From physical labor and handing out supplies in the disaster zone to raising funds and awareness from home, the events of March. 11, 2011, inspired countless people — regardless of nationality — to act.
About 960,000 people including a number of expats volunteered in the hardest-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, according to nonprofit Japan National Council of Social Welfare.
Ten years on, some have found that the experience has stayed with them, along with the importance of helping each other out in times of devastation.
For Nigel van der Grijspaarde, who hails from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, being offered food and small tokens of appreciation from children after spending days clearing out tsunami-hit houses in Miyagi Prefecture had a lasting impact on him.
“That’s when I lost it,” says van der Grijspaarde, 56, visibly tearing up. “They’re trying to be positive, and they’ve lost their houses and they’re living in a gym. We were doing a miniscule amount of work — and it was too much, them thanking us.
“I still have dreams about it.”
Van der Grijspaarde had been inspired to head north after learning that a friend’s uncle had been washed away by the tsunami. After gathering a group of friends in Tokyo, he borrowed two vans, loaded up with masks, water, dry goods and tents, and headed to Ishinomaki. The memories of his arrival there have also stayed strong.
“The first thing that hit me was the stench. The sea has its own smell, but this was not a healthy smell. This was the smell of putrefaction,” he says. “I saw a local train track that looked like a roller coaster … it was humped where it shouldn’t have been humped.”
After ensuring that the rest of his friend’s family were safe the group was directed to an area nearer the coast where relatives had been living, and the team got stuck into clearing out houses and helping people locate important possessions.
While photographs, heirlooms and even pets were on the list of things to look for, the group also came across finds of a much more sombre nature.
“Two or three times we got to a house and you could just immediately tell there were dead people in there because of the stench, and we’d call it in and the soldiers would come,” van der Grijspaarde says.
After a week of working, van der Grijspaarde returned to Tokyo.
He plays down the importance of his efforts, but stresses that there were perspectives he gained from them.
“We know we did good … but it just felt insignificant to what was going on,” he says, before adding, “It showed me the wonderful spirit of people surviving and coming together in the face of such devastation and adversity.”
For one volunteer, helping in the disaster zone was to be a longer-lasting life-changing experience.
Jamie El-Banna, 36, was working in Osaka as an English teacher at the time of the disaster, and journeyed to the Tohoku region a couple of months after with a group he found on Facebook.
Like van der Grijspaarde, he took part in clearing houses in Miyagi Prefecture, although soon found that his command of Japanese was particularly helpful in assisting others — including a group of U.S. Marines, who wished to volunteer.
After a stint in Higashimatsushima, El-Banna returned home and had something of an epiphany.
“I did a week and went back home to Osaka, got on the loop line with people coming home drunk, and it just felt like a massive gap,” he says. “Fourteen hours ago I was in this place where it was a lot tougher. I went back to work the next day and thought ‘I’d rather be shoveling mud out of someone’s house.’”
El-Banna, originally from London, quit his job and headed to Ishinomaki, where he set up camp in the grounds of Ishinomaki Senshu University, alongside countless other volunteers.
He kept up with a blog he had been writing, and found that his posts began attracting like-minded would-be volunteers who benefited from his detailed directions and guides for anyone wishing to join him.
After being given tents and making contacts in the community, El-Banna set up a nonprofit group, It’s Not Just Mud. Help came not only from volunteers, but from residents giving the group the use of empty houses as a base, and people donating cars when they left the area.
From that, weeks turned to months then to years. El-Banna and the group took on numerous projects and welcomed countless volunteers before he finally left Tohoku.
But El-Banna also cautions that such an experience can take its toll.
“Sometimes you’re not going to be doing the sexy work, you’ll be doing something that’s really boring,” he says. “Anyone who’s worked in Tohoku for an extended time definitely burned out. I did, and it affected me for years. It’s mentally exhausting.
“You feel like you’re not doing enough and you push yourself more than you should.”
But the volunteering spirit did not leave him, and he has since helped organize and take part in responses to other disasters in Japan, including the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes. He explains the process with a business-like clarity.
“If you go to a disaster zone, you have to be self-sufficient — and you don’t want to take away resources from the people who live there,” he says, before explaining the finer points of how best to use a $100 donation (don’t spend it on canned goods, spend it on fuel and food for your workforce to ensure they can continue to provide help to people).
For others who wanted to help, physical labor and on-location response wasn’t always practical or possible.
Patrick Sherriff, 50, who was at home in Chiba Prefecture when the quake hit, turned to his experience as a seasoned journalist and writer.
“I felt like ‘this is the biggest story in the world right now and it’s happening on my doorstep,’” he says. “Having worked at the Derby Evening Telegraph, you don’t get stories like this.”
Sherriff, originally from Leicester in England, was working as an English teacher at the time for the school he and his wife set up. Experiencing something of a eureka moment a week after the disaster, he decided to put together a charity book about people’s experiences of the day.
With the thought of rallying would-be writers through Twitter, Sherriff and his wife set to work, getting in touch with contacts and soliciting contributions for what would become known as “Quakebook.”
Within a week he got 100, 200 submissions and, to boost the effort, managed to get artist Yoko Ono and author William Gibson on board, too.
The team of editors and translators that Sherriff assembled managed to get the book ready for publication in a week, with everybody involved giving up their time for no cost.
Within a month of work beginning, the book, now officially titled “2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake” was published in May 2011 as both an e-book and a paperback through Amazon, whose heads had been persuaded to waive their usual cut of profits to enable every dollar and yen raised to go to charity.
Due to the difficulties in arranging for funds to be sent overseas, Amazon passed the money raised — some $39,000 by Sherriff’s reckoning — to the American Red Cross’ Japan fund. An additional ¥1 million was given to the Japanese Red Cross Society thanks to sales of the translated version of the book.
“That’ll do. That’s the best we could do. It’ll do some good, maybe,” Sherriff remembers thinking at the time.
He later went on to make numerous trips to Tohoku to help distribute supplies.
Sherriff says he is proud of the book and the work involved, and that the whole experience lightened his outlook on life.
“It killed my cynicism a little,” he says. “It made me realize that actually there are good people who will do things fairly altruistically, and there is good that can be done and if we unite together we can actually do something worthwhile.”
The spirit of volunteering in the wake of the March 11 disaster clearly reflected the fact that a natural disaster — much like the current pandemic — can affect anyone.
Despite not necessarily having a personal connection to the people or the place affected, many, regardless of age, nationality, ethnicity or gender, stepped up and offered their time, labor or other skills.
As El-Banna says in summing up: “Japanese media always say ‘even though you’re not Japanese, why do you help?’ What a stupid question. A better question is ‘why wouldn’t you help people?’”
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