LONDON – While most foreigners were busy leaving the Tohoku region following the March 11 disaster, a British man living in London felt compelled to ignore the travel advice and head to the region to assist with relief efforts.
Trainee accountant Luke Dunn, 28, managed to secure leave from his London employer and help out in the towns of Miyako and Yamada in Iwate Prefecture.
Dunn, who taught English in Miyako between 2005 and 2007, said: “I love Miyako. It feels like kind of a second home to me. I wanted to help if I could. . . . These are my friends, ex-colleagues, and family.”
Dunn, whose wife, Yuki, comes from Miyako, said in an interview he could not just stand by and watch the devastation wrought on the prefecture.
He phoned his Japan contacts in London and, after consulting his bosses, concluded he should fly the 9,300 km to assist.
The former participant in the Japan Exchange and Teaching program said: “I was concerned that I didn’t just fly out there on a whim to make myself feel better. I wanted to be useful rather than be a burden.”
Within a few days of the disaster, he joined his wife, who had already returned to Miyako to be with her family.
He said the plane was half-empty and he was one of only three non-Japanese on board.
And while Dunn was heading into the affected region, many foreign residents were heading in the opposite direction, following travel advice to leave.
Dunn, who did not see any foreigners in Miyako or Yamada during his stay, said he regarded the scare stories about the nuclear situation with skepticism. “The requirement to help out was a bigger impulse. You can’t blame people for being scared and leaving, but not going was not an option.
“I was quite surprised at the number of people who didn’t go up and help. A handful of people who worked with me in the north and who now live in Tokyo didn’t do anything.
“There was a lot of inertia . . . people were possibly afraid of the nuclear situation. And, for a lot of people, if you have your life in Tokyo and no links in the north then . . . the doubts (about what use you are) make you stay put,” he said following his return to London.
Once in Miyako, Dunn and his 24-year-old wife spent several weeks helping local people try and restore a sense of normality.
The couple helped offload and distribute essential provisions, as well as clear up shops that had been ravaged by the massive tsunami.
Dunn said people were particularly grateful when they learned he had traveled all the way from Britain to assist with operations.
Referring to the distribution process, he recalled: “The reaction was really nice. People would take their things, move on to the next person, take their things, and move on, and when it came to me they would be like, ‘thank you so much.’ It was touching. That was a common reaction.
“Even on the last day in Tokyo, I was in a bar and, at the end of the evening, a couple of drunken Japanese businessmen came up to me and said: ‘You are a foreigner in Japan. Isn’t that weird because everyone has left. Haven’t you heard about the earthquake?’
“And I explained to them what I had done and they said, ‘Thank you so much.’ It was a very humble and heartfelt thank you. I was so pleased by that. They were genuinely pleased that someone came out to help their country.”
He said cleaning up the shops in Miyako was hard work and he had sympathy for many of the elderly owners, who had no option but to carry on with the little they had.
Ideally, Dunn would like to return to the area and help regenerate Iwate Prefecture, which he describes as “poor” and “forgotten.”
He said: “I would love to go back to Miyako. Places like Miyako need a lot of energy and people with the desire to rebuild. A lot of the shops are run by elderly people. Young people have left.
“We want to help the rebuilding in some way, maybe by setting up a business, like a cafe or something, to give it a new lease of life.”