On a typically dark afternoon in January 2011, Tokyo-based fashion model Dean Newcombe returned home to visit his parents in Scotland and take a hard look at where his career was leading him.
“Models are compassionate people — we’re humans too, you know!” the Englishman laughs as he recalls how he sat overlooking the North Sea, writing down the values that mattered to him most. On his list were staying fit, eating organically, protecting the environment and connecting with other people who felt the same way as he did. Without a single member except himself, he decided to establish a new movement, calling it Intrepid Model Adventures (IMA).
“I thought, how can I be the change I wanted to see in the world?” Newcombe, 29, explains. Weeks later, Japan’s triple disaster happened. Newcombe watched aghast as the devastating tsunami swept away town after town along the Tohoku coast on March 11, 2011.
Within weeks, he was back in Japan to help. Since no volunteer organization would take him immediately, he went up to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and found his work cut out for him. For months, instead of modeling, he spent his days shoveling mud out of tsunami-demolished houses.
Newcombe uploaded pictures of the destruction he found in Ishinomaki to Facebook and soon, models, as well as teachers, bankers, businessmen, filmmakers, journalists and photographers — including many who had never volunteered before — called him to offer an eager hand. Newcombe organized car pools up to Ishinomaki, the shattered coastal city he had chosen as a base.
“One of the surprises that perhaps I didn’t expect,” says Newcombe, “is that the volunteers that worked with me in Tohoku would step forward to suggest Tohoku-related support projects that we could do in Tokyo.”
One such project recently concluded when a group of about 100 elderly Fukushima evacuees were ordered to leave the former Kisai High School in Kazo city, Saitama Prefecture, which had served as their temporary home after the community was forced to leave Futaba, a small town inside the evacuation zone surrounding the crippled No. 1 nuclear plant. They have now moved into temporary housing units. IMA raised more than ¥1 million to cover the cost of delivering hot meals to the evacuees once a month.
“Those who shared my values joined me on projects close to their heart,” Newcombe says. “It’s how the Futaba project began and how I ended up with truly close friends from my industry.”
Eri Noda is Newcombe’s manager and also ran the Futaba hot-meals project.
“For a year, Dean and I just had a manager-model relationship,” she explains. They would go together to auditions or discuss possible jobs by phone. After 3/11, when Noda heard Newcombe was up in Tohoku, she decided to join him.
“It’s not easy to get into a volunteer group, but Dean had no rules,” Noda says. “I didn’t have to register or get volunteer certification. He said, ‘Just come!’ ”
“Going from one world to the other is very different, and I did have a shock at first, especially the first time I went to Tohoku,” Noda says. “Ishinomaki survivors were going through their stuff in the mud, looking for things that could be salvaged. Men and women were dividing into teams to do the work. The men were carrying furniture out. I joined the women inside, sorting what was garbage and what was salvageable.”
Noda discovered that the management skills she uses with models could be transferred easily to a cooking operation.
“The way we communicate with each other — laughing over lunch, sitting in residents’ small living spaces chatting, and at the same time making sure that we come in according to budget — this is our specialty!” Noda says.
IMA flea markets, held seasonally in Okachimachi, in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, and co-led by Noda, raised more than ¥500,000 for the Kazo shelter. When it was shut down last summer, the evacuees, who still live in the area, weren’t shy about asking IMA for a much-needed air-conditioning system for their new shared space.
If you don’t know Newcombe by name, you may have spotted his lean, chiseled physique and Mick Jaggar-esque smile in numerous advertisements around Japan.
But visit Newcombe’s Intrepid Model Adventures Facebook page and scroll down a bit: There he is cleaning putrid sludge out of a drainage pipe in Ishinomaki. There’s Newcombe dressed as Santa to cheer up Ishinomaki children. And here he is, along with some of his growing cadre of volunteers, carrying a huge box of cabbages he’s purchased for distribution at an evacuation center.
With nearly three years having passed since 3/11, Newcombe now runs what surely must be the most photogenic all-volunteer organization around. And although some of the volunteers are indeed fashion models, the “model” in Intrepid Model Adventures refers to role models — Mahatma Gandhi is one inspiration — as well as the catwalk variety.
“You don’t have to be a fashion model. You don’t have to arrive in expensive designer clothes. You don’t even have to be young or model-thin. All you need to possess is a desire to help,” Newcombe says.
IMA does tend to attract young, sporty people, Newcombe admits: Marathon runners and gym trainers, for example, not to mention model and “Yoga Terminator” Justin Berti, who joined Newcombe in Tohoku for the back-breaking work of ripping up and replacing tsunami-destroyed floorboards.
