Jul 16

All Hands

Okay, here’s the blog entry I promised to write back in May. It’s fucking long, so I won’t blame you if you don’t read it. If you’re one of the amazing people I met and made friends with up in Oofunato, I really hope I don’t lose your friendship because of this post. But I need to get this done so I can forget, forgive, and move on.


As you may recall, All Hands was the name of the group I volunteered with in Oofunato from May 21 – 28. I mentioned after returning from that trip that I hadn’t been all that impressed with the organization, and that I would write a blog entry about it.

Cleaning the tambo in Rikuzentakata, Day 2.

Brian Chapman has probably had some good ideas. Spray painting his hand in order to brand the new wheelbarrows for All Hands was not one of them.

The reason I haven’t already done it is simply because I feel weird about calling out a group that is doing really important volunteer work. On the other hand, I feel the need to get this off my chest.


Let me open by saying that I’m a dick. It will help if  I’m clear with that up front. Me = dick. Anyone who knows me will probably agree that I’m a hyper-critical puckered anus of an excuse for a human being. And it’s true. It’s one of the reasons I was able to work in I.T. for so long: that job was constantly about finding new problems or inefficiencies and trying to fix them. It’s also what I try to do when I work on Theatre. A play is a problem, a question of how best to tell a story, that I try to solve—never to my own satisfaction, I might add.


So, now that we’ve cleared that up, here are my problems with All Hands:


Bad Communication & Organization

Probably all non-profits suffer from this to some degree, and with as many projects as All Hands has going on in the world, I can’t say I’m shocked. I think they may have expanded operations too quickly. The bulk of the paid staff appear to have been lifted from volunteers on other projects (mostly Haiti); they’re really young and not very experienced. I’ve heard it joked that the left can’t organize. I don’t think that’s true, but certainly the hippy-dippy attitude towards organization didn’t help.  Examples:


  • Time sensitive emails did not get answered promptly.
    • It happened a lot but the most annoying one was: One of my emails about whether I needed to bring certain bulky items of gear sent two days before I left for Oofunato didn’t get answered until about one hour before my arrival in the city.
  • Despite the fact that they were expecting me the evening I arrived (as requested, I was sending constant updates about my ETA as things changed) and that people frequently arrived in the late evening, the All Hands HQ has absolutely no markings at street level, nor are the inside lights visible from the street. If I hadn’t been sure about the location on google maps, I probably would have wandered around for an hour trying to find the place.
  • They had not told me that I’d need a copy of my Japanese health insurance card (I’m still not sure why), which I needed to get my wife to fax in after I was already there.
  • I had to convince them that they didn’t need to see my passport (and in fact, by law, I was not required to show it to them), and that they could use my driver’s license instead. Despite the fact that there were other long-term expats in the group, as well as native Japanese, it seemed that they were at a loss in terms of handling me
  • House rules were not communicated clearly (more on this and Marc’s insane “No Sign” rule later)
  • Towards the end of the week I was there, the group meetings which we had every day after dinner were averaging about 90 minutes in length.
  • Their introductory letter said that vegetarians would be accommodated, but advised us to have a sense of humour about it because food was sourced locally and that sometimes getting vegetarian meals might not be possible. On arrival, I was told that ALL lunches were non-vegetarian bento. Ha-ha-ha.

There was more, but that’s what I can remember off the top of my head.


The Young Bunch 

As I mentioned before, most of the paid staff are not very experienced. Most of them aren’t yet comfortable with the idea of being an authority figure, I think, and tend to take a kind of elementary school-teacher approach to it.


Granted: it’s a hard line to walk between trying to treat everyone like equals, but also assert your authority when necessary. The Flying Spaghetti Monster knows I’ve failed at exactly the same thing. But I was expecting a group of admins who had had more experience at, you know, administrating.


This is partly my problem too. I don’t respond well to authority figures who I feel are even more clueless than I am. No matter how much I like them (they were all very likeable people).



A group like this is going to get cliquey. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve got some people who are more charismatic than others, you’ve got some people who everyone knows because they’ve been there since day one… and then you’ve got schmucks like me who fade into the wallpaper. This is going to happen.


But if you’re a paid staff member, I expect you to be above this crap. The first night I was there, since I was sleeping in the main common room (common practice for people’s first nights), I could hear the staff and some of the volunteers who had been yanked into doing some of the office work being catty about about people. This did not impress me, and it was clear right from the beginning that there was an “in” group, and like a bunch of high schoolers, they were going to gatekeep the hell out of it.


You can say this is sour grapes on my part because I was on the outside of that group (and the other groups as well). But I’m always on the outside, and I’m perfectly happy doing my thing on the periphery. What bothers me is that people who are being paid to handle the volunteers can’t even seem to pretend to be above it all. Later on, when I had a problem with another volunteer, I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone about it because she was a member of that main “in” group. (In fact, she’d been one of the people keeping me awake that first night being catty.)


The two older members of the team, Satoshi and Marc, the two directors of the project, did hold themselves aloof from the cliques, but I didn’t feel comfortable going to them for other reasons, which we’ll get to.



Cultural Sensitivity”

All Hands is an American group, with most of the volunteers coming from outside Japan, mostly the US and UK, so they need to be extra careful to make sure the community doesn’t reject them. Oofunato is a small town, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that while small town people can be extremely friendly, they can also be wary of outsiders. Accordingly, All Hands was worried about making sure their volunteers, many of whom would be considered a bit rough around the edges, didn’t do anything to upset the locals. Totally understandable.


They had some weird policies carried over from the project in Haiti: don’t give gifts, and don’t accept gifts. Just before I got there, they’d been persuaded to ease the rules on accepting gifts. We live in a gifts-based culture here. It’s a matter of pride for some of the locals to give things in thanks for the work that the group was doing. They weren’t doling out lavish presents: they would just drive by and drop off some Coca-Cola, or invite a few people in for tea or soup. Refusing these tokens would have been very rude.


The rule on gift-giving, however, had not been lifted. I came with an entire suitcase full of art supplies that I ended up bringing back with me to Yokohama because I was told I couldn’t give them away. (One of the other volunteers talked about arranging to have them donated to a local school on a hush-hush basis, but it never happened.) A gift of a guitar to an evacuee girl in the center we were staying at had also be made on the sly.


I’m not sure who they got their initial advice from, but by the time I got there, most of their “cultural sensitivity” information seemed to be coming from this sour, middle-aged woman from Tokyo. She would scold people for leaving their slippers or shoes pointing the wrong way outside the door, among other things. I shouldn’t need to write this, but Japanese people leave their slippers the wrong way around all the time. In fact, not three meters from the door to our common room in the community center, the residents in the center were doing exactly that.


Guess who my partner was on my first crew?




We were going to clean baths at an evacuation centre, and the work pants I’d brought to Tohoku were Japanese-style construction pants (nikka-pokka), which are tight in the ankles, and not very easy to roll up. So I changed into my casual clothes.


Have I mentioned I normally don’t wear pants? I wear a kilt. Europe 2008


A casual kilt, but a kilt nonetheless. Great for a job in a place that would leave pants soaking wet.


Well, this sourpuss I mentioned earlier takes one look at me, and it’s not a nice look. I smile, but before I can say “hi”, “おはようございます”, “nice to meet you”, or any of the other things one might say to someone when meeting him or her for the first time, she puckers up her face as if passing a kidney stone and says: “Is that what you’re wearing?”




"Can you change your clothes?”




I figure that’s going to be the end of it, and I’m not going to stand around and let a fight start so I go to my bag to pack my mini-bag for the day. As I do, I hear her speaking sharply in Japanese to the woman she’s sitting with. I can make out enough to know she’s bitching about me, so I stop what I’m doing and say: “何ですか?どうした?"  Basically: “What is it? What’s the problem?” It’s a little bit rude of me, but this type of person gets under my skin easily and I’ve only had about three hours sleep thanks to the chatty staff last night.


I take a deep breath and make an attempt to politely explain why I’ve chosen to wear this article of clothing. She goes quiet.


Fifteen minutes later we’re downstairs, and I see her talking to Satoshi (one of the two project directors I mentioned earlier), and the next thing I know I’m being trooped upstairs again to talk to Marc (the main project director). I don’t actually talk to Marc: Satoshi pulls me aside and has a talk with me. I try to be reasonable: the guy’s in a tough position, and he’s either decided it’s more important to keep sourpuss happy than me, or he’s accepted her claptrap that I’m going to upset the (mostly older) residents of the evacuation centre. He speaks English perfectly, which leads me to wonder if maybe he hasn’t actually spent a lot of time in Japan. If he had, he’d probably know better.


I make the point that I’m not fresh off the airplane, I’ve lived in Japan for almost a decade, and that I’ve already volunteered, kilted up, in several volunteer centres, with no negative results, and he tells me that this isn’t a volunteer center in Tokyo or Chiba. (If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’d been working in other Tohoku volunteer centres.) He then does his best to mollify me with some weak-ass “It’s okay that you want to be different, BUT” bullshit , using his best “conflict resolution” voice, which I think they teach you in management school to use on assholes. What they don’t teach you, I guess, is how fucking condescending it sounds.


Frankly, if this former corporate suit can’t understand that I wear a kilt for the same reason other people might prefer a certain style of shirt, then I’m not going to win this, am I?


