Evgeny Latypov, a 26-year-old student at Temple University Japan, passionately wanted to help out in Fukushima Prefecture, where three disasters — an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear power plant crisis- have made life miserable for its residents.
But the language barrier made it difficult to find opportunities to help.
“I wanted to join volunteer work. I tried many times but was refused because I couldn’t speak Japanese. I tried to join firefighters, but had to give up because they require lots of training,” Latypov, who has lived in Japan about two years, told The Japan Times. “So, I asked Nanako.”
Laytypov’s friend, Nanako Hirano, 23, who graduated from Aoyama Gakuin University in March, also had a vague desire to go to the disaster-hit Tohoku region to render assistance, and thus she had no second thoughts when Latypov asked her for help.
“When he told me, I had no hesitation, saying I want to go with him,” she said.
Latypov set his mind on going to Fukushima. Asked why, he just said, “I wanted to see if it’s really as dangerous as people say.
“For example, Sendai has lots of volunteers, but Obama beach (in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture) has few volunteers and supplies. That’s why we focus on small places,” he said.
Latypov was born in what is now Moldova, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, and was 1 year old when the Chernobyl nuclear accident took place in 1986. His house was some 500 km away from ground zero.
There was no health damage among his family members, though his parents always took wet towels with them when they went out and lots of his neighbors moved to Poland and other places, he said. His family could not move because his father was a navy sailor.
Then his father’s nuclear-powered submarine suffered a radiation leak, and he died of cancer two years later. “He died at 28. I was 6,” Latypov said.
“All I remember was that my father was losing his hair. My mother did not explain openly right then,” Latypov said, adding he learned what radiation was when he was 10.
But he said his childhood experience had little to do with the choice of going to Fukushima as opposed to Iwate, Miyagi or Ibaraki prefectures. He said he just selected a place where he thought people needed help more than other places.
Hirano was not involved in deciding where to go to offer help. Latypov “gave me specific names of elementary schools and volunteer centers and I called those places. He basically organized and I helped,” she said.
After some research in Tokyo, they decided to go to Iwaki. But they did not know specifically what they would do, and thus they decided to go there to first learn the needs of local people.
They have since visited Iwaki five times. On one trip, they went to mainly talk to locals, and later engaged in actual volunteer work three times, including removing mud and debris and bringing in supplies such as dry food, water, soap and toothpaste.
The two and fellow volunteer Marc Wilkinson drove to Iwaki on April 8 and came back to Tokyo the next day. They spent the night in a car.
That time, they mainly talked to locals and Wilkinson took videos of the situation. The two made a movie presentation at Temple University Japan’s Anthropology and Youth Culture class and asked professors for cooperation to solicit participants in subsequent trips to Iwaki.
From April 15 to 17, the two and five others, including Hirano, the only Japanese, and a volunteer from Azerbaijan, went to Obama beach, some 53 km south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. They went by car and motorcycle and stayed at a hotel.
On May 3 and 4, the two went by themselves to Hisano beach, also in Iwaki, some 30 km south of the nuclear plant, to again research local needs.
Three others went back there with the two from May 12 to 14, and six went back again with the two on May 21. The members were mainly TUJ students.
Latypov said one of his main jobs was to clear rice fields of dirt and debris. Hirano said getting rid of mud stuck in the ditches in the town’s streets will be a looming big task before the ditches are flooding in the rainy season.
“I heard volunteer centers sometimes reject volunteers, saying there is no work to be done. But after we actually went, there was so much work to do,” Hirano said.
Latypov said volunteers should take with them rubber boots, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, masks, rubber gloves and fabric gloves. He also recommends wearing a hat.