(These are answers to questions asked in response to my last post. Please note that, while I am volunteering with All Hands Volunteers, opinions and observations expressed here are my own, and do not represent those of the organization I am with.)

How has your time in solitude in the mountains influenced your decision to go and your presence there?

Interestingly, after Project 31 ended, I decided that while I was perfectly happy being alone, my life was starting to feel stagnant. Even before this volunteer opportunity popped up, I was starting to think about how it’d be nice to be and work among people again. After spending months mostly alone, I’d come to see my own limitations; I realized that I’m not good at challenging myself, and that I like having other people around to challenge, inspire, and motivate me. On the other hand, I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t want to go back to work in an office, but I couldn’t think of anything else I was qualified to do. Until, that is, this volunteer project came up. I feel like I was meant to do this, and it just happened to be the perfect “job” at the perfect time.

What’s the infrastructure like?

It varies quite significantly depending on the area. Most infrastructure has recovered in areas that hadn’t been hit by the tsunami, excepting some train services (like the shinkansen bullet train). In Ofunato city, water, power, gas, and communications are back up in areas that weren’t hit too badly by the tsunami, though some parts still have no physical infrastructure. Many businesses are still closed or are open for fewer hours. A Lawsons convenience store nearby is only open until 6pm (it’s normally open 24 hours) and have half-empty shelves. Our meal ladies buy supplies at another supermarket that’s better stocked, though we’ve also been given boxes of vegetables that had been sent here as relief supplies. I’ve heard that neighboring prefectures that weren’t affected by the earthquake or tsunami actually have more supply issues, because so much stuff is being sent to the “front lines” (i.e. the coastal tsunami disaster areas). Many towns and cities are far worse off than Ofunato. Neighboring Rikuzentakata basically has ceased to exist, so infrastructure is virtually non-existent. Even if there are supplies, they aren’t necessarily being distributed well, so there could be food rotting in a warehouse (or school) while people live off of instant noodles. In some areas, it’ll takes months to a year to repair water and power infrastructure, and many people still rely on water distributed by the JSDF, or are trying to use/recover local wells.

How are you getting your basics (water, food, shelter)?

Our base has running water, and food is available in the city we’re in. Shelter is a bigger issue, however. Our current base can only house a few more people, and we have another 50-70 volunteers showing up over the next week or two. We’d initially secured a campground to serve as our base where volunteers can sleep in tents, but the prefecture decided to build temporary housing there (which is great… temporary housing is a priority). In general, there are so many evacuees needing housing that “proper” housing is basically unavailable for volunteers. Fortunately, we’re willing to endure more basic living conditions than most people, so we can be more creative in finding solutions.

How do you guys find projects?

Believe it or not, finding projects has been a huge challenge. Getting word out about our activities has been somewhat challenging, but the bigger issue is cultural. As outsiders (and foreigners at that), it’s been difficult to gain enough trust to be allowed into individual homes and business. Furthermore, Japanese people are still unaccustomed to the kind of assistance we provide, and many people seemed to not believe that we actually provided services for free (though, to be fair, there are scammers who go around “volunteering” then send a bill later). I think Japanese people are also self-sufficient, and just used to dealing with their own problems without relying on others. So, we’ve faced a number of obstacles.

The All Hands assessment team (the first of whom arrived a few days after the earthquake) and early volunteers did a great job of establishing local political support. Many of our projects have come through a single local leader who’s introduced us to residents and businesses in his local area of influence. From there, we’ve been able to slowly grow our operations. The press has been covering us pretty extensively (we had 3 camera crews filming us this past week), and it’s a lot easier to gain trust if we can show a newspaper clipping with our name in it.

Ultimately, we have to let our work speak for itself. I’ve started leading a few “gutting” projects (removing drywall and floor boards), and one thing I stress to everybody (my team members, the leadership, the locals) is how important it is that we do work that meets local standards, and how high those standards are. If we do sub-par work, the locals will simply wait until professional carpenters can do the work, since they’d rather have the work done properly later, than to have it done poorly now. On the other hand, if we do good work, that’ll go a long ways towards earning trust, and it’ll become much easier to find new projects. Fortunately, I’m working with some incredible people, so doing work that we can be proud of hasn’t been too difficult.

These projects seem to be more often community buildings than individual homes, is that the case?

Actually, most of the “projects” we’ve worked on have been individual homes. The project at the high school I’ve been helping coordinate is actually our first major project in a public building. It seems the All Hands staff are interested in finding more of those, since it impacts more people at a time. Having said that, we’re here to help, and we’ll do whatever and go where ever help is most in demand.

