We arrived at Dongshan High School at 6:45am and started preparing for the activity to be taken place at 7:30am. It was a similar event as the previous day, but the students are of a bigger age, and most of them would at least have some memories of the earthquake in 1999. This time, it took place at a hall, a bigger venue, with better sound system.
On 21 September 1999, a gigantic earthquake struck Taiwan, destroyed many buildings and took away many lives, as cruel as all other natural disasters. We cannot escape the wrath of such disasters, but only learn valuable lessons from each experience and improve ourselves each time. During the 921 incident, the Japanese rescue team was the first to arrive at Taiwan, bringing hope to the distraught people, as well as to the rebuilding of the destroyed cities. 12 years later, an even more disastrous catastrophe befell upon Japan- a mammoth earthquake, a resulting tsunami that devoured many coastal towns, and both disasters damaged nuclear plants in Fukushima, causing nuclear leakage that dispersed all neighbouring towns. This time, Taiwan grasped this opportunity to repay what Japan had done for them: Taiwanese citizens gathered together to raise an astounding 6.4 billion yen for the Japan disaster.
One day, a Taiwanese friend of mine, Bush, told me he wanted to play a part in this project, and so we gladly accepted. He and his father were the ones who suggested to us this whole idea of bringing Taiwan, especially a country that has had experienced similar disasters, to play a part in this project. An excellent idea, and with the help of him and his father, nothing could have gone smoother.
When we do good deeds, people are willing to draw out money to sponsor us. Our accommodation and most of our transport were covered by the city council. They had done all the hard work to get two schools to join Project YUME. These two schools were specially chosen because both of these schools were destroyed during the Taiwan earthquake and rebuilt since then. Although most of the students now did not experience, or were too young to remember much of it, it would be something really special if they, as past victims, could draw a well-wishing picture and message for the children in Miyagi Prefecture.
After coming back from Miyagi Prefecture with WAVOC (see previous entry) and reaching home close to midnight, I went to bed at 2am, and woke up at 4am in order to catch the first train to the airport, to safely board the train to Taiwan at 7am. It was a mad rush. I missed my first train, but still managed to get to the airport and check in on time. After arriving at Taipei, I took a train down to Taichung and met up with Peter, Bush and Quentin, with whom I headed off to Bush’s father’s office immediately.
With all of Bush and his father’s experience and capabilities, we had our banners, backdrops and equipment all ready within a day. What I had done so far was begging volunteers at evacuation centres to let us in, letting Baba sensei to contact the elementary schools for us, talking to the principals but letting the schools do their own activities. This is the first time I would be entering a school, standing in front of 100 students, and talking to them personally about this project, and then watching them draw on the spot. This sounded really promising.
After a long 7-hour ride from Tokyo, we arrived at Ishinomaki Senshu University at 7am, where green tents lined up in straight neat rows, and scattered colourful tents dotted across the spacious fields. The green tents belong to the Self Defence Force of Japan, as we see uniformed soldiers patrolling around and preparing for their rescue missions. The colourful tents belong to various volunteer groups who have bravely decided to stay put in these affected regions so that they could lend a hand to the locals as much as possible. I stood afar from these tents and observed the people walking around, changing their clothes and brushing their teeth. I could not help but give them a salute. I admire their selfless spirits and courage in engaging in such tough missions.
As for our group from WAVOC (the official volunteer organization in Waseda University), we had to wait for an hour to be delegated our task for the day. In the previous trip, the WAVOC team was sent to clear and clean up classrooms in a high school. This time, we were sent to a shrine. As Golden Week (a week of consecutive public holidays in the first week of May) is around the corner, the locals have decided to organize a matsuri (festival) in the midst of such distraught times, in a brave first attempt to raise the spirits of the town. If we could manage to clear and clean up the vicinity of the shrine, we would be able to bring a smile, even if it is a wry smile, to the people who had suffered from hunger, fatigue and trauma for the past month. It would definitely be worth our effort.
