In Japan's Disaster Zone, Recovery Is Just Beginning

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sankei / Sankei via Getty Images

Japanese volunteers remove debris in the town of Minamisanriku, which was hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, on Oct. 13, 2011

At six in the morning, the alarm sounds and the bodies sleeping on the floor of the Tono sports hall come to life. After a hurried breakfast, there are morning exercises and the first pep talk of the day before teams of volunteers are bussed to the tsunami-hit regions an hour and a half away. The Magokoro relief center is the only facility in the region that accommodates long-term volunteers, and in the seven and a half months since the disaster, some 40,000 people have passed through its doors.

Though conditions there are fairly rudimentary — tatami mats and a gym hall for sleeping, microwaves and hot water for cooking — the operation runs with military precision. Every day since March, the center has sent out teams of volunteers to wherever they are needed. Their tasks range from shoveling tons of rotting fish from farmland to recovering photographs and personal items from the wreckage.

When people arrive, they are often astonished by the scale of the destruction and the scope of what remains to do. ''When I first arrived, I expected most things to be already sorted out," explains Makoto Yanagisawa, a volunteer-operations coordinator. "I couldn't believe what I saw." It's easy to understand why: much of downtown Kamaishi looks as though the tsunami swept through it days, not months, ago with shop premises still littered with wreckage and crumpled cars lining the roadsides.

Like many people there, Yanagisawa intended to stay for just a few days, but ended up staying for months. A former stem-cell researcher, he left his assistant professorship in the U.S. to help with the reconstruction effort. Today, he has no plans to return to the world of research. "Science is important," he tells me, "But this is even more important. I couldn't live with myself if I turned my back on these people now."

Everyone works a 16-hour day: the lights go out at 10 p.m. and come back on at 6 a.m. When people aren't sleeping, they're working. "I could take a few days off," explains Yuki Haramoto, a 22-year-old economics student. "But why would I want to?" She first came to Magokoro with her university and decided to stay on, much to the dismay of her parents. She's currently putting university on hold and isn't sure if she'll ever go back. "There's more to learn here than there is at university," she explains.

The volunteers work with communities that have, quite literally, been torn apart. Families who lived side by side for generations have been uprooted and moved into temporary, prefabricated homes. Since there's no room for them in the cities, the temporary structures stand in rows right on the edge of towns and villages, a long way from local amenities and even further from the places their residents previously lived. Due to the small size of these temporary cabins, large families are sometimes separated. The government says that they could remain there for two years, though almost everyone expects it to take longer.

It's not until my fourth day with the volunteers that the word suicide is mentioned. The emotional toll of the disaster and its aftermath weigh heavy on survivors. Everyone has story: the mother who watched as her 4-year-old daughter was swept away; the young man who lost his fiancée; the widowed fisherman who survived by drinking spring water. It's easy to succumb to despair.

Volunteers like Keisuke Kajiwara try to ease their burden. Six months ago he made the 1,000-mile (1,600 km) trip from Fukuoka to help. He hasn't been home since. During the time I spend with him, he fields phone calls from people living in temporary houses. One needs a battery for a hearing aid, another requests help fixing a punctured bicycle. Others just need someone to listen.

In addition to phone calls and house-to-house visits, the volunteers try to get people out of their claustrophobic prefab cabins and into one of 48 community centers dotted around the temporary housing estates. From "tapping touch" massage sessions to live music, they'll try anything to get people into public spaces, where experiences can be shared. Agriculture is also taking on real significance. Allotment areas and community gardens have been constructed to let people work the land together — less for the food, and more for the other benefits of growing things together.

Among both survivors and volunteers, there's real frustration toward authorities. "I hate to criticize my government," said one volunteer, "but I just want them to do something." It's a sentiment echoed by local residents. "We could hold on if we knew what we're meant to be holding on for," explains Zenichi Kawasaki, a former fisherman who is currently rebuilding his home single-handedly. "That's what I want the world to know." The local authorities have warned him that his home will be torn down in the reconstruction of the Hakozaki neighborhood, but he is continuing regardless. "The important thing is to have a home — that's the first thing. I don't want to stay in a temporary house. I'll deal with the other problems as they come."

But things may get worse before they get better. Winters are bleak in this part of the country, with snow and extreme temperatures keeping people indoors. The risk is that the very people who managed to survive days without food, water and heat, who camped in the freezing mountains with nothing more than the clothes they stood in, will be broken by the failure of the reconstruction plans and what feels like indifference from the outside world. "Some people come ask me, 'Do you still need volunteers?'" 22-year-old Haramoto explains as she greets newcomers at the center's improvised reception desk. "Of course we do. This isn't the end — it's just the beginning."