Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Rikuzen Takata, a few misgivings

I'll confess I had some misgivings about the situation over the past week.   Some are oganizational, some are ethical and some are interpersonal.

In terms of organization and efficiency it is difficult for the volunteer centre to get a balance.  They want volunteers. Volunteers bring assistance, keep the Sanriku in the public mind, give local people encouragement and stimulate the economy.  At the same time they feel a heavy responsibility for the safety of the volunteers.  When people get injured it is "painful to our heart" as one volunteer survivor put it.  A couple of times we were told to finish at 2pm.  When the work day is supposed to go from 10-3, losing an hour is frustrating.   With an extra hour we probably could have got the electric pole out of the rice field near the school...  But efficiency doesn't appear to be the main priority.   Starting and ending times could be staggered to ensure that groups were not kept in a holding cell at the volunteer centre.  One day or arrival time was set later, but the finishing time remained the same.  It's a long way to come from Tokyo to be told that you can only work a few hours.  Even when we insisted we could keep working... it was "the rule".   Perhaps there is a feeling that it's better to have volunteers coming up for longer - which gives psychological support - rather than than rushing to get things physically returned to "normal".

At the level of the group there were organisational issues as well.  Being at / graduating from a prestigious university doesn't necessarily equip a person with the skills to oversee people doing physical tasks, or  knowing which equipment suits a task, or even how to do the work.  The vast majority of people in the group were from Tokyo.  The country-urban divide was stark.  Most people had no experience with shovels, picks,  and crowbars and didn't have any basic sense of how to use them effectively.  In general the foreigners - aside from my classmates there were foreigners from Burma and Uganda - did know how to use tools.  When everyone is picking their own little pile and not working as a team it's very much less efficient. If the tools are inappropriate the work load can be amplified markedly....and at times it was. A pick and a shovel are different tools....  The lack of experience with tools extended to lack of outdoor physical experience.  Complaints about it being too hot (at not a whole lot over 30) and insistence that the group takes ten minute breaks every half hour were exasperating. People are coddled in artificial heating and cooling all year. There was no risk of heat stroke.. it seemed so lame to be complaining  about minor discomfort when you're working with people who have lost so much....

Two of the days that we worked I felt ethically challenged.  When working for individuals, whether on not they were present, there was a sense that we were doing something to make someone's situation better.  The days we worked for the company I wondered whether we were the ultimate "scab" labour.  After our day of work in the factory, one of the managers drove up.  He was saying that the company was facing bankruptcy and that they had fired all their workers and a few had been rehired as low paid part time workers.  We were scab labour.  On one hand I was disgusted, on the other hand I tried to justify it with the rationale that if they can get back on their feet they can rehire their workers..... It  had to go through the volunteer centre so it should be ethical... but it's hard to believe it.  It's repugnant to think we were up there taking jobs.   I am unsure of the situation, but I hope they do recover and do rehire....

Interpersonal is trickier to explain.  Maybe because many of the group were young, maybe they are a more straightforward generation, maybe more selfish.... maybe I am just an over-sensitive  foreigner....   I found the empathy levels of the group I went with pretty low.  (not my wonderful class mates and not all of the rest).  The man whose field we weeded offered the group tomatoes from his vegie patch.  He did have lots of tomatoes.... but he didn't have much else - he was living in a lean to shack where his house used to be. Patrick, my American classmate and I shook our heads in disbelief as people plucked them in volume at will.  Taking some is fine, but taking lots......

When an old man says don't worry about moving the rocks because they are too heavy for us to move, what he means is not "please don't move them" rather "I don't want to cause you trouble by asking you to move them".  I assured him we (at least my burly classmates rather than me) could move them if he wanted, and he was really happy, particularly with the resetting of memorial stones.  My classmate did the same with the electricity poles, and finally after almost 7 months they are gone from his land. Had they taken him at face value, the poles would still be there. The man (though the week it always was a man) who asks for the grass to be cut almost certainly wants the weeds taken out from the roots. It was bemusing that the foreigners seemed better able to read the intentions than many of the Japanese... I guess because we had more "common sense" for manual labour and understood that grass chopped off at ground level will be back in a few days time.

