While on a return trip through the broken and washed away city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture to meet with two nongovernmental organizations Direct Relief supports, I saw a familiar house on the other side of a huge ship grounded among immense piles of debris. It was a two-story house, which I remembered visiting months ago at the onset of Direct Relief’s activities in this ravaged area. I first saw this community just a few days after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. This was my first trip there to inspect and analyze our projected recovery and involvement of such grand and unimaginable devastation.
When I first visited months ago, the house was held up by only the barest and essential features of support as it leaned slightly toward a dry concrete-lined riverbed. The river was filled with the wreckage of cars, ships, and the remains of everything that had been destroyed or ripped from foundations. Many kilometers from the river’s mouth, the house barely “stood” among other downed houses scourged by the tsunami’s sudden force up the channel. The walls of the house had been ripped away to expose the beams, joists, and rafters. I dared not take one single photo of the house or family, but the images were forever burned in my mind.
On that first day, I met with the homeowner and the director of the International Volunteers of Yamagata (IVY). IVY’s director was on hand to manage cleanup efforts and restore the house to a habitable condition through a program called “cash for work.”
The IVY workers on site were all affected in some way by the earthquake. Traumatized better describes the experience of “cash for work” workers. Each person was living in the pulverized community and had suffered similar losses of property, vocation, and family members during the disaster. One worker lost her mother and child, and needed the work just to stop crying.
On their knees sorting glass from debris on the ground and up to their knees removing black, putrid mud from under the house, these workers shared a common interest and drive to get healthy and help others. No job was too small or too big.
Now, months later, this house is standing upright, clean and occupied. The trashed grounds and downed houses that previously littered the yard and lots nearby had been cleared away. I stopped and found the owner coming out of his workshop. I hardly recognized that this was the same man—he had recovered as much in appearance as his house. Untraditional of Japanese customs, the man embraced me with an immediate recognition and flashed a big smile as he pointed to his house. He took me inside and asked me to share his story and thank IVY.
The owner credited the resurrection of his spirit and house to IVY and Direct Relief. He said that before IVY came along, he had no desire to fix the property and had lost any idea of recovery. He felt shame at the prospect of volunteers from outside coming into his house and fatigued by the daunting task of restoring his life. IVY’s workers understood the culture in his community and had shared some of his experience. These people, to whom he could feel reciprocity, turned his life from hopeless to inspirational. The house is now fully restored and the owner has reopened his fishing-flag print shop. Inscribed on every new flag is the date of his shop reopening.