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.

As all of you are part of JSSL, you are all bound by a common interest in Japan. If you have the opportunity to come to Japan, whether to study abroad or not, I highly recommend volunteering. Although the pictures in the link above make it seem like everything is okay, do not be deceived. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the Tohoku region of Japan.

I spent Wednesday through Saturday of last week volunteering in two different cities in Iwate, both of which are shown in the link above. The first two days were spent in Rikuzentakata and the other two were spent in Kamaishi. Back in November, I went to Kamaishi, so I was already familiar with the area, but Rikuzentakata was a first. As we drove to the work site, I could not comprehend what was before my eyes. There was nothing. If you look at the pictures of Rikuzentakata in the link above, you will see that there is, in fact, nothing. Nothing but dirt. Debris separated and organized into mounds. A few buildings (three, or four) remain, but are badly damaged. It’s as if a town never existed there. On my first day in Rikuzentakata, I helped build rafts used to grow and harvest oysters. The second day I spent cleaning dirt off of letters, postcards, and other paper documents.

In Kamaishi, also pictured in the link above, half of the town is perfectly fine, unaffected by the tsunami. The other half, however, is eerily quiet, a deserted ghost town. It truly feels like a post-apocalyptic world. Some buildings have been torn from their foundations [*], nowhere to be seen, while others stand falling apart, debris scattered everywhere. The first morning in Kamaishi was spent helping an old woman, whose house was lost to the tsunami, move her things from a friend’s house into a temporary housing facility. This old woman was so grateful that she treated the two other volunteers and me to tea and Japanese sweets. She also talked of her experience with the disaster and how she was safely out of the country for a wedding, but how many friends and acquaintances were lost to the devastation. Despite losing her house, many of her belongings, and friends, seeing her gratitude and generosity after simply helping to move her things was quite moving.

Other jobs in Kamaishi included removing dirt, oil, and other debris from the gutters, cleaning a mound of what used to be a barbershop, and walking around Kamaishi with a map to mark down which buildings still need to be cleaned out before being torn down. Another incident that left an impact on me during volunteering was cleaning the pile of debris that was once a barbershop. While cleaning up, an old woman sitting in the back of a taxi passed by, and seeing the volunteers, she bowed her head deeply towards us. It was a silent display of gratitude and I’m not sure if any of the other volunteers noticed, but the old woman bowing silently in the taxi left a deep impression on me.

However, we are all volunteers. As volunteers, we have no expectations to be thanked. Instead after volunteering, we thank the person who asked us to volunteer before leaving the work site. Thank you for letting us work here. In November at the quick volunteer orientation, we were told that volunteers should not have the mindset of ボランティアをしてあげる, but instead think in terms of ボランティアをさせて頂く. I will humbly receive the favor of volunteering, not I will give you my help volunteering. It is with this spirit that we volunteer. We are all grateful for being allowed to work in such an area, grateful to learn from the experience of volunteering.

I met many wonderful people during my stay in Iwate. All of the volunteers are truly people to look up to. They spend their free time, their weekends, volunteering. Some even spend all their time volunteering, with no salary or income. They all know that there is still a lot left to do, but they work while smiling, laughing. Everyone works as hard as they can, does the job as best they can. If I have the chance, I want to volunteer a third time this spring. I hope that other Willamette students will go and volunteer as well. While the jobs vary in type and intensity, help is always welcome.

I apologize at how long this email has become, but it is my hope that JSSL will spread the message that although nearly a year has passed, Tohoku should not be forgotten. Even though the pictures make it seem as if everything has been cleaned up, that is not the reality of the situation. A lot remains to be done.

I wish you luck with Sakura Matsuri preparations and such. I am also very impressed at your organization in welcoming the ASP students this year. Keep up the good work!

Thank you.

Peace and Love,
Micah Hisa Mizukami

[*] The buildings in Kamaishi reduced to foundation were mostly torn down later. Rikuzentakata's buildings were not, they were washed away. --Anna

 Thanks again to Anna Thomas of the HANDS Kitakami NPO for allowing us to reprint Micah's letter.

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