Despite rumors that Tohoku, as a whole, is in a state of emergency, Yamagata Prefecture remains largely unaffected, supplies are plentiful and there are few reminders of the devastation that swept the coastline three weeks ago. Under these conditions, it should come as no surprise that residents would want to help their neighbors over the mountains, in the tsunami affected areas.
Yasuhiko Shibuya, a restauranteur from Higashine, explains how a volunteer project, which Tokyo Times was allowed to join, came about. “Our branch of the young business association asked if we could help. Iwate needed food and supplies, so we headed up there.” Shibuya, and around 20 other volunteers from the city have been providing support in the city of Rikuzentakata.
Yamashige Watanabe, a volunteer from Oguni City, Yamagata Prefecture, with experience in the Kobe and Niigata earthquakes says: “I almost lost friends volunteering in the Niigata earthquake, so I was reluctant to come here, but Higashine was so determined to help, I spoke to Iwate about what they could do to contribute.”
For Shibuya, this was his second visit to the area. “I've been helping out at the center back in Higashine too, though,” he adds.
Another volunteer with the group explains that while conditions remain bad, the region is on the slow path to recovery. “On the 17th, we headed across to Iwate the fastest way we know how, but it was through some of the worst affected areas of the earthquake,” he says. “We went through a night, which was fortunate, because there were still dead bodies everywhere at that time and at least with the dark we couldn't see so far.”
Driving across the mountains, the group brought with them rice, clothing, toiletries and an evening meal for the approximately 700 people who lost their homes in the tsunami and are currently residing at the city's No. 1 junior high school. A panorama of the city center from the school suggests those without homes are in for a long plight: That such a wasteland housed a fully functioning society less than a month ago is difficult to believe.
“We know there is a big one comes every three decades or so,” says Tsutomu Nakai, who runs operations at the junior high school turned refugee center. “But we were 99.9 percent sure that something like this wouldn't happen. How can you prepare for something like this?”
Nakai, a fifty-something man, had escaped the tsunami by climbing the side of a mountain with his elderly mother. It appears extraordinary events in nature bring about extraordinary acts of survival. “We don't know when we will be back on our feet,” Nakai adds, however. “Pay slips, accounts and other documentation for wages has gone. Also, about a third of the workers at city hall were killed in the tsunami.”
A former canteen where school dinners were prepared for the city acts as its store house in this time of crisis. “We need three tons of rice and bread for 15,000 every day,” says an organizer at the facility. “So far, we have received enough, but vegetables are an issue.” Difficult to store and not as easy to procure on a constant basis through the distribution networks currently helping to keep crisis-hit Tohoku fed, volunteers are having to get creative to make the fruit and vegetables they receive go far enough.
Back at the evacuation center, a volunteer from the part of town that survived prepares tonjiru – a Japanese pork broth – to compliment cabbage, rice prepared by the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the pork brought in from Higashine. The city also donated white fish as a side dish. The volunteer reassures: “We try to vary the meals day to day.”
Inside, those waiting for the food live in a sports hall turned cardboard city, seemingly resigned to a fate of waiting for, well, waiting's sake. There is little else to do. In the coming weeks, delivering more choices and a more complex daily structure to these people's lives will be important, said one organizer at the school.
Serving the meals, one is struck by how carefully Watanabe, the experienced volunteer, serves compared to less experienced volunteers. It's difficult to avoid wondering why he doesn't dole out the pork a little more liberally. But 500 bowls down, his reasoning becomes clear.
The pots of pork are getting close to empty, but the rice and the bowls keep pouring through. The need to feed has to be counterbalanced with very precise, and unsympathetic, serving. Dish out too much food at the start, and there will be nothing for those at the back of the queue.
The pork is enough to serve all, however, and after a brief break, volunteers are offered food from the school's stock. Savoring the warm tonjiru broth, it's difficult to imagine receiving a meal with as much gratitude in the near future.