The cleanup effort in the wake of the deadly mudslides in Hiroshima was officially opened up to volunteers in Asaminami Ward on Saturday.
I volunteered the first day and it was a very satisfying, albeit exhausting day of shoveling mud and moving rocks.
We arrived early at the volunteer registration center in Yagi, just before sign-ups began at 9 a.m., and wrote down our names, addresses and cellphone numbers. We were then given our volunteer insurance card, wrote bright yellow name tags and were told to wait for instructions. Other volunteers came over and introduced themselves. They seemed surprised but happy to see our international group.
I was interviewed by a few news teams that wanted to know why I volunteered.
“Since today’s volunteer activity is limited to Hiroshima city residents only, why are you volunteering today?”
My answer was, of course, that “I live in Hiroshima and I’m happy to help when I can.”
I did mention that it was difficult to get information, and I am very grateful for the guidance offered by former city councilor and veteran volunteer Kaz Meiki, who told us where to go and how best to prepare. I also wouldn’t have known volunteering was possible without an invitation to help from Mark Exton, principal of Hiroshima International School, who was also in my group.
Once the official day of volunteering started, we were separated into groups of 10 according to the order that we registered and asked to pick a leader. We then signed another form with our names and cellphone numbers.
Our leader was told to blow a whistle if there was any sign of a landslide, earthquake or any other danger.
The Self-Defense Force veteran who volunteered to act as the leader of our group was fantastic. He was great at communicating with the locals and deciding upon the most important areas to work on, as well as organizing our breaks and making sure we were not killing ourselves.
The rest of our group comprised HIS principal Exton, a university lecturer and student, an elementary school teacher, two Mazda employees, a housewife, an ultra-marathon runner and a doctor. Our task was to clear roads to allow vehicle access and private property for residents who had applied for assistance.
The Yagi area was severely affected by the mudslides. Helicopters and emergency workers could be seen up ahead. The higher uphill we walked, the more severe the devastation. It was powerful seeing the state of the landslide area first-hand and meeting some of the residents.
I saw some families returning to the area sobbing as they came face-to-face with the extent of the damage. I met some local children and told them I was glad to see they were all right, but my heart ached knowing they must be grieving for neighbors and struggling to cope with the enormity of what had happened to their homes and streets.
It struck me that this was like my own neighborhood — like any neighborhood I had seen in Japan built on a hillside. This disaster could have happened to any one of us.
Volunteering was tiring work, but it wasn’t all back-breaking labor. There were some strong workers in our group who carried heavy boulders, but there was also a range of other work to be done, from holding the bags for others to helping clear smaller areas of mud.
At the end of the day, what we had accomplished, as a hardworking group of 10, was only a tiny fraction of what needs to be done. The volunteer coordinator said they plan to ask for volunteers every day for at least the next month.
For more details on volunteering in the area, see www.gethiroshima.com for updates in English or the official volunteer information in Japanese at shakyo-hiroshima.jp. Please note that at the time of writing, volunteering is only open to Hiroshima city residents.
If you live outside the city, please consider contributing to the Red Cross (www.jrc.or.jp/english), which is supporting volunteer and emergency efforts.
Asaminami-ku Volunteer Center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (080-2931-4242/fax: 082-814-1895). Joy Jarman-Walsh (@jjwalsh on Twitter and Instagram) is a long-term resident of Hiroshima, full-time EFL instructor at Yasuda Women’s University and co-founder of the GetHiroshima website, map and magazine. Your comments and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org