KOBE EARTHQUAKE VOLUNTEERING
A NARRATIVE-STYLE INFORMAL REPORT
(originally sent to Friends and Fukuzawa Late February, 1995)
I was down in Kobe from Feb 14 until 23, helping out with volunteer work in Chuo-ku. I promised you a report on how it all went:
I arrived in Kobe in the evening of the fifteenth, after a 30-hour ferry trip (Otaru to Tsuruga) and a few more hours inland by train. Following the advice of Agape House (the volunteer organization I had been introduced to by NHK), I had come prepared: Boy Scout backpack crammed with sleeping bag and bedroll, food (including peanut butter and jelly, which turned out to be a real lifesaver), 2.5 litres of water, maps, spare clothes, and language materials (just in case there would be translation work--which, of course, there was).
As I lurched my way through the tail-end of rush-hour Osaka Umeda traffic, dressed for a Hokkaido winter despite 12C temps, I felt a number of surprised looks from business-as-usual commuters. Seems nobody informed them of the disaster area a few stops west. Indeed, there was no damage to be seen in Osaka proper. But as I boarded the Kobe Line and kept my head pointed towards the window, I could sense the quake getting closer, as if I was travelling upriver in a Conrad novel, watching the cracks widen and the buildings become more disheveled.
Disembarking at the current terminus--Sumiyoshi--I followed commuters through a dark maze of backstreets, many blocked by collapsed structures, guided by the illuminated red batons of the JR staff. It was an eerie gloom, as we shuffled past homes apparently without heat, electricity, or running water. A connecting bus took us to Sannomiya, the very doorstep of my destination--Chuo-ku's volunteer HQ, on the 7th floor of Chuo-ku Yakusho.
Next morning I had a look around the area. Business and administrative buildings were aplenty and so was their damage. You might have seen some already on TV. Kobe city hall registered strongly, with its middle floor collapsing onto itself, accompanied by other buildings leaning onto each other not terribly damaged, but vaguely off-kilter like some backdrop in a goofy amimated feature.
Most of these buildings were damaged beyond repair, but the place didn't have the aura of a dead zone; since the earthquake struck so early in the morning, the death toll was fortunately low. However, Chuo-ku was comparatively well-off, compared to Nada, Higashi-Nada, and Nagata-ku.
I only went through Nada and H-N by bus on the way back home, but personal residences, with their tiled kawara roofs, were all pretty much affected. Kawara roofs, which I am fond of since they don't have them in Sapporo, contributed to the death trap; the tiles themselves are heavy to prevent the wind blowing them off, and then the roof is made even more top-heavy by grounding the tiles in a dirt foundation. I didn't get into the archetectural aspects of it much, but it seems a recipe for higher earthquake death tolls. If the tiles don't brain you on their way down off the side of the house, then the whole bunch falls down together, trapping you inside until the fire comes a-calling. All the more reason, I thought, why international relief teams should have been more efficiently deployed.
Nagata-ku, in which I stayed two nights with refugees, was the worst I'd see. Parts of the road had caved into the subway system, and whatever survived the earthquake proper got pretty badly burned up. I didn't see many kawara roofs here, since this is a poorer side of town, but there were plenty of burned-out workshops and scorched danchi to make up for it. Some sections of town there was absolutely nothing left. The comparison with a blast zone is adequate--twisted metal, car husks, and the bright blue tarps of the refugee camps are what linger in the memory.
The people in Nagata-ku I stayed with had managed a pretty elaborate little society in only a few weeks. Their division of duties, work and leisure time, and collection of what possessions they had left over seemed well organized. Wives and children sent elsewhere, the businessmen of the family stayed behind to guard their land, and were spending their days huddled around a brazier with firewood aplenty. They had devised a chimney in their tarp city so they wouldn't get smoked out, and were prepaing all manner of foods on the grill. They were also warming shochu and sake, which I partook in.
We sat around blowing off steam, mostly talking about the size of my feet (size 13), and, after enough testing of my inability to understand Kansai dialect, eventually let me sleep in another tarp place full of boxes of foodstuffs (Korean cakes, whisky, cup noodles, etc., mostly stodge of nutritionally-questionable quality), space heaters, and blankets. Hence, they had food, heat, a roof over their heads, port-a-johns, and electricity. They still didn't have running water or an insulated domicile, but that would come someday, they said. I thanked them and bade them good luck, and snatched about six hours of really cold and drunk sleep.
