTJ member. It was my first trip to the disaster area. In spring, like everybody else, I had seen the huge damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in the affected regions in Tohoku on TV and in other media. But recently, the media have reduced reports on the tsunami-afflicted area, and focus mostly on reporting on the Fukushima nuclear plant and on regions affected by the nuclear accident. So, when I arrived in the regions damaged by the tsunami last week and saw the disaster zone with my own eyes, I realized that reconstruction has hardly even started, and that it will be incredibly tough to rebuild after so much destruction. 
I also became aware that in the aftermath of the tsunami, people have to deal not only with how they deal with the loss and damage caused by the natural disaster, but also with how they can build new human relationships. While it is often said that natural catastrophes bring people together, it is also true that they create new barriers and communication problems among the survivors.  
Photo: Kentaro Kushiyama
Most evacuees who enter temporary housing have evacuated from coastal areas. Temporary housing, on the other hand, was built on high ground in hilly areas that was not reached by the tsunami. While before, it had been no problem for the people on the coast and those in the hills to live together in their common town Kesennuma, now that these people have to live so close upon one another, a smooth coexistence seems more difficult, and many people find it hard to communicate with each other. Rather than giving a place name, one of the evacuees would immediately answer 'I'm from the coast' when asked where she came from. Due to the difference in customs and culture between areas at the coast and areas in the hills, evacuees and people from areas hosting the evacuees now sometimes face serious difficulties in getting used to the customs and way of life of their new neighbors.

A 'sawakai' community gathering organized by SWTJ in Shizugawa,  Minami-Sanrikucho
(Photo: Jumpei Yamanaka)
For many evacuees, it is really hard to start living in a new environment and to try to build up a new network of friends. Unlike children, adults often find it hard to approach strangers, and to open their hearts. I really thought that there was a need to organize opportunities for these dislocated people to socialize with each other so that such barriers can gradually been broken down.

This became especially obvious to me when we organized a community gathering in Shizugawa Ward in Minami-Sanrikucho. The local head of Shizugawa Ward told us that this was actually the first time since the disaster that the citizens in his ward got a chance to all come together for a meal and friendly get-together. Some people dressed up for the event for the first time since the disaster. Everybody seemed to have waited for the opportunity to meet, exchange, and socialize. I strongly felt that people dislocated by the disaster should be given places where they can meet and socialize in a relaxed manner.  

Photo: Kentaro Kushiyama
SWTJ organized a similar event at Tsukidate Former Elementary School in Yase, in the hills of Kesennuma.  Here too, the school yard now houses a set of temporary housing barracks. The menu we cooked included grilled saury, a fish specialty of the Kesennuma coast. At the dinner, local people from the Yase area, disaster reconstruction volunteers who live in their own tents next to the school, evacuees who are now residents in the school yard temporary housing, and SWTJ members all gathered for a common meal. 'I d love to come again if a similar event is going to be held in the future,' said one participant who came over from the school yard temporary housing, 'socializing over a nice meal makes it easier to talk about things.'
After experiencing these encounters, I felt that there is a need to create places, even at times when SWTJ is not in the area, where people in temporary housing can socialize with locals, or with the people who like themselves live in temporary housing and who have little opportunities to meet each other.  
Photo: Kentaro Kushiyama

Kentaro Lionmaru Kushiyama (SWTJ Tokyo Branch)
 (translated and edited for the English version by B.Y.)