x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The long clean-up continues in the wake of Japan tsunami

On a visit earlier this year, Daniel Bardsley witnessed the difficult conditions facing recovery efforts and the challenges that remain in the areas hardest hit by the March earthquake and tsunami.

A volunteer carts away rubbish in Ishinomaki. Much of the city is blanketed in mud left behind when the floodwaters receded, and as it turns to dust, residents are complaining of respiratory problems.
A volunteer carts away rubbish in Ishinomaki. Much of the city is blanketed in mud left behind when the floodwaters receded, and as it turns to dust, residents are complaining of respiratory problems.

Long after the devastating tsunami of March 11, the streets of Ishinomaki in north-east Japan continue to resemble a nightmarish scene: large fishing vessels sit incongruously in car parks and vast heaps of ruined possessions line the streets. The statistics associated with the tsunami paint an equally grim picture: approximately 3,000 people died in this area alone and more than 2,000 are still missing. Around 17,000 were left homeless.

It is into this humanitarian disaster zone that hundreds of volunteers, mostly young and Japanese, have arrived in the months since the tsunami.

Peace Boat, a Tokyo-based organisation whose main function is to sail a chartered ocean liner across the world to promote cultural exchange, is one of several non-governmental organisations carrying out relief operations in and around this badly affected area of northern Japan.

I joined a group of volunteers in Ishinomaki in April this year, setting off from the organisation's Tokyo headquarters one Friday evening. The bus trip to Ishinomaki would take all night.

We eventually arrived at a field on the city's outskirts, which provided the group with a temporary home for a week. All volunteers had been asked to bring their own tent, sleeping bag and provisions. The only facilities provided for the 150 volunteers were rudimentary - a row of portable toilets and a drum of water for hand washing.

After pitching their tents, the group gathered in a large central tent where, to add to the surreal nature of life in a disaster zone, a Japanese pop star stood up and gave a short speech.

Sugizo, whose hits include No More Machine Guns, Play the Guitar and Super Love, had himself just completed a week working as a volunteer. He had done so without seeking publicity.

"The place you're going to is one of the most damaged areas," he said. "The people may not have their own cups and dishes, so be sure to bring enough.

"Please say hello to everyone. OK, they're pretty upset, but we should not be upset by seeing them; we should be energetic. Some people try to take everything we have, but we have to distribute in even amounts. We have to say we're trying to give food to everyone. If someone tries to dominate we can say no and we can explain."

Volunteers were then split into groups of five before being assigned duties for the week. One team was sent out to cook and distribute meals of rice and soup to local government officials in the town of Ogatsu, which was almost destroyed. Other groups were dispatched to Ishinomaki city centre for mud clearance.

This task was one few would envy: spending eight hours digging up the inches-deep piles of mud left behind by the tsunami waters and shovelling it into white sacks. A single yard could yield enough mud to fill scores of bags. Unpleasant and filthy though the work was, it was essential. Not least because the drying mud was soon turning to dust and residents were complaining of respiratory irritation.

Others, who were assigned to warehouse duties, stayed away from the affected areas and while they had little tangible evidence of the benefits they were bringing, they were not complaining.

"This is one of the most significant things I've been able to do," said Michael Yamaura, 23, a Tokyo student hulking boxes about in a warehouse. "Getting all the stuff organised so people can find it, that's part of getting aid out to places that need it.

"We finish at 5pm and usually I'm so tired I fall asleep. It's probably the earliest I have ever gone to bed. But it's extremely cold at night. I've been wearing three pairs of socks and my feet are still numb."

The weather has since warmed up, and the work goes on. It is likely to continue for another six months at least. Most estimate it will be years before the area fully returns to normal.

Coordinating Peace Boat's work in Ishinomaki is Takashi Yamamoto, 40, a veteran of disaster-relief work in Chile, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and China. He arrived within a week of the tsunami, sleeping beside a military base full of soldiers helping with emergency relief. Yamamoto chose Ishinomaki because the local authority, unlike some others, said it would accept volunteers from outside.

"It was worse than Sri Lanka or Kobe," he said of his first view of the city, referring to the devastation he had seen after the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 1995 earthquake in Japan.

"I couldn't believe this was Japan. All the roads were covered by sand and mud. In the seaside area you could only see crushed boats."

As government agencies struggled to assess the needs of the tens of thousands left homeless, Peace Boat began planning what has become a long-term aid operation in the city.

Yamamoto wants to buy several buses to ferry volunteers back and forth between Ishinomaki and Tokyo each week. The group is also committed to ensuring no one in the city goes hungry, supplementing the work of the military, which supplies thousands of meals a day to the homeless.

"We have to build up a system. The running costs for a year will be at least $1 million," he said. "But there are volunteers who want to help. They believe they can do something for the people. There are a thousand things they can do."

The situation in Ishinomaki, where many of the buildings that remain still lack electricity, gas and water, is a microcosm of the huge task that continues to confront the Japanese authorities.

By the end of March, the first temporary housing had been built in the city, but the number of households applying to move into them was more than 20 times the number planned, which was less than 150. City officials told their counterparts in the prefecture government they needed 10,000 more houses soon.

Despite the scale of the problem, Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister, has said the authorities aim by mid-August to have found temporary housing for all those who were left in shelters.

"In the seaside area there is space [for temporary housing], but nobody wants to live there, so it has to be built in higher land," said Yamamoto.

However, some homeless residents have proved reluctant to move into the prefabricated housing. Cash-strapped, they are worried about the fuel bills.

Another challenge for Peace Boat now, with the disaster receding in people's minds, is finding enough volunteers. A couple of months ago, the organisation was sending up to 400 volunteers a week to Ishinomaki. Now only about 100 people are offering their services each week.

"I think people's interest is going off, so that's why we're not having enough volunteers recently. I guess until the summer break, which is starting at the end of July, the numbers will keep decreasing," said Satoshi Nakazawa, an international coordinator with the group.


Daniel Bardsley is a foreign correspondent for The National. More information can be found on Peace Boat's mission at www.peaceboat.org