While Newcombe and Berti represent the younger generation at IMA, at the senior end, poet and artist Kris Kondo found her own way of lending suport to Tohoku in the immediate wake of the 3/11 disaster, and it didn’t involve mud. She wanted to do whatever she could to help, but didn’t have the stamina to camp out in devastated Tohoku. Instead, she offered thousands of hand-painted stones and pebbles decorated with the cheerful, healing face of Jizo, Buddhism’s protector of children and travelers, for IMA to take up to Ishinomaki.
Newcombe was appreciative. “I want volunteers to feel as though they really do have amazing strength,” he says. “I want them to apply skills they were born with to make right what they believe is wrong. Deep down we all see what is wrong and unjust in this world. It’s just our choice whether we do something about it!”
IMA’s current projects include providing roofing for 22 homes and a church on typhoon-hit Bantayan Island in the Philippines and raising scholarship funds for an orphanage in Bali, but its greatest achievement to date remains its work in Tohoku, with more than ¥5 million of IMA donations having gone toward recovery efforts in Ishinomaki.
IMA also works with Enije, an NGO run by model and actor David Yano, who is working toward achieving his dream of building a rural school in Ghana, where Yano’s mother is from.
“I think Dean wanted to help me somehow, and since we were in the modeling industry, we knew of each other but never had occasion to meet,” explains Yano, one of the stars of “Hafu,” a documentary movie about identity issues and the struggle for self-acceptance among mixed-race individuals in Japan. Yano’s mother, who lives in Ghana and only recently entered his life, was the inspiration behind the school project.
“David found his own organization, called Enije,” Newcombe says. “We decided to help him achieve his goals by offering him a workshop slot at our events, which would support his project and help increase his community.”
One evening in November 2012, Newcombe met Dutch-born anti-nuclear demonstrator Jacinta Hin, a longtime Tokyo resident, who shared his view that there was too much tension in the weekly Friday-night protests they were both attending in front of the Diet.
“Dean and I both understood the significance of being at the protests week after week,” Hin explains. “We joined our voices with others to keep the nuclear issue and our desire for a nuclear-free world in the spotlight. We also felt it was important to show our solidarity with the Japanese people, to let them know they were not alone, that the world cared — that in fact the nuclear issue is a global problem. We tried to encourage our friends to join, but very few did. We were actually a little frustrated about that.
“Then, one day, Dean had the idea to light candles at a spot at the protest area where people could easily gather. That was the beginning of the ‘Beautiful Energy — Candles for Peace’ project.”
Every Friday evening, IMA volunteers and friends gather between 6 and 8 p.m. at a spot in front of parliament.
“People have responded really well to our presence,” Hin says. “Protesters drop by especially for our gathering or join remotely by burning a candle from their homes. We’ve had people join from Japan, Australia, England, the Netherlands, Singapore and the USA, to name a few countries.”
Newcombe observes: “IMA volunteers come from completely different walks of life but their mind is in the same place. They feel it’s the right time in their lives to accept this feeling of compassion. It’s so impressive when someone says they’re ready to take this compassion and act on it.”
Tokyo event marks third year on the scene
A celebration to mark Intrepid Model Adventures’ third anniversary will take place at the Pink Cow “restaurant, art bar and funky event space” (www.thepinkcow.com) in Roppongi, Tokyo, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 23.
Charity goods and fair-trade products will be sold all day, and a Fashion and Compassion photo booth, staffed by models, will offer professional pictures with attendees — all in aid of IMA’s good causes.
Morning activities will include IMA volunteers leading workshops in yoga, qi gong and group meditation, followed by a fair-trade talk. Among the afternoon and evening events are live band performances and DJ sets. All activities except the buffet lunch, dinner and drinks will be offered on a donate-as-you-wish basis, meaning you pay as much as you want — as long as you pay something.
“I don’t want to separate fashion and compassion,” Newcombe explains. “I want this party to be both these things. So many parties offer fashion, but in IMA we’re looking for something deeper, a complete spectrum of people.”
To find out more about IMA and its partners, visit www.intrepidmodeladventures.com, www.facebook.com/IntrepidModelAdventures, www.facebook.com/BeautifulEnergyTokyo and www.facebook.com/MoviesThatMatterTokyo.
Liane Wakabayashi, a writer, artist and IMA volunteer, blogs about her Tokyo-based activities at www.lianewakabayashi.com and www.genesiscards.com. Send comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.