Cara, Day 1094  キャラ1094の日

Cara runs a creative English language school out of her home in Tokyo that she shares with Kosuke.  Although often inundated with students and classes, Cara still finds time to write and has co-authored two English language learning books while continuing to paint, play the violin and the piano.  If Cara ever invites you over for Thanksgiving or for any kind of celebration, say yes and rush over!  This girl can cook!  Here, Cara talks to us about having the initiative to pick up an axe to remove floorboards in ruined homes and using bits of wood to build stairs in cemeteries even if you don’t know how to because you’ll learn by doing.  You will also end up with a set of fresh skills and a circle of new friends.

Cara removing floorboards with an axe in a private home, Ishinomaki 2011

Cara removing floorboards with an axe in a private home, Ishinomaki 2011

Trang:  Where were you on Friday March 11th, 2011 at 14:46pm when the earthquake hit and the tsunami struck?

Cara:  I was walking along the street near the train station close to home.  I live in the northern part of central Tokyo and was en route to the ward pension office when the earth started shaking so badly that I fell down, as did other people around me.  I crawled to the side of a concrete building and leaned against the wall, waiting for the trembling to stop.  There were wads of electric cables on the street above and I was afraid something would fall on me.  After the big earthquake subsided, I stuck to my plan and continued heading to the pension office.  While I was waiting in line was when the first sizable aftershock occurred.  Living in Japan, you come to accept that earthquakes are a part of life so I wasn’t too worried.  Still, I quickly emailed my family, my partner, and close friends in Tokyo to check on them and to also let them know that I was okay.  I remember having had this dreadful migraine that morning so I went straight home and slept once I had finished at the ward office.


T:   How did the earthquake affect your surroundings immediately after it had occurred?

C:  I knew that it had been a significant earthquake, but I had no idea of the damage that it had caused elsewhere.  Besides some shattered glass on the street and a slightly messed up apartment, my part of town seemed fine. Nothing had even broken in our apartment!  So, I was stunned when I woke up that evening and saw about twenty-five emails from my family and friends expressing their concern.  Even people to whom I hadn’t talked to for sometime had tried to contact me.  There was a brief email from my partner saying he had decided to walk home since the trains were no longer running.  I was shocked since it was cold outside and walking home from his office would take several hours!  It was only then that I realized that the earthquake had been far worse than I had imagined.  While the people I knew personally in Tokyo weren’t injured and their homes sustained minimal damage, everyone was shaken up and feeling afraid. Our work and our lives were certainly affected negatively!

後で大地震だったと分かりましたが、他の所でどのぐらいの被害があったか知りませんでした。私の近所ではグラスが割れたり、アパートの中がめちゃめちゃになったりした以外は大丈夫そうでした。私のアパートの中の物は全然壊れませんでした。ですので、その夜起きた時に心配していた家族や友達から25通のメールが届いているのを見て、びっくりしました。久しぶりに連絡してくれた人もいました。パートナーから「電車が動いてないから、今から歩いて帰るよ」という短いメールもありました。外は寒くて、彼の事務所から歩いて帰るのは何時間もかかるので、とてもびっくりしました。その色々なメールを読んで、その時初めて思った以上に大地震だったと気付きました。東京に住んでいる知り合いや友達に怪我がなくて、自宅も損害をあまりなくても、皆は 不安になって、恐怖感を持ちました。私達の仕事と生活を確かに悪化させました。

Tsunami cars

Unclaimed cars destroyed & washed away in the tsunami, Ishinomaki 2011

It was from watching the news that night and throughout the next day that I learned of the destruction in Tohoku caused by the tsunami and the fears about the damage of the nuclear plant.  Trains didn’t run in Tokyo until the following day and some lines didn’t resume operation until days later.  Almost immediately, stores ran out of essential items such as rice and bottled water.  Every business seemed to have decreased their energy usage by about fifty percent, as it was dark everywhere with air-conditioners all turned off.  I was teaching at various places during that time. The classes at the university, the conversation school, and the companies where I taught had all been cancelled for at least one week.  Many students to whom I taught private lessons didn’t request our regular classes.  My parents, who live in the USA, became very concerned about the radiation effects of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.  At that time, there had been so many conflicting news reports that no one had any idea what to think.  Since I had no work obligations for a while except teach a few online lessons, I went to Kansai for a week to stay with friends and with my partner’s family.  My leaving Tokyo appeased my parents’ concerns.  But, you know, different people see things differently.  Even though my partner didn’t have much work, either, he refused to leave Tokyo and I visited his family by myself.  He didn’t seem to be worried about the radiation issue at all when other people were frantic.

