Saturday, February 18, 2012

Guest Post: Micah of HANDS Kitakami

Letter from volunteer Micah (exchange student) to Japan Studies Student Leaders, Willamette University. Copied here with permission from Micah and Anna Thomas of the HANDS Kitakami NPO

The coast along Kamaishi, taken on March 29th 2011
Greetings from Japan! Many of you may not know who I am, so I shall take a brief moment to introduce myself. I am Micah Mizukami, a university freshman in Japan.

I write to you all today because I would like to share my experience volunteering in Iwate Prefecture. In November of last year, I went to Iwate for the first time with two other Willamette students. Yesterday I came back from Iwate again after volunteering for four days by myself.

I’m sure you all have seen the pictures of the damage and destruction that was caused on March 11, 2011. Nearly a year has passed since that day, and things have been cleared up quite a bit. By taking a look at these pictures, you can see how far the clean up process has progressed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Vol Projects: Aid Distribution #1: The Warehouse

Volunteering Projects: Aid Distribution #1: The Warehouse
For this series, I’d like to walk through several of the various volunteer projects out there.  Volunteering in Tohoku involves many different types of work. Everything from gutting buildings – digging and scrubbing mud – gutting houses – knocking down walls – running community cafes – holding soup kitchens – clearing ditches – building shelves – unloading massive trucks – and so forth.

For today’s entry, I thought I’d quickly talk about the process of warehouse distribution. On Jan 26th, we worked with a team effort by It’sNot Just Mud and the On The Road project to lend support to DSP (DisasterSupport Project) to help move 130 tons of aid that was expected to arrive over a two-day period at their Warehouse facility in Natori city, just outside of Sendai. This one of their aid warehouses is based out of the gymnasium of a junior high school in Natori that was devastated by the tsunami.  Although the damage to the central building has resulted in it being abandoned, the gymnasium was cleared out, and now provides a space for hosting the incoming aid for distribution to refugee shelters until last Summer, and is now targeted aid relief for the residents of the Temporary Housing facilities. However, many of the prefecturally managed distribution centers will be disbanded on March 11th, following the first year anniversary of the disaster.

Natori Junior Highschool - Jan 26th, 2012

When unloading the trucks, there are several different strategies to handle the unloading process efficiently. Some teams prefer to set up distribution lines, and pass goods from one person to the next in long chains.  Other teams tend to rely on loading trailer carts until they are full, and then carting the supplies to their resting point. For heavy boxes, it's often easiest to form long lines, and to have people progressively push the boxes along the floor to reach the resting point. 

The work load is reliant on the timing of the trucks to arrive. During the Summer and Fall the trucks generally arrive on time, but once the snow starts falling, truck arrivals become quite random.  On this day, we had to split up our lunch break into four separate sessions.  After a slow morning, we suddenly had an onslaught of three trucks show up almost as soon as the previous one had left.  Due to difficult traffic conditions, there was no way to confirm when the trucks should be coming. 

Either way, it's quite satisfying to stand in a room with tons of aid, and knowing that it'll be helping out the residents of the temporary housing units in the near future.  

Unloading boxes of clothing and blankets from the trucks

Here is a video produced by our work team, courtesy It's Not Just Mud, with an entertaining view of the unloading/loading process. Please check it out!

The trucks have finally been emptied. 

Otsukare sama deshita / After the long day.

List of Tohoku Initiatives

The List of Tohoku Initiatives is a great crowd-sourced project by the group behind the Tohoku Planning Forum.  Using an attractive webpage designed to utilize regularly updated information compiled via Google Docs, viewers are presented with an increasingly comprehensive list of the several initiatives out there that are addressing the needs of the Tohoku region. 

If you scroll through the list, and discover any gaps on Tohoku Relief focused projects, please consider taking the time to add them to the list. I will be adding a permanent link to this via the Foreign Volunteers Japan website as well. Big thanks to the Tohoku Planning Forum ( for setting this up!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Holiday Volunteering (Part 1)

A team of 9 Santas visited Temp Housing Units alongside the regular SaveMinamiSoma distribution.