At an interpersonal level at times I wondered about how some of the volunteers perceived local people.  My Japanese isn't good enough to be attuned to nuances well, but people pitied the couple whose vege patch we were fixing up. They were living in a lean to shack constructed where their house had been. They had no running water and no electricity - buckets out to catch rain.  It seemed hard for people to understand that they would choose to live in the path of the tsunami in such a state of privation - simple, old, stubborn people.  It seemed paternalistic and lacking respect for their decision making.  I imagine surviving a tsunami would be enough to make someone  have a clear idea of their priorities. Living there with a garden to tend to was preferable to living in temporary emergency accommodation.  Where they were, they were rebuilding their lives. They could see where the high ground was and would be able to escape.  Recognising people as survivors who can make decisions, rather than seeing them as victims to be pitied, seems like a basic first step in helping people get back on their feet...

In general (though there are definitely exceptions) Japanese culture is not very comfortable with conspicuous displays of emotion. "Ganbatte" - keep perserving / do your best. has become the signature expression of the past 7 months.  Ganbatte Nippon, Ganbatte Tohoku, Ganbatte Iwate, Ganbatte Ganbatte Ganbatte.  It ranks alongside "genki dashite"- keep your spirits up    in the useless cliche.  How can you possibly tell a person who has lost their home and family members to cheer up....    There were much more appropriate slogans "soba ni, moto ni, tachiagarimashoo"   - "standing with you, and beside you"  and "lets join our hearts and minds".  One of the group members told me the old man who grabbed my hands (in the gentle but imploring way that old Japanese ladies sometimes do) and asked me to come back  to the Sanriku was an ero-oji (a dirty old man). It's hard for me to understand why he (the group member) couldn't see his(the old man's) pain  or empathise with him....

The urban-rural divide also comes through with language.  It's a regional thing - among older people in particular there are strong regional dialects that at their extreme can be almost untintelligible. But that really is extreme.  If I can get the gist of what someone is saying with my substandard Japanese, a Japanese person should be able to manage.  It doesn't matter if you can't catch every word.  Complaining that you can't understand local people is just rude and shows little interest in wanting to understand. But as I said... I'm a grumpy foreigner.

Misgivings aside it was worth going.  We made a difference to the people we were in contact with, and that's the driving motivation for going.  A bonus is that my class mates Lilian, Patrick and Ruben are super: hard working, good fun, good hearted.  This is their webpage.  Even though the organization we went up with could be a bit better organised, and prepare people better, it's great that they facilitate people going up to help.  Help is needed and though things are not always done the way I would do them, part of being constructive there is letting local people make the decisions about how they want things done.

I'll be back there again, perhaps volunteering will be finished before I have the chance to go again, but it's a beautiful part of Japan and I'd like to go back there on holiday, help the econony and see the progress being made.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Rikuzen Takata - (11) Progress and reconstruction

Progress is being made.  JR East's Ofunato line was partially cleared while we were up there. I'm doubtful that the trainline will be reconstructed here,  buses may be more viable.  The concentration of population will move back from the coast. If they do decide to build a new rail line, the route will be determined as part of an overall plan to rebuild the city.

The Ofunato Line Wednesday 14/9 /2011

The Ofunato line at the same place looking the
opposite direction the following day.
The field in front of the railway line on the Wed - covered in broken

The same ground the following day.  I'm not sure how they did it
but I assume it is surface cleaning not digging deep to remove
debris.  I imagine it depends on the way the land is going to be
used in the future the extent of digging that is needed. 

Temporary shops in pre-fab buildings are appearing enabling local people to start to regain some semblance of normality. 

AU mobile phones and Kumon

Lawsons convenience store.

People in the area need mental, physical, and financial support.  Having people come up makes a big difference.  Buses of volunteers stopped at the michi no eki farmers markets provide willing shoppers that put money into the economy.  I hope there are jobs for locals in the reconstruction work.  Restoration of the fishing industry infrastructure is apparently a priority for reconstruction, though it would have to be worked into an overall reconstruction plan.  Apparently only 4 of the  31 centres badly affected have reconstruction plans worked out.   It will take time, but I am hopeful the city can revive. 

Rikuzen Takata (10) the school at Otomo

At Otomo we took our lunch break in the shade of the former Junior High School.  The school was inundated to the second floor.  The clock out front was stopped at 3.13,  twenty seven minutes after the earthquake. It was very moving.  Books scattered around. A class list with photos next to a map of the
evacuation route for disasters. There were pictures retrieved and rehung, trophies. Graduation was scheduled for the following day and the program was written on the blackboard. Students of the graduating class had come back to write on the blackboard - a tradition of Japanese students.

My classmates had taken the day off because they are up there for longer than me. I made a decision not to take photos of the students messages. I didn't know how many students there had survived or not... and I wanted to be respectful.   Talking to one of my classmates that evening,  I got a different perspective on it..."They wrote on the blackboard because they want people to read it"...   Very true.  They want their stories told -  they don't want to be forgotten.  There are some pictures here of the students' messages.  Kato san, one of the other volunteers who was up there, kindly shared some of his photos with me.  He took them on a previous trip when he was working in the same area.

It was a very small school and I am sure it won't be rebuilt. The students and teachers who would have gone there this academic year will have been merged into another school. I hope they are doing well.  In the elementary school next door there are messages of encouragement from across Japan hung in the gymnasium.  The new floor suggests that the tsunami made re-flooring a necessity.  The support is appreciated.  May it continue.

The JHS is no longer being used. The school gym is filled with salvaged
fishing gear.

The clock stopped at 3.13pm.  Twenty seven minutes after
the earthquake struck. The clock is above the height of
the tsunami and I assume that it is powered electrically.
If so, there must have been power after the earthquake.


The corridor of the top floor

The high water line in the stairwell between the first and second floors.
(or ground and first if you count that way).
Pictures, drawn by students retrieved and rehung,
excellence plaques leaned against the walls under the mirrors.
(Kato san's photo)

The entrance.  There were still some shoes in the shoe boxes.
(Japanese students change to inside shoes for being in the
school buildings.) (Kato san's photo)

The Graduation program in the staffroom (Kato san's photo)

In Japan there is a tradition of graduating students covering the
blackboard with wishes, thanks etc messages.  These have been
written since the earthquake, presumably by some members of the graduating class coming back.
On the edge of the photo, but not captured fully is a message to three students
"Zettai ni wasurenai" - we will never forget you.....   Presumably the three didn't survive the
tsunami.  (Kato san's photo)

Messages of encouragement from Ichinoseki, from inland Iwate prefecture.

Rikuzen Takata (9) Work at Otomo

On Sunday our task was in Otomo,  Rikuzen Takata, a small settlement on the flat land away from the main town, at the land end of the Hirota Peninsula.  The tsunami apparently struck from both sides.   Our task was to dig an irrigation canal that  had filled in with soil, concrete and asphalt and other debris during the tsunami.
In soil like this the digging shouldn't be hard, but there was so much debris in it that it was actually difficult work - many slabs that easily weighed more than 10kg (not a heavy weight but more difficult to dig out when buried deep in clay soil.)  Removing the big chunks made it difficult to keep the channel the right width.
The field was near to two schools, an elementary school on
the left, a JHS on the right.

Plenty more to go.

An electric pole buried.  Another girl and I did most of the workd to
uncover this.  Unfortunately we had to knock off early (the rules
changed because it was hot...) and didn't get it fully uncovered
or removed.
smaller debris that had been collected by an earlier group 

Objects intact left neatly and respectfully by the roadside

Rikuzen Takata (8) working in Hirota

 Hirota - which I have marked on the map here - is still in Rikuzen Takata local govt. area but about 8 km away from the principle settlement. It seemed that places further from the town centre, had more clean up remaining to be done.
Buses of volunteers lined up - looking inland from the tsunami wall.
Much clearing of rubble still to be done

Piles of rubble. We  cleared some but not all of this

Still quite a lot of major debris - concrete blocks, electric poles,
timber and cars. The house will  presumably be razed.

The tsunami wall offered little protection

One of three electric poles that our group moved - ably co-ordinated by
my Spanish and American classmates.  The man whose land
it was was very appreciative to have them gone after so long.
We also re-set some stones that were memorials of ... not quite sure what...
but according to the man they were very old.  If my classmates have photos
I'll paste them later.
Looking better ne!  Admittedly this is the other side of the road
but we did a fair bit of pick work here as well.

