Our Lives

Housewife takes time to make a difference volunteering in Tohoku

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Sometimes making a difference just means making the time. Kerry Shioya, 49, travels two or three times a month to the Tohoku areas hit by the March 11, 2011, disasters. Sometimes setting out alone, sometimes bringing one of her five children, interested English students or other volunteers, Shioya continues to make time for those affected by the catastrophe.

Although some areas still need relief work, Shioya believes that most places now require something intangible. “Especially in Fukushima, people just need us to bring our bodies and our companionship,” she says. “They don’t want others to forget them. Going there, being with them, just providing a happy moment in their lives is so important. You don’t need a special skill or license; you just need the courage to take that first step and go.”

Shioya, a 26-year resident of Tokyo, has volunteered over 50 times, visited 15 different areas to forge relationships with Tohoku residents over multiple visits. Her 10-year-old daughter, herself nearing 20 trips up north, is a pen pal to many residents and has exchanged hundreds of letters so far, although all her children volunteer when they can.

To Shioya, it’s nothing special. “I don’t think what we do is really out of the ordinary,” she says, “so I don’t understand why other people don’t volunteer. It may cost a little money, but when I think about what other victims have lost — homes, jobs and family members — I don’t mind digging a little into my own pocket.”

To help potential volunteers constrained by time, Shioya began offering day trips to Fukushima a year ago. Leaving from Hachioji or Shinjuku Station in the early morning, Shioya provides transportation and her experience so others can tour the disaster areas before heading to temporary housing in Fukushima to eat lunch and spend time with the residents. The group returns to Tokyo the same night.

Shioya believes that everyone “should volunteer at least once, to see for their own eyes and talk to the people firsthand themselves.” Participants contribute to supplies, gas and toll, and the total is “usually about ¥5,000 per person.”

Another program Shioya currently spearheads offers foot baths to residents in temporary housing. Several charity organizations have pulled out of the Tohoku region after the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and foot baths became a service Shioya decided to continue herself when one of the organizations she was working with donated all of its equipment as they exited.

“Foot baths are one-on-one, very intimate and private, so they provide the perfect chance for residents to feel relaxed and open up about their problems and stress. In the disaster areas, nobody wants to hear another victim’s problems because everyone is a victim. It is much easier to confide in a volunteer. The residents want to talk, they need to talk, and the more they talk, the easier they recover.”

Shioya and her group of volunteers offered foot baths for residents in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, for the first time in May, and the residents began lining up 30 minutes before the scheduled start. Over 100 people took advantage of the service over two days. “All you do is listen to the residents and give hand massages while they soak their feet in hot water.”

When Shioya first decided to volunteer in Tohoku five months after the March 2011 tragedy, she told no one of her plans, neither family or friends. “I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of it,” she says, admitting it took her a while to find the courage to go. “Immediately after the earthquake, like many others, I felt strongly that I wanted to help, but I had many excuses not to: I have five children, I’m a foreigner, how would I get there? But I couldn’t stop thinking about the people.”

In May 2011, a parishioner at Shioya’s church came back from volunteering and spoke at a Mass about his experiences in Tohoku with Caritas, a Catholic volunteer group. Although Shioya instantly researched the group online, it took her until August to work up the courage to sign up herself.

Shioya told her husband and children only two days before the scheduled trip, “when it was too late for anyone to argue about it.” She boarded a midnight bus to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, in mid-August. At the time, her oldest was in university and her youngest was 8 years old. When she arrived in Kamaishi, walking 15 minutes to the Caritas base, the stench of the disaster area overwhelmed her for a few hours. Shioya recalls: “You’re supposed to introduce yourself and where you are from, but all I could manage from the futon they set out for me was, ‘My name is Kerry, and I don’t feel very well.’ “

Shioya quickly recovered and completed her three-day commitment. As soon as she got home in Hachioji, she opened the computer and signed up again for a week later. “It was such a good time, and I was on such a high. It may sound weird for a volunteer to say that, since we are obviously not going there for pleasure, but I think many volunteers experience it. You join a group of people, wanting to do good, choosing to volunteer, and sharing the same goal. It just creates a nice atmosphere to be in.”

After the first trip, Shioya volunteered with Caritas for a year before gradually building up volunteer connections, branching out to different locations with different groups. Motivated to bring her children with her, she began driving herself to the disaster areas in 2012. Her husband supported her from the beginning, and Shioya won over her children as soon as they made a volunteer trip with her: “For New Year’s 2012, I took my three youngest for the first time. We pitched a tent, helped out at temporary housing, made pancakes for the residents and played with the children. On the way home, they asked when they could come back.”

Shioya admits she had little volunteer experience before the earthquake, and nothing in her past to explain her commitment to Tohoku. Born and raised in California to a Japanese mother and American father, Shioya studied Japanese at the University of California, Berkeley before moving permanently to Japan in 1987. A full-time housewife, Shioya also teaches English part-time at various places. Her family now fully supports her volunteer efforts; “My husband told me, ‘I think you were meant to do this.’ “

Shioya says, “You can’t just go once; you meet people and make connections and you want to know how they are doing. Every area has its own unique problems. Some areas, like Ishinomaki (in Miyagi Prefecture), are almost completely recovered, because it is a big city and only part of it was devastated, so the rest of the city could help with recovery. But other areas, like Otsuchi or Rikuzentakata, were basically washed away, and still need a lot of relief work.

“Fukushima is a different situation; the people there are so angry and suspicious, but they don’t really know who to be angry with. Yet every area needs people to remember them.”

Even after two years of volunteering, Shioya has no plans to cut back on her time in Tohoku. “Most people think, ‘I can’t do anything, so why bother going up?’ But you just do what you can do, and go.”