Although this article is a little late, I still thought it would be worth writing about how the volunteer groups I’ve been working with operated over the Winter Holidays. On December 23rd, FVJ members rejoined the Save Minamisoma Project ( ) to help out on one of their most ambitious missions yet. On top of the regular bi-weekly delivery of aid and supplies for 1000 people living in temporary residences in the town of Minami-Soma, they also sent up a team of nine Santas to canvass the neighborhoods, and bring donated presents directly to the housing units with young kids.

Expecting somewhere between 400 to 500 children in the Temporary Housing communities of Minami-Soma, the SaveMinamisoma Project brought up presents from three sources. The first batch were gift bags arranged by the SMP team, the second batch was of presents collected by Angela Kennewell who organized a large Toys for Tohoku toy drive (that also supplied our orphanage visit the next day), and the third source were wonderful hand-made Christmas cards produced by all of the kids in Adam Shaw’s classes in Shirogane. (These cards were awesome, by the way!)

One of the many cards written for Tohoku by Adam Shaw's classes in Shirogane, Tokyo
 The Save MinamiSoma project has been actively distributing fresh food, nonperishables and water up to the residents of MinamiSoma, Fukushima since late March.  While their early distribution efforts were concentrated on bringing any supplies possible to address the specific needs of a few specific refugee shelters, they made a distinction early on to focus on distributing supplies fairly, and evently across the entire population of refugees across the city.

Although it is logistically difficult for a small group to provide for such a large demographic, SMP has developed an elaborate system for ensuring fairness and evenness for their distributions. 

First, they work closely with a local NPO called "Side-by-Side" ( ) to canvas the neighborhoods and find out general information about each neighborhood, such as general demographic information, and assessing specific needs in the community, such as the need for children's goods or elderly-care items. 

Then, they hold large fundraisers every second month.  This month's one will be held tomorrow (On Friday Feb 3rd, 20:00pm onwards) at Club Velours.  Details available on the Facebook Invite page ( )  Each fundraiser pulls in a couple thousand dollars, and 100% of that money is directed towards buying fresh vegetables and food for the temporary housing communities of MinamiSoma.  Truck rentals, gas and other transportation logistics are generally covered by rotating sponsor organizations. 

SMP Distribution project in October
Since the group is still small, they've been effective in practically addressing how much they can accomplish in each run, and based upon how much they've been able to raise. On average they aim to provide 4-5 days worth of supplies for around 1000 people for each run.  To address this, each distribution run aims to cover 4~5 temporary housing communities.  Since there are close to 7000 people who've lost their homes, SMP gradually rotates across the various communities for each run.  The 4 communities visited during the Christmas run have now been visited 4 times by the group, and the two runs in January were also the 4th visits to those respective communities.

SMP co-founder August distributing Water on Dec 23rd
While the idea of free distribution of supplies has been discouraged in some communities with recovering economies (such as Ishinomaki), group co-founder August Hergesheimer says that the project address the temporary housing residents of "Minamisoma who lost their homes from the tsunami or forced evacuation due to the radiation. They also lost their future due to the radioactive contamination of their farmland and sea. They receive very little additional support for food, utilities, and other daily expenses."

"What we do may be very little, but we feel that it is better than nothing and also important to show them that many people care for their well-being. This is why we continue to support Minamisoma."

Please visit the Save Minamisoma Project Webpage or Facebook group for more information about their activities. They are always looking for new volunteers to join on the runs, help load the trucks, drivers with Chuugata (up to 8 ton) licenses, help organize the events, and general supporters as well. 

NHK regular Daniel Kahl explaining how to apply Thai hand-sanitizer
 A young boy excited about his gift and card.
Volunteer Trevor Impey brings supplies to a Temp Housing unit.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Volunteer in Ishinomaki with "It's Not Just Mud"

* The following is an excellent editorial piece on a volunteering experience with the It's Not Just Mud group, written by Brent Danley Jones, posted with permission. 

