USJC Volunteer on Her Visit to Japan

A reflection from the region by USJC volunteer, Masami Hokama:

As the bus entered Kesennuma City, I saw an ordinary small town, people walking on streets, normal.  

Then, the scene before me changed from ordinary to some sort of a war zone.  One building after another, the first floors full of rubble, some empty.  I saw piles of mangled cars and trucks everywhere.  Some buildings were still standing, but with broken glass and rubble inside.  The bus drove slowly and took many wrong turns because the map of the town was useless, due to missing street signs and destroyed or unrecognizable landmarks.

We arrived at Mr. and Mrs. Sato’s house, where we were assigned to help as volunteers for the day. I’d been taking pictures on the way feeling shocked, horrified, and sad, but part of me was still an outsider looking in.  When the bus stopped near the Sato household, I realized that this is their home, their neighborhood, now surrounded by debris and the smell of rotten fish. I was there to help clean up, so their lives could get back to normal, or as normal as they could be.  I put my camera down and left it on the bus.

I had to walk very carefully to the house because of all the debris and mud. I saw dead fish on the side of road and on top of the garage roof.  The walls on two sides of the house were gone on the first floor. The second floor seemed intact, although we did not go upstairs. Mrs. Sato told us that she, her mother and the family dog were stuck on the second floor for two days until they were rescued by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.   

We got to work.  First, we took items like broken pieces of wood and mud out of the house. Then, we started shoveling out the fish, papers, and household items that were all mixed up in the muck.  It was still a surprise when I saw a four foot long tuna in the middle of the house. The smell in the bathroom was unbearable, where mud, rotten fish and maggots filled the sink and bathtub. Even with a mask on, I wished for stronger sets of lungs so I could hold my breath longer while working in there.

With all the hard work by the fellow volunteers and the Sato family, the first floor of the house was cleared of all debris. I even saw the hardwood floor! Mrs. Sato handed drinks and snacks to the volunteers.  I told her that I’d brought my own drink and snack, but she insisted that I take one from her. In fact, she insisted that everyone take drinks and snacks.  It was amazing how thoughtful and kind she was despite the tragedy around her. Mr. Sato was also kind: he was mostly cheerful and funny, telling jokes and making faces.  However, he teared up when thanking our group for our work that day.

I was able to help clean one house, but there are so many more.  Standing there, surrounded by piles and piles of debris, I knew it was just the beginning.  It will be a very hard time for everyone. I will always remember this day and will continue to help, anyway I can.


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