Shovels and onigiris – My first day as a volunteer

Posted by Matthew Ireton, a parishioner at the English-language parish in Tokyo

It was early in the morning when I woke to the sound of people preparing to go upstairs for the 6:30 a.m. mass.

Father Takahashi, who is a priest from Oita Prefecture, decided say Mass for Catholics at the Caritas base in Shiogama during his stay as a volunteer.  I got up, went to the bathroom to put my contact lens on, and then headed to a room that allowed for 7-8 people after setting an altar for a bible, crucifix, chalice and a ciborium.

As Father Takahashi spoke during the homily about volunteering, I was wondering what was going through everyone’s minds.  This was my first day of actual volunteering, having arrived yesterday, and while others probably reflected on their previous volunteering activities, I did not know what to think or expect.

By the time Mass ended, others were waking up and getting ready to make onigiris for lunch.  I helped set up two rectangular tables to place three rice makers and onigiri condiments.  My stomach growled endlessly during mass and it was still before breakfast.  Therefore, makingonigiri under such circumstances is almost like loading up your tray at a one-trip buffet.

I tore some plastic wrap from its container, placed it on the table, added a piece of thin, dried seaweed sheet (nori), sprinkled salt for the rice to stick, and at last, added a massive amount of rice.  I made three large onigiris, but I did not feel badly, since Patrick from Andover, Massachusetts did the same.

We ate breakfast and prepared to leave for the volunteer center at Shichigahama, which was a 15-minute drive.

Some were getting ready to go to the volunteer center at Shiogama, which is only five-minute walk.  I made sure that I had everything I needed in my backpack:  work gloves (gunte) to wear on top of rubber gloves that went up to my elbows, goggles, mask, hand-towel, and of course, the three big onigiris.

The ride from Shiogama to Shichigama did not reveal much damage, so my attention shifted to the person sitting next to me.  Senoh actually lives only a 15-minute bike-ride away from my home in Tokyo and eats at the same ramen joint that I frequent.  After talking enough about our neighborhood, I saw a soccer stadium and a gym-like facility, which I instinctively knew was the volunteer center.

In the midst of the crowding volunteers in the temporary building, I signed up as a first-timer for insurance purposes.  The matching process was already beginning where members of Shakyo (Japan National Council of Social Welfare), which organizes all volunteering activities, matches the needs of affected people with volunteers according to the their skills.

There were numerous posters, papers, maps, and writing on the whiteboard indicating the number of groups, available cars, and requests, among other information.  The head representative of Shakyo spoke into a microphone for her morning remarks and asked if anyone was from anywhere far away.  I did not count because I grew up in Tokyo and have been back from Washington D.C. for almost three years. Instead, there was a married couple from China studying in Nagoya whom we gave a big applause after their introductory speech.

It was not until the ride out from the Shichigahama volunteer center when I really saw the full extent of the damages.  There has been much coverage on the aftermath of the tsunami that made the affected areas resemble a movie set, but to see the countless wood and debris piled up on top of each other and feel the subdued air with its distinct aura, made it even more unreal.

Our group worked on the front yard of a house that was totally covered by sludge.  We grabbed shovels, metal drums, and carts to start removing the sludge to a designated waste area.  In the yard was large rock, which was 2 meters high and 6 meters wide, so I decided to dig between the house and the rock.  My arms became sore, and it felt like the shovel was striking back at me every time I dug.

Our group consisted of volunteers not only from Caritas, but also from the volunteer center.  I asked one of the guys who looked like he knew what he was doing for tips on digging.  Suzuki-san, who is from Akita Prefecture and almost like a legend in Shichigama for volunteering and sleeping in his car for the past month, handed me a triangular shovel.  I had a rectangular shovel that was not suited for hard sludge, so it made the biggest difference.   I started shoveling away with my new tool as I started to get to know the people with whom I was working.

I was told the day before at the Shiogama base that I should not work in silence, so I made it a point to talk to people or hum a melody or two when I ran out of things to say (I hope the humming did not annoy anyone).  I was working next to a local volunteer named Musubu, but had a hard time starting up a conversation with him.  He was not very expressive, so I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to try any harder either.

When I filled my metal drum with sludge to bring to the cart, I was surprised by Musubu.  He was standing in my way, and just as I was about to pass by him, he grabbed my metal drum, walked over to the cart, and disposed of the sludge for me.  This was when I realized that we communicated not with words, but with action.  After that “conversation,” we had no problem communicating, talking in depth about our favorite mangas among other volunteers.

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