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Dispatch #5 from AmeriCares Japan Recovery Team

  • August 19, 2011

As AmeriCares continues recovery efforts throughout Japan, Ella Gudwin, VP of Emergency Response, gives a firsthand account of the transformative work of AmeriCares partner and grantee Peace Boat, whose cleanup crews have restored hope amid the once wrecked business district of the small coastal town of Ishinomaki.“The painstaking work of volunteers has transformed the streets of Ishinomaki, sparking hope for a new beginning.” In Japan, I saw first-hand a monumental accomplishment. Narrow downtown streets once clogged with mountains of sludge, debris, gnarled wood and broken glass, vehicles and stranded boats are now clear and clean. Obstacles and refuse have all been painstakingly hauled away by thousands of volunteers from across Japan coordinated through the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council.  AmeriCares partner and grantee, Peace Boat helped lead this massive cleanup. By clearing the way to the front doors of homes and businesses, they have also cleared the way to futures which seemed impossible in the dark days after the disaster.

Mr. Inoue knows these streets well. He is the third generation owner of the Sarukoya Music Store in downtown Ishinomaki. His family has run the shop for 90 years. The tsunami waters tore everything from the store’s shelves and thrust grand pianos through windows. He found a car balanced precariously on top of one of his fine pianos, crushed flat from the car’s weight. With almost a foot of mud covering the floor, his inventory lost, no possibility of insurance coverage, and the business community around him in chaos, Mr. Inoue was ready to board up the windows and walk away. Indeed he felt lucky that he and his family had escaped unharmed. In his town, 5,870 people are dead or missing.

When Peace Boat offered to help salvage his shop, Mr. Inoue accepted with a degree of skepticism. But, after a week of removing mud when Mr. Inoue could see his floor and became hopeful.  Peace Boat kept sending volunteer teams on one and two week rotations.

We arrived in mid-June to find the fifth team bent over buckets with bristle brushes in hand. Hiro, a biology student, had traveled more than 1,000 miles to help after responding to a newspaper advertisement which called for volunteers. He and five friends stayed in a tent pitched on the local university campus. This accommodation was a step up from some of the other sludge teams. At another site volunteers gamely slept on the floor of an old factory so they could be near the damaged houses of survivors on which they worked. Prior to their assignment, all of the volunteers attended an orientation, so everyone knew what they had signed up for.Hiro and his friends were scrubbing musical instruments cases, gingerly removing mud with toothbrushes. While chatting with the volunteer team, I saw Mr. Inoue inside the store amid a few painters and electricians. He welcomed me as I entered, and told us his story.

Photo by Ramona Bajema. All Rights Reserved.

Photo by Ramona Bajema. All Rights Reserved.“Where there is no hope, create it.”Mr. Inoue explained that he is working vigorously to re-open his business by mid-August, in time for Obon, an important Buddhist festival in which families gather together to commemorate their ancestors.  Everywhere we went, relief workers, government officials, families and businesses alike worked on projects with Obon as the completion date. And in the backdrop lie complex feelings of how to cope with grief alongside the desire for renewal.Mr. Inoue has undertaken a special project to restore one particular grand piano, the only one among 30 lost that remained standing upright in the mud.  Mr. Inoue replaced the legs and gutted the inside, and will restring the refinished frame.  He told us that a famous jazz singer has pledged to play this piano  on September  11, marking the six month anniversary of the disaster, at a benefit concert to raise funds for survivors. And although Mr. Inoue worries that the sound quality will be imperfect, I am certain the intense emotion of the performance will mute any imperfections. As he lifted the drop cloth to show us the piano, Mr. Inoue beamed with such joy, I could almost hear its music.

Mr. Inoue’s dream of celebrating the Sarukoya Music Store’s 100th anniversary and passing the store down his eldest son is a reality once again. He told us, “Without Peace Boat and the work of the volunteers, we might not stand again. We are very grateful.”  

AmeriCares helped to launch this Herculean effort with a $30,000 seed grant to Peace Boat. The funds specifically supported Peace Boat’s volunteer coordinators who identify the streets, businesses and survivors’ homes to be cleared; and who train and orient hundreds of volunteers monthly.  Since April, Peace Boat has helped shop owners reopen their stores, survivors reclaim their houses, and city officials revive community spaces.  

At AmeriCares 25th anniversary gala, Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Weisel stated, “Where there is no hope, create it.” In Ishinomaki, I have witnessed that call to action in action; shovel by shovel, hand in glove, creating hope where there was none.Read MoreDonate Now