Volunteers return from abroad to aid Tohoku

by Megumi Yamaguchi

Kyodo

When the catastrophic earthquake of March 11, 2011, struck the Tohoku region, Makoto Yanagisawa was researching stem cells at a university laboratory in the United States.

“I was thinking of returning (to Japan) someday, but decided to do so sooner after I kept seeing TV footage showing huge piles of debris (in Tohoku),” the 39-year-old Yanagisawa said.

A native of Tokyo, he gave up his research, on which he had spent eight years, to move from Georgia to Iwate Prefecture, first as a volunteer interpreter.

Yanagisawa is among a number of volunteers with experience overseas who have moved to Tohoku to help the recovery effort.

Now a member of the Tono Magokoro Network, a volunteer disaster relief organization based in Tono, Iwate Prefecture, Yanagisawa is helping to create jobs in the city while managing a scholarship program for local students.

“I wouldn’t say that I have no regrets about having given up my research at the U.S. university,” Yanagisawa said. “But I still choose to stay here until I see all victims move out of temporary housing and the region achieve recovery.”

Mayumi Mukuno, 30, organized a cooking event last November in the coastal town of Yamada bringing together local Japanese elementary school children and young people from Southeast Asia who live there.

“I always keep in mind children’s perspectives and want to come up with something that can entertain them,” said Mukuno, who is a member of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program under the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Mukuno said her activity in the area, where she had been a total stranger, is like a second overseas project for her. Prior to this she taught children in Ghana how to use computers.

She has planned a number of events for kids, including a tour to visit old mines at the Kamaishi steelworks and an English conversation workshop where local people can converse with their foreign neighbors.

Mukuno said she tried not to use words like “mother” and “father” in fliers for her events because some children lost their parents in the tsunami.

It was important to her to do prior research on local conditions and deepen her understanding of the area before working as a volunteer, as she had done before going to Ghana.

It was only four months after the earthquake when Katsuyoshi Kuriya, 34, a translator in Tokyo, moved to the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture.

He said that after visiting the area many times, he realized there were only a few people who could coordinate the reconstruction process.

“As I got somewhat acclimated to the area, I thought I could coordinate with local people and bring more support to the area.”

Kuriya said he was willing to live in a small hut since he only needed a computer to do his job.

He has helped organize tours for students and companies, inviting a total of about 2,000 people to the coastal town.

With his past experience as a consultant, he has also helped women launch a business.

Tamiko Abe, 50, who started an online business selling marine products with Kuriya’s help, said, “I can rely on him, as I know that he understands what we think and feel on the inside.”

Kuriya spent 2½ years overseas, during which he took part in a cross-cultural education program in the U.S.

“Unless we respect the values of those who we are helping, our support will be nothing but an imposition,” he said.

Noting people are leaving Minamisanriku, Kuriya worries that his hometown — Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture — may someday face the same challenge. “Whatever we do in Minamisanriku can be useful reconstruction measures in other areas, too,” he said.