In August, I volunteered for a 2-week mission to provide cheer to lonely displaced survivors still living in temporary housing (kasetsus) all along the Iwate cost. In other words, I was supposed to be a part of the kind party.
Yet, things turned out very differently. Oh sure, we did do what was requested of us – including leading sing-alongs, preparing simple Singapore-style meals at mobile cafés, providing material for and guiding interesting craft activities, and even learning to do hand massages for the mostly elderly participants in our daytime programs.
But we found ourselves not just witnessing, but being on the receiving end of many kindnesses.
The local workers we were meant to be assisting, were so solicitous in making sure that we could actively interact despite our language handicap. They also trained us in skills we previously didn’t have.
Miyako City on the coast, population 60,000, is where the tsunami came in highest at 39+ meters. Miyako has 60 kasetsu communities with a total of 2,000 units. This man, our main coordinating partner on the coast, visits them so regularly (with or without us volunteers) that I could see an obvious warmth as the kasetsu residents greet him.
For that matter, even residents whose dwellings survived not just opened up to him, but offered regular help. This craftsman has hospitably made the entire upper floor of his house-cum-workshop available as sleeping quarters, and has so far hosted 300+ volunteers these last 2 years.
The residents themselves were not just appreciative, some went out of their way to tell us how much our visits meant to them and changed their outlook in life despite the spartan temporary living conditions they were in. This particular lady even boiled edamame and cooked tempura for us.
The stories and images of gracious behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the 3/11 disaster 2 years ago are well known. Now, I have first-hand experience of Japanese kindness and graciousness that will stay in my heart, and which I’ll hopefully emulate.