あの夜から次の日にかけて、ニュースを見て、東北での津波がもたらした破壊と原発に関しての恐怖を知りました。東京の電車も次の日まで走らなくて、数日ぐらい走らなかった線もありました。地震のすぐ後で店から必要な物がなくなりました。例えば、お米、お水等。どこも暗くてエアコンが付いていなかったので、全部の会社が電力の量を50%ぐらい下げたようでした。私はその時にいくつかの所で教えていました。私が教えていた大学、英会話スクール、会社で全部の授業をが一週間以上キャセルされました。個人レッスンの生徒も休みました。アメリカに住んでいる両親は福島第一原発からの放射能の影響をとても気にしていました。その時に矛盾する情報が多かったので、誰もどうしたらいいか分かりませんでした。いくつかのオンラインレッスン以外仕事がしばらくなかったので、関西に行って、私のパートナーの家族と友達の家に滞在しました。私が東京から出たので、両親が安心しました。でも、人によって、考えが違いますね。 私のパートナーもその時にあまり仕事がなかったですが、彼は東京を出る事を拒んで、私は一人で彼の家族に会いに行きました。 放射能に関して、 他の方が大騒ぎしていた時に彼は全然心配していないようでした。

T:   Three years later, do you see any other effects due to the earthquake?  Has your daily life changed in any way?

C: One adverse effect of the earthquake is that everyone’s electricity bill is so much higher now. However, a positive outcome has been that my partner and I became active members of NPO-Nadia as well as a few other organizations supporting Tohoku residents and aiding in the reconstruction of this region. As a result, our network of friends has expanded tremendously and our knowledge about Tohoku has increased dramatically.  However, when a tragedy of this immensity occurs outside your front door, you feel its impact directly and your life does change.  You have to go through stages of readjustment, acceptance and at times begin anew.  I feel that while the effects of the earthquake, the tsunami and our volunteer activities hurt my relationship with my partner at times because the routine of our lives altered and we underwent changes, this experience eventually brought us closer.


T:  I know of several French and American families who relocated or returned to their home countries after March 11th, 2011. Was it an issue for you to continue to live in Tokyo?

C:  After having gone to Kansai for a few days following the earthquake, I felt comfortable returning to Tokyo.  In terms of the radiation leakage and the effects of the earthquake and the tsunami, I’ve never considered leaving Tokyo for good.  Even though there is the potential threat of earthquakes and tsunamis happening in and around Tokyo again, I realize that natural disasters can happen anywhere we live. With the considerably lower crime rate here, I still feel Tokyo is safer than most developed cities in the world.  I had already invested several years of my life in a relationship with my partner, with my close friends in Japan, as well as in my business and English school in Tokyo that I had started in 2009, so I wasn’t going to give all that up easily.  I understand that we all have different lives and commitments.  Many people left Tokyo and some stayed.  I think that for the people who did leave, some may not have been so deeply rooted in Tokyo as I had been.  Having young children and being concerned about how radiation levels would affect them was not something that I had to deal with, either. 

大震災の数日後で関西に行って帰ってから、東京に 戻っても安全だと感じました。 放射能漏れや大震災と津波のもたらした事に関して、東京から去る事を全然考えていません。 関東の大震災と津波の潜在的恐怖があっても、どこに住んでいても自然災害が起こる可能性がある事に気付いています。

T:  You are expecting a child now. Has this changed the way you perceive the situation?

C:  Concerning radiation exposure and the threat of another natural calamity potentially taking place in Tokyo, at this point, my perceptions have not really changed.  I still feel the radiation level is under control in Tokyo and that natural disasters can happen anytime, anywhere, no matter where we live…  I feel unsure about this question because I don’t know that I have a good response.  Perhaps my feelings will change after I have given birth or after experiencing another big earthquake… Right now, I am not sure.