Who provides your lunch bento boxes?

A local bento shop delivers them to our base, and then a hired driver delivers them to work sites. There aren’t too many bento shops open yet, so it’s not uncommon for our volunteers to be eating nicer lunches than the residents that we’re helping. Whenever I can, I offer the same bentos to residents at our worksites, but that’s a custom that hasn’t been adopted as widely as I’d like (mostly because the bentos are expensive).

How are the survivors doing psychologically? Is there any help in this regard? There are possibly cultural differences of which we aren’t aware – such as the Japanese people being very resilient or fatalistic.

Many of the older people I’ve talked to remember the tsunami triggered by the 1960 Chile earthquake, which killed hundreds here. In general, the Japanese are used to hardship. In fact, I’ve come to realize recently that the culture almost seems to have been defined by hardship. Traits like “endurance”, “resilience”, “self-reliance” are highly valued here, and those qualities help people overcome hardships. We’ve seen old men and women, perhaps over 90 years old, bent over piles of rubble, clearing debris a tiny handful at a time. When asked if they need help, they would smile, and tell us that they’re doing just fine. It’s obvious to everybody that they won’t clear the mountain of rubble that surrounds their home in their life times, but that’s besides the point. If all you can do is move the mountain one handful at a time, then that’s what you do. That’s the attitude people have here.

Having said that, not everybody lives up to those ideals, and to no fault of their own. The losses are overwhelming. The tasks at hand are overwhelming. Many people are overwhelmed. We’ve been able to help some of those people, but there are many, many others who haven’t received much help. Those who’ve lost only material positions probably consider themselves fairly lucky. Many have lost loved ones. One of our volunteer translators went to Rikuzentakata, which has had a much higher death toll than Ofunato. She told us about how, when she offered condolences to a local official when she learned that he’d lost his wife, he replied “We don’t do that any more. Everybody’s lost somebody, so we just tell each other, ‘ganbarou’ (let’s work hard).”

I haven’t been involved in any psychological relief efforts, but I’ve heard that volunteers (both professionals and ordinary people) are being sent into evacuation centers to talk to people, and to provide emotional care. I’ve also seen an ad-hoc kitten-petting-zoo-on-wheels visiting an evacuation center, to give kids a bit of fuzzy cute relief. Overall, though, I think there’s tremendous need for mental care and support (especially for kids and the elderly), and that need is not being met as adequately as I’m sure everybody would like.

I’m curious if you’ve seen any looting or stealing in the wake of the disaster.

I haven’t heard of much looting, but there’s definitely a lot of theft. In fact, I saw one house today that had a cardboard sign up on the window. It indicated that the residents were living at an evacuation center, and at the bottom of the sign, it read “Please do not burglarize.” Later, though, the resident at our worksite told me about how his tools had been stolen. At the end, humans are humans.

Ryo, my question would be about the total devastation you’re witnessing. It just seems so overwhelming. How do you deal with that, and how long for Japan to get back on their collective feet?

It is overwhelming. Fortunately, it’s too overwhelming to really be affected by it. All I see, most of the time, is rubble. It’s just bits of wood, metal, plastic, cars, boats etc. It’s stuff. It doesn’t affect me too much, because it’s difficult to actually mentally and emotionally tie all that rubble to human suffering.

But, we also witness suffering. One evening, a bunch of us watched a YouTube video of the tsunami engulfing this city we’re in. After the video ended, one of the local volunteers muttered “my friend’s house was in that video.” When someone asked him if the friend had made it out in time, he shook his head. In another instance, a local volunteer told us that he’d miss a day of work the next day because it was a day of mourning for an uncle who’d died in the tsunami. Until then, we didn’t know he’d lost a family member. Today, a local supporter of ours spontaneously gave me and another volunteer a tour of a temple. Inside the main building, in a dark corner, were neat rows of boxes containing the cremated remains of perhaps 20-30 tsunami victims.

How do we deal with it? All Hands requires volunteers staying for over a month to take at least 3 days’ break every month. I’m sure that’ll help, but I haven’t quite decided how I’ll deal with it. I can feel the sadness and pain accumulating in myself, somewhere in my soul. Someday I’ll find a way to process it, or maybe I’ll reach a limit of some sort, but I’m ok for now. I think the best way we deal with it is by working hard. We deal with it by working hard, and doing good work, so that we can see the locals smile. Every time someone tells us that we’ve brought them a step closer to recovering their lives, it also eases our souls and fills our hearts.

How is the local radiation and type of contamination being monitored and dealt with?

