A few months ago I received an email from a British woman called Sophie, who wanted to join me on Oshika and help out for a week or so. I was initially quite reluctant about the idea — I didn’t feel that I was able to take care of other non-locals, I was beginning to realize that the conditions are actually quite tough for most people to cope with, and I was also starting to feel that volunteering on Oshika really isn’t the right thing for everyone to do.
Despite having always had such a strong belief that we have a responsibility to help others if we can, I was seeing a lot of “volunteering in Tohoku” that was making me uncomfortable.
However, at the same time, I was developing a much stronger sense of what kind of person makes a good volunteer.
I’ve been wanting to … well … spell it out to people — explain to them about the kind of attitude you need to come to Oshika with — but in doing so it would mean explaining what kind of attitude you absolutely don’t come to Oshika with, and I wasn’t so keen to do that. But after being part of an email exchange a few weeks ago where I was giving advice to one poor woman who was trying to deal with a teacher who insisted on bringing her students to Tohoku to “help” yet expected to be fed, put up, and driven around everywhere; and then having read this excellent article recently (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22294205), I decided that I would indeed, spell it out.
So, here’s my entirely personal opinion on what makes a good volunteer in Tohoku, what makes a bad one, and why. My words may sound harsh in places, and may offend some, but if you are truly interested in volunteering because you care about the local people’s needs above your own needs, you won’t be offended. My comments that follow apply to foreign and Japanese volunteers alike, although I have to say that I have met very few foreign volunteers and most of my experience has been with Japanese volunteers.
Good volunteers know why they are there
To people who say they want to go to Tohoku, I ask why. Often the answer is that they want to help. Again, why? Most people can’t actually answer beyond that and think it strange that you would question why they want to help. You might get some answers like “It’s the right thing to do,” or “I want to make the world a better place,” but in my opinion, there is only one answer to this question, and that answer is “Because I have skills that are needed.”
In order to respond in that way you need to have a good understanding of what is actually needed, which is why educating yourself beforehand is vital. Read blogs written by people who have actually spent a decent amount of time in the area you want to go to and doing the work you want to do — and I don’t mean they’ve gone there for a weekend but read about people who have lives in the area or are close to the local people. You also need to have a good understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, and have a clear knowledge of what your own skills are — are you a carpenter? Good at DIY? Good at any kind of physical labour? Are you quick with your hands? Are you able to live in an entirely Japanese-speaking environment (and that isn’t the same as being able to speak Japanese)? Can you stand for hours on end in the cold/wind without complaining? Are you always ready with a smile, no matter what? These are all skills, too!
If you don’t have specific skills that you know are needed in the area you want to volunteer in, then you will end up feeling like and also actually being a burden to the very people you want to help. If you know you have those skills, you’re needed — get going!
Good volunteers are healthy
This sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it — you wouldn’t go there unless you were physically or mentally fit, right? You’d be surprised.
If you’re not feeling 100% before you set off volunteering then postpone your activities until you are. I have seen university students spend entire days of their two-day visit sleeping in the communal room of the centre where I sleep, because they’ve got a bit of a sniffle and it’s too cold outside for them. If you’re the kind of person for whom some extra layers and a few paracetamol can’t keep you going for a day, then don’t volunteer.
Of course people get sick, and that is when you have to think about who is ultimately responsible for your wellbeing and how you being sick might affect them. I have seen on more than one occasion, people refuse to go to the doctor despite how much the local people responsible for them insist. The sick person might think they are being a burden if they have to go to the doctor, but they are creating much more stress staying there being sick and not allowing people to help — I cannot begin to explain how cross I was when I found Mrs Sasaki passed out on the floor with her heart pills in one hand — the stress of trying to deal with a 19-year-old girl having a suspected asthma attack yet refusing to go to hospital was too much for her. People on Oshika are very good at smiling and laughing but it is a highly sensitive environment — you are there to make their lives easier not worse. If you are told to go to the doctor, you go.