T:  What inspired you to go to the tsunami-affected areas of Japan to volunteer?

C:  I volunteered to go to Tohoku and take part in the cleanup efforts for the first time around June or July 2011, four months after the tsunami. I had attended several information sessions for volunteers held by various organizations during May 2011 in Tokyo, and thought that the weekend trips that NPO-Nadia organized seemed ideal for me.  My partner and his sisters had also already volunteered with NPO-Nadia so it appeared to be a good choice.  I had never known my partner to volunteer for anything in his life, so I wanted to support him and share in a cause he clearly cared immensely about. I had also done a lot of volunteer work previously in my own country, the USA, as well as abroad, so in seeing the devastation of Tohoku after the tsunami, it had been a natural response for me to become involved in the restoration efforts of the region.

私が最初に東北に行って、クリーンアップのボランティア 活動に参加した時は2011年の6月か7月ぐらいで、津波の4ヶ月後でした2011年の5月にさまざまな組織が開いたボランティアのための説明会にいくつか出席していて、 NPO法人nadiaが行っていた週末旅行が理想だと思いました私のパートナーと彼の妹二人は既にNPO法人nadiaでボランティアをした事がありましたので、私もいい選択だと思いました。2011年の前に私のパートナーがボランティアをした事が全然ありませんでしたが、彼が手伝いたい気持ちが強そうでしたので、私は彼をサポートして一緒にボランティアをしたいと思いました。それと、私は前に自分の国(アメリカ)と他の国でもボランティア活動をやった事がありましたので、津波の後の東北の壊滅的な状態を見ると、復興への取り組みに参加するのは当然の選択でした。

Cara & volunteers preparing mochi at omochi tsuki, community center built by NPO-Nadia, Ishinomaki, 2013

Cara & volunteers preparing mochi at omochi tsuki,
community center built by NPO-Nadia, Ishinomaki, 2013

 T:  Could you explain what each volunteer trip to Tohoku entailed? What did you actually do when you arrived at the scene of the cleanup of the affected areas?

C:  I’ve been on about eight or nine weekend trips to Tohoku in total.  Usually, we took an overnight bus from Shinjuku, in central Tokyo to Ishinomaki on Friday nights and arrived the following morning.  We worked from early morning until sunset on Saturdays. We’d go to an onsen, a hot spring, and have dinner and drinks with other volunteers on Saturday evenings. We resumed work early Sunday mornings until mid-afternoon then got back on the bus to return to Tokyo.  We usually arrived back in Tokyo late Sunday night.  Occasionally, we went to Tohoku during a three-day weekend or during Golden Week to volunteer, so these trips were longer in duration.

The first one-and-a-half years of volunteering in Tohoku involved a lot of cleanup work.  We often worked on one to three different sites per weekend per group, depending on the size of the property or area and the severity of the damage these places had sustained during the tsunami.  Each time the work and the conditions of the properties and land were different, but most of the cleanup projects during 2011 involved a lot of dark, slimy mud removal tasks.  We sometimes waded up to our waists in mud. Other duties in cleaning up the sites and properties involved removing flooring, which was such hard work!  Dry wall was surprisingly easy to remove since it had been underwater for days, in many cases.  This was necessary to do in order to remove all of the mud and mold out of the damaged properties.  The owners of the buildings usually wanted to keep the frame, the foundation and the second or higher floors of the buildings in order to be able to rebuild later.  In other cases, however, there was already too much damage to the construction, or the residents had perished in the tsunami, so the buildings were completely torn down or still remain today untouched and in ruins. We often also removed trash and debris from roads, parks, temples, shrines, schoolyards and open lots. Once the number of clean-up projects decreased, the rebuilding and restoration projects were initiated.  I even learned such skills as mixing, pouring and spreading concrete in construction work, as well as how to clean damaged photographs through volunteering in Tohoku.

Over the past three years, NPO-Nadia has collected millions of supplies like shovels, wheelbarrows, gloves, boots, hard helmets and mud collection bags for the purpose of undertaking environmental cleanups.  We don’t use them much these days, and since on-site volunteer numbers have decreased, we recently got rid of the excess supplies, only keeping limited equipment.  Our headquarters in Ishinomaki was also recently demolished as it was such an old building, so we had needed to get rid of a lot of the supplies we had amassed.

