Six Months Later – Part One

Posted by on Sep 28, 2011 in Miyagi, Travel Volunteer Journey | No Comments
Six Months Later – Part One

Six months ago, my friend, mentor and sometime drinking partner Stephen Phelan stood where I am standing now. That day in Onagawa the view was not pretty. “In the middle of town, near the seafront,a few buildings remained upright, though stripped down to red metal frames and loose hanging wires,” he wrote in a piece for the Scottish Review of Books. “One was lying on its side, the exterior fire escape parallel to the ground. Another had a silver car teetering upside-down at the edge of its roof.”

As is usually the case with Stephen, the story is beautifully written, a wonderful portrait of loss and life in extremis. Perhaps, though, it is a story that lacks in hope. That’s not my friend’s fault – at that time it was an extremely rare commodity in this area.

Half a year has passed, and today the blocky building is still lying on its side, whole and seemingly undamaged, like a casually toppled king on a chessboard. It looks out of place now because so much of the surrounding area has been cleared of debris. It’s a canvas that’s almost blank, ready to start the rebuilding process and the sad building looks more unnatural than ever.

Considering what happened here, it’s a remarkable recovery. We are standing on a peninsula, just outside the Onagawa Public Hospital. Here, as the tsunami waves (there were many) rolled in, the water was forced into and up the valley below. With nowhere else to go, the tide rose exponentially, swamping everything, reaching over and above this peninsula, and through the first floor of the hospital. High school students, who had evacuated to this higher ground, carried elderly patients to the upper floors.

The loss and immediate aftermath are hard to fully comprehend. What’s easier to grasp is the outpouring of emotion and the resultant generosity of the armies of volunteers (there were said to be over 50,000 at one point) that arrived to help in areas like this up and down the stricken coastline.

Until the Great Earthquake of 2011, the On The Road charity had been doing their work overseas, working to build schools in impoverished Jamaican and Indian villages. They didn’t have experience in disaster recovery, but they soon learned. Months of labouring, making heartbreaking discoveries in ruined houses, and endless cleaning chores later, the team have expertise they’d likely rather never have had. The regret, if there is any, is well hidden at their well-established base camp of 100 volunteers near Osaki City.

Among their numbers is Tetsuya Horinouchi, a 32-year-old calligrapher from Kyoto. He arrived here on 26th March without really knowing what to expect. Despite everything he’s seen and had to do, he’s been here six months and plans to stay permanently. His young family will join him when they can; they’ve already been here once, wife and three daughters, to see what daddy is doing away from home. His two-year-old chipped in and gave out bottles of water to the relief workers.

One of Tetsuya’s reactions to the massive loss of life on that day was to create more – his wife will have their fourth child in January, their first boy. Though it will take him a few years to grasp the concept, he will one day be very proud of his father, perhaps the most likeable, honest and selfless person we’ve met since arriving in Japan.

All day Tetsuya told us everything he knew about the tsunami and its aftermath, always meeting our eyes when he spoke, never playing up his own part in the recovery. Not that he was po-faced. When I proudly told him I’d managed 36 bowls of noodles in a gluttonous display of wanko soba, he laughed at my childish effort, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me his record stands at 100.

We liked him instantly. But I find the fact that he had to give up so much to be able to help a little hard to stomach. While working in Dubai, I saw monstrously lavish buildings thrown up into the sky in just a few short months, built with oil money, speculative millions and the suffering of battalions of downtrodden Indian labourers. It was done for profit and showmanship, and it was done quickly and well. There’s none of that here in Miyagi, nor in Iwate, nor any other part of the affected Tohoku region.

Thankfully, there is Tetsuya, and a few hundred people like him, folk whose generosity and masochistic work ethic have helped recover the land from hopelessness.

Folk like his similarly-named friend Tatsuya, also from the south of Honshu, who shelved plans to pursue a surfing career in Australia to drive 22 hours across Japan’s largest island to aid his countrymen. Initially he planned to stay a month; now he is committing himself for two years.

He told me this with a beer in his hand as we shivered gently near a barbeque at the volunteer village. We toasted his dedication under and open sky, and both silently wished that none of it had happened, and that he’d never had to come here in the first place.


Part Two coming tomorrow.






東日本大震災が起こるまでOn the Roadはジャマイカやインドに学校を作るなど、海外支援を行っていた。災害支援のプロフェッショナルではない彼らが、震災後すぐに現地入りし、人材の確保、泥かき、がれき撤去、そして永遠に続くかと思われるような掃除を続けてきたのだ。大崎市にある彼らの拠点には今日も100人以上のボランティアが、与えられた任務をこなしている。

このOn the Roadのボランティアビレッジでリーダーを務めるのは、京都で書道家として活動をしていた32歳の堀之内哲也さんだ。彼は3月26日、現地の状況がまだ全く分からない中、何かしなければならないという使命感に駆られてやってきた。そしてそのあまりにも厳しい現状を目にしたうえで、ここにとどまる事を決意したのだ。3人の小さな子供達を含む家族も彼に続いてこの地を訪れ、2歳の娘さんはお水を配るお手伝いをした時期もあったそうだ。