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'I spent Christmas Day clearing a rice field of rubble. I ate noodles for dinner.'

12th March 2012

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Will Hine is taking part in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme in Iwate, in the north of the country, after graduating from Lancaster University in 2011. On the anniversary of last March’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami, which killed almost 16,00 people, TNS spoke to him about the situation in Japan now.

Japan is a long, long way away – detached from, possibly alien to, our society. This distance, though, and the independence of the country, are some of the reasons why Lancaster University graduate Will decided to fly out to Japan last summer, just a few months after disaster struck. As quickly became clear, he was one of only a few who had the same idea.

“Iwate Prefecture was one of the most badly hit during the tsunami last March,” Will says. “Many people, foreigners and Japanese citizens, moved away after the disaster and very few people came this year. I was one of two UK JETS who came to Iwate; I think most prefectures get about 15-30 new JETS each year.”

Every weekend he travels to downtown Kamaishi, a town on the Iwate coast, to volunteer with the non-profit  organisation 'Hands'.

“Nearly a year ahead, there is still a lot of clean up to do,” he says. “I have pulled a lot of upsetting things out of rubble: people’s personal possessions, kids’ clothes.

“I did a stint of volunteering over Christmas,” he continues. “I was the only volunteer with Hands on Christmas Day. I spent the day clearing a rice field of rubble. I ate noodles for dinner.

Somehow, I know it will be the most memorable Christmas I will ever have.”

Will believes that there is less talk of the clean up and human recovery process in the global media than there should be, because it is over-shadowed by the nuclear crisis: “The recovery process goes beyond just the clean up,” he says. “There is still a great social humanitarian issue; people can’t get jobs and are still living in temporary housing.”

There is no countering that the statistics concerning those living in temporary housing are bleak. Some reports say that in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one person commits suicide every three days over despair at their living conditions.

What is the situation really like?  

“I've visited the temporary housing in Kamaishi; we did a Christmas party for the kids there,” Will says. “The housing is small, and the walls are so thin; there is no privacy.

“Perhaps it comes down to economics at the end of the day. Many of the towns were failing industries anyway. So the choice of whether to rebuild these towns is not clear. Some towns, such as Rikuzentakata, are so decimated it's hard to ever imagine reconstruction.”

The economic question is highlighted in Kamaishi, where repairs to a $1.6bn breakwater system that failed to hold back the waves have been criticised as “a waste of money that aims to protect an area of rapidly declining population with technology that is a proven failure.”

There is progress being made, however. Speaking of his trip to Miyako, on Iwate Prefecture’s coast, Will says: “I was walking along the sea wall... It really has been cleaned up a lot, but there are still volunteer groups out in force and a lot of work to do.

“The most common work is rubble removal, although it's not just rubble. It is sometimes outside, sometimes inside houses.

“We went to a house, and worked on the second floor which the tsunami had swept through at about head height. We all split up to clear different rooms. I was almost certain that the second floor had not really be searched at all since the event, except for bodies, because I found many personal possessions; family photo albums, expensive valuables, wedding videos, important documents. Also, there were a few storage boxes full of clothes, but also sea water, which must have been there for almost a year–it smelt bad.

“I was working in what seemed to have been a kid’s room; unsure if the child was still alive.

“When I first started volunteering, that kind of work was a little strange and surreal. Every time I found something that wasn't just building material I would stop to ask if we should keep it. It's so strange, seeing as human beings are so committed to order, and keeping things in order, to see things so mixed up.

“Cleaning out a bathroom, you will find stuff that should be in a bedroom or a kitchen, which was washed through the house or even across the city from a different house. Toilet seat, bicycle chain, family photo, sea crab, half a guitar, plates, a pillow, a toaster, a can of beer. It's totally random.

“However it's ok now, I don't really feel anything at all, and I've accepted the need to be ruthless, even faced with teddy bears. Seeing things so scattered and mixed like that, and throwing so much smashes any desire to attach worth to material objects.

“Other work includes occasionally planting flowers or trees, demolition (just destroying a house instead of clearing it), delivering donation/ relief supplies, and mud hosing (using powered water guns)."

What is the reaction from those working on the clean-up to the Western press interest one year on? Is it, do they think, a force for good?

“Talking with other volunteers, we are happy that the one year anniversary got some global coverage,” Will says. “But we are also worried that the message will be that the job is nearly done because of the before/after clean up pictures. The pictures represent a year’s worth of manual labour from thousands of people, and the real issue still remains and will take a long time to heal: the emotional trauma.”

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