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Volunteers staying the course in Tohoku

NGOs formed after 3/11 evolve in step with residents' needs

by Shaun O'dwyer

When I first volunteered in the tsunami-hit city of Ishinomaki in July 2011, I found myself torn between conflicting emotions.

That week Ishinomaki staged its annual Kawabiraki Festival and there were signs of renewed hope, even as the city mourned its 3,500 dead and missing. Streets only recently cleared of sludge filled with festival crowds, volunteers paraded with a portable shrine fashioned from tsunami debris, and fireworks burst defiantly high above toppled buildings.

But afterwards I visited the obliterated seaside district of Kadonowaki, and as I walked through its fields of debris, I wondered how the city — and the whole region — could ever recover.

Now, after two years of visits to Miyagi Prefecture with Meiji University student volunteers, the despair of that time has gone, and hope remains.

The NPOs we have worked with during those two years were both established after March 2011: It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) in Ishinomaki (in which I recently became a director) and OGA for Aid in Minamisanriku, also in Miyagi. Both are small, have a strong internationalist outlook and are managed by both foreign and Japanese directors. Both have punched above their weight in public conversations about the future of Tohoku. What follows is an update on their activities from an insider’s point of view.

In June 2011, British expat Jamie El-Banna quit his job in Osaka, moved to Ishinomaki and pitched a tent at a campsite of volunteers on the grounds of Ishinomaki Senshu University. A blog recording his experiences and social media such as Twitter helped him reach out to other people interested in volunteering. Soon he had built up a network of friends who would form the core of INJM’s volunteer community.

El-Banna’s social media activities attracted many foreign and Japanese volunteers, and the group became known for what El-Banna calls “its non-hierarchical, flat organization” and informal but professional working atmosphere.

Working alongside other volunteer organizations in Ishinomaki, INJM participated in mud clearing and home and small-business renovations. El-Banna told me that in the first six months, “it was funded from our pockets.” With growing expenses and volunteers to house and feed, INJM applied for NPO status to facilitate donations.

Though INJM has since attracted the sponsorship of philanthropic organizations such as the Mitsubishi Foundation and Give2Asia, El-Banna estimates that half its donations have come from private individuals and the fundraising activities of friends and INJM volunteers.

In two years, INJM has integrated quietly into the life of Ishinomaki city and broadened its operations, sending volunteers to fisheries co-ops short of seasonal workers, establishing a mobile Tsuna Café to provide social activities for the often-elderly, isolated residents of temporary housing in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, and assisting with the Playgrounds for Hope project, which builds children’s play areas in towns across the prefecture.

For me, INJM’s activities in the fishing village of Funakoshi near Ishinomaki best sum up its contribution to the recovery process. With most of its homes and its fishing fleet wiped out by a 15-meter tsunami wave, this village’s future looked doubtful after March 2011.

Masae Ishikawa, an INJM director and Ishinomaki native with family connections in Funakoshi, began organizing volunteer trips to the village. INJM at first donated materials to a group of local women who had created a business called Funakoshi Ladies, producing decorated key-ring and cellphone charms. Together with Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, INJM also helped them market their products.

In winter 2011, with the assistance of the British Chamber of Commerce of Japan, INJM purchased and transported an industrial freezer to Funakoshi, which helped put its fisheries industry back on track. INJM also raised funds for fishing equipment and its volunteers frequently visited to assist the Funakoshi Ladies and help with seaweed harvests.

INJM support, substantial profits earned from the Funakoshi Ladies sales and a renewed community spirit all helped to rebuild Funakoshi’s fisheries operations. According to Ishikawa, INJM’s main contribution to Funakoshi’s recovery has been the “mental support” the constant presence of volunteers has provided. One fisherman told her, “If there had been no volunteers, we couldn’t have continued.”

On a visit to Minamisanriku in August 2012, I saw its central district of Shizugawa for the first time from a lounge in the Hotel Kanyo overlooking Shizugawa Bay. Perched on a forested inlet, it gave me the impression of someone clinging for life from a cliff edge.

On closer inspection, that impression looked optimistic. Everywhere, grass and weeds were growing over the foundations of vanished buildings, though a few gutted reinforced-concrete structures punctuated the ruined landscape. Then there was the rust-red skeleton of the Bosai Center, where 41 local government employees died, sharing the fate of nearly 800 other residents on 3/11. The tsunami inflicted a catastrophic blow on this town of 17,000 inhabitants.

From the beginning, OGA for Aid was an initiative spearheaded by the Ortiz family. With roots in the United States and Colombia, they have lived in Aomori Prefecture for many years, where they own an international school, Ortiz Global Academy.

Three days after the tsunami, school principal Erwin Ortiz drove some foreign journalists to Minamisanriku and heard that there was a need for basic supplies in the town. He and his family decided to raise funds to hire trucks and gather food, water, clothing and sanitary goods to deliver to Minamisanriku residents.

The Ortizes made six trips to Minamisanriku in three 2-ton trucks between March 18 and 29 and quickly built connections with local people, relying on word of mouth to determine what was needed and where it should be delivered to.

OGA for Aid codirector Angela Ortiz told me that they were amongst the first nongovernmental groups to deliver supplies to Minamisanriku, so other, more-established NPOs “looked to us to be their point-people” with local residents, and she realized they’d had a strong effect on the morale of local people just by being there.

In April 2011, the Ortizes and family friend Peter Watabe decided to set up more permanently in Minamisanriku to coordinate the distribution of incoming supplies. Two months later, they registered as an NPO.

With supply distribution under control, OGA for Aid started thinking about the psychological needs of residents. In September 2011, they established a Sea Side Center in space donated by Hotel Kanyo, with renovations funded by a Mitsubishi Foundation grant. The center teaches English and computer classes to local residents, and provides a much-needed community drop-in space for people whose neighborhoods were broken up by the tsunami.

Numerous foreign and Japanese volunteers have come to work on OGA for Aid’s other main project, the Green Farmers Association (GFA), started in June 2011. OGA for Aid decided on this project because “jobs were needed and people needed to become self-sufficient,” Ortiz explained. Their research also found that “farms were falling through the cracks” in government assistance to the community, and there was a local need for fresh vegetables.

Working with local farmer Kiyote Abe and relying on local connections, OGA for Aid was put in touch with families who owned abandoned farmland, which they agreed to donate to GFA. Volunteers were soon at work clearing the fields for cultivation.

Under Watabe and Abe’s direction, and assisted by a government grant, the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives and Hotel Kanyo, the GFA’s first harvest was ready for sale in August 2011. The GFA has grown in two years to employ 14 local people, is currently farming 2.9 hectares of land and is diversifying into food processing.

I said before that hope remains, but it must be qualified. The tsunami has accelerated long-term demographic and economic trends in coastal Tohoku, including an aging population, the exodus of its youth and the shrinking of its agricultural and fisheries workforces.

Regarding Ishinomaki’s future, El-Banna told me that “the one thing it has going for it is its industries,” including fisheries. Minamisanriku’s situation is somewhat different. As Angela Ortiz put it, “It was so small and badly damaged — not just the infrastructure but the people themselves. It’s such a struggle.” But, she added, “There are a lot of determined locals we are working for.”

In their dedication and with their close cooperation with local residents, I would like to think that both organizations have thrown their small weight into the balance and helped improve the odds in Tohoku’s struggle.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University. He is also a director of It’s Not Just Mud and adviser to the Meiji University volunteer group Kizuna International. For more about INJM and OGA for Aid, see itsnotjustmud.com and www.ogaforaid.org/en. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp