¥23 MILLION — 5 YEARS — 33 PROJECTS — 100% VOLUNTARY
Having moved to Tokyo in 1996, and lived there for 15 years, like many long-term residents who consider Japan their home, after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011, I felt compelled to help. I spent six weeks travelling around the UK, giving talks to schools on Japanese culture and all the things I love about Japan, and in return the students and their parents brought emergency supplies that I had requested beforehand. Virgin Atlantic flew these 10,000 items to Japan, and a friend and I drove them up to the remote fishing communities on the Oshika peninsula in May 2011.
Oshika is the closest part of Japan to the epicenter of the earthquake, and was the first part of the country to be hit by the tsunami. A thousand bodies washed up in the days immediately following the tsunami, nobody could get on or off the peninsula for a week, and the land there has permanently sunk by over a metre. We found many people trying to survive in what was left of their homes, yet without supplies. Despite the debris and destruction that we saw, I fell in love with the place and the people, and promised myself that I would continue to help.
Since then, I have returned to Oshika seven times, each time staying for a month or two, living and working within the fishing communities. I have been embraced by these communities, and the people there talk openly to me about their needs and worries. I am not really considered a “volunteer,” and am often touched to be referred to as a friend or family member. I simply listen to the people there, and encourage them to tell me what THEY think they need to rebuild their lives. Then I try to make that happen.
I draw upon a huge network of people around the world, who are all keen to support Tohoku in its recovery. This network includes individuals, schools, businesses, and community groups. And, as of July 2017, together we have raised over ¥22 million (that’s more than $200,000 or almost £140,000).
There are a wide range of projects that have been supported, costing as little as ¥10,000 and up to ¥3 million. Donations do not go into a generic fund, but instead are donated with a specific project in mind. Money goes directly to the community benefiting from the project, or to a manufacturer or carpenter for example — only in exceptional circumstances does it come through me and I really prefer it not to. Every donation has a specific purpose, and where at all possible, any items that need to be sourced are purchased locally.
This money has paid for the following (equivalent amount in US and UK currencies is stated at the exchange rate at the time of donation):
- School uniforms
Uniforms and sportswear have been provided for the incoming students of Oshika Junior High School for four consecutive years, providing a huge help to the parents of these students. The total amount raised for the uniforms is now about ¥4 million ($38,000 or £25,000), which is about ¥75,000 per student. I am currently looking for a sponsor for the 2019 intake of students (¥329,000/$2,900/£2,250).
- Oharahama shrine restoration
This 400-year-old shrine was badly damaged during the earthquake, and as of summer 2016, has had an entirely new “shinden” (prayer building to the back of the shrine) built, just in time for the annual festival. This ¥3 million project ($25,000/£17,500) was sponsored by one person, with a fascinating story of philanthropic activities. The wall holding up the original shinden was rebuilt two years earlier as a separate project funded by Helping Hands for Japan. The UK-based organisation donated ¥358,000 ($3,000/£2,000) so that the wall could be built.
- Working clothes
¥2.5 million ($24,000/£15,500) raised over five years has provided almost 140 working outfits for men and women in the fishing industry. These outfits are practical and hardwearing, yet bright and cheerful, and they give a real boost to the people working here. The Pink Ladies are famous on Oshika — they even got to meet Prince William! (¥20,000/$200/£150 per outfit)
- A community library
Oshika Community Library is comfortable, warm, welcoming, and home-like — freely open to people of all ages. With an outdoor terrace and what locals have christened their “beer garden,” this area provides a much-needed community space and is filled with books specifically chosen by the local people. (¥2.3 million/$22,000/£13,300)
- Bell tower construction
The Ohara kanetsukido (“bell tower,”) was hundreds of years old and completely destroyed in the earthquake. A brand new kanetsukido has now been built. These structures can only be built by a local craftsman, and luckily this town has its own carpenter, although he had never made anything like this before. It is a true work of art. (¥2 million/$21,500/£14,000)
- Koamikura shrine repairs
The Koamikura shrine, also hundreds of years old, was badly damaged during the earthquake and the landslides that followed in the days afterwards. The steps and back of the shrine have now been repaired, and the stone torii that fell to the ground during the earthquake has been repaired and re-erected. (¥1.9 million/$17,500/£14,000)
Two playgrounds: one in Ohara and another in Ayukawa, providing much-needed space in which parents can freely let their young children let off steam. (One cost ¥254,000/$2,700/£1,800; the other ¥430,000/$4,300/£2,700)