It's Not Just Mud (INJM) is an NPO started by an Englishman-turned-teacher-turned volunteer leader who upon seeing the extent of the damage to the coastal city of Ishinomaki decided to start an organization to support a grass-roots rehabilitation effort in the community. Although only recently developed, the power of social media and the positive reputation of the program created a steady flow of volunteers. Focusing primarily on rebuilding, there is also a strong community aspect and the very presence of the volunteers can help give hope. INJM is not alone in the effort as other volunteer organizations in the area overlap and work together. The people of Ishinomaki, even nine months after the initial disaster, are still living in the second floor of destroyed houses or have not yet moved out of temporary housing, struggling with unemployment and supply shortages, while picking through the rubble to recover what they can from lost lives. There is a sadness that has settled about the area that shows signs of lifting as citizens of the city begin to reassemble, and the presence of volunteers and their efforts help warm against the winter cold. More than saying "Ganbarou Tohoku" (do your best banners displayed to support the most affected region) there are people here, taking no pay, willing to do whatever task, big or small, that will help return a sense of normalcy to an area that is still correctly categorized as a disaster zone. In addition to contributing their hours of work, volunteers in INJM give a bit of strength and spirit, as if to say "You are not alone" through their actions. Between the contributions both tangible and invisible, INJM is supporting those who wish to do their part for the affected people of Japan.

Ishinomaki is a coastal area big enough to get its own stop on the bus line from Shinjyuku to Sendai. Even 9 months after the highly destructive combination of earthquake and tsunami, the damage remains evident. With limited funds and resources, the slowly progressing process of cleaning up and rebuilding is still the daily task for a majority of its people. Before, in the area based near the volunteer organization, there were about 1000 families living in an area of the city where there are now less than 200 remaining. Some parts of the city have been rebuilt, some businesses have reopened, and vending machines again line the streets, however there is an eerie feeling when driving along the main city strip and seeing brand new buildings neighboring a shop front that is still bashed in, furniture and debris scattered and left as it was months before. There is a large ship still breached out of the port and a gigantic red oil tower barrel in the divider section of a main highway. Garbage dumps have stacked hundreds of cars in alien-like pyramids. Barren landscapes near the coasts are like house graveyards, where only foundations and wreckage are left with a few shaky but still standing structures in the distance. There is not a suburban location in the whole city where you can turn 360 degrees and not see some sign of the catastrophe that took place. The damage to the city you can't see is left in the hearts of its people, many of whom are still living in the shadows of their formers lives. The job of volunteers is to do what they can to repair both. As time passes, glimmers of hope can be seen as well: new shipments of supplies being given away on the streets, small memorial shrines along  roads, families restanding their family's grave stones, stores reopening, students biking on their way to refurbished schools--there is a resilience here that acknowledges the horrendous past, but continues to push forward into a better 


Everything from breaking down and entire first floor's drywall to helping a community tent lead a soup kitchen and bingo day for elderly residents, from cleaning photos of sports days twenty years ago to helping replenish the dwindled supply of shellfish, the work is varied and volunteers go wherever they're needed. No labor skills are required to join, so those who volunteer with INJM take the jobs that simply need to be done. Sometimes volunteers may work with other organizations, be they other foreign aid organizations or local community efforts, going wherever they're told, to do what they are requested to do, as best they can so someone else with plenty to deal with doesn't have to. Because everyone is making this effort, it adds up little by little into progress. It can be surprisingly fulfilling to do what would even seem like repetitive work, such as taking nails out of rotted boards barely holding together a house for six hours, but because you've done it someone else doesn't have to, and they will move to work onto the next stage in the larger plan to fix a house in the grand scheme project of rebuilding a city. Every strike with a sledgehammer or conversation listening to the story of loss puts repair and healing another step further. The work can be hard, but it not usually to the point of exhaustion, and always in the company of other like-minded volunteers whose positive optimism helps ward off some of the residual darkness that still envelops many corners of the city.


Through the power of social networking, when originally setting up INJM they were looking for a home base to live, and through extensive tweeting and retweeting found someone willing to leave a house standing that was planned for demolition. It was fixed up along with a neighboring home and both now serve as the main base of operations. Over 30 volunteers can fit in and hopefully no one snores. Meals are done banquet style and everyone is in charge of keeping the place clean and functional. The main room is the "lounge" where most spend their time when not out working. It feels like a commune of sorts, and when you get the right sort of people together (and from my albeit limited experiences they were always the right sort) you're going to want to put down your book or laptop and be a part of the house, and you'll most likely not want to leave.

