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Volunteers, including members of the OHIO IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project, pose with Otsuchi, Japan resident Bunzo Kanayama as participants in the “Canola Project,” during a trip in the fall 2012.

Volunteers, including members of the OHIO IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project, pose with Otsuchi, Japan resident Bunzo Kanayama as participants in the “Canola Project,” during a trip in the fall 2012.

Photo courtesy of: Christopher Thompson

The town of Otsuchi, Japan, during a OHIO IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project trip to northern Japan in 2012.

The town of Otsuchi, Japan, during a OHIO IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project trip to northern Japan in 2012. Otsuchi resident Bunzo Kanayama's Canola Project took place at the foot of the wooden hill, on the banks of the Otsuchi River, which empties int

Photo courtesy of: Christopher Thompson

Workers stand in the Otsuchi River tributary, removing sludge during the (name) first trip to northern Japan in 2011, six months after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and flood.

Workers stand in the Otsuchi River tributary, removing sludge during the first trip to northern Japan in 2011, six months after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and flood.

Photo courtesy of: Christopher Thompson

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Rebuilding a Tributary

Study abroad volunteer program helps 2011 tsunami victims for the third year


Just months after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Christopher Thompson – associate professor of Japanese language and culture, and executive director of Japan Relations – organized a group from Ohio University to partner with Iwate Prefecture University (IPU) in relief efforts for northern Japan.

Year One

The first trip for the OHIO IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project, in September 2011, was focused on assessing the needs of the rural Iwate prefecture. During that trip, over a dozen OHIO students, administrators and alumni, met residents of Otsuchi, a small town at the base of Mount Shiroyama. The town had been completely flooded by the tsunami, destroying homes and other buildings. After more than nine feet of saltwater drained away, only devastation remained for the survivors who returned to rebuild their lives.

When the Ohio University group arrived, they split their efforts. Some students played with the children at a local school. Others joined Japan-based OHIO alumnus and Chubu University Associate Professor Greg King, who led them in clearing a tributary choked with debris and mud.

“We weren’t working alone, but with other volunteer groups that were all Japanese,” explained King. “This tributary is where the salmon run. We worked to clean out the sludge from a small part of it. Anything natural, like rocks, was to be left. If we found anything else we were to scoop it into bags to be taken away. The majority was gelatinous dirt … like foamy gelatin.”

The Otsuchi River’s nameless tributary, estimated by Thompson as roughly the size of a small stream, was the town’s lifeline – a source of their livelihood and the center of their culture. The residents’ everyday life focused on the salmon, which had filled the small tributary instead of the larger Ostuchi River close by.  

A Salmon Festival was held each autumn to celebrate this important connection, but after the spring tsunami, the riverbanks had collapsed and the water became polluted sludge. The salmon struggled to swim through and diminished in numbers.

“The river (tributary) was a priority,” Thompson said, explaining that among the destroyed buildings and lost possessions, the town was ultimately focused on rebuilding the waterway that connected them to a life they had known for generations.

As King (and later Thompson) stood with the students in the shallow muck, they slid shovelfuls into buckets until two or three in the morning. As they dug, the salmon began to swim past their legs – instinctively drawn to the new channels of flowing water. Even though it was only one long day, because of the volunteers’ effort the residents were able to celebrate the Salmon Festival again.

Year Two

The second trip, in September 2012, focused on meeting the physiological and emotional needs of the traumatized victims – something that Thompson said was being overlooked. Thompson and that year’s group of volunteers, along with OHIO Executive Vice President and Provost Pam Benoit, visited the area’s schools and temporary housing. The students also participated in Bunzo Kanayama’s Nanohana Project, planting canola seeds in the saltwater-soaked rice paddies. When the students met Kanayama, he asked them to sit on a nearby wall and listen to his story.

Kanayama, an Otsuchi resident, owned a profitable trucking business that was literally washed away as he watched from the hillside. Like so many in that region, he lost everything. When he returned to Otsuchi, he needed a way to provide for himself. So the entrepreneur used seeds from the stockpiles of coastal farms, and became a canola grower by the river – finding financial security and helping to renew the soil for a future of rice paddies again.

Year Three

The most recent trip, in September 2013, a third group of OHIO volunteers traveled back to Iwate prefecture. This time, the focus was on water volunteerism – delivering clean water to residents who were still without access to it. This also gave the team opportunities to connect with the victims, continuing psychological and emotional support three-and-a-half years later.

But the work to rebuild the north Japanese town is far from done, according to King.

“I guess from year to year the only change that I really have seen is the reduction of debris,” King said of the town. “The area looks like a war zone. If you didn’t know that a tsunami had come through there you would think that a battle between people had taken place, rather than a battle between nature and man. Of course, man lost this battle.”

“OU pledged to support this program for five years,” he continued. “And this year, 2014, will be the fourth year.”

In the future, Thompson hopes to bring students outside of the Japanese language and culture program – exposing them to a nation across the globe, while they join the list of volunteers devoting their time to help Otsuchi.

What originally began as a professor’s simple desire to help a country he loved, quickly became a multi-year relief effort, involving more and more people from Ohio University, and its Japanese sister-school Chubu University. OHIO Alumni living in Japan arrange to meet with visiting students each year – some taking part in the relief efforts alongside the students. And Chubu dignitaries recently came to OHIO’s Athens campus during International Education Week to visit with Thompson and see the Yoshino cherry trees – a gift from Chubu University in 1979 and again in 2004.

“The circle gets bigger and bigger,” Thompson said. “I’m humbled, but I’m not really surprised. Usually if you do something good, something good happens.”

During the last trip, Thompson visited the Otsuchi River tributary remembering the salmon that struggled to swim through the mud. He stood by the newly formed banks, growing with native vegetation again, and looked over the changed landscape.

“You would never know that a tsunami had hit the area,” he said of the vital waterway.

Except for a slight brown line, drawn across the trees and shrubs in the background, he saw verdant green land surrounding the damaged town. After only a few years, there is little evidence that the important tributary was once almost destroyed – and with it, the small north Japanese town of Otsuchi. It is once again a lifeline for a town still struggling to be rebuilt.

In response to the tsunami, a joint project between the US Embassy in Tokyo and the Japanese Government created the Tomodachi Initiative through the Tomodachi Foundation. Aptly named, with “tomodachi” translated as “friendship” in English, the foundation funded part of the OHIO IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project.

Other sources of financial support came from the Ohio University Provost’s Office and the Dean of Students’ Office. While OHIO alumni also generously gave to the Service Learning Tsunami Recovery Project account through the Ohio University Foundation.

“I have to keep reminding (the students), … this is a special opportunity that is piggy-backing on top of the normal experience that won’t last forever,” Executive Director of Japanese Relations, and the organizer for the OHIO volunteer project, Christopher Thompson explained. “And it’s only possible because we have this special funding and (they) happen to be wanting to go to Japan at this particular time at Ohio University.”