Archive for February, 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

Dear my lovely JSSL-ers,
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, junior, spending a year at TIU. Last year I was the president of JSSL.
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, Emily Abraham and Heather Hurlburt, if you know who they are. 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.

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 thevarious volunteer projects out there. Volunteering in Tohoku involves many different types of work. Everythingfrom gutting buildings – digging and scrubbing mud – gutting houses – knocking downwalls – 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 overa two-day period at their Warehouse facility in Natori city, just outside ofSendai. This one of their aid warehouses is based outof the gymnasium of a junior high school in Natori that was devastated by thetsunami.  Although the damage to thecentral building has resulted in it being abandoned, the gymnasium was clearedout, and now provides a space for hosting the incoming aid for distribution torefugee shelters until last Summer, and is now targeted aid relief for theresidents 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!

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.