Born and bred just outside of Osaka, Kosuke Hasegawa, attended university in upstate New York then somehow ended up earning his tips and wages in the big, busy resorts of Las Vegas, USA. Little did he know that his master’s degree in telecommunications from Denver would lead him one day back to Japan to smash walls, shift mud and fetch bags of rice north east of Tokyo. Here, Koss, IT recruiter and father-to-be, remembers a man and his wheelchair-bound wife, and recounts of the evening when the earthquake shook and silenced thousands of people on the streets.
Trang: Where were you on Friday March 11th, 2011 at 14:46pm when the earthquake hit and the tsunami struck?
Kosuke: I was working on the fourth floor of an eight-storey office building that day. When the ground and building started shaking, I was sitting on my chair but as the quaking intensified, I hid under the desk because I thought something might hit my head as office materials were falling about here and there. Most of my coworkers stayed holding onto something solid and heavy while a few phoned their families as the earthquake was happening. Despite the quaking, the building did not sustain any damage. Not long after, the company president announced that employees could leave the premises. Many of my colleagues rushed home. I stayed at work for a while, however, because the trains weren’t running, and I thought they’d resume operation soon. Once I had checked that my partner and family members were okay, I left work with a few colleagues to go to a bar nearby. We stayed there for a couple of hours and watched the tsunami footage from Tohoku while waiting for the trains to start working again.
By seven o’clock, the trains were still stalled so I started walking home. The streets were filled with people and cars. I had never walked home from work before, so finding my way back had been quite difficult. I stopped by a convenience store to buy some snacks but the shelves were empty. Out back on the streets, I kept on putting one foot in front of the other along with a stream of thousands of people. Despite the huge crowds, there was a general silence as people remained quiet. I had found it heartening to see a few people offering candy and snacks on the streets to strangers and some people guiding others to the closest community center to take shelter. It usually takes me fifty minutes to get to work and another fifty minutes to get back home, but that evening it took me five-and-a-half hours to arrive home on foot.
T: I understand that you were living in Tokyo at the time and remain in the same place now. How did the earthquake affect you and your surroundings immediately after it had occurred?
K: After the earthquake, I often kept check on the radiation emission updates, but living in Tokyo, my biggest concern was commuting. The trains had become very unreliable, so I relied on my bicycle to travel around for a number of days. I noticed around that time that many non-Japanese residents of Tokyo had left Japan as a precaution. Business in Tokyo remained slow for some months.
T: And now three years later, do you notice any other effects from the earthquake? Has your daily life changed in any way?
K: Today in Tokyo, it is very difficult to see what happened three years ago. My daily routine remains as it was before the earthquake. One of the reasons I still go to Tohoku and volunteer is to remind myself that there are still many people who are struggling to survive in the aftermath of the tsunami.
T: Was it an issue for you to continue to live in Tokyo? Was it something that you struggled with?
K: It had never been an issue to continue living in Tokyo for me. I was keeping a close eye on the Fukushima problem and was aware of the radiation levels in Tokyo. I understand that that kind of information wasn’t available in English so many of my non-Japanese friends became anxious due to the lack of advice and guidance about this issue. I felt that if I overreacted in this situation, it would have only caused more chaos, so I decided to remain in Tokyo and live my life as usual.
T: When did you start volunteering work? What made you actually go to the tsunami affected areas and join in the cleanup efforts?
K: After the earthquake, I was plagued by the question of how I could be of use and what I could do to somehow help the communities in Tohoku
? . While I was looking at the various ways and options available for me to assist, my sisters told me about the international organization that they had done volunteer work with. Based on this, I joined NPO-Nadia in May 2011. I felt strongly that I wanted to be part of the Tohoku recovery process. NPO-Nadia is a very international organization and volunteering with them provides me with opportunities to contribute positively to the community. This work makes me feel that I am doing the right thing for Tohoku.
T: What does your volunteer work involve? How often do you go to Tohoku in this capacity?