Rikuzen Takata (7) what we did Fri

On Friday the group was smaller as most had returned to Tokyo. Seven of us remained and we were sent to a different branch of the same company we went to on the Tues to help clean up rusted goods.   It was painstaking work. Work was divided into men's work and women's work..... (grrrr)... but we probably got the better deal.  We spent the day scrubbing rust from brackets that were dipped in solvent.  The men's work was scrubbing bigger things with no solvent...

From inside the factory - the ocean in the background - it used to have walls...

Lilian and Risa at work

Looking out across the valley.

The water came to the roof and took the walls with it.

Across the valley - north of the main settlement of Rikuzen Takata.

Nothing to do with the tsunami really... but I thought it
was quite beautiful - a spider at the factory.

Rikuzen Takata (6) what we did

We arrived early Tues morning, dropped our things at the campsite and changed for a bus to Rikuzen Takata.  The visitors centre allocated us a task of clearing rocks, stones, and concrete blocks from a comapany's site on a hill overlooking a valley that had been inundated.  It wasn't quite clear how the task fitted into the context of the tsunami as the area was not hit by the waters.   But working on the principle that the volunteer centre knows what it is doing, we spent the day shifting the things from rotting palettes to new palettes where they were forklifted into tidy rows - presumably for sale.
Concrete  and bricks on new palettes  - the ocean is behind the hill
Part of the area we cleared... much more to be done though

Wed and Thurs we were sent to clear the land of an older couple. Their home and vegetable patch had been swept away by the tsunami.
The entire field needed go be gone through with a pick. Mostly were were removing glass, chunks of concrete,  and rocks.  We also dug up a bowl, a tea cup, and a bucket in usable condition, as well as odd things like a bottle cleaner.

We cleared the front half of the field in the background of weeds and debris.
Another group did the far section.

Tough times but the cosmos and sunflowers take an edge off
the desolation.

The next day when we passed, the man who lived here was
out planting in the field - encouragement that what we were doing
was useful.

Rikuzen Takata (5) the people

When my classmates were up there in May, they had instructions not to go out of their way to interact with locals - people were deeply traumatised, and  many people were still listed as missing. Survivors had enough to deal with without fielding questions from inquisitive outsiders.  They said that in ten days there was a single encounter with a local who talked about the situation. This time was quite different. Locals seemed to be wanting to talk and were initiating conversation about the tsunami. A man whose place we were removing debris from was explaining that the reason there was so much glass was because many cars as they were swept down turned over at this point breaking their windows.

At lunch on the same day a man walked up to Lilian, one of my classmates, and I and was telling us that his mother and sister had died.  If I understood properly, his sister had been identified by DNA checks in July - something that came as a great relief to the family.  They had no hope of her being alive, I assume it means that they can inter her remains in the family cemetery. The law was changed to allow burials after the earthquake as there was no capacity to cremate.  I assume that cremations have recommenced.  Two days later the same man gave the morning introduction on our bus. He was emphatic that if a tsunami came that the onus is on us to save ourselves.  It's easy enough to say to a bus of able bodied people, but I doubt he would have left his mother behind either.     There are a lot of elderly people in rural Japan - it's common to see 90 year olds out in the vege patch - but it's not so easy for them to run from a tsunami... Another reason for high casualties...

A man we met cleaning things in a factory was telling us that the tsunami came to roof level there and explained where it reached and where it didn't.  He then said he lost 9 members of his (extended) family.  Both he and the man that we met at lunch time talked a lot, then talked about their families, and with tears in their eyes scurried away .... it is going to take a long time if ever for people to heal.

Another older man whose place we were cleaning up was asking me if I'd been to the area before.  (with the asssumption that it was my first time there.)  I told him several years ago I'd been up the Sanriku coast. I told him when I saw the tsunami on the news I wanted to go up and help, but it's taken months for me to be able to go.  He held my hands and said said "thank you for coming."  and something to the effect of  when I am here by myself I have no energy to do anything, but when people come and help I can get motivation.  He had tears in his eyes, I had tears in my eyes.  I gave him a hug.   It's so not Japanese custom and it raised eyebrows with some of the group.....  But he appreciated it and  told me to come back again some day.