20 bedding sets for a community centre, made by an award-winning local craftsman and therefore supporting him as he rebuilds the business he lost. Two years later 20 blankets were added to this contribution, made by the same craftsman. (Total ¥604,500/$5,700/£3,900)
- Tokyo Disneyland trip & homestay
This special trip for 19 children and their families gave them a much-needed break from the temporary housing communities and new friends from all over the world. (¥585,000/$6,200/£4,100)
- Oshika Junior High School Music Department
The school’s music department is not receiving any financial support from the local government, who do not consider music to be important to the students. The school received musical instruments and also received support for the purchase of vocal training and practice materials for the school choir. (Total: ¥364,000/$3,000/£2,000)
- The Sasakis’ fishing business
Readers of my blog or Facebook friends will be familiar with the Sasakis, who have now become close friends of mine. This lovely couple are in their sixties, and working hard to rebuild the business they built over forty years, and lost in the tsunami. They have received money for construction materials and furnishings to accommodate the temporary staff that are essential to their business, and can also be used as a home for themselves to use. (Total: ¥290,000/$3,200/£2,000)
- Educational software
A licence for the junior high schools students to use this software was sponsored for 2014 and 2015. The students in this area are performing academically at one of the lowest levels in the country. This software helps students prepare for high school entrance exams, supports the local cram school, gives an additional resource to teachers whose budgets are limited, and has already lead to a great improvement in the students’ performance. (Total for both years: ¥280,000/$2,500/£1,600)
- A bus shelter
The local government refused repeated requests to provide a bus shelter for a town of mostly elderly residents, citing lack of funds, so we built a beautiful and unique bus shelter, complete with sofas and an outdoor terrace, with has since become a rather special communal space and tourist attraction. (¥210,000/$2,200/£1,500)
- Fishing equipment
This money provided locally-purchased equipment to support the fishing industries in Ohara and Yagawa. While some of the fishermen got into their boats and rode through the tsunami and out to sea in order to save their boats, everything on land was destroyed, including their equipment. Providing water pumps, and boat maintenance equipment is vital to these people being able to return to work. (Total for both projects: ¥210,000/$2,300/£1,400)
- Festival items
Festival-related items such as a tent, barbecue set, mikoshi cover, and festival clothing. These festivals are an important and much-needed reason to celebrate; they give people a reason to return to the local area, and improve each individual village’s economy as well as instilling a great sense of pride among the community. (Total of all four projects: ¥130,000/$1,300/£800)
- Gardening support
Cherry blossom trees in Ohara, and plants and flowers for the Tsudachi gardens, storage facilities for temporary housing residents Masayo’s and Keiko’s gardens, as well as gardening equipment to keep communal spaces tidy and residents active. (Total of all five projects: ¥126,000/$1,500/£950)
- Home furnishings
An elderly man in Koamikura took it upon himself to build his own home, despite never having had any carpentry or construction experience before. This money purchased items for his kitchen and living room. This kind of courage, vision, and determination deserves respect and encouragement! (¥100,000/$1,300/£800)
- AED units
This money paid for two AED units. It takes about an hour for an ambulance to reach Oshika, and these portable heart massage machines provide a sense of security for many of the elderly residents. (Total for both units: ¥40,000/$330/£220)
And not one penny (or yen!) has been spent on expenses, administration costs, or anybody’s salary. I do this on an entirely voluntary basis, and pay for all my own expenses, including my flights to and from the UK, although a very kind person, upon hearing about some serious personal matters I had unexpectedly been dealing with in the UK during 2015, insisted on giving me £2,000 toward my 2016 trip. He felt that Oshika needed me, and I needed Oshika (he was definitely right with respect to the latter!) and wanted to make sure that the 2016 trip happened. I can’t thank him enough.
I also run a free shop every time I am on Oshika. The shop contains items that are new or nearly new, and donated from other parts of Japan (and sometimes from overseas). The shop is open from every day, and people can take whatever they want, free of charge. For more information see here.
There are plenty of other projects underway or currently being planned and in need of sponsorship, and workwear for members of the fishing community is an ongoing need. If you would like to support a project for the fishing communities in Tohoku, please get in touch. Or join my Tohoku Supporters’ Mailing List here.
Phone: 080-3433-4000 (when in Japan) 0752-7575-993 (when in the UK)
Next Japan trip: 2017 trip yet to be booked
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