- A UC Student’s Report on the Nov. 2013 Tohoku Trip2014.02.25
On November 23rd & 24th, 2013, students from the UC and MGU made an overnight study trip to view conditions in Otsuchi-cho, Iwate Prefecture. The town was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, and the remaining residents continue to struggle with the magnitude of the recovery. Although the region was not directly affected by the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, the people of Otsuchi must contend with lingering assumptions that their town was also irradiated.
The tour’s goal was to examine present conditions in the town, including volunteer relief efforts by Meigaku students and NPOs, and to study issues facing the residents as they attempt to rebuild their community. The following description from Miya Sommers (UCSB) recounts the experience, and its impact on her perceptions of the disaster and the Japanese people she encountered.
A Reflection upon the Otsuchi Volunteer Trip
By Miya Sommers
I packed my bags slowly, not knowing how organize the last four months into my large backpack. Choosing to study at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan was the best decision of my life, and I can hardly express what this experience has given me. But as I said goodbye to my dorm and boarded the night train to the airport, there was one moment that stood out to me as I reflected on my time in Japan. While every bit of my time at Meiji Gakuin University was life changing, it was the volunteer trip to Iwate prefecture that left the biggest impression on me.
Iwate Prefecture is part of the Tohoku region, the area devastated by the Great Japan Earthquake in March 2011. The scale of destruction was massive, and relief efforts are still continuing in this area. Meiji Gakuin's Volunteer Center regularly schedules service trips for its students in the town of Otsuchi on Iwate’s coast. Otsuchi was completely destroyed by the tsunami and fire that followed the earthquake. The need for volunteers is tremendous. For the 2013 Fall semester, the Volunteer Center created a weekend trip that would be conducted in English for the benefit of the UC students.
Once this trip was announced, I immediately wanted to join. I remember watching the footage on TV, unable to register the gravity the disaster. Even though this had left the consciousness of US mainstream media, in Japan I felt Tohoku remained substantial problem without any concrete solutions. I was confused as to why Japan, a global leader, still needed help with reconstruction three years after the tsunami struck. To find some answers, I quickly signed up. And a few weeks later, I found myself on a night bus on its way to Tohoku.
Around 7 AM, our mixed group of Meiji & UC students and two faculty members, stepped off the bus. I remember thinking how refreshing it felt to be away from Tokyo. There was nothing but mountains and valleys, unlike the packed quarters in Japan's urban neighborhoods. It was a gorgeous day as the early morning sun shone on a wide plain of brown grasses outlined by sprawling mountains covered in red autumn leaves.
However, this lighthearted feeling was quickly tarnished with the reality of the situation. I learned, to my complete dismay, that the emptiness was the not a sign of a rural community, but all that remained in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake. Where we were dropped off had been the heart of Otsuchi, once filled with houses, telephone poles, and stores like any other Japanese city. The force of the tsunami destroyed the city center, and the ensuing fire turned what was left into to ashes.
I hadn't imagined the scale of loss these people encountered. Even though I had done some research before coming, nothing prepared me for the acres of barren flatlands that only contained the skeletal remains of a few buildings and some trailers. It was just overwhelming. At one point we climbed a hill to survey what remained of Otsuchi. The place where I stood had also been a refuge point as people fled from the tsunami. However, we learned that many of the elderly victims had been unable to climb the steep steps leading up to the hillside. From this vantage point, survivors watched in horror as their loved ones were swept away by the black waves. I can hardly describe my own grief in hearing these stories. So I can only imagine the trauma the townspeople of Otsuchi still carry today.
Yet, as we traveled through the town, speaking with locals and hearing their stories of survival and reconstruction, this sadness was absent. It was like moving through two realities. Visually, Otsuchi was a gaping wound. Few houses were being rebuilt. Rubble still littered the ground. And more than half the original population was gone, either deceased, in temporary housing, or had simply moved away. Reconstruction was tied up in bureaucracy and competing interests. But each person we met was warm, inviting, and driven by the will to take on the alarming task of rebuilding this entire town. They identified the many challenges their community faced, and were coming up with solutions, with or without institutional support.
This is a side of Japan that the average tourist doesn’t get to see. A side that is imperfect and riddled with struggles. Seeing this gave me a fuller picture of Japan, especially for its marginalized communities. I was humbled witness their resilience to endure, or gaman, in the most dire of situations. I would no longer dwell on the sadness I felt for the people of Otsuchi and Tohoku. They were not asking for pity, but looking for opportunities to rebuild.
We ended the trip with a group dinner including our guides at a makeshift restaurant along the main road. Even though we had only know each other for less than day, that small trailer was filled with laughter and warmth in the cold night, creating an intimacy that was unlike any other I would feel in Japan. And as the volunteer group boarded the same night bus to head home, we all hugged and made heartfelt promises to return to the Otsuchi townspeople who saw us off. I know I will come back.
It's been a few months since I stepped foot in Otsuchi. I recently chanced upon an article that talked about Fukushima's ghost towns and the unbelievably slow reconstruction efforts. Instantly, I was flooded by memories of my time in Iwate. But I remembered that these amazingly strong people didn’t need my sympathy. That sadness was already apparent. In their choosing to move forward, they taught me they need action.
UC, Meigaku and Otsuchi-cho students at a presentation and discussion program
Since it will be some time until I can go back, I'd like to start my commitment to action by to urging every UC student who will be studying abroad in Japan, especially those amazing individuals who chose Meiji Gakuin, to take the opportunity to volunteer in the Tohoku region. There is too much work that needs to be done for this region to be forgotten. Given the diverted attention towards the 2020 Olympics, many feel as though they are already cast aside. To keep things moving forward, the energy and vibrancy of UC students will surely be welcomed. And you will become a different person because of it.