And so we set off again from Ishinomaki Senshu University towards the shrine. Along the way, the sceneries began to morph, almost dramatically. Houses destroyed; roofs dilapidated; cars (if they could still be called one) wrecked into various shapes and sizes strewn all over the place- on rooftops, piled on top of another car and stuck in the walls. Debris piled up like little hills. It was almost like a scene taken out of a movie. Everything seemed so surreal. The effects of the earthquake and tsunami were witnessed as real as they could get. I could almost imagine the dreaded scene of tsunami waves of 10 metres, 20 metres crashing into the town, picking cars away and toppling houses.
Our task was simple: Remove the huge “items” (deemed as waste/ rubbish) first, followed by the smaller items littered all over the place. The items classified under “huge waste” outrageously defied our conventional definition and assumption. These “huge items” referred to fallen lamp posts, detached car bonnets and other mechanical parts, roofs of devastated houses and sacred stones the shrine. Carrying each of these “huge items” required the combined strength of three to four young men, and by the end of the first two hours, we were mostly physically drained.
The “small items” were equally draining, albeit in mental form. We were told to clear the debris, and remove all “small rubbish” from the ground, and so we were basically picking up whatever that does not belong to the soil and greenery and throwing them into huge plastic bags. But no matter how physically exhausted we were, we could not help but realize what we were holding in our hands, deeming them as rubbish and throwing them away. The “small rubbish” hidden under the fallen structures and scattered all over, consisted of children toys, CDs, family photographs, shoes, clothes and other personal belongings. Who gave us the right to deem these items as “rubbish” and discard them as we wish? These items belong to someone out there, probably someone living in a temporary evacuation centre now, or in a worse scenario, belonged to someone who used to live in the house, but fortunately or unfortunately dragged out by rescue teams a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, as situations remain as they are now, there was little we could do but clear the ground.
If I could add some optimism into the description of the god-forsaken piles of debris (I cannot even bring myself to use the word “town” anymore). This is how I would describe it: Fully blossomed sakura trees with branches dangling over the piles of wreckage and debris. Sakura (cherry blossoms) signify a new beginning, and the sakura trees overlook the wreckage with a smile of encouragement, showing a glimpse of renewed hope. Underneath the insurmountable amount of debris lie countless of lost memories entrapped in a myriad of forms, all awaiting their owners to claim them back.
After lunch, we were invited to listen to a little talk by the owner of the shrine, Guji-san, his daughter and a member of the town council of Ishinomaki, Sato-san. “When a disaster strikes, run for your life. Save your own life first, before thinking about others.” However selfish it might sound at first, the next line from Guji-san explained it all. “Those people who had perished in this disaster were people who waited for others, or those who tried to save others.”
Guji-san all along had an agreement with his family to gather at a certain place whenever a disaster struck, but their priority is always to ensure their own safety first, before heading to the gathering place. Thanks to that, his whole family was spared from any casualties. “Never underestimate a tsunami. A tsunami of 30cm can hinder you from walking; a tsunami of 60cm will take your legs away. Now, imagine a tsunami of 10 and 20 metres.”
Sato-san was next to speak. The moment he opened his mouth, we could virtually hear him swallowing his tears. He then admitted that he was greatly saddened by the disaster but at the same time touched by the efforts of the volunteer rescue teams. He is in charge of accounting for the number of deaths and missing for the town. He described how he had carried bodies of little children for days, yet so numbed by it that no tears could flow. He was originally given 10 minutes to speak, yet he just could not stop. And we all had our eyes and ears locked on him. This is how much he wanted to share his experience with us, and this is how much we wanted to listen, learn and understand.
Guji-san’s daughter was last to talk, and she spoke about how the children had to suffer with limited amount of food and water and had to endure the freezing conditions of winter without sufficient clothing and electricity. Throughout her whole talk, we could see tears encircling in her eyes, yet she was unwilling to succumb to letting out a drop of it. The first two days after the disaster, each person had half a banana and half a cup of water for one day. She had to sacrifice her own to give her child. I shudder even at the thought of it. I then looked up at her and her father and Sato-san. I was close to tears.
