June 19, 2011

A JCIE team visited several hard-hit towns Tohoku on June 17–19 in order to speak with NGO leaders, government officials, and local citizens about their communities’ needs and how outside aid can be directed most effectively. Following are the reflections of JCIE/USA Executive Director Jim Gannon.

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Early in the morning we leave for Rikuzentakata, which has become famous as one of the hardest-hit towns. Roughly 10 percent of its population of 24,000 is either dead or missing. On the road into town we stop at the volunteer center, where hundreds of volunteers arrive each day to be dispatched throughout the area to pick up rubble and shovel the mud left behind by the tsunami. The staff work out of a string of trailers surrounded by vibrant green rice paddies, and most of their leaders are drawn from the local social welfare council. In many rural parts of Japan, including Iwate Prefecture, there are few nonprofit organizations, and the local social welfare councils play an especially important role. While they are quasi-governmental organizations, they are often close to nonprofit organizations in both outlook and practice and carry out various social services in more flexible ways than government agencies. Six of the 15 staff of the Rikuzentakata Social Welfare Council were swept away by the tsunami and a seventh lost a spouse, but the others have been manning the volunteer center without rest since it was opened on March 17. The head, an impressive woman in her 30s, puts on a cheerful face as she guides us around their operations. However, her face darkens when she tells the story about how she clung to the roof of the City Hall as the wave hit. Instead of escaping, many of the people in the City Hall stayed behind to warn others in town about the incoming tsunami. By the time she and her colleagues decided to flee, they realized it was too late to drive to safety, so instead they all ran up to the fourth floor of the building. As the water continued rising, it became clear that they would have to go higher, so they lined up to climb the narrow staircase up to the roof. The man in front of her insisted that she go before him, and she scrambled up the stairs just as the waters hit. She looks down as she tells us that nobody knows what became of him.

After the volunteer center, we head to a local elementary school on top of a nearby hill. Every patch of flat public land on high ground is being put into use for the relief effort, and nearly 100 temporary houses have been built here for 311 people. They are remarkably clean and orderly, although they feel oppressive in their uniformity. A group of tea ceremony teachers from the neighboring prefecture has set up tents on the lawn nearby to perform tea ceremonies for the residents of the houses. Life in the temporary houses can become depressing, so they feel it is important that the residents, many of whom are suddenly unemployed, can have different activities each week in order to break the routine and keep their minds off of their troubles. Koichiro Yamashita from the Japan National Council of Social Welfare has been escorting us through the area for the day, and he explains that his organization is hoping to set up more permanent outreach centers in towns and cities throughout the disaster zone that will sponsor similar activities on a regular basis. As time drags on, depression and suicide are likely to become a larger problem, but the very people who are at the highest risk are least likely to seek counseling on their own, particularly in more rural places such as Iwate Prefecture. So these centers can allow them to indirectly connect with a wide range of people in the community and insert themselves into local networks, hopefully helping them to identify those at risk and to build the types of relations that will make it easier to encourage them to seek counseling when needed.

So this is what hell looks like. There is a famous photograph of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing that shows an open expanse of rubble with a lone building—what later came to be called the Peace Dome—still standing in the distance. From the center of what was downtown Rikuzentakata, it is easy to imagine what the photographer in Hiroshima must have felt. All that remains are the shells of a handful of concrete and steel buildings, with most of the rest obliterated down to the foundations. The destruction stretches for nearly a mile in each direction, with nothing to obstruct the view. And it is the silence that is most disturbing—the only sound is the wind blowing. The City Hall was four stories high, but even the windows on the fourth floor have been blasted out by the tsunami and ragged curtains trail out of the windows like old party streamers. A field of cars lies in front of the City Hall, each crumbled up like old tin foil. Half a block away is the remains of the police station, and somebody has placed a vase of white lilies and a group photo of the policeman inside the entrance. Some rubble remains, but much of it has already been cleared away. The newspapers are full of criticism of the government for how long it is taking to clean up the rubble, but when one sees the scope of the destruction, it seems a wonder that even this much could be accomplished in just three months.

Jionji Temple sits on a hillside overlooking an inlet a few miles from downtown Rikuzentakata, and it has been serving as an evacuation center. Abbot Furuyama welcomes us and relates what he saw March 11. People from the neighborhood fled to the temple when the tsunami warning went out, then as the waters reached the temple they fled into the graveyard on the hill above it. Fortunately, the temple was spared, and it became a temporary home for dozens of families who lost their homes farther down the hill. Many have moved into temporary housing, but they still convene at the temple each day for meals and other gatherings. Sunday’s lunch—ramen and yakitori (grilled chicken)—is provided by the staff of a nonprofit organization called NPO Arata, who have been regularly traveling from Yamagata Prefecture to cook for people at the temple and elsewhere. More than the food, it seems that the people coming to eat appreciate the smiling faces and easy camaraderie of the volunteers.