Japanese and foreign students from around the world joined together in a volunteer project in this city in northeastern Japan heavily hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, delivering bottled water and smiles to residents still living in temporary housing.
A total of 100 students, teachers and staff from Iwate Prefectural University, based in the city of Takizawa, Chubu University in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, Ohio University in the United States and current and past Honjo International Scholarship Foundation recipients from around the world distributed boxes of bottled water to those still living in temporary housing scattered around Rikuzentaka and newly built prefectural disaster housing on the final weekend of September.
The city was the most heavily hit area in Iwate, with the roughly 10-meter waves wiping out the center of town and claiming over 1,500 lives, some 8 percent of the population including missing persons, and destroying more than 3,300 homes and businesses. Due to the mountainous terrain of Iwate, there were little options for where to build temporary housing, and like other coastal areas, the open and flat grounds of elementary and junior high schools were used for those who had lost their homes to the disaster.
The volunteer activities bringing water to these temporary housing areas, nicknamed “mizubora” for the Japanese words for water and volunteer, was the brain child of Keiko Chiba. Now a visiting researcher specializing in nutrition at Iwate Prefectural University after retiring this year, she was in the coastal town of Otsuchi north of Rikuzentakata when the tsunami struck. Unable to contact anyone in Morioka, the prefectural capital, she was taken in and sheltered by local people.
Having experienced their warmth, she wanted to return their kindness — both those who had lost their homes and those who had not — as there was no running water or power after the disaster. Residents were relying on wells for water, and Chiba worried about the water quality and infections. She contacted the Iwate Prefectural Government and learned that they had a large amount of donated water but no one to move it. She drove around the area, and moved the water to a camping ground that had become an evacuation area. From there, she and her students began their work delivering the water around the area.
Ohio University associate professor Christopher Thompson, an anthropologist specializing in folklore in Tohoku, met Chiba in the fall of 2012 while also working on recovery efforts with his students desalinating rice fields, cleaning up rivers of debris, visiting kindergartens and joining in events for residents of the temporary housing along the Iwate coast in tandem with Iwate Prefectural University. When she told him about her work, he immediately requested they work together. Corporate sponsor Ito En Ltd. began supplying water and tea and getting Honjo students involved from the next year, participating in mizubora activities as often as twice a month.
Now in its eighth year and with a blossoming new agreement between Iwate Prefectural University and Chubu University, seven students and four faculty members, including Chubu University College of Humanities Associate Dean Tadashi Shiozawa, participated — many for the first time. The central Japanese contingency added to the eight Ohio students, 26 Iwate students and roughly 30 current and past Honjo students from such places as China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Sudan in the volunteer work. From Iwate Prefectural University, vice presidents Jun Ishido and Toru Kano oversaw the activities with Chiba.
Teams composed of students and staff from all four institutions worked together checking facility maps, counting households and going door-to-door delivering water and greeting residents with energy and smiles.
“Before, the water delivery was necessary,” explained Mikio Oikawa, the head of the Yonesaki Junior High School temporary housing area, lined up neatly in the schoolyard in front of the school, right up to the door. “When we first got running water here, I drank it and was surprised — It was salty! It wasn’t good to drink or to make tea. Not even to drink with alcohol!”
Oikawa has lived there surveying the condition of and looking after the households since the structures were built, and has been recognized by both the prefectural and municipal government for his work. “I’ve always been extremely thankful for these visits and the water because I’m so busy,” he said, happily striking up conversations with students.
Still, with infrastructure restored and more and more families leaving temporary housing, the number of people still living in the facilities is dwindling, as they save money to rebuild a new home or are moved to permanent housing blocks by the municipal government. The large-scale mizubora project is now beginning to evolve into a way to reach out and watch over the occupants even after their move to permanent housing, especially single elderly residents prone to isolation. On the second day, the water volunteers brought their boxes and their energy to the Tochigasawa prefectural disaster housing apartment complex, greeting each resident amid the approaching typhoon.
“Many people think that because people have moved into the new apartment complexes, that everything is solved, but in the temporary housing, walls were thin and people could check on one another. Now, in the concrete structures, especially the elderly are prone to isolation,” explained Chiba. “That’s why it’s more important than ever to continue to reach out and check on them.”