Tag Archive: Volunteering

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.

May 28

Back to the Good Life

I’m typing this (or at least starting to type this; we’ll see how long the battery holds out) in Sendai city, waiting for the Curry Express to come and pick me up, ostensibly at 16:30, but we’ll see. While I wait, I’m burning a good ass-mark into a seat in the Starbucks near the station’s East exit.


Given that I’ve been occupying prime real estate here for over an hour, I should probably buy something else, but since I haven’t had a call from my rescuers yet to tell me they’re on their way, it might be wise to save that for later.


So how to sum up the experience of volunteering in Oofunato? I have no idea. I’m not going to get all drama-queen on you and say stuff like it was shocking, or that it was a life-changing experience. The images I’d seen immediately post-quake had prepared me to some extent, and I had been pre-warned about the various smells and such. None of my crews came across a human body (or even an animal body, barring one dead frog I found yesterday); maybe that would have changed things.


Despite my differences with All Hands as an organization, which I’ll deal with fully in a future post, I was very impressed with all the people (yes, even the ones I think are assholes and/or idiots) who came out from all over the world and volunteered to help the country that I love. Many of them have been and will be here for months, and we, as residents of Japan, owe them our deepest thanks. Even people who are assholes and idiots can be good people on some level, and I salute them for that. I particularly, though, salute the volunteers I met who not only worked hard, but weren’t assholes or idiots. I met some amazing people, who will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. In a good way.

 Cleaning the tambo in Rikuzentakata, Day 2.

The work itself, being out on the streets and in the fields, in many cases doing work that no one else was willing to do, made me feel like I was finally doing something concrete to help Tohoku. I only really did three days of back-breaking labour, a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, but it did feel good, and I want to do it again.


I read yesterday that there is a shortage of volunteers in Iwate-ken, so I will be looking for ways to get back there and ways to encourage others to go. We are just beginning to take the first few steps on the long road back to normal, and we’re all going to have to pitch in if we want to get there.


And wow! My ride’s arrived 45 minutes early. Will post more later in the week when I’ve caught up with all the work that’s been piling up.

May 27

Last Day in Oofunato–The Best of Both Worlds

Today I got back into the canals… the ones on the rice field, though, not the ones in the city. The ones on the paddies definitely smell better.


I’m so tired that I can hardly type. I’m writing this while I wait for my photos to transfer from my camera card to the PC. That will be done in a moment, and I will brush my teeth and go to bed. All I am waiting for is an appropriate photo to post with this entry.


Annnddd…. nope. Too tired. Will try tomorrow on train

May 26

Paddywhacking and Meetings

2011-05-26 12.48.24

Today I signed up for the Paddywhacking crew, which meant that we went out to a bunch of rice paddies in Rikuzentakata and pulled junk out of them. We also started work on the canals and ditches around the site.




I stuck with paddy work today because I was wearing my tabi workboots, which are not waterproof, and I hadn’t brought a change of boots to the HQ base at Sakari in the morning.


It was hard work, but my crew chief today was Brian, who encouraged hard work without making us feel like we couldn’t take breaks or rehydrate, etc. I drank a lot of liquids, but I must have sweated more than I thought, because there was no toilet out there, and I didn’t have to pee until we ended up back at the HQ, six hours (and about 2 litres) after we started.


Great lunch today, though. It was ebi fry, so I could eat it, and fellow crew member Xavier doesn’t like shrimp, so I got double portions for once, instead of half portions. Huzzah.


We got back to the HQ at about 16:45, and then waited a bit longer than usual for dinner. Then we waited an extra long time for the evening meeting to start because the staff wanted to get the 15 new arrivals today processed before we kicked off. Then the meeting went on forever. For. Ev. Er.


Finally, we got to sign up for crews. Despite a couple of interesting new ones, I picked the rice fields again for tomorrow. I nixed the idea of walking back to the FS centre (where the majority of us sleep) because it was likely too late to go to the grocery store anyway, which is what I wanted to do.


