I find it intriguing how a Canadian with a Japanese name who was born in West Lafayette, USA, is now working as a derivatives trader at a foreign investment bank in Tokyo. Perhaps, that’s another story. Here, Joji, Chairman of the non-profit organization (NPO) Nadia, tells us about his afternoon on March 11th, 2011, and explains why annoying phone calls in the middle of the night can sometimes be a good thing.
Trang: Where were you on Friday March 11th, 2011 at 14:46pm when the earthquake hit and the tsunami struck?
Joji: I was in our dealing room at the foreign investment bank in central Tokyo where I work. You know, we get earthquakes often enough in Tokyo that this one seemed like any other earthquake. I remember saying to a friend on the phone that it wasn’t a big deal, particularly if the locals didn’t panic. When my colleagues started to dive under their desks, however, I got worried. While the earthquake was taking place, we were getting reports from our other offices announcing that a tsunami was heading for the Tohoku region. We didn’t receive any details but we heard that it was “big”! We didn’t realize the scale of the earthquake and its impact until the reports started coming in on our news wires. We were instructed to remain in the office and not to go outside, so a few of my colleagues and I stayed in the stairwell. We thought that under the stairwell would be safer, but then a huge crack started appearing in the wall. It turned out to be just the drywall, but at that time, things seemed so uncertain and we really didn’t know. We kept waiting through the afternoon and towards the evening we were told it was okay to go home.
T: Did the earthquake affect you and your surroundings immediately after it had occurred?
J: I live in central Tokyo near Fudomae on the Meguro train line. Basically, the earthquake shut down the transport system throughout Tokyo so I had to walk home. By the time I left the office, thousands of people had already filled the streets of the city. Luckily, a friend of mine lived about half way between my office and home so I stopped by my friend’s for a rest. Overall, I walked for about three hours that evening with a three-hour break in between. During this entire time, I had been trying to get in contact with my daughter to make sure that she was fine, but all the communication lines were down. I didn’t manage to get in touch with her until several hours later.
T: Now, three years later, have there been any effects from the earthquake in your area? Has your daily life changed in any way because of the earthquake?
Tokyo, in the end, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake compared to other regions. I think that the biggest impact has been the exodus of the foreign community in Tokyo. I’ve been noticing that, in the evenings, in the entertainment districts such as Roppongi, there are fewer foreign people as compared to the pre-tsunami days. Many of my friends from overseas are still reluctant to visit Japan because of radiation fears even though the radiation zone is far removed from Tokyo. My daily life, however, remains unaffected particularly now, three years on.
T: How did you start doing volunteering work after March 11th, 2011? How did Nadia as a non-profit organization (NPO) begin?
J: Immediately after the tsunami, I had flown to Thailand to attend an International Ice Hockey Tournament. At the closing banquet, the organizers of the tournament passed around a hat and the players from the other teams donated a significant amount of money.
When I got back to Japan, our ice hockey team organized a relief effort for the North Eastern areas of Japan. We added to the donated funds we had received from the ice hockey players and organizers in Thailand with a collection from team members and rented a two-ton truck. We filled the truck with supplies and drove through Ishinomaki, Onagawa and the surrounding areas making deliveries along the way with our last stop at Shichigahama, in Sendai. Seeing the devastation in these areas, we realized that the communities around here needed our help. The following weekend we did the same thing and continued to organize ad hoc trips with friends and colleagues.
By chance, I found out that several other friends and acquaintances were also doing similar things. By Golden Week of that year, towards the end of April through to early May, the volunteer centers had become inundated with volunteers wanting to help out. Parking our car at the centers became almost impossible because so many volunteers had come individually in their own cars. It was from that time onwards that the centers would accept only large groups of volunteers, which meant that we couldn’t come on our own anymore. We were committed to do something to help rebuild these communities, so members of the hockey team and I decided to join forces with two other groups to enable us to continue our work. This is how Nadia as a volunteer organization came to be.
T: I understand that immediately after the earthquake, members of NPO-Nadia went to the North Eastern areas Japan to participate in the cleanup efforts. Which areas did you go to, how often and how many people participated in the actual clean up each time you went? I am really interested in knowing what you actually did when you arrived at the scene?
