The cold started at Shin-Hanamaki as I boarded the
Kamaishi Line to Tono. Throughout this past March, the
bitter cold, wind, and snow never left. But the kind hearts
of volunteers, staff, friends, and survivors of the 2011 Great
East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami kept
me warm. Hiroko Suzuki, former Tono Furosato Village
manager and now with the Tono Tourism Association
(http://www/tonojikan.jp), greeted me at Tono Station with
her usual gracious smile. After helping me settle in to the
Tono Magokoro Net quarters, I was ready to begin work
early next morning.
The cold was piercing that night. I slept two hours. And
as it grew colder with each night, I wondered whether I
would last the next three weeks. Yet I wanted to experience
firsthand Tohoku’s harsh winter, when freezing temperatures,
combined with razor sharp winds and incessant snow and
rain, prolonged the icy chill. Can we even begin to fathom
the suffering of those who, numb from the unexpected
explosiveness of the 3.11 monster earthquake and tsunami,
faced such bone-cutting weather?
Why was I here? Tomomi Kaneko, a fellow volunteer from
Fukushima, asked me this same question while on our way to Otsuchi to work in the mud. My short response: Our past
never leaves us. Born in Fukuoka, Kyushu, as Kenji Kimura,
of my mother Misae Kimura and Irish-American father Tom
Brannigan, I treasure my heritage. Soon after Japan’s triple
horror of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, I
quietly promised my recently departed mother to learn more
about the tragedy and share this with others. In 2012, with
invaluable help from Tokyo’s East Japan Railway Culture
Foundation manager, Kunio Aoki, his assistant, Mizuki Naito
(now Abe), and Hiroko, I spent time in Tohoku learning from
survivors, victim’s families, and key persons involved in
recovery. And now during my sabbatical, I wanted to work
more closely in stricken areas and learn ‘on the ground’ from
the people themselves.
Hi roko, Kunio, and Mizuki suggested that
I work as a volunteer for Tono Magokoro Net
(http://tonomagokoro.net/english/). They encouraged me
every step of the way. Hiroko was my key contact in Tono,
helping me in many supportive ways. Her generosity knows
no bounds. Even now, she is storing my sleeping bag
and boots for my return next year. Moreover, through the
generous support of East Japan Railway Culture Foundation,
I was able to travel and experience
unforgettable encounters listening to and
learning from those with whom I have had
the privilege to meet. For all their steadfast
assistance, guidance, and support, I remain
Immediately after the 3.11 Tono City was
the lifeline for survivors. Citizens offered
assistance in numerous ways, and Tono
Mayor Toshiaki Honda wasted no time
organizing disaster response groups
and sending aid. Tono continues to be
the home-base for recovery assistance to
coastal communities. Kunio, Mizuki, and I
had the privilege of meeting with Mayor
Honda. With his charismatic presence,
firsthand knowledge of the Sanriku coastal topography, and former role as
the region’s Deputy of Disaster
Preparedness, he was the right leader
at the right time.
Tono Magokoro Net is a unique
volunteer network joining together,
in unprecedented fashion, five Tono
citizen groups and Tono’s Social
Welfare Councils, groups that had
worked independently immediately
after 3.11. Facing the inconceivable
magnitude of destruction, they joined
hands to remove debris and provide
food, water, and clothes to tsunami
victims, officially establishing Tono
Magokoro Net on March 28th, 2011.
From humble origins in a hallway
at Tono Sogo Fukushi Center, to a
temporary prefabricated building in
Tono Joka Center, and to its current site on the outskirts
of Tono, it has grown in membership, with a branch office
in Kanda, Tokyo. Magokoro Net aids countless survivors
who still live in kasetsu jutaku temporary shelters, rebuilding
their communities and creating jobs for them, particularly on
farms in Otsuchi
Magokoro Net’s skilled leadership comprises Chairman
Kazuhiko Tada and Vice-chairmen Ryoichi Usuzawa, Yusuke
Kotani, and Keiko Maekawa. I spoke with Ryoichi Usuzawa
after he shared his experiences as a tsunami victim. Humble
and genuine, he still lives in temporary housing in Otsuchi.
