Wednesday, June 8, 2011

ASEAN Youth Caravan Of Goodwill

"The tsunami had taken everything away from us,
but it was also the tsunami that brought new friends to us."

3/11 tsunami survivor
from Miyagi

When the magnitude-9 earthquake hit northeastern Japan in the early afternoon of Friday, March 11, I was boarding a bus from Kuala Lumpur back to my hometown in Taiping. I wasn't aware about the catastrophe until about an hour later, when I got a short text message from my housemate in Japan. Once I got back home and watched the live footage of the damages caused by the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, I knew that was something really bad.

In the next few weeks that followed, I kept myself updated on the situation in Japan and I decided to delay my return to Japan for two weeks. Even though it has been almost three months since that faithful day, things still haven't completely got back to normal in those regions which were affected by the tsunami. There are still approximately 100,000 people who are still seeking shelters at various evacuation centres.

Deep in my heart, I have always wanted to offer a helping hand in any way I could, after I saw what the people up in the tsunami zone were going through. Therefore, I thought of joining the voluntarily works in Tohoku region. However, like most of us, I didn't know what was the right channel to go to. Then, I saw a program called "ASEAN Youth Caravan of Goodwill", which was initiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and supported by the Nippon Foundation and is part of the ROAD Project, which stands for "Resilience will Overcome Any Disaster".


A group photo taken in front of the Nippon Foundation office before we embarked on our journey to Miyagi prefecture.

The Caravan includes the survivors of the 2004 tsunami from Acheh in Indonesia and Pang-Nga and Phuket in Thailand, selected ASEAN Secreteriat staffs who can, for example speak Japanese, sing, dance, play instrument, entertain children, or sympatise with the hosts through similar experiences in the past, and invited artists from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. 

They were flown in to Tokyo from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok via Air Asia and Thai Airways respectively, and were joined by twenty-five students from ASEAN countries and currently studying in Japan. The Caravan participants would travel to Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture in the northeastern Japan on a noble mission of goodwill to spread joy and support, both physically and mentally to the communities affected by the earthquake and tsunami early this year.

The trip includes paying visits to several evacuation centres, performing some cultural shows, sharing their own personal painful experience from similar natural disasters in recent past, and strengthening the "human bond" that has long existed between the Japanese and ASEAN people.


The three of us who accepted the invitation from the  Embassy of Malaysia in Tokyo as the youth representatives to this Caravan.

I was joined by Amy and Azizul as the representatives from the Embassy of Malaysia in Tokyo to volunteer ourselves for this caravan. There are two more Malaysian volunteers - Fairus and Ellaine, who flew in from Kuala Lumpur to join this program as well. Both Fairus and Ellaine used to be volunteers in Mercy Malaysia and they have been to Nīas and Sudan in similar missions previously.

On 3rd June 2011 morning, twelve weeks after the quake hit, we assembled and departed from the Nippon Foundation office in Akasaka, Tokyo towards the Tohoku region in two buses with another 72 volunteers from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. We managed to get to know several of the representatives from other countries in the bus, as we headed up-north to the Tohoku region.


The breakfast box which was provided for us - tuna and egg sandwiches and a packet of orange juice.

Amy and I were among the early ones to arrive at the Nippon Foundation and we were introduced to the chief coordinator of this trip, Miss Vicky Honda and Miss Mari Tanaka. Mr Wada Makoto, who is the press officer in the media relations team of the communications department took some time to interview us about our expectations we have on this mission. It was a breeze for Amy, as she had prepared a pre-written script beforehand and had Mr Makoto to hold the paper for her as she spoke to the video-camera haha!

A brief orientation was done smoothly on two buses which carried the volunteers moving towards Tohoku region. During the orientation session, we were alerted regarding the damage situation caused by the devastating tsunami on 11th March 2011; various relief efforts to date; the role and importance of volunteers for disaster relief; volunteer philosophy; and the do-and-don'ts in the disaster area.


Our journey took us through Fukushima prefecture too. Upon hearing this, my friend told me not to meet him again once I return 
for he fears that he might got radiated haha wtf!

That is important, because a volunteer who comes unprepared will become a burden to the relief efforts. Therefore, all volunteers have to be self-sufficient so that they do not consume the already limited resources and produce waste in the affected areas. Students as well as civilian volunteers who participate in the volunteer efforts coordinated by the Nippon Foundation are required to bring their own food and sleeping gear, but they are provided with boots and helmets.

During the more-than-five-hour journey from Tokyo to the Tohoku region, we made a couple of stops along the way for toilet break and lunch break. Although it was a long journey, everyone was in good mood and raring to go. We had our lunch break in one of the rest areas in Fukushima prefecture. The weather was great; we sat on the warm benches under the summer warmth, enjoying our bento sets while snuffing to the radiation particles flying freely in the air. We don't really care anyway haha!


Bento sets that was given to each of us for our lunch.


During one of our stops, we spotted several groups of army from the Self-Defense Force 
and we asked them to have a group photo with us, which they happily obliged.