Rikuzen Takata (4) geography and the tsunami

There has been a lot of comment that people built recklessly in places that were known to be tsunami places.  The implication being that had they not been so foolish, they wouldn't have faced such tragedy. While there is a grain of truth in the statement, it shows little understanding of the Sanriku. The coastline is a vast series of inlets and peninsulas, of river valleys and hills. Principle settlements tend to be close to the rivers, in the valleys.  The hills have some housing but tend to be wooded.  Along the coastline there is little flat land.

A seismologist would undoubtedly be able to use logarithms to work out the reach of a tsunami with all kinds  of variables; however on the ground it can be impossible to see much logic in the sweep of the flow. Houses on a small hill on the point of the bay were find where as houses much further back were swept away.  We cleaned up a rice field well over a km from the sea in Otomo,  in front of the Junior High School (which can be seen on the map below),.  From where we were we had little sense of the direction of the sea -and there was dispute among group members over which it was.  Both were right and the water apparently came from both sides of the peninsula.  The first floor of the JHS school was engulfed, the primary school next door which was a couple of metres higher was OK.

The points were much safer than the inlets, even if they were only slightly elevated.  The angle at which the tsunami approaches seems to have a lot to do with the scope of destruction.

Many people died on high ground on ground they thought was safe - where previous tsunami hadn't reached.

A Map of Rikuzen Takata showing schools, and key public buildings
A terrain map -  looking at this you can see that the roads, trainlines, schools, and town centre in the map above
are build on the flat.

Rikuzen Takata (3) the current state & volunteers

Hiro and I were up on the Sanriku coast in May. Though we didn't pass through Rikuzen Takata, we did go through similarly affected places not much further north.  The situation seems to have improved a lot.  Huge piles of sorted and semi-sorted rubbish remain in the city but most damaged buildings have been razed and the the rubble removed.  A few prominent buildings remain - all concrete and multi storied - the Central Hotel, the former hospital, a couple of apartment blocks. They reminded me of photos of Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb.  I am not sure whether they are waiting for heavier wrecking equipment, or if there is a thought that they can be retained.   There is still plenty of work to be done though, much of it is being done by volunteers.

The volunteer system has been quite well organised.  Buses  (or cars) of volunteers come to the visitors centre each day, get allocated a task and then go out and do (or try to do) it.  Finding locations in Japan is difficult as it is a system based on numbering blocks and sections with in blocks rather than street names and numbers and  directions are  often given by landmarks.  In the absence of landmarks, it could be difficult to find the place, forutnately the bus driver is well experienced in the area.

A lot of the work being done by volunteers is clearing land of remaining rubble - broken bits of concrete, asphalt, roof tiles, glass and crockery, as well as rocks that have been washed down from higher ground. Very occasionally we came across an unbroken plate or tea cup which would be put aside. It was as much as a mark of respect for it's survivor skills as it was that it may be useful to someone.   It was hard not to wonder where it had been swept from, who had drunk from it and whether or not they were OK. At one stage I came across a middle school student's school tracksuit top, the name clearly embroidered on the front, as per Japanese custom.  It had been there a while and the police said to leave it as is... It's hard not to wonder... but there is little point in doing so as it changes nothing.
Rubble being cleared  - glass and enamel are bagged together,
rocks, asphalt, concrete and tiles together, metal, and 'other'. Larger rocks and
concrete are not bagged.

Rikuzen Takata (2) as it looks now

Overlooking a river valley that was inundated. I estimate more than
1km from the coast. The train line used to run through here.

Where the town proper used to stand - approaching the coast.

The Central Hotel on the foreshore. By the damage it seems that
the tsunami came to the height of the second top floor.

An apartment building and the hospital (I think) behind.
This used to be the main part of town.

Piles of concrete

It's hard to believe such a calm sea could become
an all engulfing tsunami...


It seems like timber is being woodchipped.

It will take a long time to get rid of the cars.
There are still some here and there that haven't been
put into a central location - I should have asked the bus driver the reason
but I assume because of ownership / missing person issues.
The tsunami came to the second top floor of an apartment
building in one of the few buildings still standing.

Coming down into the former town from the visitors centre.