The basic procedure goes like this: wake up --> toast --> work --> get home --> chill --> onsen --> party --> sleep. Volunteers come up for days, sometimes weeks at a time, with others who came and never left. Volunteers, it seems, never really say goodbye--they most always come back. This, I would say, is due to a casual genius of the work and structure of the program. Unlike some other larger-scale efforts which develop many rules and procedures for those who come, INJM has a basic routine of working and living that gets the basics in order so that necessary things get done while leaving the rest of the time fairly free. Volunteers choose assignment crews to join and work from  about 9am-4pm. After completing the jobs, everyone eats, sleeps, and lives together in two houses. No mandatory tasks outside of work are administered to volunteers, but when you see people preparing for dinner or cleaning up afterwards, you feel compelled to assist as well, and so everyone does so without being designated to tasks. It's quite amazing how fast new arrivals, myself included, quickly fall in line with this system of administration-free responsibility and seem to adjust to life in the house. The rest of the available time outside of work and chores is free to be used at the discretion of volunteers, which usually takes the form of gathering in the main (heated) room where everyone comes to talk and spend time with the others there from all over Japan and the world. The feeling of working with these people, all good people, and then spending the nights together in revelry is a great source of motivation; the relaxed atmosphere of the base camp allows the volunteers to unwind while becoming better friends, making everyone look forward to spending the next day of work together. Also, after most everyday of work, there is an onsen trip to relax and recuperate after a day's work and get everyone clean at once instead of having up to 30 people lined up for the shower. This is also a… powerful bonding experience, in that you will most likely be sitting naked in a jacuzzi with friends made that same day. Lights out by midnight to be up at 8am for a toast buffet.

The work is the goal, and the people are the energy; volunteering is a mix of both. The people I met while volunteering were an outstanding group of positive, humorous, quirky-to-eccentric folks from all around the world. An Australian oil rig towboat deckhand, a British fashion designer, a kindergarden bus driver from Brussels, a New Yorker with a passion for roller disco working at a cosmetics production factory in Tokyo, a radio engineer from Oklahoma who came just to volunteer, Japanese company employees who take their vacation just to help Ishinomaki, English teachers from around Japan using their breaks for a purpose, a group of Japanese college students, a group of study abroad college students, and a deaf Japanese girl who taught everyone Japanese sign language during her visit that people were still using even after she left. So many people from so many backgrounds, here in Japan for so many reasons, but all of them brought here for the sole purpose of doing something for nothing, volunteering to give something back. This spinning world is powered by such acts of kindness. There wasn't a bad apple in the bunch, even if some are quieter than others everyone will find something to laugh about, something to add to the group, and everyone works to validate their being there. What really surprised me was just how fast you could feel like real friends living with these people; I think I may have come at a particularly good time when a lot of great folks happened to show up all at once, but could scarcely believe how quickly not just a few people warmed up to one another, but how everyone came together as a group, and I'm not the only one who didn't want to leave partly because of that. Doing good work with good people sounds a lot better than warming my desk at the office.

Upon arriving back home after the nightly onsen trip, preparations are made for dinner, and it's a makeshift banquet hall where everyone eats together. Now properly bathed and fed, the party takes the night. As many know, when I say party, I rarely mean dancing, flashing lights, and bad club music. A party is anywhere that good people are laughing and drinking long into the night, and the parties here are every night to bond and blow off steam and rejuvenate the soul for the next day's work. Don't get me wrong, the purpose of all volunteers being here is to help the people of Ishinomaki as best we can, and that goal of making an outstanding contribution to the community is never surpassed by anything else. With that work completed, however, the night is your own, and spending time with these amazing members and happily chatting and laughing for hours seems to be the best way to spend time before bed. A few chu-hi Strongs from the local convenience store and laughter amongst friends is the best thing to get you into a deep sleep and avoid the chilling cold that takes the house as soon as the lively conversation comes to a close (and the heating stoves are turned off). Some of the dumbest moments led to some of the biggest laughs, such as the story of Oklahoma's hometown single stop sign parade, or certain complications involving a virgin marriage and birthday candles, and the true nature of dance parties. The Party is where you make new friends of complete strangers and I made a baker's dozen in only five short days.

