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Tsunami Relief Project


The 2014 Ohio University (OHIO) - Iwate Prefectural University (IPU) Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project In Iwate Year 4 of 5

By Christopher S. Thompson 

This year turned out to be another interesting experience for all of us who were lucky enough to be involved in Year 4 of the OHIO - IPU Tsunami Relief Volunteer Project in Iwate. Our partners in Iwate - namely IPU and Itoen (a tea company that makes bottled beverages that sponsors the Honjo Foundation through which they sponsor foreign, degree seeking students in graduate and undergraduate programs at Japanese universities all over Japan), asked us to limit our numbers this year as last year's group combining representatives from OHIO, IPU, and Honjo, was just too big. (Combined, there were over 90 participants.) Thus, unfortunately, OHIO was not able to invite as many students from partner schools to participate as we would have liked, or as many OHIO alums. The core of the OHIO group this year consisted of 8 OHIO students (6 studying abroad at Chubu University [Nagoya] and 2 studying abroad at Musashi University [Tokyo]), and myself.

This year's OHIO alumni participants consisted of Greg King and Pat Maher, who brought with them two students from Chubu University (where they are both faculty members) by special permission. So including myself, our OHIO group consisted of 10 students and 3 faculty types. Pat Maher acted as interpreter for IPU's Chiba Keiko sensei, making a huge contribution to the overall ability of the project to run smoothly. Here is a fairly condensed version of our activities this year.

On September 25, I traveled with 2 OHIO students from Musashi University to Hanamaki, a town just south of Iwate Prefecture's capital city Morioka, to meet Greg King and Pat Maher who flew in from Chubu University with our 8 total students from Nagoya for this year's project. We met at the Folkloro, an hot spring hotel in Towa-cho (now incorporated into Hanamaki), where I lived and worked with my family in the mid 90's. It was my friends and former colleagues from the town hall here that helped me connect OHIO with IPU, which started us off on our tsunami relief collaboration.

On the morning of September 26, we were met at the Folkloro by an IPU bus full of students and faculty members for our first day of volunteer activity. This year, we took the Kamaishi Expressway from Hanamaki out to the Iwate coast, then turned North to reach the city of Otsuchi. (In previous years, we have traveled from Morioka East to Miyako, and then South down the Iwate coast.) We arrived to the banks of the Otsuchi River in the late morning, and were greeted by Kanayama Bunzo-san of the Nanohana Project, who now knows us quite well. (This is our third year of working with him here.) We were joined by 20 international college and graduate students supported by the Honjo Foundation at various universities in Japan. Together, like last year, we picked rocks out of the soil on one bank of the Otsuchi River, and planted nanohana (canola) seeds for beautification of the area and to promote the desalination of the soil there. With us were also several TV camera crews who took video footage of us working. Several journalists interviewed us for at least two stories that appeared on the evening news.

The purpose of this activity, of course, was to help reclaim the soil on the river bank rendered useless by the ocean water brought by the tsunami so one day local residents would be able to replant their gardens and rice paddies that once occupied this space. All together, there were about 50 of us participants in the combined OHIO, IPU, and Honjo group.

In the afternoon, we went to a local temple, located on high ground, and listened to the resident Buddhist priest talk about local events there on March 11th, 2011. The temple and it's compound had served for many weeks and months as temporary shelter for local residents who lost their homes in the tsunami that washed much of the town away on that day. That night was spent at a local Seishonen no ie (a youth hostel-like facility run locally by the prefecture) - the idea being we wanted to use Otsuchi facilities and spend as much money here as possible.

One of the benefits of working with a large group of well-meaning people is that you make new friends. And over the course of that evening and the next two days, we spent so much time together with those with whom we weren't until then so familiar in activity for the purpose of engaging with the residents of Otuchi and later with those in two different neighborhoods of Rikuzentakata. We participated in local cultural activities, we delivered Itoen bottled water and tea to residents, and we generally introduced ourselves to and talked with the local survivors as we moved through each community. This variety of volunteerism has been dubbed "Mizubora," or "Water Volunteerism," but Dr. Keiko Chiba of IPU. The purpose of the activity is not what it seems. Healthy water has now been restored in almost all of the homes we delivered water and tea to. The water and tea is merely a reason to interact - to show local residents that someone still cares, and to create a reason for an interaction. Some local residents seemed a little overwhelmed by our presence, but others were genuinely thankful and enjoyed our company, inviting us in to drink the beverage we bestowed with them and to talk. And this talking is what we were told over and over again, is the kokoro no kea~ (psychological and emotional support) that we are trying to provide, to those who want it. Overall, Mizubora was a great experience of participation in a coordinated mass activity.

The Tsunami Relief Volunteer experience again this year was humbling, challenging, physically demanding, but left no doubt that Iwate residents, especially those who live North of Kamaishi, are distinctly being left behind in the tsunami recovery process. North of Kamaishi, there are still piles of rubble by the roadside, livable land is still being cleared on high ground for new construction, and hundreds of residents whom we delivered water to continue to live in temporary housing waiting for the day they can move out for this their fourth year.

On September 28, following more water delivery in the morning, the IPU buses took us back inland for the trip back to the Japanese cities from which we had come. We left Iwate feeling distinctly that we had just gotten started, and that there was much more to do, but that once again we had run out of time to do any more.

Next year is the final year of this joint project with IPU and the Honjo Foundation. There are plans in the works for some kind of a permanent service learning academic course to be created as a lasting product to honor the collaboration. It will be interesting to see what happens after next year. One this is absolutely clear. For those of us from Ohio University, none of this would have been possible if not for the financial support of the OHIO administration and the OHIO Alumni Associations in Nagoya and Tokyo, IPU, and the Honjo Foundation. Thank you to all of these supporters for once again enabling those of us lucky enough to be on this year's trip to be part of a life-changing learning experience that will never be forgotten.


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