Magokoro Net’s success also rests upon Directors Koji Kise,
Masahiro Sasaki, Hideki Matsunaga, Toshihiro Kuramoto,
and Yoshiya Anbe; Auditors Ryoji Arata and Hiroshi Sasaki;
Counsels Eietsu Arakawa and Fumio Terui; and Managers
Kanako Hosokawa, Chikara Oyama, Fumiko Yanagi,
Yukie Sasaki, Chihiro Yamamoto, Chie Kotani, and Makoto
We volunteers worked closely with site leaders, the
charismatic Keita Inoue, who probably knows more about
the disaster than a roomful of books, the quiet, confident
Tetsuya Arakawa who sometimes treated us to pizza during
our lunch break, and Akira Kamatsu, always with a smile and
Although no 2 days were the same, we kept a strict
schedule. I slipped out of my sleeping bag at 05:30 with
an ice-cold wash to revive the senses. After breakfast, we
assembled at 08:00 for rajio taiso limbering-up exercises;
I now know the words, music, and routine. At 08:20, we
drove 40 minutes down winding roads in vans to coastal
Kamaishi, Otsuchi, and/or Rikuzentakata. We worked until
noon, followed by lunch until 13:00 often at shelter shops
owned and run by survivors and victims’ families in dire need of business. At one restaurant in Rikuzentakata, the
owner, who lost some family to the tsunami, shared slides of
the town’s colorful history, its beauty as a seaside resort, and
the destruction that ravaged the town with waves reaching
heights of 19 m. After 3 years, much of Rikuzentakata still
remains flattened and barren.
We worked again from 13:00 to 15:00. Upon returning
to our Tono base, we worked together, without exception,
cleaning the facility. After laboring in disaster sites where
death still echoes, cleaning was also a way of reinforcing
solidarity and regaining equilibrium, normality, and order.
At our 17:00 group meeting, leaders offered insights and
introduced new arrivals. Volunteers also shared personal
perspectives from their experience in ways that clearly
demonstrated kind hearts filled with empathy. After
our meeting, we had dinner and free time until lights out
Working regularly at kasetsu jutaku, each day we gained
a further taste of what life was like for survivors living here,
their agonizing disconnectedness from family, friends, and
neighbors. Theirs was a shadow world, situated in Limbo
literally in-between their lost home and utter loss.
These shelters were grouped in various sized clusters.
At one cluster in Otsuchi where we were preparing a
community area for occupants, older women routinely met
for tea, each others’ company, and conversation. One older
man, having no use for tea and conversation, needed to
be physically useful and would often accompany us as
we moved benches, stoves, cleaned rooms, and swept
porches. He occasionally helped me with lighter tasks,
and would always seek us out whenever we worked there.
According to psychiatrist Dr Makiko Okuyama, noted for
her work on children and disaster trauma, women are more likely than men to become each other’s support, explaining
the higher post-disaster suicide rate among men. I met her
later in Tokyo at the National Center for Child Health and
Development, with the caring guidance and assistance of
Naoko Kakee, who directs its Health Policy and Bioethics
After a hard overnight snowfall, we would spend the day
shoveling heavy snow at kasetsu in Otsuchi and Kamaishi.
Freezing overnight temperatures often created chunks of
ice on walkways, prohibiting occupants from venturing
outdoors. For residents, many of them elderly, one fall could
easily break a limb and be fatal with hospitals still struggling
to regain staff and facilities. So we chopped up the ice,
shoveled, and hauled away the snow.
Villagers would show gratitude and a certain kinship with
us through small deeds. The small act, the commonly
unrecognized and taken-for-granted gesture, speaks
volumes. These small acts, seemingly insignificant, are the
minor chords that make all the difference in this symphony.
In the long run, we define our lives by our small acts.
After a demanding day shoveling snow in Kamaishi, the
Kobayashis, in their 80s, invited us into their home resting
on a hilly road far enough from the coast to barely escape
the onrushing wave. Mrs. Kobayashi was so full of energy,
serving, without stop, tea, rice crackers, and snacks to the
nine of us squeezed into their tiny living room. Her husband
sat in his armchair with a giant smile, a rugby match on their
small TV, as we shared conversation and company. They
lost family, friends, and neighbors. They did not have much.
But what they did have, they shared with us –strangers–
and they later ambled down the road to bid us farewell.
On another occasion, after lunch at a shelter eatery
with English Literature student Ayaka Nishii, her friend,
also named Ayaka who studies Law, and Maki Furukawa,
we browsed at a shelter shop before heading back to our
windy work site at Rikuzentakata. We were working there
to prepare for the upcoming 3-day disaster memorial. I
remember Ayaka Nishii’s remark at lunch concerning the
toughest challenge for survivors–‘healing their torn hearts.’
While in the shop, someone tapped me on the shoulder.
It was the elderly man I spotted earlier in a chair when we
entered. He offered me a cup of freshly brewed coffee he
just purchased. He then bought boxes of candy and gave
them to the ladies. He had lost family and home. He had
little. But he wore a giant heart and gave what little he had.