この三年間で、NPOナディアは シャベル 、手押し車、手袋、長靴、ヘルメット、泥を集める袋等をたくさん揃えました。現在はあまり使っていないし、石巻に行くボランティアの数が減っていますので、最近必要な物以外処理しました。また、古い建物にあった石巻のナディア本部も最近解体されました。その際、ほとんどの道具も処理せざるを得ませんでした。

T:  What other activities did you get involved in while volunteering in Tohoku?

C:  It wasn’t until mid-to-late 2012 that the tsunami-affected areas that NPO-Nadia and other volunteer organizations were working on began to look clean, smell clean and lose the “ghost town” feel to them.  It was from this time onwards that could we focus on assisting the surviving community members in rebuilding their social lives again.  Other volunteer organizations did focus on social rebuilding right at the outset and their work had mainly been within the temporary housing areas, but NPO-Nadia was initially more focused on undertaking the cleanup work in Ishinomaki, specifically the 4-choume area of the town.  Many community events and festivals weren’t held during 2011 due to a lack of organizers, but with volunteers’ help, a number of events were re-started in 2012 and in 2013.  We have to bring our skills and contribute what we can when we work as volunteers, especially in these circumstances. Given that I can cook, at many of these events and festivals, I helped with food preparation. Once, I also participated in an English conversation circle with the local residents.


Cara & Nadians serving food to ekiden runners & spectators, Ishinomaki 2012

Cara & Nadians serving food to ekiden runners & spectators, Ishinomaki 2012

T:  How many other people volunteered with you each time you went to Ishinomaki?

C:  The numbers differed with each trip, so it could have been anywhere from eight to eighty volunteers who participated in these weekend trips.  Depending on the projects for that day, we could have worked with just one other volunteer for a few hours, and therefore each volunteer could have been involved in several different projects simultaneously during the one weekend.  With projects that usually needed larger numbers of volunteers, such as festivals or sports events that required from fifteen to thirty people to assist, it was feasible that one volunteer may have had only one project going on that one day.


T:  Did you have any initial worries or fears when you first decided to volunteer?

C:  At the outset, I had thought I wouldn’t be very helpful with the kind of work I saw volunteers doing on the news since I wasn’t particularly muscular or skilled in manual labor-type work.  However, I soon realized that there was a lot that I could do to help.  I saw that different volunteers had different strengths and varying expertise that would be valuable to the group and could be utilized effectively.  We all contributed something vital to the collective, I think.  Granted I was exhausted after each trip and had some sore muscles that following Monday, but overall, I felt I was being productive and had contributed something worthwhile.


T:  Did you or do you face any difficulties, challenges in doing this volunteer job?

C:  A challenge I hadn’t been prepared for was how emotional and upset I would be in witnessing the extent of the damage that the tsunami and earthquake had caused.  The dead fish smell that pervaded the area was especially awful!  Although this stench and having to be confronted by the destruction each time you went there were no longer issues the following year, it had been something every volunteer in Ishinomaki and the nearby areas did have to experience during the first few months after the tsunami. 

Volunteers at Nadia’s roasted pig booth, children’s festival, Ishinomaki 2012

Joji & volunteers at Nadia’s roasted pig booth, children’s festival, Ishinomaki 2012

For me, simply being in such an environment, remembering what had happened there and finally seeing it for myself was a lot to take in the first few times I volunteered in Tohoku.  Some sites were more damaged than others.  Overall, I felt very depressed and had a hard time adjusting during the evenings after a hard day’s work in these areas when other volunteers seemed to be enjoying conversation, dinner and drinks. Even several days after the first few trips back in Tokyo, I had a hard time snapping out of this feeling.   With time, the environment and types of projects we were involved in changed, and I didn’t feel so depressed volunteering in these areas the following year.  However, Ishinomaki 4-choume is still a very quiet, sad place, in my opinion, so it’s hard for me to feel very cheerful each time I go up there. I did try to prepare myself as much as possible for the stories I might hear from locals about what they experienced, but that never got easier.