I swallow my fucking pride and change into the carpenters’ pants, realizing that while this sourpuss from Tokyo doesn’t have any more insight into Tohoku culture than I do, because my face isn’t a Japanese one, I’m going to get zero credit for any of my knowledge. I never expected to be put in this position by a group of foreigners.


Later, I found several other expats who complained about the same thing (many of whom were fluent in Japanese). They weren’t being taken seriously by the gang in charge on matters of culture either because they weren’t Japanese.



The Great Communicator

So Marc was the other director of the project. He left before I did, being replaced by Chris 1 (I think of him as pretty-boy Chris). I liked Chris, but by that time I’d had it with the group’s culture and I’d decided I was just going to concentrate on the work and then go home at the end of my tour.


Marc, I like less. Like all the others, he’s a decent man. The world is a better place for having Marc in it, and I’m not sure I can say the same about myself.


Having said that, I was not impressed with his management style. On my second night, my first night in the community centre I was going to call home for a week, I got a tour of the facilities with the other newcomers. We came to a set of shelves with food all over them. Some of it was snack food, and some of it was more substantive. We were told we could eat it. Throughout the evening, I watched people do just that.


I’m used to eating late, like around 20:00 or 20:30, so I wasn’t really hungry at dinner time. But by the time 21:00 rolls around, my stomach’s growling. So I take a piece of bread and put some peanut butter on it. The next thing I know there’s a guy making a bee-line for me.


“That bread’s for breakfast. You’re not supposed to eat it now.”


Oh. Whoops. “Oh, sorry,” I say, genuinely penitent (I don’t like to break rules like that), “No one told me.”


“Well, I’m telling you now,” he replies.


Maybe 40 minutes later, I seek him out and apologize. I did break a rule after all. Even though I don’t think I was snippy (I think he was), I apologize for that as well. Why? I guess naivety. I think that by apologizing to him it will give him an opening to apologize to me. But he doesn’t. He just accepts my apology.


The morning after, we have a morning meeting at the HQ, but before that, we have a pre-meeting at the community centre at which we’re scolded as a group for eating breakfast bread.


Okay, I get it. All Hands provides the breakfast food; it costs them money. The snack foods are things that people have given to us, or that other people have bought and dumped in the communal area. If we eat the breakfast food at night, there’s less at breakfasts, costs go up, etc. I get it.


Someone suggests a sign and we get treated to a speech by Marc about how he doesn’t like signs all over the place, because if there are signs, it means people aren’t communicating. Fair enough: we don’t want post-it notes with rules on them stuck onto every available surface. But come on! By his logic, we should tear down road signs, because we should just communicate our way around town. Besides, since when are signs not a form of communication?


bread (1)No one’s saying to put up a sign that says “Don’t eat!”, but a simple sign over top of the breakfast food that reads “breakfast food” would not only make people stop and think about whether or not they should eat it, it would help remind those giving the tours to tell newcomers: “Only eat this food in the morning.”


(The next day is our day off. Chris 2, who I think of as EM Chris (effective microorganisms, don’t ask), goes to the grocery store and buys half a dozen loaves of bread and sticks them under a sign that reads “24-Hour bread” in English, and “Fuck You” in Anti-establishmentese. Awesome guy.)


As the initial director of the project, it’s Marc who sets the tone for the whole group, and I think he could have done a better job. At least now I understood why there was no sign on the HQ at street level.


(Although, as a side note: every night at dinner, there would be sign over the vegetarian food. Somehow that was okay.)



Now Class, Aren’t We Ashamed of Ourselves”

For a group that seemed so concerned about harshing anyone’s buzz by having too many signs, they certainly did impose a lot of rules on the group who stayed in the community centre. Marc oversaw the community centre group, which, by the time I got there, was where most of us were staying.


I can understand his concern. Unlike at the HQ, we were living among Japanese people and even some evacuees at the centre, so there was a need to be less shouty and rude. Not that the group was shouty or rude at all. It wasn’t.


The community centre had a 22:00 curfew, and limited us to certain hours for taking baths, but there were other rules imposed on us by Marc and All Hands. Aside from the “breakfast bread”, there was the rule that all luggage had to be off the floor and on the shelves that lined to wall. This was a rule that kept getting repeated to us despite the fact that there was no room for everyone’s shit on those shelves. In the sleeping room I was in, my bags alone took up a shelf and a half on the only shelving unit we had to share between initially 7, later 15 people. I also wondered about the safety of this policy, given the intensity of the aftershocks that were still ongoing in the area (yes, there were people sleeping directly under the shelves).


Further, while drinking (booze) was allowed in the HQ, we were not permitted to drink alcohol in our centre. The Japanese volunteer group staying there did. The residents did. But we weren’t allowed to. I don’t drink anyway, but I did see people get drunk outside of the centre and none of them were badly behaved.