If you’ve got any kind of physical ailment that will affect your ability to work then, I’m sorry, but I don’t think Oshika is the place for you. All of the recovery efforts require physical strength and the ability to do certain kinds of manual work — it’s not hard labour or anything but you do need to be physically strong and able. And on the subject of being able, a physically disabled person would really struggle on Oshika — I understand that I may offend some for being an able-bodied person talking about what a disabled person can and cannot do but, I can tell you that it would be very, very difficult for a disabled person to volunteer on Oshika.
As for being mentally fit, that is just as necessary. Don’t bring your own emotional issues with you, and don’t go around feeling sorry for all the locals and the emotional issues you assume they have. Keep your dramas and your tears to yourself; if you have a big smile and a big laugh make sure you bring those! They are always needed and always welcomed.
Good volunteers get themselves around
If you don’t have your own car, find out about the transportation options in your area before going. On Oshika, it is impossible to get around the peninsula without a car or motorbike. You can get the buses but then you are restricted to the timetable and that might not suit the people who you are volunteering for. There are a few bicycles lying around outside the centre where I stay, so anyone visiting Ohara would be OK, but you probably couldn’t cycle around the whole peninsula. Please don’t ask anyone to give you lifts — more than once I have seen someone visit the area for a weekend and expect to be driven to and from Ishinomaki, as well as to and from the hot baths, and anywhere else she wants to go. I think it’s incredibly rude.
So bring your own vehicle or hire one so you can be completely independent and not burden anyone. If you have a car, you will be able to help locals who need lifts, do shopping for them, and even carry needed items around to the different villages — a really good way to help!
Good volunteers eat anything
Or at least they give the impression that they will eat anything! If you’re going to be eating anything provided by local people then please don’t be an inconvenience by telling them what you can and can’t eat. If you have a restricted diet for health, religious, or moral reasons then please think about how that might affect the people you are trying to help. Either don’t come, or if you do, eat whatever you can, leave what you can’t, and try not to draw attention to the fact if at all possible. I made a promise to myself when I first went to Oshika that I would eat anything put in front of me and not ask what it was. Not that I was expecting anyone to put food in front of me, you understand, which is another point to bear in mind — please don’t expect other people to feed you. It drives me nuts when I see volunteers turn up and expect local people to put on loads of food for them. Find out what local shops there are before you go and buy what you need from there. You’ll likely have to abandon any food restrictions or diets you might be on. You could bring your own food but I think it’s better to buy locally and put the money back into the local economy, and also I don’t really think the idea of doing things differently than local people do is really in the right spirit.
If you do bring your own food, please think very carefully about what you plan on doing with anything you don’t need before you return. There is a workers union from Kobe that sometimes visits Ohara — there are about 30 members and they bring all their own food and allocate about four of them to do all the cooking as well as the volunteer activities. They stay for two nights and then go back to Kobe. I was shocked to see them throw away the curry they had made and weren’t going to eat — there was enough for at least 20 portions and the whole lot went in the trash. Surely a better way to make use of surplus food would have been to portion it all up into separate bento boxes (of which there are plenty in the community centre kitchen, where they stay) with rice (again, a massive sackful is always sitting around in the kitchen) and then hand deliver them to the temporary housing units with a big smile? I would have done it myself if I’d known before it was too late. It’s not that people need food there at all, but being kind and thoughtful is always needed, and to waste food especially somewhere like this is, to me, shocking.
But really, I think that good volunteers don’t think too much about food — I see these big groups of people visiting the area to volunteer yet they seem unable to do it without sitting around with a massive breakfast, lunch, and dinner rather than eating on the go or even just stopping where you are working and eating a bento you grabbed from the combini earlier. If you’re only there for a couple of days then surely you can find something better to do with your time than sitting around eating extensive meals with your friends?
If you’ll eat pretty much anything and can eat on the go, then I think this will help make you a good volunteer.
Good volunteers think about where they’ll be sleeping
You’ve probably worked out by now that what good volunteers are always aware of, is whether they might be being a burden in any way, to the people they want to help. And this includes sleeping arrangements. When I first went to Oshika for an extended period of time, I specifically bought a vehicle that I’d be able to sleep in — a little Toyota jeep was perfect. I already knew that Kucho-san had given permission for me to sleep in the community centre but I didn’t know what might happen — a month was a long time and I didn’t want to outstay my welcome. So I wanted to have an alternative in case it was needed — as it turns out it wasn’t.
