Volunteering with three teens in Tohoku

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

Many people want to go to the Tohoku region to help in the colossal clean-up following the magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 and the resulting tsunami that hit some 400 km of the coastline.

I was one of those people, but I also wondered if there was more I could do — so I decided to take my 13-year-old son, Alex, and some of his friends of the same age from Yokohama International School to volunteer there along with me.

As the school’s year ended on June 17, we resolved to set off for a few days’ work in Tohoku the following Monday, June 20. However, it turned out to be not quite so easy, because, due to safety concerns, volunteer organizations such as Peace Boat do not accept minors. Thus I had to organize the trip myself — which involved calling at least 12 volunteer centers in tsunami-hit municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures.

Of those, only four said they would allow 13-year-olds to volunteer — and of the four, Higashi-Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture was the only place more than 80 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. That 80 km was actually central to the whole enterprise, because it was easier to get approval from my wife and the parents of Alex’s friends if we followed the U.S. government’s recommendation that its citizens should get no closer than that to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s radiation-leaking plant.

The day before our departure, Alex’s friend Shuwan Hanna came to our house to sleep over. It was obvious then how excited the boys were to be making the trip. So at 6 o’clock the next morning we hit the road in high spirits in a car I’d rented, picking up another of the boys’ friends, Ben Perkins, soon after.

About five hours later we arrived at Higashi-Matsushima, and by 11:45 it was already nearing 30 degrees as we entered the Higashi-Matsushima Volunteer Center. There were no other young teenager volunteers booked there for the three days from June 20.

As we soon found out, the way centers like this operate is that the volunteers running them receive job requests from local people — such as removing mud from inside houses, shops and apartments that were swamped in the tsumani. They then allocate such jobs to other volunteers who come to the centers, though they are at pains to point out that no center can guarantee there will be work for every volunteer every day.

The Higashi-Matsushima Volunteer Center divides a day into morning and afternoon sessions, each of two hours. Morning volunteer registration must be done between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and afternoon registration between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. A bit strangely, the center officials tend to be strict about the two-hour rule even though most volunteer workers seemed to want to work for longer to make sure they did their jobs as well as possible.

Although the center was happy to supply volunteers with masks, we had brought our own, along with the rubber gloves, goggles, long trousers and long-sleeve shirts you need when removing mud or doing other cleaning work.

For our first work session, on the afternoon of the day we arrived, the four of us went with two men to a house where the family living there had already taken up wooden floorboards ready for us to remove the oceanic mud beneath. It was quite hard work as we knelt on the exposed wooden joists and leaned down to wield our shovels. The mud was about 3 cm thick and sticky like cheesecake. It smelled like a sewer, but fortunately it was easy to scoop up and didn’t slide off our shovels or out of our hands.

I watched the three kids carefully on the first day in case they got tired or sick from the dust, but I realized I didn’t have to worry about that. They knew as well as anyone how to ask for a break for a sip of water.

“It feels good to help people,” Shuwan said after the first day’s work was over and we waited for someone from the volunteer center to pick us up and drive us back there around 3:30 p.m.

Then I drove with the boys to a coastal area of Higashi-Matsushima, because I felt they should see for themselves — rather than just on television — the scale of the devastation. What we beheld there looked like a vast plain with wooden debris scattered everywhere — and it was like that as we turned around full circle.

The boys exclaimed “Wow!” but otherwise they seemed almost lost for words. They took photos. In another area along the coast, there were mountains of neatly sorted debris about 10 meters high.

Then I drove to Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, where I’d booked us into a hotel because I hadn’t been able to get one in Higashi-Matsushima.

The next morning we woke up at 6 and were soon off on the hourlong ride back to Higashi-Matsushima, where center officials took us four and 11 others to someone’s house, where we were again tasked with removing mud from under the floorboards.

In the afternoon, the four of us and three others were taken to a car-repair company. I became the leader of the seven-member team for what turned out to be our toughest job in Higashi-Matsushima — carrying furniture out of an office and cleaning the floor with water, then sweeping dry mud off the floor of a garage with stiff brushes.

The biggest problem was a two-meter-high metal cabinet with shallow plastic drawers in it that were full of business documents — and foul-smelling seawater. The four of us took out the drawers and deposited them in a corner that the company owner, Masahiko Oka, had designated as a trash collection spot.

Then we intended to carry out the cabinet — until I tilted it and realized how heavy it was even without the drawers. So I asked the boys to take a break while I, three other adult volunteers and Oka, a 40-something chap, carried it out.

Afterward, Ben stayed with Oka in the office, hosing the floor and wiping it with a squeegee.

“That man’s cool. We talked about ’90s rap, and he knows Eminem’s ‘My Name Is,’ ” Ben said later.

While Ben was talking music with Oka, the other two boys and three adults carried on sweeping — there was a lot of mud up there, dried and not. In fact this was the dustiest place we worked in in Higashi-Matsushima, and because the garage was so big we didn’t quite finish the job before collection time.

As we finished work, though, it was my turn to be impressed by Oka, who somehow even stayed calm as he told me: “Equipment worth about ¥100 million got washed away or destroyed by the tsunami. I also have an employee missing and I had to let go the remaining 15 staff.”

He called on the government to swiftly help small companies in Tohoku so that the employment situation can be improved and the economy revived.

When I got back to the volunteer center, I told officials there that there was still a lot of work to be done at Oka’s place, and that they could even send 20 volunteers there without a single one of them standing idle. As part of my hopefully constructive feedback, I also told them that I and many others had been bored at the morning volunteer site because there were too few jobs for 15 people.

On the morning of our third and final day it was blazing hot, and the four of us — along with two women and another man — must have lost buckets of sweat between us as we cleared mud out of a drainage ditch. The people living in a house by the ditch said it smelled really bad, though I have to say I didn’t think so — but then I wasn’t living next to it.

The boys had wanted me to be a leader, so that’s what I was for the whole of the day as we spent the morning mucking out the ditch then levering up drain covers with crowbars and scooping out the sludge underneath before putting them back.

By now it looked like the boys had got used to the hard toil of scooping out and bagging up mud, and they worked hard and well all morning.

In the afternoon, we were in a group of 12 people tasked with removing mud from the garden of someone’s house. Just for a change, this mud smelled like gasoline — not, thankfully, a sewer.

So it was that our volunteering stint came to an end as we returned to the center after what the boys said had been their favorite day — both because they felt they’d got a lot of work done, and because they’d been given ice cream in the morning by the person who has requested the ditch-cleaning to be done.

Looking back, the boys may have goofed around on the first day, but they began working much more and chit-chatting less on the second and third days. In fact, on those days, their work contribution was probably the same as an adult’s.

And to make a great shared experience even better, in the car on our way home, the boys all told me they wanted to volunteer again in Tohoku. Then later, the boys’ mothers sent me thank-you emails which spoke of their sons’ enjoyment and how much they wanted to go back to Tohoku as volunteers. They are feelings I share — and I am planning to go back, too.