Four years on, survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake have a searing yearning to be remembered, says Amya Miller, who arrived in Rikuzentakata from the United States weeks after the March 11, 2011, disaster. She has been there ever since, and today works as a volunteer for City Hall, which still operates out of a temporary facility in the Iwate coastal town.

The massive tsunami that struck the area left almost 1,800 people dead in Rikuzentakata and thousands more homeless, forced into makeshift camps set up in surviving schools. As the city’s PR director, Miller visits the displaced in temporary housing, talking and eating with them and listening to their stories.

“With the words ‘Rikuzentakata, we have not forgotten you,’ you can ease the pain that continues to mark the lives of the survivors,” she says.

Returning to Japan was a natural step, Miller says, given her long love affair with the country where she had spent her childhood. She recalls that there was plenty to do as she set to work feverishly alongside hundreds of fellow volunteers, both Japanese and foreign. The experience turned out to be life-changing: After a request from the mayor, she took the decision to abandon her thriving business back home and stay on.

The American has spent the last 2½ years working to gather stories from survivors, both young and old. In return, she brings photos and messages to Rikuzentakata from communities overseas that are pasted in City Hall.

“I receive instant rapport from the audience when I relate the stories on behalf of the displaced people,” she says. “To be able to contribute to the recovery process in this way is a meaningful way to live.”

Among the thousands of foreign volunteers who gave their time generously after the disaster, there are some whose dedication to the Tohoku recovery process has resulted in an lasting bond of solidarity with the local people. Among them is Mahfuzul Huq Lal, a Tokyo-based Bangladeshi businessman who continues to collect donations during the annual celebration of the birthday of his nation each March.

“My motto is, ‘Providing care for people who need it.’ It is in our Islamic culture to share with the needy, which is what we did at the beginning of the disaster by providing hot, curried food to the displaced in many devastated areas. Years may have gone by but we continue to contribute, but in a different way, because that is what help is. We do what we can do.” Underlining Miller’s point, Lal adds, “The main thing is to simply not forget.”

As Japan observes the anniversary of its worst postwar catastrophe, the stories of care given by volunteers — especially those who have changed the course of their lives to help the still-grieving population — offer some hope for a brighter future for the battered Tohoku region. The new ideas, compassion and hard work provided by non-Japanese still working in the region as volunteers or NGO staff have won admiration and respect from the locals.

“When I meet friends from other countries who are living here to help out, I am humbled and encouraged by their commitment,” says Mihoko Terada, author of “The Bonds of Love Left by the Tsunami,” a book documenting recovery work by ordinary people in Tohoku. “We do not view them as foreigners but rather as among the many Japanese contributing to the recovery.”

Celia Dunkelman in consultation with Tadashi Saito, mayor of Watari, Miyagi Prefecture.
Celia Dunkelman in consultation with Tadashi Saito, mayor of Watari, Miyagi Prefecture. | COURTESY OF WATARI GOVERNMENT

Celia Dunkelman, a professional musician and composer of Indonesian background living in Tokyo, initially accompanied the Israeli emergency rescue team that arrived in Japan after the disaster. Dunkelman, a convert to Judaism, first worked as a coordinator, but with her experienced knowledge of Japanese language and culture, she soon found herself directing operations for an Israeli NGO in Tohoku, negotiating with bureaucrats to cut through the labyrinthine regulations governing many aspects of life here to achieve the best results.

“It was a learning experience, and the most important lesson is that success in a foreign culture is entirely based on gaining the trust of the people you have come to help,” she explains. Dunkelman says she cannot stress enough the utmost care an outsider — especially a foreigner — must take so as not to appear arrogant or argumentative to their hosts. “The key is your empathy to realize you are working with people who are facing a time of intense suffering — and that is not hard to see when you see the pain before you. I learned that I have to ask my hosts to be of help to them. It is only then that we can be accepted.”

That reasoning, practiced diligently by Dunkelman, has produced impressive results. Since last September, she has been the only foreign member on the official recovery project team set up by local government in Watari district, which lies nestled against the coastline in Miyagi Prefecture. The area was badly damaged by the tsunami, and Watari was one of the first municipalities to accept foreign relief teams after the disaster. Dunkelman has not forgotten that brave response, and she has returned to the area frequently ever since.

“Yes, there are frustrations,” she admits. “For example, decisions at the official level take time to implement or be accepted. But that does not thwart me. I see it as a cultural trait that can be overcome with patience.”