T:   Could you share with us one story that you heard from the local residents or witnessed yourself?

C:  There were numerous sad stories I heard from local residents and other volunteers, but during the first few times we volunteered in 2011, I did not meet many locals because we were in areas that had been evacuated.  We were just doing hard labor cleaning up the land at this time.  Slowly, however, some residents started to move back into the areas, and little by little, the projects we became involved in didn’t involve so much cleaning up, but events where there was participation by local community members.  I distinctly remember a story I was told by a local family in 2012 about a little boy whom they had discovered at their front door during the tsunami.  The family had rushed to grab him and take him up to the second floor of their home to safety, but for the longest time he wouldn’t budge.  He had just been separated from his mother and possibly another sibling in the flood of the tsunami and was “waiting for his mother” to come get him.  It had been clear to the family that his mother wouldn’t be coming to get him, but it was hard to convince the boy to go upstairs.  Eventually, the little boy did go up to the second floor of the house.  The family later discovered that his mother had died in the tsunami.

One project I had been assigned to with four to five other volunteers was the construction of a staircase in a cemetery that had once been covered with overturned cars and other debris after the tsunami.  My first thought had been “I can’t do this!”  Not only did I have no idea how to build staircases with a few small logs and a shovel, I was sure being in a cemetery all day would put me in a negative emotional state.  There were still gravestones toppled over and a lot of trash and mud covering the ground, so the original steps up to the higher graves had become a slope of dirt that was difficult to climb.  Our group worked for several hours, and I started to get the hang of the building process.  I was also enjoying the conversation I was having with this particular group of volunteers so much that I had stopped thinking about the fact that I was in a cemetery, facing death everywhere.  We managed to finish the beautiful staircase earlier than expected, so we had time to clean up the trash and debris.  We also put some gravestones upright since they had laid turned over for more than a year since the tsunami.  Towards the end of the day, two funerals had taken place at the higher spots in the cemetery that would have been difficult for the families to access without the new stairs that we had built.  We all felt good since we were able to witness our efforts being put to good use! The families even recognized what we had done that day and took time to thank us!



Cara & volunteers building staircase at cemetery, Ishinomaki 2012

Cara & volunteers building staircase at cemetery, Ishinomaki 2012

 T:  Three years after the tsunami, what are some of your reflections?

C:  When a natural disaster of such immense proportions like this one occurs, I think there are deeper effects for everyone that we often don’t talk about.  Sometimes, it’s important to share openly and honestly because we probably all experienced similar things to a degree.   For me, I witnessed that the earthquake, the tsunami and the subsequent volunteer work my partner and I got involved in ended up taking its toll on our relationship.  My partner changed so much over a period of a few months that I was afraid.  Although he changed in good ways, too, there were things that I found difficult, and it happened so quickly that I felt I didn’t know him anymore.  He became so involved in volunteer activities that it distanced him from our relationship.  I felt incredibly unhappy as a consequence, so I went home to Virginia for a few weeks in December 2011.  I guess through my departure and in my absence, he realized how challenging things had become, and did make efforts to improve our relationship.  Even though times continued to be difficult for us for another year or so, we did stay together.  I think we are much stronger today, both individually and as a couple.  I attribute this indirectly to the effects that the earthquake had on our lives.


 T:  So, what is experience, then?

C:  I think experience is life.  Of course, many people live their lives avoiding experiences they feel are too risky or are somehow negative.  To me, that seems like such a waste, not only of their lives, but also for the lives of others on which they could have made a meaningful impact. When faced with an opportunity to experience something potentially great, or potentially awful, I often choose to experience it anyway because I do not want a life of regrets.  Sometimes it’s hard to know how things will work out, whether an experience will turn out to have a positive outcome or a negative one.  I feel that my life has been enriched by the experiences that turned out to be positive.  Even the worst experiences of my life served to teach me valuable lessons that shaped me into the person I am proud to be today.  And, I expect that growing process to continue through the future experiences I will have until the day I die.

Cara & volunteers at NPO-Nadia’s Chili con Carne booth, community food fair, Ishinomaki 2013

Cara & volunteers at NPO-Nadia’s Chili con Carne booth, community food fair, Ishinomaki 2013



Photo source: Cara Phillips

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