Volunteers’ hugs warm tsunami-hit Ofunato

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

When the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan, numerous volunteer organizations rushed to help the survivors with basic necessities like food and clothing.

As the months passed, they found that the needs of the survivors were changing with time.

A group named Ganbaranba has visited Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, once every month since April to serve udon (wheat flour noodles) from the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture — close to the hometown of its leader, Yasuo Yamada. As they served the udon, the group interacted with the people in Ofunato and tried to determine their needs at that particular time.

Yamada said he found out that the residents of Ofunato didn’t just want to receive help from volunteers. Instead, they were eager to give back, and also to revitalize their neighborhoods on their own as much as possible. “Each time we go up, they always give us omiyage (souvenirs) to take back with us,” he said.

Yamada, who runs an event-organization and import company in Tokyo, said the group has gone up to the coastal city on or around the 11th of each month, to serve udon or deliver goods to people who at first were living in shelters but are now in temporary housing units.

He said that after going back to Ofunato several times, he felt the children were full of energy and was certain they would be the ones for building the city’s future.

He initiated a project to create a painting in a collaboration between Berlin-based artist Ayako Rokkaku and children at Sakari Nursery School in Ofunato. On Nov. 11 and 12, Rokkaku and 65 children drew a picture using acrylic paint at a local public hall. The artwork turned out to be about 3 meters high and 8 meters wide.

Vincent Marx, an American and the only foreigner in the volunteer group, went to Ofunato in May, July and September, and did his part with a “Free Hugs” event.

Marx, a Tokyo-based English teacher and writer, has staged the same kind of event in different parts of Japan, in which he displays a sign saying “Free Hugs” and gives a hug to anybody who passes by.

He organizes the event under the theme “peace, love and compassion,” and held them in Tokyo last Christmas, New Year’s Day and the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.

“I thought (the people in Tohoku) needed hugs more than anybody in the world,” Marx said.

Prior to going up to Tohoku, Marx staged Free Hugs events funded by the Institute of Child English Education, the institution he works for, in Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya and Hiroshima — four cities that have suffered from major calamities — and collected messages from survivors there. He showed the messages to the people in Ofunato while giving out the hugs. “These cities all experienced tragic situations. The idea was to symbolically take the hugs to Tohoku. (I wanted to bring them) messages like ‘We’ve experienced this tragic situation, and we have come through. Be strong,’ ” he said.

He said he was initially nervous, not knowing how his action would be received by victims in the midst of disaster. “I was worried that people would say ‘Taking a hug up (to Tohoku) — what is that going to do?’ I was kind of thinking that’s not enough,” so he took the messages from survivors of earlier disasters, he said.

It turned out to be “quite an experience,” with many people taking part and enjoying the hugs in all four cities. Children in particular were eager for a hug, and even the middle-aged women in Tohoku — who were shy at the beginning — would “hug back very strongly” when Marx offered them a hug.

He said after going up north several times, people started to recognize his face and he could interact with them more.

“They try to be cheerful, but I don’t know what they’re feeling deep inside. They must still be suffering,” he said.

“I told a lady who lost her house and photo studio in the tsunami what a beautiful place (Ofunato) was with mountains and the sea,” and she replied, ‘It was -once upon a time,’ ” Marx said.

“Their sole wish is to return to normal life as soon as possible,” Yamada added.