There are a number of organizations, both Japanese and international, monitoring radiation levels in Japan. We also may have a dosimeter donated to us, though, frankly, I’d rather see that money spent on more power tools. I’m slightly more concerned about bacteria and asbestos. We inhale a lot of dust, and who knows what’s in that dust. I do have a P100 respirator, though I normally just use a N95 face mask, if anything at all. It’s probably not enough, but it’s hard to be too worried about it when there’s so much to do. I’m not trying to sound brave or cavalier, but it’s just the reality. Fortunately, the locals are more concerned about our health than we are, and they’ll usually bring us masks (and goggles) if they see one of us working without one.

I read your comment regarding those who lost everything need your (volunteers) help the most, yet you felt there was little or nothing you could do for them. Have you come up with a solution or fix to that conundrum yet?

Sadly, no. At least, not directly. The labor that we’re providing should be saving people a lot of money, which means more money should become available to those who need it more. Also, by off-loading work from carpenters, they should be able to spend more time building temporary homes and fixing houses. But, that’s too nebulous to really feel like we’re “helping.”

I see all the rubble in the picture above, and I think hmmm with some re-milling a lot of that material could be reused. Bigger beams and boards cut smaller. Or small boards laminated into bigger beams. Metal and plastics to be recycled. Is anyone doing this?

A carpenter told me that 50% of Japan’s plywood production capacity got wiped out by the tsunami. So, yes, between constrained supply and huge demand, stocks of building supplies are quickly dwindling (or already depleted). What little is available is all going towards temporary housing, so carpenters don’t have enough materials to start repairing homes.

However, I’m guessing mills that are operational would rather keep processing logs, rather than have to retool and adjust to dealing with irregularly shaped and sized debris. Using lumber that’s been soaked in salt water may not be a great idea in the first place. In Ofunato, there’s talk of burning wood for fuel at the local cement plant, but otherwise, I haven’t heard much talk about recycling. However, considering how high metal prices are these days, I’d be surprised if at least some metal weren’t being recycled or sold.

What do you do with the trash/rubble? I have a hard time imagining a landfill big enough.

These decisions are made way above and outside my organization. From my personal perspective, all I see is that whatever we dump on the streets get hauled away. From what I understand, the rubble gets collected in one place, then sorted, and disposed of somehow. I read an article that in some places, they might haul them up into the mountains to be dumped into valleys and gullies. I worry about the long-term environmental effects, but, unfortunately, the priority is to clear out the rubble so that rebuilding can begin.

Do they have “Tsunami insurance” in Japan?

In our assessments, we ask home owners whether they had tsunami insurance. Most of the time, the answer is “no”. Many of the people whose homes were flooded but not destroyed lived far enough away from the ocean that they didn’t think a tsunami could possibly reach them. I don’t blame them. It’s possible that people who lived in areas that got flooded in the 1960 Chile earthquake tsunami had insurance, but I haven’t talked to those people too extensively since we have no services we can offer them. I think the general attitude is that tsunamis are so rare and tsunami insurance so expensive, that most people couldn’t afford it, or didn’t consider it to be worthwhile.

How are YOU doing. We sometimes forget how traumatic it is for the people doing the helping. Seeing all the devastation, and the devastated people, knowing there is only so much you can do can take it’s toll.

Thanks for asking. I’m doing pretty well. It’s not easy being here and doing what I do, but it is also tremendously rewarding. I think the hardest part is not being able to talk to my friends back in the US because of the time difference. But, I’m surrounded by amazing people, and that makes things a little easier. I’ve also only been here for 10 days, and I think I’m still adjusting. We’ll see how things go in the coming weeks (and perhaps, months).

What type of construction withstood the earthquake and tsunami? Likely nothing close to the coast, but further in you should start to see structures that are still standing.

Steel-framed buildings did well, but when it comes to houses, those built using the traditional method seemed to have faired best. The traditional method employs lots of wood, including nice big fat posts and beams with intricate joints, as well as sturdy diagonal braces in many/most walls.

What is being communicated to the Japanese people regarding recovery, relief, planning, etc. How is the message sent to them?

“Japanese people” is a bit broad, but the media here is still actively reporting on the disaster, from what I can tell. More locally, newspapers, radios, flyers, and the internet offer more relevant and specific information.

Are you seeing anything spontaneous develop among the people? Entertainment? Work details? Child care sharing? Anything that wouldn’t happen under normal conditions?