After the memorial, we returned to Rikuzentakata to
clean up. There, Ayumi Kakuhari led local volunteers. She
barely escaped the wave as it swallowed her home and
neighbors, but she lost her sister. After leading us through morning exercises, Ayumi immediately rushed up to me and
embraced me with a giant hug, her round face smiling. With
penetrating dark eyes, she asked me to come back to her
town when I return. I assured her that I would. She later gave
me a precious note of gratitude, a plea to work together to
build a future, and a prayer that my U.S. hometown ‘does not
become like this town’.
Mikiko Sugawara embodies the extraordinary in the
ordinary. Soon after the tsunami ravaged her town, she
coordinated the care of over 900 survivors, many elderly
and disabled. A humble, striking, hard-working mother fully
committed to caring for her small family, her inner strength
shines. As she managed to serve tea to 15 of us in packed
into her small Rikuzentakata shelter, I was struck by her
grace as she boiled water and passed out cups. She shared
with us her family’s struggle to survive and how friends and
neighbors were swept away by the waters. Though she
carried much loss within her, her actions smiled and exuded
her warm heart.
To volunteer is to take a detour from routine. In their own ways, volunteers with whom I worked showed remarkable empathy in their unassuming gift of themselves. I remain honored to have worked alongside them and to now know
them as friends. They include Takuro Sakimoto, Yutaka Uenishi, Takuya, Yoko Kanda, Masashi Tanoue, Kyoko Akasaka, Yumiko Murakami, Nobu Kobayashi, Norito Yuasa, Sayoko Kawabata, and from my native Kyushu, Kyoko Matsuzono and Ayaka Wada, and many others*2. They and the kind Magokoro Net staff do not think of themselves as special nor doing anything heroic. They were simply doing what had to be done, without fanfare.
Tomomi Kaneko, mentioned earlier, who studies civil engineering at Fukushima National College of Technology, talked eagerly about her work with Rwandan refugees and their children living in Fukushima. She personally shared with me how she and her friends now live in constant anxiety about having children due to radiation risks. She fears her uncertain future.
This is the same fear that Minamisoma City Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai described when the East Japan Railways Culture Foundation team Kunio, Mizuki, Noriko Yamamoto, and I met with him following my volunteer stint. We afterwards visited the ‘nuclear ghost town’ of Odaka. Fukushima prefecture citizens not only face the invisible threat of radiation poisoning, but also what some call the ‘4th disaster’– unfounded rumors and stigma attached to this threat. Mayor Sakurai challenged us to realize the continuing disaster and the suffering of displaced survivors in shelters, and elderly who fear dying there. In the spirit of his samurai ancestors, and like Mayor Honda, the Mayor shows unflinching commitment to rebuild his community.
Not all volunteers were university students. Katsunori Kumagaya, probably in his mid-forties, supervises Chiba’s Ichihara-City Sports Association. A former physical therapy trainer, he is a ‘repeater’, returning to Magokoro Net each year. He and I shoveled snow together at a good pace. Through him, I learned how sports can be a special source of community pride and recovery in the aftermath of disaster. Kamaishi has its beloved professional rugby team, the Sea Waves, and shelter shops sell Sea Waves pins, t-shirts, and photos. Indeed, Kamaishi is vying as the site for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. But with its sorely fractured infrastructure, it will be difficult to compete with the other bidder, Osaka.
And then there is 28-year-old Yosaku (Saku) Oshiro from Okinawa, another repeater. He studied management at Tokyo’s Hosei University and has an enduring interest in helping the downtrodden. For Saku, volunteering is no detour from the routine. Serving others may be his life work. Programme Coodinator for the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan), an International Non-Government Organization (INGO) that offers longterm assistance to the vulnerable throughout the world, he is presently in Yangon, Myanmar, managing a vocational training center for persons with disabilities, all physically
handicapped. They include polio victims and, with Myanmar’s high number of landmines, many landmine victims.
Disasters remind us that we humans are not the measure of all things. That title goes to the unbending rhythm of Nature, its cycle of birth, death, and all that lies in-between.
Yet when all seems lost, what lies within us, our inner spirit and hope, carries the day and is the measure of our moral
grit. There is a Spanish saying, La esperanza muere al ultimo, ‘Hope dies last’.
Volunteers, staff, and survivors have shown me the unbreakable resilience of the human spirit. After shoveling snow and mud, there is simply no going back to my former version of what’s real. Each shovelful is another inch to carry another’s burden. Each shovelful makes up the wheelbarrow, and every wheelbarrow builds the mountain. Each inch
makes all the difference.