Volunteering 9/9

As I reflect on the day of volunteering at the Hiroshima landslide clean-up yesterday, I am so impressed by the people I met. It has been almost 2 weeks since I first volunteered and I expected to see a big difference in the experience.

But what was unique wasn’t necessarily the work or situation. It was, yet again, the amazing people I had an opportunity to talk with. Volunteering has given me insights into Japanese culture and its people that I could never get just by working here and going through a daily routine.

While waiting in the first area in a park nearby the volunteer facility, I started chatting with a group of volunteers who had traveled down from Shiga prefecture to help. These guys had also been to Fukushima to do clean-up and other areas where disasters have occurred. One guy showed me pictures of his newborn and another spoke to me in English telling me of his years in Canada working as a sushi-chef.

In the next waiting area, I chatted with a retired man who lives in the Saiki-ku area of Itsukaichi which suffered landslides in 1999. He said he remembered how long it took to rebuild the affected areas, so he wanted to come and help.

While on the bus I chatted with an enthusiastic young man who had all the recommended gear and was excited to make a difference. He was so inspired by our group leaders and I hope he signs up to be a firefighter as he has such a passion for helping others.

The group leaders were really something, kind-hearted, so strong and great leaders. I chatted with the leader about his days surfing in Hawaii as well as doing emergency rescue activities in Fukushima, Tohoku (after the Tsunami disaster). I told him I was so impressed by his group coming from Shikoku to volunteer on their day off, but he said “It’s a pleasure, we are no different from you or anyone else who is here to help on their holiday!”

During one of the breaks, I talked with a soft-spoken banker who spent two years of graduate school at the university of Florida studying business. He chose Florida because he is a huge football fan- “Go Gators!” It was heartwarming as he told me that my volunteering as a non-Japanese was really moving to him. We shared stories of international understanding- like my heavy feelings, as an American, the first time I visited Hiroshima’s Peace Park and his uncomfortable feelings, as a Japanese, during a moment of silence on Pearl Harbor day at a US football game.

We had regular breaks where the younger crew would pass out cold drinks donated by the owner of the home we were cleaning. This shows that no matter what the situation, the sempai-kohai relationship is strong in Japanese culture. Toward the end of the day, I worked with the female members of the crew while the “boys” tackled the last area with gusto. Us girls worked slow and steady and encouraged each other and apologized when we bumped into one another. I smiled when I heard the almost matsuri-like “yosha” and “yosh-hai-hai-hai” coming from the male team in the front of the house- they were enjoying the challenge of pushing themselves hard.

At the end of the day, our time was up and as we said good-bye and good luck to the house owner, I apologized that we couldn’t completely finish the work. She took my hand and said with tears in her eyes, “No, no, no- thank you so much!”

When we headed home, there was silence in the bus as a deep weariness hit us all. On route home we stopped at the Yagi volunteer station to clean our boots, wash our hands, gargle and were given cold drinks. There are so many volunteers at these centers that work so hard everyday making sure the clean-up volunteers are taken care of and thanked as much as possible.

Beautiful day to VolunteerAs I cycled home from Furuichi elementary school I felt tired but happy. Volunteering has given me insights into Japanese culture and its people that I could never get just by working here and going through a daily routine. It gave me a great feeling of connectedness and a true sense of belonging in a country that is not my own.

First time volunteers should have a look at this English Volunteering Handbook. Or see a list of the pages of the English Handbook for Landslide Disaster Volunteering here on Inbound Ambassador.

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Writing about Hiroshima for over twenty years. Co-founded GetHiroshima in 1999 and founded the sustainability-focused InboundAmbassador business in 2019. Monthly CleanUp and Seeking Sustainability event organizer, guide workshop facilitator, online content creator and tourism destination consultant. Passionate about promoting solutions in Japan for people and the planet.