Helping Hands

Two Mie ALTs trek to Tohoku on their own to volunteer in the disaster area

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By Dan Traylor
Published Monday, May 30th, 2011 (2:28pm)

The call for volunteers went out by email to participants of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). One participant in Miyagi was personally working to coordinate volunteers to give up their Golden Week holiday and go to Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, a coastal community devastated by the March 11 tsunami.

In Mie, assistant language teachers Pilar Gutierrez and Gisela Camba answered the call, collecting two suitcases of donated goods from their colleagues and making trips to various stores to prepare for a week of camping and hard work in the disaster area.

They had reservations on an overnight bus from Nagoya to Sendai. From there they would make their way to a volunteer center in Ishinomaki. They packed work clothes, gloves, boots, masks, sleeping bags and a tent. They had a camping stove and a week’s worth of food and water. They were ready.

But then, on the eve of their departure, came the newest email from the coordinator, this one marked "urgent." It said there were too many volunteers anticipated over Golden Week, and that there would be nowhere to camp. The Ishinomaki volunteer center had posted a message online asking inexperienced volunteers not to come.

Gutierrez and Camba spoke on the phone to discuss the news and quickly decided to head north anyway. They had the bus reservation. And the donated goods. At the very least, they could drop off the donations and boost the region’s economy by traveling for a few days outside of the disaster area. And if they were lucky, maybe they’d find a place to volunteer.

“Our chances of volunteering seemed slim at the time, but we figured at the very least, we would be able to deliver the donations,” Camba said in an email interview.

So on the night of April 29, they boarded a highway bus that arrived in Sendai the next morning. The early moments were stressful.

Online, they found a center that was accepting volunteers. They rushed there by train and taxi only to discover it full. “It was disheartening for us,” said Gutierrez, who said the pair at that point expected to be turned away from everywhere they tried.

They spent the rest of the day camped in the lobby of the Comfort Inn in Sendai, using the guest computers and the complimentary note pads and pens to coordinate their search. Gutierrez found a list online with all of the centers in the area. They narrowed it down to four top choices and Camba called them all. In the end, they settled on Tagajo, a town Northeast of Sendai.

“The volunteer community at Tagajo was really great and we got to understand the organization of the volunteer centers a lot more,” Camba said.

Tagajo is far enough inland that it was spared the worst of the tsunami. “The water went only about to my waist,” Camba said. But that is enough to cause serious damage. They were put to work stripping wood floors, digging out the mud, and disinfecting what was left behind.


Later in the week, after moving to a hostel, they met a woman who was volunteering in Watari, a town south of Sendai. They had found their next workplace. Watari was heavily damaged by the tsunami, so they worked to clear wreckage and salvage usable items at affected homes.

Along the way, they occasionally ran in to locals, whom Camba described as friendly and strong. “They mostly thought about rebuilding and moving forward,” she said.

“In Tagajo, a neighbor saw us working hard and made us miso soup … with tsukemono and rice,” Gutierrez said. “I was really grateful for everything.”

While Camba and Gutierrez are still collecting their thoughts after the experience, they offered some of their initial impressions.

Before the trip, they both had an image of total destruction in the region. “We did not expect as much infrastructure to be left in place as there was,” Camba said. Gutierrez said her perspective can be separated into three layers: images from the media, the view from the station, and the scene at the sea.

“Standing near the ocean side of Watari with a panoramic vision of just complete destruction is something that just hurts the head,” Camba said. “It’s a little surreal and pictures don’t really show how unreal everything feels and seems.”

More than anything, the pair stressed that more help is needed in the region. Camba said that many volunteers opt to stay in Sendai, in hotels or hostels, and commute to the disaster area, but she added that camping is a good way to save money. Although they left their tent and sleeping bags at home, they saw many places to camp.

But potential volunteers, especially those from outside of Japan, should make sure they’re able to speak enough Japanese to make plans over the phone and listen to instructions while on the job. On top of that, despite their success finding last-minute places to work, Gutierrez stresses that it is better to plan ahead.

What’s more, don’t expect to be catered to, Camba warns. “Accept what you’re told to do since your wants and needs are the last priority,” she said. Another warning: Camba and Gutierrez said to expect roles to be assigned based on gender. “Don’t fight against it,” Camba said, “but just do what you can.”

Overall, Gutierrez and Camba look back on the trip with positive feelings, with Gutierrez calling it “the most stressful and most fulfilling trip” she has ever had.

They strongly encourage those who can to make their own volunteer trip.

“Learn from our experience,” Gutierrez said. “And be careful.”

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