But that awareness of where you’re sleeping and how you sleeping there affects others is important. There are very few places for volunteers to sleep and often you might end up sleeping somewhere where there are a lot of other volunteers you won’t necessarily know. Good volunteers are not only aware of how their behaviour affects the local people but also aware of how their behaviour might affect other non-locals. Staying up late and being noisy affects other people — I know INJM has a quiet policy after 10pm and a strict lights-out policy after midnight. One of the most upsetting experiences for me was when I had to speak to a bunch of university students and ask them to be quiet over and over again — I had already pointed out to them that I’d come from the UK to be there, that I was there for two months and not going back to a comfy bed for a long time, that I had an extremely busy day the next day, but nothing seemed to work. A lot of Japanese volunteers think I am in my twenties, so I pointed out to this bunch, very strongly, that I was 41 years old and needed my sleep. Total shock, followed by total silence for the rest of the night. My first experience of the power that playing the age card has in Japan!
Seriously though, don’t assume you are the only volunteers in your area and be respectful of others you might be sharing a sleeping space with, regardless of anybody’s age.
Good volunteers use their time well
And good volunteers see meaning in every little activity. Oshika is an incredibly beautiful place, with very special people, and I think this creates a unique energy in this area. It is impossible not to learn skills and sensitivities there that city living and modern life have stripped away from us. I don’t think I’ve ever worked anywhere where I feel that every single day is so meaningful.
I feel that good volunteers can connect with the beauty of this area — they can see the beauty amid the wasteland, and they can see the laughter and love amid the sadness. And, as volunteers, I believe we are privileged to be able to spend time in these special communities and to be able to help as people put their lives, homes, and communities back together. For that reason, I think it is vital that we use our time well there.
If you look around you, you will always be able to see ways of helping — good volunteers don’t always wait to be told what to do. Water some plants, sweep the leaves away from the road, give the kitchen a good clean, give someone a lift to the combini, ask someone if they need anything in Ishinomaki before driving off there yourself. There are countless tiny, thoughtful, and helpful jobs to do.
Don’t sit around when other people are working — I saw a group of university students sitting around having finished doing wakame really early, so I told them I had some space in my car if anyone fancied joining me to do some painting. The response? “We’re going to the onsen in Ishinomaki.” That response made me so sad — not for Takahashi-san, whose building I was painting at the time, but actually for the students themselves who would rather have fun with their friends. If they wanted to take away special memories then I can’t think of a much better one than helping to paint hearts on an old widower’s building, rather than partying with the friends they came up with.
But unfortunately, a lot of the volunteers I have seen spend about as much time eating, drinking, and partying, as they do working. I had to physically remove drunk adult men from the kitchen when I was preparing the English brunch. I’ve seen people hungover and sleeping in the communal space until 6pm the following Sunday after a heavy Saturday night, and I’ve been woken by people who’ve travelled very far to volunteer so arrive at 2am but then start drinking. I do not understand any of this.
Now, like most people, I like to have a bit of a blow-out now and again. In the two months I stayed on this recent trip I had a very entertaining evening drinking with Onodera-san, and another with (a different) Takahashi-san and Yachan. Both times I was in their homes with them, and not bothering anyone else. I brought my own drink and had already eaten. I might have been just a teeny bit slower than normal the next day but it didn’t negatively impact any of the work I was doing there to help during the two months. In fact, I’d say that some of the conversations that were had on both nights possibly helped it. But for the time I stay on Oshika, I actually live there. I work every single day and I never take a day off. So I don’t understand why people who volunteer for such a short space of time want to spend half of it doing something so meaningless.