My volunteer effort with WAVOC might have ended there and then, but the epilogue of which is what is the most important- to relay the message to all our friends. A disaster does not end when the number of deaths or amount of lost property is accounted for, nor does it end when the disaster-struck town is revived. Every disaster brings a story and a lesson to learn. Our job is to tell this story to more people. By relaying this story, we might not be able to prevent a similar disaster from repeating itself, but we could inspire hope and optimism in people, and unite all of us as one. Those who have survived this disaster have become stronger, those who have heard the stories and learnt the lessons would become stronger too. We must not leave people ignorant and oblivious about these inevitable facts of life. Let’s spread the story.
When I first saw the notifications regarding the volunteer trip organized by Waseda University’s official Volunteer Centre (WAVOC), the deadline for applications were already over. I had missed a great chance to make the long awaited trip down to the affected region of Ishinomaki town. However, after talking to a few friends about it, they convinced me that it would be worth a try applying for it even after the deadline. Deadlines are made to force unwilling people to accomplish something as soon as possible. When people are willing to do it, deadlines come alive and become flexible. I attended the information session for the trip despite not having registered, and spoke to the person-in-charge after the talk. My friends were right; when people gather for a good cause and purpose, deadlines become a mere marking on the calendar.
The head of WAVOC is Iwai-san, a lady whose hometown is next to where the damaged nuclear plants are. She spoke almost with an emotionless face about how her grandparents can no longer return back home, as she urged all of us to contribute whatever we can towards the rebuilding of the Northeastern area of Japan. Her emotionless face, ironically, painted a thousand words of all her emotions- numbness and a sense of fatality.
And so in a few hours’ time, I will be off on a bus with 44 other brave volunteers to Ishinomaki town in Miyagi Prefecture. The long awaited trip ever since the earthquake and tsunami first struck Japan. However, I am glad I waited till now. If I had succumbed to my rashness and gone ahead without concrete preparations and plans, I would have been rightly punished by my naivety and for not heeding advices. What could I have done to “help”?
Even now, more than 1 month after the disaster, food and water are still not readily available, toilets are non-existent, debris is everywhere. Dust filling the air and dirt coating the ground. Even now, almost 2 months after the disaster, we have to bring gloves, masks, boots, our own food and water supplies. Even though Tokyo has almost rejuvenated to its usual self (save for the lack of electricity at times), places in the most affected regions are still light years away from a shadow of themselves two months ago.
Due to the lack of accommodation, this trip would only be one-day, without staying over. And that means I will be back almost 24 hours after I depart from Tokyo. I have heard of other volunteer trips that last for 5 days. It’s not going to be easy to survive on packed food and water, and sleeping in tents in the chilly weather; I admire my friends who are taking part in these longer trips.
For now, the purpose of this trip is to see with my own eyes the actual situation and perhaps briefly grasping the feelings of the local people, before continuing on my own project. There is little that I can contribute physically, to clear the debris, in one day, but I know these little efforts made by all of us on this trip, and other trips, will go a long way to inspire more volunteers to help out. Many a little makes a mickle.
I hope to bring back not just experience, but more importantly, accurate information about the Ishinomaki town to share with people.
지금 사는 방은 2년 반 잔 부터 쭉 살아 왔으니까 슬슬 이사할까 라고 생각했다. 지금 방은 싸고 넓은데 건물이 낡아서 동이 되면 너무 춥다. 내 방에 와본 친구들이 “이런 곳에 살다니. 불쌍 불쌍” 라고 말 했다.
그러면 새 학기가 시작하기 전에 더 새러운 방에 이사 하려고 하다. 근데 지금 집엔 가구랑 냉장고 많이 있어서 어떻게 옮기면 되지 모르겠다. 이사 회사를 부탁하도 되는데 돈이 너무 걸릴 거다!