I haven’t seen large or concerted efforts (and I simply don’t have much visibility into other organizations), but from what I’ve seen and heard, there are pockets of grassroots activity here and there. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, volunteering became a social phenomenon for the first time in Japan. In this earthquake, local governments were fairly quick in setting up basic support for volunteers, but volunteerism and NPOs are still a relatively nascent phenomenon here. Hopefully this disaster will act as a catalyst to empower and embolden those organizations and add momentum to this trend.

I’m thinking of volunteering with All Hands. Wondering what it has/or will cost you total for travel/passports and such?

As for travel costs, it’s the price of a round-trip flight to/from Tokyo, plus another 100USD or so to get to/from our base in Ofunato, Iwate. I think a passport was a bit over 100USD the last time I got it (expedited). You might perhaps need to buy some gear as well. Once here, you’ll be fed and sheltered.

However, we’re only accepting volunteers through mid-July, and we’ve had an overwhelming number of applicants. If you’d really like to try and come here, apply via the All Hands website. Alternatively, you can donate money, and that’ll be appreciated quite a bit too.

Has seeing what you have of the aftermath and the effect of this disaster given you a new appreciation for life and living?

I think I’ve always had a healthy appreciation of life and living :-), but I certainly feel fortunate to be here, and to have been given the opportunity to do what I’m doing. If anything, I think I’ve a new appreciation for people and society. I spend my days with some amazing people, both volunteers and locals, and I’ve received heartfelt support from friends (and strangers) back home. I think disasters bring out the best in people, and that’s what makes this worth doing despite all the challenges.


Judging by the feedback to my last post, it seems like there’s a fair amount of interest in what I’m doing and what it’s like here in the disaster zone. It’s hard to summarize my experiences and observations, but I was thinking I could get more information out if people asked me questions.

So, if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about, leave a question in the comments below. I’ll follow up with answers in another post. Questions can be about my specific experiences, or general questions about the conditions in the disaster area, as long as they are fairly specific.

A Letter from the Disaster Area

(This post was adapted from a letter I sent to a friend…)

Over all, I’m doing great. I’m really glad I came here, and I’m having an incredible time. Although it feels weird to say I’m having fun, I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise. It’s generally a very intense experience. It’s challenging, stimulating, interesting, exhausting, stinky, heart breaking, heart warming, fulfilling, stressful, and rewarding all at the same time.

We’re housed in a mostly unused commerce building that has a couple of big rooms, a tiny kitchen, and a co-ed bathroom with two squat toilets. There’s no hot water (or showers) in the building, but it’s otherwise quite comfortable. There are about a dozen of us sleeping in sleeping bags in one of the bigger rooms that has tatami mats. A group of ladies from the neighborhood have volunteered to cook us dinner, and they do an amazing job every night. We also get bento boxes delivered to our work sites for lunch, so we’re eating well, and eating a lot.

I’ve been doing a wide variety of things, which is really cool. I’ve done some physical labor like clearing debris and shoveling silt. But I’ve also had a chance to visit evacuation centers to talk to evacuees, go on assessments of devastated areas to see what we could do, and negotiate with officials for a potential clean-up project at a high school. It’s the kind of work I’ve never done before, but it makes it that much more interesting and challenging. If nothing else, I feel like I’ve been able use my language skills and cultural knowledge to good use. I’ve also spent some time talking to a local carpenter to learn about how to dry out water-logged homes, and my cabin-building experiences have certainly been useful in those conversations. Tomorrow, I’m leading a team to do a couple of jobs, and we’ll be accompanied by a local carpenter, which I’m quite looking forward to.

The destruction here is simply beyond words. The parts that weren’t hit too badly have mostly been cleaned up, but the worst hit areas are still full of rubble. We drive through those areas on our way to various work sites every morning, and see extraordinary things. Big fishing vessels lying between homes a mile away from the ocean. Trucks on top of buildings. Houses overturned like toys. And entire city blocks (or cities) crushed into piles of rubble. To some degree, the devastation is so immense that it is somehow incomprehensible. But it still hits you at odd moments. I almost cried, for some reason, when I saw a wounded cat laying in front of a collapsed house. In my mind, the pile of rubble behind the cat was once its home, and the cat’s owners had been killed. With nowhere to go, the cat continues to sleep outside what was once its home, clinging to what little familiarity and comfort it finds there. This narrative may have all been a fabrication in my mind, but somehow it put the destruction in a more human (or feline) scale; a scale which I could comprehend and therefore be emotionally affected by. I also felt heartbroken when I wrote my mom an email, and told her about my trip to the evacuation centers. We were going around asking evacuees one by one whether they had anything we could help with. Many of their homes had been washed away, right off their foundations, and had nothing for us to do. At the time, we felt disappointed by the lack of work in those cases, but afterwards, it finally hit me that those were the people who needed help the most, and we couldn’t do anything for them.