Being a tourist instead of a volunteer
If you’re not sure whether you meet the criteria of a good volunteer, then please don’t call yourself a volunteer. Still go to Tohoku, by all means, but why not go as a tourist? You don’t have to visit the area as a volunteer if you want to help. You could do a little bit of wakame or any other kind of work that could be arranged for you, but you can party and relax as much as you like. You can satisfy that natural curiosity that I think a lot of people have, and perhaps you can get a little bit of understanding about the area. And if you’re staying in a hotel then you will be actually contributing to the local economy and you won’t be bothering other people who are actually volunteering. Nor will you be a burden or an inconvenience to the local people — in fact, they will love that you want to go sightseeing in such a beautiful place that has suffered so much.
So what happened to the British woman who asked to join me on Oshika volunteering for a week? Well, when I picked Sophie up in the darkness — the lone passenger on the Ayukawa bus — I had a feeling that she would work out fine. Anyone who didn’t emerge traumatized by the journey and being dropped off in the middle of nowhere had some balls, and would probably be fine here! And work out fine she did. She got herself around the peninsula using an old bike she found by the community centre. She spoke very little Japanese but just got on with things and didn’t let it bother her, and developed a really lovely friendship with the 84-year-old woman with whom she did wakame every day. Once she finished her wakame work she’d often find me and get stuck in with whatever I was doing — a short-arse like me who doesn’t like ladders couldn’t have painted the top of Takahashi-san’s building without her, and I’d probably still be cooking the English brunch now if it weren’t for her help. She gave herself enough private time to process some of the emotions that are inevitable in this environment, without imposing her own emotions on anyone else. And she took care of me too, actually, and became a really lovely friend who I kind of miss, even away from Oshika.
Sophie’s one week volunteering on Oshika turned into four. She was a pleasure to have around and I was happy for her to stay. She, quite simply, got it. And didn’t want to nor did she burden anyone at all. It was only in the last few days that I discovered that she was, in fact, a vegetarian.
“But I’ve seen you eat meat when we’ve been invited to people’s homes!” I said.
“It’s my choice to be a vegetarian, not their’s. If people are feeding me, I don’t see why my choices should inconvenience them.”
Now, THAT, in my opinion, is a good volunteer.
I gave a talk last month at FEW, where I finally met someone with whom I had only ever had a telephone and email relationship, and even then we had lost touch in recent years. Dana Levy, who runs Furla Yoga, was one of the women in the audience listening to my 30-minute talk about (i) publishing in Japan, (ii) my latest book on Western women and Japanese men, and (iii) Oshika. Those FEW women are pretty demanding in their need for information and inspiration on a variety of topics in a short space of time — hey, they’re busy girls!
It is surprising that Dana and I had never met before — she was a big supporter of Being A Broad, in which Furla Yoga advertised for a long time. Dana herself was even featured on the cover. But it took last month’s talk for us finally to get the opportunity to meet, at the end of which we exchanged big hugs.
In the Oshika section of my talk, I had focused on the bus stop, but also touched on other kinds of support that is especially useful at this stage of the recovery, and just a few hours after the event I received a lovely message from Dana, saying that they would like to make a donation towards the shrines on Oshika. The yoga studio had held a fundraising event on March 16th, and was yet to decide where to allocate the ¥50,000 they had raised. As Dana said,
We thought it would be nice to contribute to the restoration of the shrines. As yoga is essentially a spiritual practice, we’d like to help restore a place for the people of Oshika to find deep inner peace in times of turmoil.
There is also a more personal reason for the Furla Yoga team to be especially interested in supporting the Oshika peninsula. One of their key members of staff lived in Sendai when she first came to Japan and considers Tohoku to be her home:
Oshika hanto holds a very special place in my heart as my husband and I had so many happy times camping there, together and with friends. I lost two dear friends to the tsunami, and I know how wonderful the people up there are; they are just regular people, but they have huge hearts. I reconnected with many of them during the funeral for my friends, and their courage and optimism was incredible. I am glad that you are working up there to bring some beauty back to their lives.
Furla Yoga has decided that their fundraising efforts will continue! And have set themselves a goal of ¥100,000, to be raised by the end of this year. The yoga studio will be holding a series of classes specifically to raise money, and you can find out about these classes by checking their website at https://yoga.furla.co.jp. Please support them in their efforts to support Oshika.
