http://vimeo.com/34324086 Please watch this short documentary to see what life is like for people post-tsunami in Japan. This documentary features the couple I mention in this blog and the main person speaking is someone who helped us volunteer weekly.
Snow fell as we kneeled onto the hard earth to plant flowers where a house once stood. This was my last day in Ishinomaki and instead of considering the snow a cold nuisance, I looked at the powdered white snow as a symbol of purification and rebirth. This was my last day of volunteering and on this day we planted flowers with a woman named Matsumura-san. She had owned a sports shop and her house was attached to it. During the tsunami her home and shop were in one of the areas most devastated, where the house was completely swept away. Months earlier, as volunteers cleared the debris from where her house once was, she cried. On this snowy morning there were not tears and Matsumura-san was smiling. She told us that she wanted to plant flowers to make the sad memory of where her house was a more hopeful place to visit now (they cannot rebuild on the land because it was so badly damaged). She has a new shop and a new house thanks to her enduring spirit with the support of the community and volunteers, but wanted to bring something bright and colorful to the spot of where her old life and old house stood.
As I try to reflect on my time volunteering in the Tohoku region, my thoughts keep returning to people’s spirits and their will to keep moving forward. How do you pick up the pieces of a broken life? How do you overcome a trauma? How do you smile again? The devastation of the tsunami left many feeling hopeless, but seeing the courage people have to move forward, rebuild their lives, and try to find joy again really left an impression on me.
These pictures can better encapsulate the spirit of Matsumura-san and the experience of volunteering more than words. In one picture you can see the heart of flowers with the “Ghost School of Ishinomaki” in the background. In another you can see Matsumura-san’s smile. A fellow volunteer (who took these pictures of us volunteering) described it best: “Now there is hope and colour amid the desolation: A heart-shaped wall of broken pottery and rocks surrounds the little flowers. Bulbs now line the boundaries where the walls of this home once stood. Lots of warmth and heart for Matsumura-san (centre front), the lovely lady we helped today with her little memorial garden. I wiped away tears as I watched her crouched in the snow, planting a single small flower at the doorstep of an elderly neighbour. She hadn’t survived the tsunami.” It may look like we were just planting flowers on this day, but to Matsumura-san we were also planting hope. While that may not be the typical image of disaster relief it is a process just as important as rebuilding homes. The wounds of the heart may never fully heal, but just as these flowers fight the cold and bloom in vivid color, so will the people of Tohoku.
I want to sincerely thank the National Cherry Blossom Festival from the bottom of my heart for supporting me to volunteer and in some small way be of assistance to people rebuilding their lives here and provide goodwill. I also want to thank Jamie El-Banna and his crew at It’s Not Just Mud and all of the other NGOs working so hard in Tohoku. A lot of these organizations’ members gave up their jobs and moved to Tohoku to help. It is amazing to see people from all around the world coming together to help one another get through a difficult time.
To watch us planting flowers and hear an eloquent volunteer (who was also the first and only woman to row across the Indian Ocean) share her story please watch this short video: We are all one: a video from Ishinomaki, 9 months after the tsunami of March 11th 2011
Thank you again to the National Cherry Blossom Festival for sponsoring this Goodwill Mission to Japan. Thank you for helping me volunteer in some small way in a country that has given me so many beautiful memories and friendships. I will continue to support Japan during this difficult time and I hope you will to. Please contact me if you have any questions about how to volunteer or donate. I also look forward to celebrating 100 years of friendship between the U.S. and Japan at the 2012 Centennial Celebration of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in DC. I hope to volunteer in Tohoku again in 2012. Ganbatte Nihon! Please do your best Japan!
Please do not forget about Tohoku. There is still so much work to be done. I would like to end this post by sharing a letter from an elderly couple who we assisted with It’s Not Just Mud who wanted to share their story:
“We were deeply moved and very happy that we managed to reopen our shop on 20th December after 9months. We cannot put into words how much the volunteers helped us and how much hope they gave us.
After the disaster on 11th March, we stayed in the evacuee centre for three months and in temporary housing for another three months. Through this depressing experience, we started to strongly feel that we wanted something to live for and would like to live life to the fullest while developing relationships with other people even if it would take many years. But we, as a couple of 74 and 71 years old weren’t sure what to do. At that time the volunteers warmly extended a helping hand.
While we were working towards a goal together with the young people, we realised that everything was turning in a good direction and our spirits lifted. We laughed a lot every day and the cheerful laughter started to echo throughout the empty town. We laughed a lot, talked a lot and had a lot of fun.
Young people and foreigners gave us warm hugs calling us “father” and “mother” (and “grandpa” and “grandma”). We didn’t have this custom before, but it was very natural.
We almost gave up restarting our liqueur shop which had been open for 85 years, but we managed to revive it thanks to the heartfelt support from the volunteers and we deeply appreciate it.
After we lost everything in the disaster, the young volunteers showed us people’s kindness and the importance of personal relationships. They suggested we put a table and chairs as a tea drinking corner so that volunteers could come and have a rest when they had time or when they were tired and showed us to help and support with other local people.”