A feeling of accomplishment. The positive vibe from helping people through hardship. Many new friends. Knowing you've made a difference. Having finally been able to aid in an effort I felt compelled to assist in ever since March 11th, 2011, albeit if only in a small way for a short time. Smiles from those around you and the validation of doing a little bit to help the country you live in. Actually going to Tohoku and doing your best after reading hundreds of signs saying "Tohoku, do your best!" I was originally planning on staying 3 days, maybe four, but ended up pushing all the way into the 5th, barely catching the last train home from Tokyo so that I could be up at 7am for work the next day. Others felt the same, wishing they could have stayed longer, and entire groups revised schedules to be able to continue volunteering. Throughout my life I don't have a history of giving back. I enjoyed it when I did, but didn't seek out the opportunities often. Something about the work, organization, situation, and people of It's Not Just Mud really came together to instill a sense of having done something good that I hadn't felt in too long a time. I'm already planning my trip back when I'm back on break, and thinking about who I'm going to take with me. Volunteering in a disaster zone gave me a new look at myself, to see the things I was worrying about as insignificant, and allowed me a better look at the bigger picture. This world and the people in it thrive off kindness. Even when politics and big corporations, mother nature, and jerks-in-general seem to be making a bigger change than good actions, it is all I can do to participate in a program like this so at least I'm doing something positive to help those around me, hoping those good energies are received and duplicated. It's motivating, and I plan on taking this as a fresh start to a new year. And I'll be back for more. Maybe you can be too.

Please visit the blog of writer Brent Danley Jones to follow up on his further adventures and writing.  His Profile states that Brent is a "Writer writing from somewhere in Japan. Expect to see novel serialization, flurries of haiku, the occasional drinking song, and more metaphors than you can shake a stick at."

Tohoku Planning Forum #2

英語で行うが、この東北の震災後の復興計画に関するフォーラムはForeign Volunteers Japanの活動に役に立つかもしれません。


On Monday, January 16th, the Tohoku Planning Forum will be holding its second seminar regarding the rebuilding of the tsunami-hit regions of Tohoku.

A few FVJ members took part in the first forum and found it to be a valuable experience providing many lively discussions on what needs to be done, and how to better manage resources for reconstruction. Since FVJ is gradually expanding our project scope, I think this forum could be a good experience for gaining some perspective on what still needs to be done, and to continue planning how we can address some of those needs.

Starting from 19:00 on Monday at Keio University, this time's forum welcomes three eminent Japanese experts with firsthand experience in community building in various places in Tohoku:

1. Prof. Hiroto KOBAYASHI, Keio University
(Minamisanriku: Community building in temporary housing estates, rural-rural community support)

2. Prof. Naoto NAKAJIMA, Keio Univerisity
(Kamaishi: Learning from past disasters in Tohoku and reconstruction in Kamaishi)

3. Prof. Michio UBAURA, Sendai University
(Ishinomaki: Downtown revitalisation and reconstuction of a commercial center)

The event is produced by Architecture for Humanity, Tokyo (@AFHtyo) and Tokyo Planning Forum (@TPFsquare), in cooperation with Keio University.

Please consider checking it out on Monday if you can. Hope to see you there.

For more details, please visit the TPF² Facebook Group

Or their Webpage:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

BBC Interviews It's Not Just Mud project

 I'm currently up here in Ishinomaki with the group, so I may be a little biased, but thought it would be of interest to FVJ members to see this interview by BBC News with Jamie El-Banna, founder of the It's Not Just Mud volunteer group, based in the Watanoha district of Ishinomaki, about the early days of coordinating volunteers, and the experiences that drove him to establish a long-term volunteer-based relief organization for Tohoku relief. 
It's Not Just Mud has already collaborated with Foreign Volunteers Japan on countless projects, such as our events with the orphanage in Ofunato, for doing several soup kitchens, providing a rest station for deliveries with the SaveMinamisoma project, providing a distribution center for the Coats for Kids project, and for hosting many volunteers from FVJ looking to help out up North.    
The It's Not Just Mud project is certainly my first recommendation now for people wanting to head up to volunteer in Tohoku. Please check out the video at the following BBC New Link:
For more information on the INJM project, please visit the webpage
 I will be writing a follow up post on my latest stay with the group, and will also be doing some posts on local businesses that they've helped get back on their feet over the last several months.