My last stay on Oshika was the longest stay so far, and possibly the most exhausting. Two months is a long time to be sleeping in basic conditions, to be living in such a sensitive environment, to be working with such intensity, and of course to be away from the man I totally adore. But I loved it. When I am there, I am filled with a sense of it being the place where I should be, with the people I should be with, and doing the things I should be doing. And it is that feeling and knowledge that helps me cope with being away from Mr W for so long — especially during the middle part of the trip, which was, without a doubt, the hardest.
But as the weeks went on, it became clear that those long two months were needed in order to get so much done. This trip was so much more productive than previous trips for a number of reasons, partly to do with how the local people there now see me and partly to do with how I see myself. From my point of view my confidence in my Japanese ability has increased, and my worrying about upsetting people has decreased. When you don’t speak a language fluently you listen. A lot! You listen with your ears but you also listen with your heart. And I have spent so much time listening and concentrating on what local people are saying and feeling that I now think I have a much better understanding of Oshika than I had on previous trips. I know they are happy for me to be there, and they are happy with the things I do to try to help. So I worry a lot less and trust my instincts a lot more.
From the local people’s point of view, they know me now, and they trust me. They like the things that I do and they let me get on with them. They know I can’t be there all year round, but when I am there, I am part of their lives.
So because of this much deeper relationship I now have with individuals as well as with communities, it was possible to get a lot done on this trip:
Building the Thomas Keble Playground in Ohara was the main thing I wanted to achieve on this trip, and together with some of the local guys, we not only built the playground that was sponsored by this Gloucestershire school, but also created a beautiful play space, complete with outdoor toys and a toy box, a cherry blossom tree, bushes, flowers, a romantic corner for grown-ups, a repaired giant ice-cream made out of fibre-glass, and a repaired panda complete with smile. All surrounded by a lovely matching fence.
I like to cook for everyone on the last Sunday of my stays on Oshika, and this time I thought I would make an English brunch. It’s fun to tell people about English food, and to show people how to cook certain things the way I do. It is my way of thanking everyone for welcoming me into their homes but most importantly, these meals are a lovely way to bring together people from all over the peninsula, from the different villages, who would otherwise not interact. This time about 60 people came and went over a six-hour period, and enjoyed bacon, sausages (YUMMY sausages from Mark Spencer!), beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread, potatoes, and lots and lots of poached eggs. All served up with Bucks Fizz and proper English tea.
Valentine’s chocolates delivery
As with last year, I spent Valentine’s Day delivering chocolates throughout the peninsula. People had sent boxes and boxes of chocolates from other parts of Japan; all ready for me to unpack and organize when I arrived on February 10th. I arranged them all in a basket lined with red velvety fabric, and spend seven hours driving around the peninsula, delivering them to temporary housing units, schools, community centres, shops, and offices, as well as to random people on the streets.
Cherry blossom planting
An unexpected addition to my jobs on this trip was the collection and digging up of 50 free cherry blossom trees that I, along with a couple of the local guys, drove back to Ohara. They are now planted in a temporary location in the village, until the permanent living areas have been finalized.
Outfits for the fishing men and women
This trip saw the purchase and distribution of an additional 19 outfits for the fishing men and women of the peninsula, bringing the total now to 41.
Koamikura festival & shrine repair
The steps to the Koamikura shrine, inaccessible since the earthquake, was repaired thanks to money raised by the Ohana International School communities, and the people of the town were able to visit their shrine for the first time in two years. The shrine roof and walls are also being repaired thanks to this kind-hearted community. Not only that, but 50 of the people from Ohana, the British School in Tokyo, and Miyabi Arashi taiko group took the long journey up to Oshika and joined the Koamikura community for their first festival since the earthquake, with the taiko group giving an incredible performance. This is just the beginning of an ongoing relationship supporting the town as they get back on their feet.
The free shop
I ran a free shop for the entire two months, in a container building next to the combini near Kobuchi. The shop started off with items that were left over after a clothes swap I held in Tokyo the day before driving to Oshika, and throughout the two months I put out calls for more items to be sent, depending on what was popular, and what people asked for. Hundreds, if not thousands, of items were given away for free.