K: Our volunteer work has changed a lot over three years. It was pure hard labor clean-up work during the first year. Now, it’s more about organizing and participating in activities and events to support the residents and improve the quality of their lives. NPO-Nadia arranged volunteer trips to Tohoku every weekend immediately after the earthquake, then it became monthly trips and now, it is on an as-needed basis. Depending on the actual tasks and projects involved, we used to see about sixty to eighty people for the clean-up efforts every weekend. These days, usually about ten people participate in each expedition.
T: Did you have any initial worries or fears when you first decided to volunteer?
K: The main concern I had was how to communicate effectively with the victims and residents of Tohoku. I wanted my presence to have a positive influence, to somehow encourage the people I met, rather than be a reminder of the hardship that they were facing. Despite my fears, most of the people whom I’ve met and dealt with in Tohoku were incredibly nice and welcoming. I feel that it was them who encouraged and motivated me.
T: Did you and do you face any difficulties, challenges in doing this volunteer job?
K: I think the main difficulty we face is to be able to determine the kind of assistance required by the local residents and communities in Tohoku. You know, it’s good to volunteer and help out, but it’s important that we are effective in what we do. Sometimes we wonder if our work is truly beneficial, particularly during the times when we don’t get the chance to meet and receive feedback from the individuals and families whom we seek to help. Currently, I am on the Volunteer Committee as part of the Core Committee of NPO-Nadia, so managing volunteer events to maintain volunteers’ motivation and to encourage local enthusiasm and participation are the challenges I am facing.
T: What is something memorable that you’ve witnessed since you got involved in volunteering work?
K: The most challenging work I’ve done up till now in Tohoku has been to visit the temporary housing facilities to distribute donated rice bags from people all over Japan. I found it difficult in not knowing how to initiate conversations with residents who had just survived something so horrific as the earthquake and the tsunami right on their doorsteps. I will always remember one older man whom I had visited. He owned and managed his own bicycle repair shop in Ishinomaki, Miyagi. When the tsunami hit, he put his wife, who was wheelchair-bound into a car and started driving inland. It was bumper to bumper so he eventually abandoned his car and barely escaped with his wife. He is sixty-five years old! Currently he is living in temporary housing with his wife. His old neighbors and friends have moved far away or didn’t survive the disaster, and he hasn’t yet been able to form any friendships at the temporary housing facility, so he often just stays inside. The only time he goes out is when he takes his wife to the hospital or to go grocery shopping. They have a son who lives in Sendai, fairly close by, but he doesn’t make visits very often. He has thought about re-starting his business, but feels that he might be too old. He doesn’t have to pay rent at his current temporary accommodation so he has little motivation to initiate anything new. Although we’ve spoken and he’s told me his story, I am not sure what I should tell him. How I can motivate him? I’ve encouraged him to join local events that are organized for residents and to try to get to know his neighbors so that he can get out more and engage more socially, but I don’t know how he is doing these days. I still wonder about him and his family.
T: How has this experience of volunteering in Tohoku after the tsunami transformed you?
K: By doing volunteer work, I now know more about what is happening in the recovery process in Tohoku compared to those who haven’t been up there. I know the rebuilding and the reconstruction process is not over. Although I used to think that as members of society, we should give back to others, but it is now that I really believe it. I think that if there are people suffering in society, it’s not just their problem, it’s everyone’s problem. It becomes my problem, too. I have seen through doing this volunteer work how caring for others can have a strong impact and can make a big difference. Even in my daily life in Tokyo, I have become more caring towards others than I used to be. Sometimes, it can be in the small gestures, but I have witnessed a change in myself and in my thinking. Before the experience of the tsunami and volunteering in Tohoku, for example, I may have given up my seat on the train to someone who needed a seat more than I did if I noticed them, but now I actually seek out people in need and offer my help where possible. I guess it’s made me a more caring person, and maybe more aware…
T: So, what is experience?
K: Experience is feeling things firsthand and really knowing what something is like instead of just guessing. The only way to fully explain something to others is to experience it yourself first. In this case, I wanted to experience the Tohoku recovery process firsthand myself in order to be able to clearly get the message out to other people so that others might be positively influenced in some way or even be inspired to take action themselves towards community reconstruction and rebuilding.
Photo source: Cara Phillips