Ever since the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat has sent teams of volunteers to assist survivors in disaster-stricken areas as far afield as Kashmir, New Orleans and Indonesia. But according to Takashi Yamamoto, current director of Peace Boat’s relief efforts in Tohoku, nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed when he first arrived in the small seaside city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

“Six days after the tsunami struck the community, the damage was still on an entirely different level. The only thing I could compare it to was photographs of Tokyo after the 1945 air raids.”

Given the degree of devastation, Peace Boat’s criteria were understandably strict when selecting the first group of 50 volunteers from the general public to travel to the area on March 25. Candidates had to be physically strong, hold a manual driving license and be able to endure sleeping outdoors in Miyagi’s subzero temperatures.

Peace Boat cofounder Tatsuya Yoshioka also specified one further requirement — he wanted to include as many non-Japanese members as possible. “This disaster is so massive that it’s very difficult for Japan to recover alone,” said Yoshioka. “We can’t do it without the world’s support — and that includes international volunteers.”

According to Yoshioka, some Japanese aid groups are reluctant to accept foreigners due to the perceived cultural and language barriers. “Luckily, here at Peace Boat we have many bilingual staff. This enables us to dispatch foreign volunteers to the damaged areas — even if they don’t speak Japanese.”

Among the initial 50-member team chosen to travel to Ishinomaki, there were two North Americans and a Briton. All three were long-term residents of Japan and shared a common desire to support their adopted country at its time of need.

Jon Garner, a 39-year-old Englishman, summed up their feelings when he said, “No matter how small my contribution, I felt that I had to do something to help the people of Tohoku.”

Upon Garner’s arrival in Ishinomaki, he didn’t have to wait long to get his chance. As soon as he’d set up his tent on the snow-covered athletics track that serves as Peace Boat’s base, he and his team of fellow volunteers were dispatched to Pika Pika Home — a care center for the elderly.

Fortunately, its residents had been evacuated before the tsunami struck, but the monster waves washed in tons of sticky black mud that made it impossible for them to return. Using shovels and wheelbarrows, the volunteers cleared away the sludge, in the process uncovering poignant belongings of the center’s residents, such as family photographs, birthday cards and a page-a-day calendar still turned to March 11, the date disaster struck.

On their second day in Ishinomaki, Garner’s team had an opportunity to meet some of those most affected by the tsunami. Scattered around the city are thousands of people unable to find a place to stay in the overflowing evacuation shelters, or who have chosen not to relocate due to the centers’ lack of privacy and fears that their homes — once abandoned — will be looted. These residents continue to live on the second floors of their tsunami-ravaged houses in appalling conditions.

During its early reconnaissance of Ishinomaki, Peace Boat identified the Koganehama district as being particularly desperate. As Garner and the volunteers drove through the flooded streets, past wrecked cars and grounded fishing boats, they were lost for words. But the moment they arrived in Koganehama, they quickly put aside their distress and half the team unloaded dozens of boxes of supplies from their truck, while the other half scoured the ruined neighborhood, announcing the site of the distribution to residents.

Within 30 minutes, more than 100 local inhabitants had lined up to collect what for many of them was the first food relief they’d received since the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Watching Garner and the other non-Japanese volunteers hard at work, local resident Shoetsu Ozawa said he was particularly impressed with their zeal. “They’re not Japanese but they still want to help. It is the first group to bring food to the area and I feel really grateful for them.”

As the Peace Boat volunteers handed out sanitary goods, fresh fruit and bread, many residents offered them a polite “Thank you” in English and shook their hands. When the supplies ran out, a local citizen asked whether they would be back the next day. Apologetically, the coordinator explained that the shortage of supplies and volunteers makes it impossible for the NGO to maintain food distribution in the same area on a regular basis.

However, cofounder Yoshioka hopes to change this over the coming weeks. “Our goal is to provide at least 2,000 hot meals a day. But that takes money plus many more volunteers. We’re in the process of building a systematic network to send approximately 100 people a week to Ishinomaki over the next three months — and possibly longer.”

In order to facilitate the large numbers of non-Japanese participants they anticipate, two of the current volunteers in Ishinomaki are preparing multilingual guidance pamphlets. Dave Paddock, an outdoor expert, said, “The information will cover all aspects of the volunteers’ stay — everything from how to dress for the cold to how to stay safe during aftershocks.”

Meanwhile, Akira Uchimura, founder of the Nikkei Youth Network, has assembled a team of over 100 translators who will help to translate the guidance sheet into almost any language necessary.

Yoshioka remains firmly committed to recruiting as many non-Japanese volunteers as possible. “Japan has lost close to 30,000 people. But if we can turn this into an opportunity for international cooperation, then we will have created something positive from this terrible loss. And we will all be better prepared for when this type of disaster happens again.”

Details on how to volunteer for Peace Boat’s work in Ishinomaki, and how to donate money and supplies to the relief effort, can be found at www.peaceboat.org/ or by e-mailing pbglobal@peaceboat.gr.jp

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