I started two knitting clubs in Ohara — one in the evening for the women who worked and one in the morning for the women who didn’t. But in fact the morning one often went on all day as these marathon knitters carried on through lunch and even got the karaoke out. A few men joined the morning group — not to knit, but just to hang out with us because we were having so much fun!
Ohara bus stop
This was another unexpected project added to my list of jobs, after I had given a talk to the mums at Summerhill International School in Tokyo just before heading up to Oshika. They raised money to pay for a new bus stop in Ohara, which was built by a group of Saitama carpenters, who joined us on Oshika. We built it in three days, two of which were under tarpaulin because of the typhoon. But what a bus stop it turned out to be!
Disneyland trip & Tokyo homestay
I took 26 mums and children on a bus from Oshika to Tokyo, where they stayed with lovely host families for two nights, and spent a day at Disneyland.
Oshika Junior High School uniforms
Kspace International School in Tokyo raised enough money to pay for school uniforms and book vouchers for all of the incoming students at the only junior high school on the peninsula — I saw the children and their parents on the day they got fitted for their uniforms, and I also got to go along to the entrance ceremony and see them all wearing their uniforms. And already, a generous individual has pledged a million yen towards next year’s uniforms.
[In addition to all that, money generated by and for these projects, as well as my previous and some upcoming projects, has now hit almost ¥8 million (that's almost US$85,000 or nearly UK£56,000).]
These eleven projects would not have been possible to complete so quickly and simultaneously had I not been on Oshika for those two months. And as I work on getting those projects done, I am constantly thinking about what I can do to make people smile, spread some love, and make the place just a little bit better than it was when I first arrived. I have learned that I am good at doing this — I say that without arrogance but I’m not going to talk with any false modesty either. I know my efforts make a difference.
A very big reason why I am good at doing this is because of all the love that comes my way. My husband is incredibly supportive of what I do there, despite how much he misses me, and I feel extremely loved — that helps me on a personal level. And the lovely messages I get from my nieces and stepdaughter also help — getting my first “I love you” from Little Miss W at the end of my last trip was amazing.
I feel lots of love coming my way from the people who live on Oshika as well — I get lots of hugs, have a second home at Onodera-san’s, and know that everyone’s doors are always open to me.
But the love I get from all the people who want to help Oshika or support my activities is overwhelming. Often this love comes from complete strangers. And it kind of feels like I am channelling all that love onto Oshika — it truly gives me the ability to make all these things happen.
So thank you to everyone who sent Oshika so much love during those two months — thank you to those who sent letters and emails. Thank you for reading my blog and following my Facebook updates. Thank you to those who sent or raised money. Thank you for sending clothes and other items for the shop. Thank you for hosting families in your homes. Thank you to those who came and saw Oshika for themselves! Thank you for sending food for the brunch, toys for the playground, chocolates for Valentine’s, wool for the knitting clubs, and even medicine when I had a cold.
Thank you all so very, very much for keeping the special people of Oshika in your hearts.
A few people have been contacting me with things they’d like to send up to the free shop — I’ll be doing the shop again on my next trip, but as I’ve mentioned in previous writing, donating clothes and other items has to be managed very carefully, so I won’t be able to accept anything (and then I’ll only be accepting things that I know are needed) until I’m actually there again.
However, there are some items that I know I will always be able to find homes for and if YOU want to, you can collect them between now and my next trip. These items include the following:
- Wellie boots
- Granny pants
- Incontinence pants
- Heat-tech items
- Thermal underwear
- Lightweight waterproof jacket/windbreaker/cagoule thing
Claire Blandford, who runs Kids Talk Children’s English School, has decided that she is going to be the wellie lady! And has taken it upon herself to collect brand new wellies from her friends and school community. And another friend, Elise Mori, has decided to be the granny pants lady!
So if you’d like to help, you can choose one of the items on the list to collect yourself. You can reach out to your own network, or post to me on Facebook, which I can then share. And then you can send them to me on Oshika during my next trip, which should be in the autumn. Let me know if you’re interested! Email