Report: In The Face of the Need for Reconstruction Volunteers in the Tōhoku Disaster Areas

Murayama Hyoe, SJ (Jesuit Scholastic)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 165 / June 15th, 2012

Has the Great eastern East Japan Earthquake already finished? Nobody will answer “Yes” to this question. However, it is not easy for those who live in distant places to be continually concerned about recovery from the Great Tōhoku Earthquake. Great amounts of disaster debris remained piled up several meters high along the seacoast. An estimated 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris have been carried by currents across the Pacific Ocean and have begun to show up on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Struggles for industrial reconstructions, the anxious life of people living in temporary housing, and many people who lost family members are still suffering their painful memories—we must not ignore this on-going damage even though mass media reports have decreased. The urgent need for volunteers seems to be gradually decreasing, but actually there is much need for manpower in the disaster areas.

During the Golden Week this May, I participated as an organizing member of a volunteer-and-prayer program for the Tōhoku disaster victims planned by Jesuit Fr. Nakai Jun and Fr. Sali Augustine. About twenty young people were brought together from the Catholic parishes of the Chūgoku and Kantō areas and from Sophia University. They divided into five groups with six Jesuit staff members and scattered to five volunteer bases in the Tōhoku disaster area maintained by Caritas Japan and some Catholic dioceses. Each group did different volunteer work for 2 to 10 days according to the need of the places where they stayed. I went to the Yonekawa Volunteer Base in Miyagi Prefecture and shared volunteer activity and prayer with five members. These experiences involved many significant discoveries. On May 5th we gathered together at a Dominican retreat house in Sendai, and the next morning we shared our volunteer experiences together and offered our prayers and hopes to God in the Eucharist to end our program.

In spite of all our efforts, we still have to face unceasing demands for reconstructions, and volunteers soon become aware of their powerlessness. With many other volunteers in Minami-sanriku town I removed a great amount of “debris” and separated them according to each category as required. This town was almost entirely washed away or severely damaged by the tsunami. The damage caused by this natural disaster was deeply shocking. One day I saw a family offering flowers at the site of a house where only the foundations were left. While we were returning to the piles of debris after a short break, I saw this mother and daughter bow their heads towards us. I had mixed feelings because I had not completed even a little of the work of removing debris and felt undeserving of thanks. Nevertheless, they seemed to sense my embarrassment, and began talking with me. Even though I wanted to get back to work quickly, they suddenly began to share their experiences. This mother had lost her husband and her daughter’s husband in the tsunami. She said, “It takes a lot of nerve and is painful to come back to ‘our home’ with only its foundations after the disaster.”

At no time did I feel the powerlessness of volunteers more than when I myself saw people who had survived such a disaster and are now repairing the local infrastructure. A number of people are still suffering from wounds caused by the disaster and are waiting to be healed. The family whom I met told me that young volunteers coming from far away like us are strengthening the local people by working with cheerful smiles and sweaty foreheads. When we look at the debris, we see not only garbage but oyster shells which the fishermen in Minami-sanriku had farmed, along with their fishing nets. The clothes and shoes found among the debris show that their owners ended their lives there. Photos and certificates found in the debris are the very precious memories for bereaved families.

I am not the only one who had experiences like this. The significant presence of volunteers cannot be measured from the aspect of efficiency or tangible results. In fact, many young people who shared the same work and prayer in our program carried their various emotional thoughts back home. We must not forget the compassionate support and charity needed amid this competitive society facing job shortages. Many young people have increased their caring concern for the Tōhoku people who continue to work at recovery and reconstruction, and return to Tōhoku to do volunteer work again. Thus, the Tōhoku disaster areas still need our volunteer recovery support “through our feeble hands and humble hearts.”

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