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Rebuilding Japan: Volunteer diary







Isako Matsuoka, 20, is a Habitat for Humanity volunteer. She is in Ofunato city, northern Iwate Prefecture, Japan, and is part of the first team of volunteers involved in housing repair and clean-up activity. This is her account.

Day Five
Today is my last day in Ofunato. I spend my morning back at Fumimaro Honma’s house. We have very nearly done all he has asked us to do for him. He tells us the next stage is that he will bring a carpenter in to see what wood can be salvaged and hopefully building work can begin. It is so rewarding to see a job nearing completion. My afternoon is spent clearing the floors of another two buildings.

Each day I have been working alongside volunteers from All Hands – this is the first time that I have met so many volunteers from overseas, and it has been wonderful and interesting to talk to all of them, and so great to see that everyone has come together to rebuild Japan.

I am so glad that I have come to Ofunato and been able to help a little. I now feel that I have a tie to Ofunato and the home-owners I have worked alongside. I can now go and tell other Japanese students what I have seen and explain the sad situation left behind by the tsunami. I think the message that I will pass on is that the situation is not helpless and we can do something for the people affected. I hope I can encourage many other students to come here and volunteer.

Day Four
I was back at Takata High School today, with twenty other volunteers. I think it’ll take at least twenty volunteers working hard every day for many weeks to make a real difference to the school. We divided ourselves in to five teams, each taking one room. I was working in a science lab room. There was mud and trash everywhere, with some salvageable and some broken furniture. The school teachers have asked us to try and save anything that could be used again, so I carry out whatever furniture could be salvaged, and wash it. Water is very scarce still in Rikuzentakata and it is still being brought in by tankers, so I have to be very careful with how much water I use.

As I sort through debris in the lab, I find lots of different styles of food cans. I imagine that one of the school’s science projects was to design a new type of fish tin, like you might have for tuna or sardines. As Rikuzentakata is a fishing community, I think this would be a very suitable science project.

I also find a lot of trophies for various school awards. I know that these things are very precious so I take these outside to wash as well, and put them in a room we have cleaned and designated as a place to store important things that we have found while working. I hope this is one way of helping the school heal after such a tragedy.

Day Three
As I strip wallpaper alongside Fuminaro Honma, he thanks me for volunteering to clean up his apartments. The tsunami waves came up to the ceiling of the first floor. He is such a cheerful man despite his recent sad experience. It is hard to believe that he lost his house and livelihood six weeks ago and his life was turned upside down. He tells me that he had so much to do after the tsunami, that he really didn’t know how he was going to manage. He told me that at first he wanted to just throw everything away and give up. When he was in the evacuation center, Fuminaro heard that he could get volunteers to help him. Initially he was sceptical about what benefit volunteers could really bring, but now that he has met Habitat for Humanity volunteers and seen how hard they work, he tells me that he feels his situation has become less desperate.

I work alongside three other volunteers and Fuminaro. We clear out a lot of mud and trash, and we manage to clean two of the four rooms in one of the apartments.

I have a lot of respect for Fuminaro.

Day Two
I spend my morning cleaning at the Fukushino Sato centre, which was just a centre for physical and mental rehabilitation before the earthquake and tsunami. Now the usual residents have been joined by 70 evacuee families and volunteers. I work alongside a staff member and she tells me how she was working when the earthquake struck and Ofunato residents just fled towards the centre as it is built on the top of a hill. They couldn’t believe what was happening. She has a very bright and fun character, taking her job cleaning the centre very seriously to try to make the evacuees’ time at the centre as comfortable as possible – she feels it is the least she can do. It makes me feel good to know that she is there caring and worrying about the evacuees.

I worked alongside other volunteers to clear one of Takata High School’s gymnasiums in the afternoon. High school students in Rikuzentakata, Ofunato’s neighbouring city, are now back at school after spring break, sharing the classrooms of the elementary school that was just a little higher up the road and escaped the crushing waves. Part of the elementary school is also an evacuation centre, and temporary housing is currently being built in its grounds.

By the end of the day, the gym was so clean that students could have walked straight in and started playing basketball. The clock at the front of school is stuck at 3.04 – this was when the tsunami struck, about 20 minutes after the earthquake.

Day One
When I saw news of the earthquake and tsunami on the TV, I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was like something out of a movie. People watching the TV were crying and knew I had to take action and do something.

I spent today removing the tatami mats and twisted floorboards from Saeko Mizuno’s house. She is a 77-year-old grandmother who lives alone. Even though the tsunami completely destroyed one room in her house and damaged other rooms, she wants to try and repair it rather than move anywhere else. This is the home she moved to when she got married, where she brought up her three children and is near to her husband’s grave – his photo is the only possession she has hung up.

Saeko was doing the crossword when the earthquake struck and she gripped on to her front door frame. She only survived the tsunami because she sheltered in a car park on top of a department store, cold and frightened, with other evacuees. She saw the water rising around her and cars floating by. Two of her relatives died.

We remove all of her possessions as they have been damaged by water and she worries that they now might contain harmful bacteria. We carry this to a plot of land that has been converted in to a dump site. Amongst the debris I see a piano, stuffed toy and tea set – all things that were important once to somebody.