Reflections from Ishinomaki

HELPFUL EXCHANGE — Nakayoshi Young Professionals traveled to Miyagi Prefecture in October of 2012 to help with continued relief efforts under the direction of Megumi Japan. photo courtesy of Nakayoshi Young Professionals

HELPFUL EXCHANGE — Nakayoshi Young Professionals traveled to Miyagi Prefecture in October of 2012 to help with continued relief efforts under the direction of Megumi Japan. photo courtesy of Nakayoshi Young Professionals

Moved by the destruction from the March 11, 2011 earthquake and the devastating tsunami, in October of 2012, seven members of the Nakayoshi Young Professionals traveled to Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi Prefecture with the nonprofit Megumi Japan. Here, they share their reflections.

Images of the insatiable tsunami created by the massive earthquake off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 still remain vivid in my memory; images of the dark wave moving relentlessly over water barriers, hills, schools and homes. Being a second generation Japanese American, seeing Japan’s people suffer and their towns vanish was very emotional for me. Watching the disaster unfold everyday, I felt a strong desire to do something to help.

Unfortunately, I thought I had missed my opportunity as media coverage decreased and situations seemed to be improving. Then a few months ago, I heard about an organization called Megumi Japan that was continuing relief efforts in Ishinomaki. I was very excited and spread the word to my friends and to the Nakayoshi Young Professionals. I was overjoyed that there were still a lot of people interested in helping.

After planning for a couple of months, our group traveled to Ishinomaki in the fall. We helped locals make candles and other crafts to sell so they could earn money after enduring financial hardships due to the earthquake. We also pulled out dead sunflower plants that Megumi Japan had planted to bring life and color to the grey, lifeless lands destroyed by the salt from the tsunami. These simple activities meant so much to the people of Ishinomaki.

During our breaks, the resident volunteers drove us to different locations where the earthquake and the tsunami hit hardest. Although most of the destruction had been removed, reminders of the earthquake still remained. There were piles of cars and other wreckage, temporary shops and houses, foundations where houses once stood, flooding in the middle of town, and crooked streets in a once picturesque town surrounded by hills and the ocean.

The whole experience was overwhelming. So much more work still needs to be done. It made me look up to the full-time volunteers who quit their jobs and left their homes from all over Japan to dedicate their lives to helping the residents of Ishinomaki. The organization’s volunteers have done so much to give hope to the victims of the earthquake. Please help Megumi Japan fulfill their dedication to the people of Ishinomaki who are still struggling to cope with the new changes in their lives.
— Ken Takeda

For someone who was unfamiliar with the region of Tohoku or the cities of Ishinomaki, Minami-Sanriku and Minamihama-cho, my first impression was how breathtakingly beautiful it was. The landscape and nature was highlighted by reflections of the sky found within the surrounding puddles and ponds. Little did I realize, the place where I stood once served as the home for over 2,000 families, thriving businesses, schools, senior homes and community spaces. The volunteers of Megumi Japan brought to our attention the foundations of homes buried within the ground, the decaying trees affected by the salt water and the degree of damage inflicted on the remaining structures. This is all that remains, and it’s the reality of what life within the coastal towns in northern Japan looks like.

Our group from the San Francisco Bay Area traveled to Japan with the hope of rebuilding houses for those families who were affected. To our surprise, we learned that nobody could ever live there again; the government had deemed the land “unlivable.”

Among all the devastation, I found hope and relief in a small nonprofit called Megumi Japan. This tiny organization centralized in Tome-shi, Miyagi has done enormous work within the Tohoku region.

They have touched and literally saved lives with their selfless acts of kindness, dedication and inspiration. They beautified the devastated areas by picking up the rubble and planting picturesque sunflowers. They spend their days volunteering with the local schools, hosting and collaborating on community events/fundraisers and striving to re-establish a “normal” life for all the community members. I had the most humbling privilege of sharing in these experiences. I heard the stories shared by “the craft ladies” who gather together weekly to make handmade items to sell. They spoke of how they rediscovered happiness and self worth through each activity. These stories are similar among the people I was lucky enough to encounter during my trip. There was a sweet elderly lady who lives in a temporary housing unit who despite all of the tragedy, which included losing her home, family and possessions (wedding photos and family heirlooms), she continued to stay hospitable, gracious and optimistic. She sang us a song, shared her story and expressed her emotions with a heavy heart. She too, expressed her gratitude for Megumi Japan and all of the services they provided, both large and small. Her positive attitude has reminded me that in the hardest of times, it is important to continue to show appreciation for all the things and people we have in our life.
— Kiyomi Tanaka

It had been over a year and a half since the Tohoku earthquake. So, when I went with my friends to Ishinomaki to volunteer with Megumi Japan, I wasn’t sure what I could do. I’m not a carpenter or electrician, but I went with the hope that I could do some good. After arriving at the volunteer house, though, my expectations were constantly proved wrong.

The thing that struck me most was that in some areas, some things look totally normal, but a few blocks away, there are areas that are just gone, with only the foundations hidden behind tall weeds. And, underneath, there is a lack of community. Some people have left, and many others are still living in temporary housing. So the volunteers at Megumi Japan, some who have been there since the very beginning, are working to bring that feeling of community back to the area for the survivors who are still there.

Megumi Japan is working to add hope, instead of tragedy, to the common experience. It was a privilege to have worked with them, and to speak with the people that are rebuilding their lives.
— Masa Jow

My journey to the land of both my grandparents was thwarted for over a year. I watched NHK’s Japanese and English broadcasts daily to stay current on what unraveled for those who went through this. It was frustrating to be so far away.

My good friend, Maco Nishida, went immediately to Tohoku after the disaster. She kept me informed of news and recovery activity through the nonprofit organization Megumi Japan. Maco introduced the organization to me, and eventually to the Nakayoshi Young Professionals.

While I was in Ishinomaki, Miyagi for 10 days, I saw more post-disaster recovery. The major cleanup was finished, but reminders of what happened were still visible in some places. With nature reclaiming what was destroyed, at times, it was hard to imagine a catastrophe occurred at all. Our work involved meeting community members, hearing stories and offering them encouragement and assistance.

I could write pages of my recollections, but one word that I saw everywhere, sums up the spirit of the people of Tohoku: Kizuna (絆) “emotional bond; cohesiveness; togetherness; community.” I saw it in everyone I met in the community and in those I volunteered with. It is what will rebuild the new Tohoku.
— Roji Oyama

We have never encountered a community so united, generous and hardworking. We often ask ourselves, “What more can we do to help? What do they need most?” In all actuality, they don’t need manpower, they don’t need prayers; what they really need is support. The Japanese government is hardly supporting the relief efforts at the community level and small nonprofit organizations like Megumi Japan are struggling to make operational ends meet. The running theme that echoed in our ears by the recipients of Megumi’s services was how much Megumi Japan has revived the town and continues to do so daily. Please join us in spreading the word to raise awareness and consider donating or continue to donate to worthy causes and organizations such as Megumi Japan.

You can make a difference and help Megumi Japan by donating to their Website at http://maketheheaven.com
/megumijapan/?page_id=1077.

(The Nakayoshi Young Professionals is a group of young adults that promote involvement in the Nikkei and Asian Pacific Islander communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are sponsored by the Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District of the Japanese American Citizens League.)

The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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