One Week in Ofunato

I got here a week ago tonight, though it feels like it must’ve been ages ago. I’ve seen and experienced so much in such a short period of time, and with so much to do, it’s been difficult to find the time to write blog posts. If you’re interested in following what I’m doing here, I’ve been posting short snippets on my Facebook page, and I’ve posted some pictures on my Flickr stream as well (though, our internet access is limited, so I’m falling behind with my uploads). Anyway, it looks like I’ll be here for a while, and things may calm down a bit in the weeks ahead (or not), so I’ll try to gradually get more content up when I can.

Onwards! (to Japan… and beyond)

It’s funny how sometimes life just happens to you… But let me back up.

I was down in Coalinga CA for 4 days of shooting last week, including at the State Service Rifle Championships (in case you’re wondering, I shot a new personal best on day 2, won 3 minor awards, then got my ass thoroughly kicked by placing dead last on the 4th day). On the long drive up and down, and in the days since returning to Serenity Valley again, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this is Year 3. I’m burning through my backup backup funds now, and when that’s gone, play time will be over, and I’ll have to head back to work (probably in a cubicle, as a code monkey). So, this is a make or break year for me. Not that going back to work would be horrible, but to a large extent, this is the year in which I figure out how to stay on the path less traveled, or admit defeat and join the traffic jam over on the well traveled superhighway.

So, after much contemplation and deliberation, I hatched a plan. I decided that this summer, I’ll try to enroll in an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) class at a community college in Chico. Chico’s 3 hours from Serenity Valley, and classes are Mondays through Thursdays, so I’ll be able to come up on weekends to tend to my garden and such. If I could get an EMT certificate, that would at least give me another marketable skill, and it might help me avoid the cubicle farm later on.

Of course, as they say, plans are there to fall apart.

Earlier this afternoon, an email I’d been waiting for –but had half given up on– finally arrived. It was from All Hands, the volunteer disaster relief organization I’d been hoping to join. The email had been sent to a small subset of registered volunteers, as they are (in their words) trying “to quickly assemble a core volunteer team with depth and variety of skills to help us get started in the first few weeks” in the earthquake and tsunami disaster area in North-eastern Japan. They describe the work ahead thusly:

Our programs are still in development; flexibility will be key. Days may be long, stop and start, with inevitable pauses and frustrations. We hope to work alongside many local residents and volunteers. Our communal living arrangements could range from something as simple as tent camping with portable toilets to our more typical dormitory style accommodations. We need volunteers who can help to build up our base infrastructure, so that others can join us and we can multiply our work and our impact. We continue to experience aftershocks and tsunami warnings.

Flexibility, primitive living conditions, setup infrastructure… in a dangerous environment? And where I speak the language? That’s got my name written all over it!

But… my plan! My shiny new plan! I contemplated my options for what felt like minutes, but was probably more like 10 seconds. Sometimes, opportunities fall in your lap. You can take it, or it leaves you. I decided to take it. They said participation depended on another questionnaire and that responding sooner would be more likely to guarantee a spot on the team. My response was sent 18 minutes after the first email hit my inbox.

Then, I had to wait.

I was so excited I couldn’t sit still, so I went for a walk in the woods (by which I mean, I stepped outside and walked around).

By the time I got back, there was another email waiting for me, saying they were excited to have me in Japan as soon as possible. As soon as possible! Yikes!

Right now, I’m trying to leave open the option of continuing with my Plan. One thing I need to do before leaving for Japan is to take a Healthcare Provider level CPR class, which is a prerequisite for the EMT class I’m hoping to take. Just in case I don’t have time to take it between when I get back from Japan and when classes start, I’m going to try and take it before I leave (and besides, that’s probably a valuable skill to have, heading into a disaster zone).

Next, I need to book a flight (which shouldn’t be a problem since nobody else is going to Japan right now), and pack. I’m waiting to get more information about conditions on the ground, but this packing list should be interesting. From what I understand, power and water is still out in the worst hit parts (i.e. where we’re going), and as the first project members on the ground, we’ll probably be expected to work largely autonomously. I’ll need to prepare for all kinds of work, from programming (they might need custom software/databases) to rubble removal, to construction, to… who knows.

Anyway, I’m super excited, and all geared up to go kick some ass… at helping people, or whatever it is I’ll end up doing.