April 21st: The sound of hope – reflections on volunteering for the people of Kamaishi

When the rector of the Jesuit scholasticate in Tokyo, Fr. Juan Haidar, asked me whether I was interested in volunteering for relief efforts of Caritas Japan, I initially hesitated since my command of the Japanese language was not good. Yet I felt moved to respond despite this disability and despite the risks.

We called ourselves the Tokyo 12. I found myself among this group of five men and seven women who responded to Mr. Sakagawa’s call to help in the relief efforts of Caritas Japan. We had not known each other prior to this and only had an orientation meeting on the 4th of April. Bony James, an Indian Jesuit scholastic, and I were probably the only Christians in this group.

The Tokyo 12 left for the Northern coastal town of Kamaishi on the 5th of April. Kamaishi is one of the towns that was badly hit by the tsunami. This is the same town where a huge ship rammed into the tsunami wall. The sidewalks were still full of debris—everything from old toys, to the remains of a baby shark.

For one week we cooped up in a small convent that was not so much affected by the tsunami since the convent and chapel are located on a slightly elevated area. Upon arrival, we volunteers were briefed about the types of work involved: first, to clean up nearby houses that were devastated by the tsunami; second, to help in the sorting and distribution of relief goods; third, to assist in the preparation of food for those affected by the disaster.

The clean-up operations were grueling and rather dangerous. The volunteers had to clear up debris in and around the house—thick wooden planks, car parts, water-logged plastic containers, even a heavy stairwell that the tsunami water had jostled onto the lawn. The debris was at times several meters deep, and to clear it up we volunteers dug out the wreckage with a shovel or by our own hands in order to move the rubble to a nearby lot. There was so much debris that we even had to create a makeshift pathway out of disposed tatami mats so as to be able to dump the debris further inside the lot. The dumpsite reeked of rotting seawater—decomposing things that the tsunami has forced into the city.

The danger of the task was very real. Several volunteers had even accidentally stepped on beams with exposed nails that had been rusting under the corrosive salt water. They had to look for first aid and immediately get tetanus shots. I almost met an accident myself as the heavy beam I was carrying got snagged by an overturned car.

We were one day cleaning the house of an eighty-year old woman. Hanging by the ledge of the house, we tried to empty the house of debris via a window, in order that we would eventually be able to have access to the door and be able to open it from the inside. After a number of hours, we took a break. When she found out I was Filipino, her facial expression changed. I could not completely understand what she was saying, but I felt her gratitude. She even gave us Philippine Cavendish bananas as a snack. “Also from the Philippines,” she said in Japanese.

After a long day’s work, while I was cleaning my soiled overalls, one religious sister had asked me whether I was exhausted from all the heavy labor. I replied that work was by no means easy, but I realize, that as a volunteer, at least I had an option to rest a while. After a week, I would be living comfortably in the scholasticate. For many in the town, there was no option—this ravaged town was their only home.

The other assignment that I was able to do was to be in the central repository for donations of clothing. Trucks after trucks would come bringing donations from all over Japan. The warehouse was an abandoned school. The wooden floors creaked as we moved the boxes from one hallway to the other. At times we would have fun and push the boxes towards each other as one would a hockey puck. We would dispose of old clothing and sort and classify the new clothing that we received. We sorted them into gender and sizes in order that the soldiers who would distribute the goods will be able to access the clothing faster.

A retired fireman supervised us—like the woman, he expressed pleasant surprise that I am from the Philippines, and even more surprised that I had only been in Japan for less than two weeks. During our breaks he would offer us some hot ramen and chilled barley tea and would tell stories about the tsunami and the people of Kamaishi.

On my last day, while we were busy sorting socks, the retired fireman pulled us volunteers aside, he said it was two-forty five. The tsunami warning would sound in remembrance of the tragedy. It had been a month since the tsunami had destroyed Kamaishi. It was quite an emotional moment for all as we remembered why we were doing such a repetitive and mechanical task.

The atmosphere in Kamaishi despite the certain and slow clearing of debris, is still quite tense. One Thursday evening, at around 11:00, a strong earthquake struck the region. The power went out, and people started rushing outside their homes. Our team leader, Rintaro Takesue, did a head count and we proceeded to an elevated plateau overlooking the sea. The neighborhood made sure everyone was there. Many people were scrambling to  go up–a ninety year old man had difficulty walking uphill, and someone was pushing up a wheelchair of an old woman, children in tow.

A firetruck beamed a light towards the black ocean as we listened to the radio for updates as to when the tsunami would strike. The faces of people were full of anxiety. Under the dark skies, some volunteers broke down, and cried. I called up the scholasticate in Tokyo to inform anyone in the Philippine province of the Society of Jesus that I was safe.

The following day, the power was still out, and people were still uneasy. The convent house, however, just received its share of donations from Caritas Japan and opened the house for anyone in the neighborhood who needed anything.

In order to release my tension, I arranged the food donations as a supermarket would on a display shelf which earned me the nickname “Mitsukoshi”, a popular department store chain in Japan. It was such a joy when I saw a young girl of around 5 years of age, pointing to a candy display I strategically placed on a lower shelf. She asked permission from her mother to get some sweets and placed it in their bag.

My father had once told me that after a typhoon he, as a child, would anticipate hearing the sound of a broom’s bristles brushing against the wet pavement. He said that he had always associated the sound with hope. It is a sound that tells him that people have begun to pick up the pieces after such devastation. It tells him that people have decided to hope again and move on.

I suppose the exhaustion from all the hard labor did not matter as much as seeing people placing their hopes on the future. As I was helping out with the cleaning the houses and the movement of donations,   I would hear frightful stories of the disaster. Not speaking so much Japanese, I truly wanted to utter words of consolation but I couldn’t. Yet I believe they understood me. That I too, like them and with them, am placing my hopes.

This are just some of the many stories of moving on that are now woven into the lives of the Tokyo 12 volunteers. During our Kamaishi stay, many of the volunteers had asked me questions about the faith, and questions about life. Although we may not fully be able to make sense of such a tragedy, we sense that somehow through our being there we have been instruments of hope. Perhaps although coming from different faiths, we as volunteers, as we place hope in such a time of uncertainty, we perhaps unknowingly and imperfectly somehow reflect and resound God’s greater hope.

(1 Corinthians 13:12) Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.

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