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Tsunami and Japanese spirit of Volunteerism

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, Jan 06,2012

Until the massive tsunami struck on March 11, the sleepy but sprawling town of Ozuchi, Iwate Prefecture, with 13,000 inhabitants, prided itself for being the gateway to three rivers. Surrounded on three sides by lush-green hills, the town boasts a beautiful skyline, with rivers meandering through hilly valleys before merging into to the Pacific Ocean

Within minutes of the 8.8 Richter scale earthquake in the Pacific Ocean, the authorities issued a tsunami warning. Sirens blared, announcements on public address systems as well as radio and tv urged people to run for safety. All the time they had was just about 40 minutes. 

The tsunami left the town in tatters. The local government was practically non-existent here because the mayor and some of his colleagues drowned helplessly in the gushing water wall. Death toll stood at 1200, with 600 still designated as missing by November 2011. 

Tsunami left numerous stories of survival and sacrifice. Usuzawa’s is one of survival. Ken Katai, Nishioka, and Sueta, from Hiroshima are all illustrations of sacrifice in a society that distinguishes itself from others with hard work and competition. Thousands of such motivated individuals from all over Japan swarmed the tsunami hit areas to help out and continue to supplement the government efforts to date.

“I had never imagined I would ever experience tsunami. But that afternoon when I opened the window, the massive wave approaching our homes looked like the Niagara Falls,” said Usuzawa, 63, retired from the environment department, where he was monitoring industrial emissions and air pollution. 

“I instantly began moving upstairs to the second floor but the wave had already hit our home – stair by stair the water chased me like a serpent. Within seconds the water filled up the house and I found myself hitting the rooftop, holding Taro aloft, struggling to keep it away from water.” 

At one stage, Usuzawa thought of abandoning Taro. 

“I almost dropped him but his helpless face and shivering body stopped me from doing so, and I held it on,” Usuzawar told us as the sun was setting in the west, and a chill was taking over.

Meanwhile, the mighty wave uprooted the house and it had begun floating like a boat but luckily didn’t capsize, as happened to many others. “While hanging on to the rooftop of the floating house, I lost all thoughts.” At one stage, when the head was hitting the roof and the water touching the chin, I thought death was imminent, with water all around, countless objects, including boats floating around, escape looked impossible. 

“Tsunami changed the course of my life, refocusing me on the importance of fellow beings.” I really adore all those volunteers who give up their jobs and comfort to come up here and help us. 

Valuable thoughts, I remarked, as Usuzawa explained his ordeal and a couple of other volunteers. 

“No, it is very natural to think this way – came alive out of an unforeseen calamity, while I saw water devouring people of my community like a dragon."

Standing next to Usuzawa was, Ken Katai, 40, a volunteer from Kanegawa prefecture. “Really painful to hear victims saying the tsunami took my wife or husband away. Or many say the tsunami deprived me of livelihood,” Katai said of his experiences with the displaced people.

Among the survivors are the owners or tenants of those hundreds of shops in the city centre which the monstrous wave swept away. What remains of the shopping centre – usually made of light materials – are the cemented foundation and demarcations. It wears a deserted look, with hardly any human beings visible.

As the authorities have yet to finalize reconstruction plans, most residents here are still restricted to their homes or temporary shelters. Some 300 families managed to get back into their homes, while the majority is still camping at about 2000 temporary homes the government had prepared.

Many of the families, which lost livelihoods, either moved to relatives in the nearby valleys or left for other cities in search of rebuilding their lives.

Another volunteer, Nishioka, from the Ohita Prefecture has been helping out with tea and coffee at an open air hang-out for the affected people. A look alike of the first American president Abraham Lincoln, Nishioka had been in Ozuchi since May, running the Ozuchi Open Air Coffee Corner, as a Volunteer for Tono Magokoro Network, a community initiative to help the tsunami victims.

The Japanese spirit of volunteerism – the readiness to give up lucrative careers for humanitarian work is visible all over. Mr.Sueta, 26-year-old from Hiroshima, offers another example of this spirit. He is a construction worker, but his agility and skills have catapulted him into a leadership role in the Ozuchi town, where he oversaw over three dozen volunteers, who had been helping out with the cleaning of the water and drainage ways around the main road and the university buildings.

“Just want to contribute my bit to the affected-people of the great tragedy. Want to listen to their stories, share their moments of grief,” said Sueta. What struck Ken Katai most is what used to be the central shopping centre.

“It is heart-wrenching to see the deserted site … I just listen, cannot even say to them I understand their feelings.”

The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and the serious accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station in March changed many lives. It also revitalized the spirit of volunteerism in Japan – with people from all over the country flocking to the stricken areas. Through their presence and sheer hard work, they revived hopes among the affected population and still serve as the helping hands of the authorities which have tried day and night to resurrect what was swept by the tsunami.


Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk