CC Issue 04 / Social Work

Cleaning Up

News stories come and news stories go.  No matter how important, entertaining or devastating an event may be, it will soon be superseded by a newer, more immediate story.  The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which occurred on March 11 this year, made headlines around the world, and while the media coverage may have stopped, the people of Northeast Japan are still struggling to recover.

It is easy to forget just how devastating the tsunami was.  Even if you ignore the nuclear situation in Fukushima, the statistics are staggering.  More than 15,000 people have died and almost 5,000 people are considered missing.  The quake measured 9.0 on the Richter Scale and was so powerful that the whole island of Honshu moved 8 feet eastward.  The town of Rikuzentakata, which had tsunami shelters designed for waves of three to four meters in height, was totally unprepared for the 13 metre wave that destroyed almost the entire town.

I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of volunteers heading from Hong Kong to the town of Tono, in Tōhoku.  We spent a week helping with the massive clean-up effort and staying at the Tono Volunteer Centre, which is run by Tono Magokoro Net.  The centre is filled with interesting people who have given up their time (and often, their jobs) to help in any way they can.

The routine is simple: Up at six, sign up for a relief group, leave at 7:30 for disaster area, arrive at 9:00, work most of the day and return by about 4:30, meeting at 5:30 to discuss any problems and talk about the next day’s work, then free time and lights out and ten.  Everything operates extremely smoothly, which is partially due to the enormous amount of goodwill in the air and partly because of Japanese people’s abundance of patience, politeness and gratitude.  I felt like I could have stayed there for months – many people do.

I also had the chance to go out on a day trip with some volunteers involved with Project Next, a charity set up by Tono dentist Gaku Uchikoshi.  Project Next actively looks for residents of the area who have fallen through the cracks and need assistance.  They can then order what they need from his website and Project Next will deliver it to them.  On the day that I accompanied them, we drove all over the countryside, delivered goods to three families and found two new families who needed help.  Everyone was so delighted when they found someone else they could help; it was quite touching.

The job is enormous and it is likely that it will take many years just to clean up all the debris.  So many people have been displaced and lost families and loved ones, and the road to recovery is long, slow and painful.  We live in a world full of greed, fear and uncertainty – we read about it every day – so it is lovely to see a group of people band together in the face of adversity and do something good.

If you have the money and the time, instead of taking your next holiday in Thailand or Europe, I would urge you to consider a trip to Japan.  Don’t look at it as a sacrifice, either, because although you will be giving something, you will gain so much more.  Or, if you have money but no time, I’m sure your donation to Project Next or Tono Magokoro Net would be much appreciated.

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