(2011年5月7日 / 相談担当 )


【Essay】Volunteering at Soma City, Fukushima by Justin Boley
福島・相馬市での災害ボランティア体験 by ジャスティンさん

東日本大震災 、 体験 、 レポート 、 Japan quake

画像Soma city / 相馬市

On the weekend of April 2nd and 3rd, I traveled to the city of Soma in Fukushima prefecture to join the restoration work organized by their Disaster Volunteer Center*. Soma is a port town and has wide flatlands around the Matsukawaura inland bay, so the damage from the tsunami was particularly hard severe. The city is also only 43 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, not much farther removed than towns like Iitate and Minamisoma which have been asked to evacuate. However, at the time it was the only disaster center accepting volunteers from other area of Japan.


*Soma city Disaster Volunteer Center/相馬市災害ボランティアセンター(Japanese)

The Disaster Volunteer Center had been introduced in a post by the Tokyo Voluntary Action Center (TVAC), one of my main sources for volunteering opportunities.. A phone call to the Soma center confirmed that they were open to those from outside the prefecture, and that no appointments were necessary. I would, however, need to provide my own transportation, food and lodging. Bullet train and conventional rail lines were down, and the hotels in Soma city were all full, but a provisional bus had been set up between Soma and the prefectural capital of Fukushima. I made round trip reservations on night buses leaving Friday night and returning Monday morning, and booked a room at a small hotel in Fukushima. The center recommended bringing your own food, gloves and mask, as well as boots and work clothes for heavy work, but since I was scheduled to arrive too early to check in to my hotel, I packed light and planned on buying the rest of my supplies locally.


画像Soma disaster volunteer center / 相馬災害ボランティアセンター

Volunteers at Soma sign up on a first-come, first-served basis. On the first day, I only arrived in time to help carry boxes at a high school that had been converted into a shelter. I did my best to keep up with the locals as they quickly boxes from trucks into a gymnasium filled with mountains of cardboard. A month after the disaster, most of the dire needs had already been fulfilled, and the shelters were chiefly receiving shipments of food, clothing and other day-to-day necessities. Work ended quickly, and I used the rest of the day to take a look around the city and buy gloves and boots for the next day so I could volunteer for heavier tasks.


Downtown Soma city, the area around the bus stop, government office and volunteer center, is virtually untouched. Windows were broken here and there, sidewalks had off-kilter bricks, and a scant few buildings were still in complete disarray, but there was not much damage to be found. Supermarkets bustled and supplies were abundant; lights were turned off to save electricity, but shops were open. Empty as it was in places, the city did not feel like a disaster area. The people did not seem like disaster victims. I wondered to myself if I had come to the wrong town, or if the recovery effort was making even faster progress than I had heard.


On the second day, I sprinted from the bus stop already suited up in work clothes, and arrived early and well-equipped enough to apply for an assignment cleaning out a Japanese-style inn by the marina. I joined a small group which would work with another volunteer detachment already at the site. The center provided us with shovels, brooms and wheelbarrows, which we loaded up into cars. With many roads still shut down, we took a long, winding detour to the marina. I was idly chatting with my ride, a man who worked at the city labor standards office, when we suddenly entered the real disaster area.


A huge area, once full of houses and tourist spots, had been completely leveled by the tsunami. It was now an open field spotted with overturned yachts and fishing boats. The empty space was daunting; there was too much which should have been there and wasn't. It didn't seem like a problem that could be solved with shovels and wheelbarrows. After staring in silence for something like ten minutes, I felt like I should say something. I commented, fumblingly, that it was hard to believe the difference between the downtown and what I was seeing. But what I didn't mention, and what was now even more impossible to reconcile, were the cheerful, motivated people I'd been talking to that weekend. I can't imagine living with a situation like that for a month and maintaining that level of composure and strength. I tried to keep that in mind as I helped them work for the rest of the day.


The inn we arrived at was actually completely untouched from the second floor up. The first floor was full of garbage, every surface coated in mud. The large metal refrigerators in the kitchen had been tossed onto their sides, and reeked of spoiled seafood. Instead of cleaning, we would be hauling all that garbage and wreckage out just to open a place to walk. Under direction from more experienced volunteers, we cleaned out the kitchen and guest rooms on the first floor, stopping every few hours to rest. By three thirty in the afternoon, both our groups had emptied out a good area of the inn. The mound of garbage out in the parking lot had grown bigger, and long rows of mud-caked serving dishes were lined up next to it. Grime also covered our gloves and boots and streaked across our clothes, but everyone was smiling. I don't presume to understand what it is like to live in Soma now, but I do feel like I know why they can work with smiles on their faces. I invite others to experience that themselves.


A final word for other non-Japanese speakers is that just like food and lodging, you may need to cover your own language needs. Call the center you want to volunteer at to see if they speak English, and if you can coordinate your participation with an interpreter. I struggled with this myself, but please be careful not to place a burden on the disaster centers.