Currently Dunkelman is working to ease the pain of loss among children and women through the Heart to Heart project run by her NPO, Celia Circle. She focuses on developing original solutions that are homegrown. An interesting part of her work is fostering leadership, which she believes is crucial to post-disaster recovery. Celia Circle runs charitable events for children, drawing on music and art to help the children cope with their memories of the disaster and the disruption to their lives that followed. She visits seven temporary housing complexes — as well as kindergartens, nursery schools and other facilities — every month.

Angela Ortiz (right), OGA For Aid
Angela Ortiz (right), OGA For Aid’s representative director, and international volunteers work on an agricultural project in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. | OGA FOR AID

Angela Ortiz heads the OGA For Aid NPO in tsunami-devastated Minamisanriku, on the Miyagi Prefecture coast. Ortiz focuses on “agricultural rehabilitation,” which brings together education and business. Her groups, mostly made up of volunteers from various countries, help with farming projects on land that she and her friends cleared in the forests after people had lost everything.

“Most of the affected people around me were older farmers who had watched their land get swept away. This had created a deep sense of fatalism,” Ortiz explains. “When we sprang into action, they watched with disbelief.”

Angela lives in Tokyo now but came to Minamisanriku from Aomori in the north — where some of her family still lives — with her parents, family and friends to volunteer back in 2011. She remembers the initial raising of eyebrows among the rural population as they watched barely clothed Caucasian youths digging fields and clearing trees that hot summer.

“It was all very strange to the locals, a fact made more complex as there was no hierarchy culture between the workers — the norm in the close-knit host society,” Ortiz laughs. But as time passed and the cleared land was planted with vegetables, the farmers were won over and began offering their own land for joint cultivation. Together with the aging farmers and operations director Peter Watabe, Ortiz has registered the Green Farmers Miyagi Co., which is developing a brand of spring onion.

“The project has been a chance to bring the community together and put the city back on the map as a leader in Japan’s agriculture,” she says.

Professor Tomonori Ichinose, a disaster education expert at Miyagi Education University in Sendai, believes that the emergence of sympathetic and committed foreigners in many tsunami-hit areas — where the presence of non-Japanese was a rarity before the disaster — has brought about a major change in the conservative mind-set of Tohoku society.

“Initially, there was overwhelming gratitude toward foreigners who brought much-needed supplies and cleared the debris,” Ichinose explains. “But as they stayed, they have not only broken down the common psychological reservation the Japanese feel toward people from foreign countries, but they are also now viewed as crucial partners in the disaster recovery process.”

Ichinose particularly welcomes the fresh ideas and methodologies for revitalization put forward by the outsiders.

Echoing Ichinose is Yuko Kusano, head of Miyagi Jo-Net, which supports women living in temporary housing in Minamisanriku.

“For example, during my group discussions, I find the participating Filipino wives ready to express their opinions,” says Kusano. “This contrasts with their reticent Japanese counterparts, who have been nurtured in Tohoku conservatism, which means being submissive to their husbands and mothers-in-law. Foreign wives are playing an important role in promoting gender equality in the post-disaster recovery process.”

Kusano also sees the religious spirit Christian and Muslim foreign volunteers have brought with them as a new and positive influence on the local population.

Charles Pomeroy stands atop the seawall in the Akahama area of Otsuchi on May 4, 2011.
Charles Pomeroy stands atop the seawall in the Akahama area of Otsuchi on May 4, 2011.

Some of these important individual stories behind the recovery effort are touched upon in a new book, “Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered,” by American journalist Charles Pomeroy, a resident of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, the hometown of his wife, Atsuko.

The couple had decided to retire there because of the beauty of the area, with its pristine shoreline and lush mountain greenery. Pomeroy had even built a woodblock printing workshop and was looking forward to spending long hours working inside, punctuated by invigorating walks in the fresh sea breeze.

Then came the tsunami that washed away their beloved house and even stole the lives of some family members. But rather than give in, Pomeroy has taken the decision to return and rebuild, and is now waiting for construction to begin on their new home. This unshaken willpower represents an important contribution to the local recovery in Otsuchi, which is facing the prospect of accelerating depopulation as people leave the area to restart their lives elsewhere.

“Instead of abandoning the beauty of Otsuchi, I have written about the many ways that Otsuchi can be revived. The place is perfect for retirement and thus can be marketed as a mecca for the elderly in Japan,” Pomeroy believes.

With the region now moving toward a full-blown recovery, “It’s a wonderful experience to be in Tohoku, and I will never regret the decision” to stay in Rikuzentakata, says Miller, who is now planning how to best spend her next few years in the area.

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