J: Well, since that very first weekend with our two-ton truck delivering supplies to residents of the affected areas, our group of friends kept going up every weekend to Tagajo, Sendai where there was a very well run volunteer center. We’d clear debris from the private residences and small businesses that had been inundated by the tsunami, and did this throughout the month of April. By early May, we had joined efforts with two other groups and began focusing our work in the Minato area of Ishinomaki. A local businessman let us use his building as a base and this enabled us to bring many more people up to help with the cleanup efforts since we now had a sort of headquarters to coordinate things from. We organized a bus to take people from Tokyo to Ishinomaki and, basically, we went up there every weekend until late October 2011. All in all, we brought up about 1,000 people during that entire time, with the largest groups each numbering to about fifty to sixty people doing various cleanup jobs.
T: I guess that was the first phase of your reconstruction efforts immediately after the tsunami. Since community needs evolve with circumstances and change with time, what other tasks were you involved in once the cleanup was somewhat done?
J: After the physical landscape had been cleared out and cleaned up, we slowly shifted to participating in the “soft” activities of volunteering like helping with community gatherings and festivals. NPO-Nadia has organized a Christmas Party in Ishinomaki for residents of that area, hosted several barbeques and coordinated a kids’ sports event. Now, we are working towards infrastructure development and social reconstruction. We’ve been fortunate in attracting corporate donors to fund the rebuilding of Ishinomaki. Our organization has helped build a park, a small community center, and hosted a trip to Italy for children from Fukushima for the summer to get them outside and away from the radiation areas. We’re also still active in building playgrounds for children where there is a need. Basically, we’re involved in anything that will help restore ‘normality’ to the area, you know, create that sense of a ‘normal daily life’ for the residents there. Currently, we’re planning a soccer tournament for Tohoku kids’ teams, while also helping build a community sports facility in Rikuzentakata. We have another trip to Italy planned for children from Fukushima for the summer holidays this year, during July-August 2014.
T: Did you have any initial worries or fears when you first decided to volunteer in this capacity?
J: Well, yes and no, really. The fear of another tsunami or an even larger earthquake hitting Tokyo or Japan had always been on our minds while we were working on site. Of course, the whole Fukushima reactor problem was a constant factor for us, but most of us weren’t really thinking about these issues. The matter weighing most heavily in our minds was that there were people who needed our help. You know, in the end, another huge earthquake did not follow the one that hit on March 11th 2011, while the Fukushima crisis has stabilized somewhat.
T: Did you or do you face any difficulties, challenges in doing this volunteer work?
J: The toughest challenge perhaps was dealing with people, especially other volunteers. It was really positive that everyone wanted to help out, but it seemed that there were also many people who had their own agendas. While most people genuinely wanted to ‘do good’, others, it appeared to me, wanted to ‘be seen to be doing good’. For me, this had been a bit disheartening. This job can sometimes be very exhausting. The cleanup effort and all the other activities we’ve been involved in as well as everything that we’re involved in now, were and are physically demanding, taking up a lot of time and energy. Overall, though, the spirit of cooperation that I’ve witnessed and the camaraderie amongst members of the organization has made the challenges, for me, bearable.
T: Can you share with us a memorable experience that you’ve encountered since you first got involved with volunteer work?
J: During the first weekend, we helped clean and restore a house in Tagajo, Sendai. The tsunami had basically flooded the entire first floor of that home which was owned by a very plucky and determined elderly lady. During the two days we spent cleaning up the debris in and around her house, she shared with us stories of what happened during the tsunami, and talked about which neighbors survived and who didn’t. After finishing that job, months of similar work followed. There were so many houses, businesses and buildings to clean and clear that it became part of the larger collective experience. We’d clean house after house then move on, you know. Months later, however, I received a phone call while I was overseas on my cell phone, caller unknown. I was a bit annoyed at first because it was in the middle of the night. To my surprise, it was the plucky, elderly lady from Tagajo. She phoned to let me know that, in the end, she had to build a new home, as the old house that we had worked on couldn’t be salvaged. She wanted to know how I was and thanked us for our help during those early months. You know, after months of cleaning debris from one site to another, that one phone call made me realize that we did make a difference. No matter how large or small, we did contribute something positive to people’s lives.
During March 2012, on the first anniversary of the tsunami, I went to Ishinomaki with two other volunteers. On the way to Ishinomaki, one of the volunteers said that as catastrophic and as horrific as the tsunami had been, had it not happened many of us would never have met. What’s more, we met only through volunteering. I see that it is due to this experience, the earthquake and everything that followed, that I’ve gained many dear and close friends.
T: What is experience then?
J: Experience is seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, laughing, crying, loving, hating. It’s tuning in to our surroundings. It’s remembering friends and family past and present, realizing how fragile and precious our lives are and savoring each moment the best we can, I guess…
Photo source: Joji Hiratsuka & Mike Rublack