As the volunteer work will only begin on the next day, the main program for day-one was to visit disaster area in Natori city, to observe sites and grasp the gravity of the disaster on the way to Sendai city.

Natori is a coastal town in Miyagi prefecture, which was virtually wiped out by the earthquake and tsunami. The area close to the coast is just a complete wasteland and this is one of the worst hit areas in the vicinity. Rescue workers began to arrive three days after the disaster hit, but unfortunately they found few people to rescue. The wave wiped just about everything away. There is nothing much left - the tsunami pretty much razed the entire area closest to the sea.


Road signs showing the distance to go until we reach Sendai city.


Entering Natori city, one of the worst hit area by the tsunami.

The people in Natori had about half-an-hour warning that the tsunami was coming after the quake hit. So, there were alarms and everyone tried to get out. Unfortunately, there was only one narrow road that leads back out of the coastal part of the town. A lot of people did get out, but a lot were also caught in the wave. Officials do not have the precise number of deaths in Natori but until today, there have been more than 900 bodies that are confirmed to have died. On the other hand, there are still thousands of them who are still housed in evacuation shelters because they had nowhere else to turn to.

One of the strange things about this disaster is that no place is as well prepared as Japan for this kind of natural disaster. In many respects they have been rehearsing for this for years - in terms of the building standards, in terms of preparedness for tsunami. But when it struck, it was so violent that not even the best system in the world was able to respond sufficiently quickly.


A fishing boat that was washed away a few kilometers to the land.


Damaged cars being placed together at a temporary spot.


Those two little huts used to be rice mills.


Some of the houses which are still left abandoned with debris.


Only a few houses and buildings survived the tsunami waves but it is uncertain if they are safe to occupy.


Although some of the houses wasn't washed away completely, there are debris piled all around the area that makes the cleaning job an almost impossible job.


Electric poles which were uprooted and washed away by the strong waves.

Everyone of us shuddered when our bus began to approach the destroyed town. We couldn't believe what we saw. The horrific images from television and newspapers all this while were there, right in front of our eyes. It suddenly felt so real, so close. It certainly feels different to be physically standing at the site of the destruction. All hearts were sadden and burdened when we witnessed the remnants signs of destruction caused by the tsunami. It was still hard to absorb the sheer scale of what we saw, and impossible to forget.

Before we got off from the bus, we were reminded not to take any photographs as a mark of respect to the tsunami victims. Imagine yourself being one of the victims and you have outsiders coming to the disaster area to take photos. Besides, we were on a volunteering mission and not a sight-seeing trip. Hence, all the photos here were taken from inside the bus.

The survivors from the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in December 2004 - six from Acheh and a dozen from Pang-Nga and Phuket broke down when they saw the sight of the devastated town. They were seen trying to contain their tears when they got down to the site and witness the stark landscape around them. Perhaps it reminded them to the similar nightmare experience they had gone through more than six years ago.


Most of the houses in the town were made of wood, that is why they were washed away.


From the sights of some remaining buildings, we can roughly tell how high the tsunami wave was.


Almost every other home down by the harbour vanished after being hit by the strong wave.


It has been almost three months since the earthquake and tsunami that roared through Natori and little is left of a town that was once home 
to about 74,000 people, many of them farmers.


Now, it is deserted. Most evacuated to shelters or live with their families. Some are missing, some dead, and some are still there.


Emergency vehicles are the only traffic on the roads and the only people left in town are the workers who continued to clear the debris in the town. Everyone else is gone because so are their homes. What used to be a neighborhood is now simply a debris field.

The magnitude of the damages suffered by this town was so great that it prompted world leaders to pay a visit to the site. Among them were Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who paid respects after offering flowers to damaged areas in Natori a couple of months after the massive earthquake and tsunami struck.

We spent about half-an-hour to take a closer look at the damages done by the earthquake and tsunami, that have killed thousands of people and sunk hundreds of thousands more household into darkness. Massive fishing boats lie perched atop pancaked houses and cars. The occasional telephone poll or bulldozer is sometimes the only skyline. It is a hellish sorrowful sight.

Mr. Rajaretnam and Miss Adelina Kamal from the ASEAN Secretariat represented the participating members of the Caravan placed two bouquets of flowers on the sorrow land and led the rest to observe a minute of silence and offer prayers to the victims before the vast debris as a mark of remembrance of the victims of the disaster.


Two staffs from the ASEAN Secretariat offered two bouquets of flowers to the tsunami victims (photo credit: Francesca Ken).


The two bouquet of flowers in memory of those people who perished during the 3/11 tsunami (photo credit: Francesca Ken).


It was then followed by a moment of one-minute silence (photo credit: Mari Tanaka).


Mr Rajaretnam from the ASEAN Secretariat being shown the area of the disaster through a map (photo credit: Francesca Ken).


One of the survivors from the Acheh tsunami sharing their thoughts to the NHK reporter (photo credit: Francesca Ken).


A small hill in Natori known as "Hiyori Yama" or Weather Hill that has become a memorial.


