When Angela Ortiz describes what it felt like to return to Aomori Prefecture five days after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, she uses words like “horror,” “incredulous disbelief” and “intense curiosity.”

The 36-year-old American lived in Aomori between the ages of 15 and 23, and when disaster hit the prefecture and the broader Tohoku region, she returned with her 8-year-old daughter to be with family and help with the recovery.

What she remembers most were the people she encountered, even the ones she saw fleetingly from her car window as she drove through the rubble.

“The silhouette of an old fisherman caught my eye,” she recalls from one particular outing. He had “weathered skin, features shaped from the elements and lifestyle of a fisherman. Strong and stout for his age. He was standing amid the ruins of his life holding an item from the remains. He let his hands drop and I had a flash of insight into his emotional state: (He looked) overwhelmed, hopeless.”

In the months following March 11, many non-Japanese volunteers signed up to help the Tohoku region with its immediate recovery. Ortiz was a particularly vocal advocate of such humanitarianism at the time and has continued helping as the founder and director of Place to Grow, a volunteer-led nonprofit that focuses on connecting and inspiring a rising generation of leaders in disaster-stricken areas.

“We’ve entered an interim period now where it takes longer to see the change,” Ortiz says, assessing where the volunteer effort stands eight years following the triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis. “Before there was such dramatic devastation that any little bit of clean up stood out. But since a few years ago, it has been the grind of rebuilding, block by cement block and dirt pile after dirt pile — blank lots waiting for homes to be built. You can’t yet see the complete vision for many towns undergoing reconstruction.”

The Reconstruction Agency announced in December that full restoration of the region would not be complete by March 2021 as originally scheduled. In the meantime, Ortiz says people outside of Tohoku can help via tourism and letting the people of the region know they still care.

“I can’t do much alone but as a community of volunteers we can create a sustainable network of people who choose to matter by learning to share their stories.”

A place to play

With many of the basic reconstruction needs funded and under way, local governments have begun to focus on so-called secondary needs in order to restore a sense of community. Playground of Hope was launched in 2012 to provide outdoor play equipment for children in the affected areas, and now works more closely with municipalities.

“The village of Omuro in Ishinomaki was devastated by the tsunami,” says Playground of Hope founder Michael Anop. “Fifty-two of the 54 houses in this village were completely swept away by the wave. Sadly, many lives were lost as well. Now, seven years later, the community is coming back. Twenty-seven new homes have been built. The government created two small parks but could not provide the funds needed for play equipment.”

Playground of Hope was contacted last year to help and, with a generous donation from Finnish mobile game developer Supercell, it was able to provide swings, slides, a climbing wall, spring rockers and other equipment to transform the park into a children’s play paradise.

“Omuro is a tight-knit fishing community consisting of large, extended families,” Anop says. “The most encouraging aspect of this community is how many young families have moved back and are trying their best to see their small village revive.”

Examples like this exist across Tohoku, and Anop feels the time has finally reached a point where local governments can turn their focus to tangible rebuilding.

Lessons from Chernobyl

Another active volunteer is Tokyo resident Kerry Shioya, who has been visiting the affected areas since 2012. She points out that while volunteers of the traditional sort have declined in recent years, help is still appreciated.

“There are so many areas that need help that people are not aware of,” she says. “For example, Fukushima’s animal shelters are still trying to rehome rescues from the disaster. The shelters hardly have any volunteers and, of course, no government funding.”

To better understand the long-term effects of a disaster, Shioya came up with the clever idea to volunteer in the areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.

“I wanted to see what Fukushima would look like 25 years after the meltdown,” Shioya says. “I was planning to make a private trip but discovered a group called Clean Futures Fund,” a nonprofit that supports communities affected by industrial accidents.

This summer will mark her third trip to Chernobyl, where she works in shelters there to rehouse domesticated animals that went wild after the disaster.

Emotional support

In addition to physical reconstruction, emotional and social support remain an important focus for rebuilding.

“Up in Tohoku, a common term widely used to describe the emotional difficulty in what recovery really means after the disaster is kokoro no byōki (illness of the heart),” Ortiz says. “From continuing financial worries, divorces, depression, disconnected families to elderly survivors losing connection or meaning, there are ongoing situations of survivors falling through the cracks.”

Place to Grow continues to hold monthly community workshops and a new initiative with Sogo Fitness of Tokyo that will focus on physical activity alongside emotional well-being for children is set for an April launch.

“Children are the heart of a community; they’re the reason families come together,” Ortiz says. “Volunteers provide an invaluable message of encouragement, crucial to the long-term emotional recovery of survivors. In contrast to individual volunteering, a community of volunteers, like Place to Grow, provides an ongoing sustainable support system.”

On more than one occasion, Ortiz uses the phrase “People inspire people” — it feels like a mantra, or at least a simple motivational statement to remind locals that their communities are worth rebuilding.

A culture of volunteering

Playgrounds, pets and psychological well-being, all of these are important steps on the road to recovery. According to the Reconstruction Agency’s latest progress report, which was released Feb. 26, agricultural industries have recovered 89 percent and fisheries 96 percent, as the agency has launched advertising campaigns aimed at promoting foods and products from Tohoku across the country. Tourism in the region has increased 191 percent since 2017 and, with two global sporting events coming to the affected areas — this year’s Rugby World Cup and next year’s Olympics — hopes are high that it will continue to rise.

And as the March 11 anniversary once again passes through public consciousness, it’s understandable that the media turns its focus to providing updates on Tohoku’s ongoing reconstruction. However, what about the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995? The April 2016 quakes in Kumamoto Prefecture or September’s magnitude 6.7 earthquake in Hokkaido? The tectonic plates under Japan aren’t going to stop moving so promoting a culture of volunteering will likely help for when the next disaster hits.

“Volunteers bring more than just energy, inspiration and new ideas,” Ortiz says. “Their return and interest in the community reinforces the message that others believe the rebuilding is worthwhile — and that they are worthwhile.”

Looking to help out?

While volunteering opportunities are on the decline in the Tohoku region, there are still places looking for help. Just check in advance to confirm that they are willing to accommodate you.

Place to Grow: www.placetogrow-ngo.org

Playground of Hope: poh.ngo/en

Apricot Children: apricotchildren.org/ja/home

Hands on Tokyo: www.handsontokyo.org/en/home

Japan Emergency NPO: www.jen-npo.org/en

Tohoku Disaster Relief: www.jnpoc.ne.jp/en/what-we-do/tohoku-disaster-relief

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