And that’s what it came down to. The group was extremely well-behaved. I’m used to touring with actors, who will tear screen doors off of trailers and other dumb stuff, so I was prepared for the worst: practical jokes, lots of shouting, vomiting, etc. But this group was incredibly well-behaved and respectful, and it drove me crazy that at every meeting, the staff would be scolding us for some minor infraction of some rule (sometimes a violation that hadn’t even happened yet, but that they were anticipating for some reason).


The one big time a rule got broken was when five people came back after curfew at the centre and snuck in through a side door. Strangely, as far as I could tell, they didn’t really catch that much hell. And honestly, while you wouldn’t want to encourage that kind of thing, they snuck in quietly, nobody from the centre saw them come in, and they didn’t make a big deal of it. Now, probably what they should have done is the 20 minute walk to the HQ and slept on the common room floor, but still, for a major infraction of the rules, the damage was 0.


But the next day at the daily meeting, we sat there for a quarter-hour lecture on “blah blah blah, these people know who they are, blah blah blah, next time, there WILL BE CONSEQUENCES!”. Five fucking people, and you need to lecture the rest of the group, who had done nothing wrong—to do what? Put the fear of a stern talking-to from a 22 year-old in them? This was sort of the final straw for me, twenty-somethings scolding us like we were 15 year-olds on a school trip, and it’s when I resolved to just put my head down and get through all the meeting bullshit and just keep my mind on the work.


I mean, if someone breaks a rule like that, you pull them aside, give them a ticking off, and then you punish them or you don’t. There was no reason to talk to the rest of the group as if this was going to give us “ideas” or something.


So they went way too far in one direction as far as rules-enforcement on our bases. The worksites were another story.




As far as I could tell, there were no worksite rules—at least none that covered volunteer safety. When we arrived on our first day, they made us each sign a waiver form (which they did not send us to read beforehand—seriously, WTF?) that basically said if anything happened to us volunteers, it was our own damn fault. It went on to say that the team leaders were amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing and we were not obliged to follow their instructions if we felt unsafe.


So this may have absolved All Hands from any legal responsibility for us, but they seemed to think it absolved them of any ethical responsibility as well. There were a LOT of onsite accidents, mostly from people being too gung-ho. Everything from lacerations to punctures to fucked-up backs, you name it. Some of it was probably inevitable, but a lot of the accidents could have been prevented with a few safety rules. A lot of the volunteers wore their injuries with pride, but this is exactly the sort of culture that workplace rules are there to counteract. Workplace rules are not just there to protect workers from management, but to protect workers from themselves.


There were also no mandatory breaks. On my first day of heavy crew cleaning the canals, there Dirty sleeve. Where do I wipe my nose now!?!

Cleaning drainage canals in Oofunato, May 25, 2011. was one guy who didn’t even stop for lunch. The team leader pushed us really hard, and I felt guilty even stopping for the four or five minutes it took to pull off my sewage-soaked gloves and drink from my water bottle. Later in the afternoon, after I’d run out of liquid, I felt such pressure to get done, I didn’t take what would have been a 15-minute break to walk to the hose and fill up my bottles. I ended up severely dehydrated (I didn’t piss once that day between 8:00 and 18:00), dizzy, and with an aching head.


And while that was totally my own fault, and I learned from it (and changed to a crew that had a more concerned team leader), I saw other people push themselves even harder than that on a regular basis. They’re real heroes and everything, but All Hands should be taking more responsibility for the health and safety of its volunteers. Part of that is telling someone: “No, you need to take a break right now. I don’t care if it ‘breaks your rhythm’; you’re no good to anybody dead.” The team leader took pride on pushing his team to get the maximum amount of work done, but didn’t seem to realize that his other responsibility was the health and safety of his crew.


What’s interesting in this whole rules thing is that the rules that were heavily enforced were the ones that, if broken, might potentially make All Hands look bad in the community. Safety of the volunteers barely registered as a concern. The project started in March, but the week I started was apparently the first week they bought steel inserts for our shoes (to avoid nail punctures)—and there weren’t enough, particularly in the larger sizes. Also, there reportedly HAD been mandatory breaks at some point, but they’d been removed because people had complained that it broke their rhythm if they were in “the zone”.




Jesus, mother of piss, this got long. I really expected this to be four or five paragraphs, tops. I didn’t realize it was going to be a novella. Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you’re a fucking saint or a masochist, so thanks. I really needed to get this into the public space to feel that I’d spoken my mind about it.


I mean no disrespect to the people up there with All Hands, doing fantastic work (yes, even those people I’ve basically called douchebags in this post). And on some level, I want to go back and join them. I just found that it wasn’t an environment I felt safe or valued in, and I’ll have to find another way to get back up to Tohoku and do my part.

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