Huge piles, taller than three-storey buildings of smashed up wooden planks and beams, along with uprooted trees, crushed cars, and the possessions 
that swept out of hundreds of homes.


Far in the background is the Pacific Ocean, where the tsunami waves came crashing down this coastal town.


Houses washed from their foundations teetered on their sides. The bustle of the cleanup are still going on and even the government has no clear idea 
how long will it take to clear areas crushed by the wave.


Those historical paper-lantern-covered 300-year-old Matsu pine trees are still standing by the Natori River dike.


Flashback: The massive tsunami swept in to engulf a residential area after a powerful earthquake in Natori on March 11, 2011 (Reuters/Kyodo).


Some personal belongings being collected at placed by the roadside.


Hundreds of sandbags being placed temporarily by the river bank to prevent any further tsunami threat.

From Natori, we headed to Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi prefecture. Although the centre region of the city did not suffer much damages, the coastal areas of the city including Sendai Airport and Sendai port suffered catastrophic damages from the earthquake and tsunami.

Three months have passed and life has gotten back to normal for the people in this city. You wouldn't be able to tell that this city was hit with such a major disaster just recently. One thing I noticed is that banners and place-cards written with well-wishes such as "Ganbarou Nippon", "Ganbare Tohoku" and "Kokoro Hitotsu-ni naru" to lift the spirit of the people were everywhere.


One of the messages put up at the notice board at Sendai station.


We spent the next two nights at Hotel Metropolitan Sendai.


The lobby of the hotel which looks modern and grand.


The concierge and front desk staff are welcoming, helpful and immaculately attired.


Special promotional plans from the hotel to support the victims of the disaster.


I shared a room with Azizul and those green cards are our complimentary breakfast.


It was a great-looking twin room but the price is not cheap.


The shower is a state of the art which you do not even find in some five-star hotels in Tokyo.


Bathtub which is still, too short to fit my long legs haha!


  Some of us who were out to look for dinner.


Soba set meal at Sendai Soba Tokoro Yoshida (仙台そば所よし田).

This is my first time in to this region of Japan and I noticed that the people in the northeastern region speaks Japanese mixed with slight local dialect. There was this couple of elderly men who was seated next to us when we had our dinner and I could hardly understand them.

We got back to our hotel and I turned on the TV to watch the local programmes, which mainly still focused on the tsunami recovery effort. There was one show that caught my eyes, where there was a live show between Miyagi Terebi and Kumamoto Kenmin Terebi. Kumamoto, by the way, is one of the seven prefectures in Kyushu in the south Japan. The theme of the show was "Ganbarou Miyagi". 


The live show between Miyagi and Kumamoto. 


Messages and well-wishes from the people of Kumamoto.


There was this guy who operates a ramen restaurant in Kumamoto, flew all the way to Kesennuma city and Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture to distribute more than 1,000 bowls of ramen for free to the tsunami victims for one week.


Tamana High School in Kumamoto who perform human-letters formation during their recently held Sports Day to convey their support to the people of Tohoku.

There were several audiences who wrote to the program and their story was really touching. One lady said that she was very thankful as her family managed to saved themselves from the tsunami and their house didn't suffer any major damages. Her husband, who is one of the workers in the nuclear plant came back home at eight one evening and after having dinner with the family, he returned to work two hours later. She asked her husband why is he working so hard, and his reply was simple.

「今頑張らないと,いつ頑張るの」 ("If I don't work hard now, I won't know when will I have another chance to do it.")


Later that evening, we went to collect our gears that were to be used during our visit to Ishinomaki city on the next day.

Everyone took an early rest that night after a tiring day traveling and also to recharge ourselves before we begin our mission on the next day. However, there was in fact a strong quake at one in the morning. I guess I was too tired already that I didn't feel anything and was only told about it by Azizul the next morning. Apparently, it was a magnitude-5.6 quake and as our room was in the sixteenth floor, the swaying of the building was felt quite strongly.

That aftershock didn't really give much concern to us, because our mission begins when the sun rises the next morning.


DT said...

Very thoughtful of u to volunteer.... :)

DT said...

Very thoughtful of u to volunteer.... :)

Anonymous said...

Really good post!

Robinn T said...

soba soba soba!!! so its like you pay all the expenses from your own pockets? $$$$

calvin said...

@ dt:
thank you. i have been wanting to join this kind of activities ever since japan was hit by such disaster and i am glad that finally, i have managed to do so : )

calvin said...

@ tempus:
nope, this expense throughout this caravan was borne by the nippon foundation. the most important thing however, is the chance we had to offer our support to the people in tohoku : )

ns29 said...

nice entry. great reference for me.

sakura said...

very thoughtful of u guys.. i wished i can do something to help out too..

calvin said...

@ ns29:
thanks. the nippon foundation actually sends groups of volunteers to tohoku on a weekly basis under the "gakubo" program, and you might be interested to join them this summer holidays ; )

calvin said...

@ sakura:
thank you. no words can describe the satisfactory feeling of being able to help those tsunami victims. and i am glad i have has the chance to do so : )