Back in Chuo-ku, my duties entailed mizu-kumi (carrying containers of water up several flights of stairs to elderly folk. Trucks brought in water every morning and afternoon to places that couldn't pipe it in any closer), kubari-tai (distributing clothes, blankets, towels, powdered milk, feminine hygiene, socks, tissues, toilet paper, and the like to stricken areas through local grade schools), and the occasional cleanup of some elderly person's home whose yard was full of fallen tiles. I didn't participate much in our volunteer organization's other activities, which included research (sniffing out work), asobi-tai (going out to see children in stricken areas), elderly bathing and massage, bath-house management and cleaning, and press releases for resident Kobe foreigners in six different languages (English, Japanese, Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese).
But soon enough, I got an administrative post in the jinjibu, helping manage the "white board", displaying short- and long-term jobs for our new-entrant volunteers. They would choose their assignments, meet at the HQ at a predetermined time, get a map from us, go downstairs and borrow bicycles, and come back in a few hours mission accompplished. Jobs were mostly of the clean-up sort, although there were some night-watchman (yakei) types (to hinder looting), moving pianos for concerts, and taking baachan to get their pension checks. As long as we were contacted and not asked to do a job that was unsafe (such as putting blue sheets over a rickety roof), we refused no jobs. There were plenty of jobs to go around, and will be for some time to come.
At HQ, work started around 8am and was generally finished by 6 pm. Three meals a day were provided by the kuyakusho, and we slept for free at a cracked library next door. By 6:30, we started our daily general meeting. Our leader, a Mr Ueda, had flown in from Rwanda to help coordinate our efforts, and he was a skilled organizer.
Things went smoothly: after new arrivals gave a brief self-introduction, every branch gave their report of the days accomplishments, then anybody could stand up and give some input or feedback on the day's doings. Most of them were of the "golly, it's really bad out there so let's do our best" sort of thing, which is to be expected, but some actually did voice some belly-aches that were soon attended to.
Communication channels were surprisingly open in this small society of about 150 volunteers with a high turnover. Not too surprising. I daresay the median age was around 22 or so, mostly college students on vacation. This mattered. At thirty, married, with a kid and a half, I was listened to more than I'd expected.
Anyway, my conclusions are these:
1) I went down there with an axe to grind. I was angry at the Japanese government, and went down there to try and make up for the shortfall. They can use us, but fortunately things aren't quite as bad as I expected. People do have access to food, water, shelter, and basic provisions. They are still not completely comfortable, but that would probably take time under any circumstances. The general attitude is not one of discontent towards the government (although people are aware of the government's bungling and refusal of foreign aid), but rather of making do and waiting their turn. The city is recovering, albeit slowly, and markets and fast food joints are selling their wares again. It's not difficult to get a beer except from a bar. This dulled my anger somewhat. Things could be a lot better, yes, but they could be a lot worse. And I left feeling like I had done my part to help make things better.
2) and more significantly: I saw a rosier future for Japan. When this whole damn thing started, I bemoaned the lack of volunteer spirit in the country. Growing up as a Boy Scout in a high school full of candy-stripers and handicapped school interns, I could forsee few people having the gumption to head down and help. Reinforcing this view were my work experiences. Having worked for 3 Japanese companies, one full-time as a salaryman for 15 months, I have seen a very ugly side of Japanese society, where nobody is supposed to care about out-groups unless there's money involved, truth is determined by whomever pays your salary, seniority suppresses the free and open exchange of ideas, and lives and free wills are sacrificed for the good of the company, and there are no free lunches. "tada hodo takai mono ga nai". Even Japanese developmental assistance and investment, some say, is directed at markets that will develop and buy Japanese. To be sure, elements of this are found in any business environment, but the Japanese corporate culture of "callous disregard for those unconnected or below you", plus "sacrifice for its own sake" seemed the norm in Japan for me.
I was very pleasantly surprised by what I was in Kobe. Young people trying to do good for only good's sake--without elaborate calculations of gain and loss, dedication to the betterment of society, and all those warm fuzzy feelings that we belittled so much in IRPS. People were aggressive, outgoing, argumentative, and blustry--this was the only time I could talk like an American in Japanese without having to stop and insert the midstep of considering the sensitivities of the listener. Moreover, the amount of social consciousness in the participants was on par of any place I've seen in the US, and the number of Japanese garnering this experience, about 7000 total in Chuo-ku alone at last count, grows by about 100 new members a day. This, I hope, will have far-reaching ripples throughout Japan, and make people more open minded towards helping ameliorate the suffering of others.
I am proud to have been a Kobe volunteer. It changed my mind about the existence of the forces pushing for a "moralistic good" in Japanese society.
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