Looking forward to tomorrow’s crew; I plan to diving into the canals and clearing them. It will be nice to have a hard work crew for my last day. Then, afterwards I can come back, go to sleep, get up, and get away from all the organizational bullshit. I can then make plans to come up again, either on my own or with a smaller group of people.


I’ll try to post my other photos from the paddy tomorrow; I left my camera in the other room, so I can’t transfer them now. Well, I could, but I don’t want to go back to the sleeping room to get the camera. If I go back to the sleeping room, as I will in a few minutes, it will be to sleep.


Yes, so: time to hit the hay.

May 25

Of Ditches and Bitches, Of Pals and Canals

So I finally manned up this morning and joined a proper crew: the Ditch Bitches.25052011045


Our job was to clear out the canals that drain the grey water from local houses because they are totally blocked with tsunami debris.


Ow. I hurt.


My job was to shovel or otherwise haul muck that others lifted out of the canal into wheelbarrows and haul them over to the nearby refuse piles.


Mud is heavy.


Our crew chief, Mark, is a pretty hardcore worker. Within the first ten minutes, he’d got a huge gash in his arm, but when i pointed it out to him, he just said that he would let it, and I kid you not, “clot up”. Yes, while he continued to work in sewage.


As you can see from the photo, I was originally pretty kitted up. After lunch, I took off the safety glasses and the mask, as they just got in the way (and fogged up my real glasses so badly I couldn’t see).


I will probably not join that crew again, if I can avoid it. As I mentioned, Mark is pretty intense, and he expects everyone else on his crew to be similarly so. I didn’t feel like I could even stop and walk two minutes away to fill my water bottle, especially near the end of the day when he’d assigned my an extra (simultaneous) task. This was around the end of the day when my mouth was dry, I had a pounding headache, and obviously was in a state of dehydration. I was so thirsty, I was tempted to drink the canal water (bad idea).


Now Mark is a cool guy, but this is the reason that you need someone leading a team who has had some training in doing so. A trained team leader would be enforcing break times, not allowing team members to work through lunch (as one did), etc. Oh yeah, and probably notice when one of his team members was so dehydrated that he could barely walk straight.


I find it so weird that All Hands has all these rules governing our lives and behaviour (and endless meetings about those rules), but very few rules in terms of onsite safety.


But don’t get me wrong. I would not voluntarily do canal crew again (unfortunately, as the biggest crew, it’s the most likely crew one will end up on), but I actually do like Mark. He’s just one of those guys who kind of expects everyone to live up to his example.


There are a fair number of people I don’t like here (as there are in any communal living situation), and most of them are what I call the “Happy Camper” type. That means they’ve drunk the organizational kool-aid, and the organization can do no wrong in their book. They also feel the need to play the camp counsellor role and take over situations. I really hate that. They also frequently happen to be recent Business program graduates. I really hate that.


Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. We’re clearing debris from a rice field, and the team leader is a guy who I know I will feel comfortable with (meaning that I will work hard, but still do what I need to do to take care of myself).


Time to sleep!

May 24


I need to write this briefly, because I don’t find myself with a lot of time. There are a number of people here who are awesome and I’m loathe to trade time with them for writing on this blog or any one of the other things that I REALLY need to get done before Saturday.


Today was our day off, but try as I might to be productive, it just wasn’t going to happen. So I will just list some of  the highlights and lowlights of my volunteer experience thus far.



  • Cleaning photos at a local evacuation centre on Sunday * (see caveat on this in the lowlights section)
  • Working in the Greater Kitchen Co-Prosperity Sphere with Adam and Ranko to make dinner for the whole group on Monday night
  • Karaoke on Monday night and racing back to make curfew (the community centre we’re staying in locks the doors at 22:00)
  • Buying a 1000 yen microwave at a recycle shop and stealthily setting it up in our common room.



  • Getting told off by the person in charge of the photo project for not doing the work properly (despite the fact that we had no instructions and that she’d said she’d bring some over in the afternoon and never did)
  • Getting told I could eat any of the food on the food shelf and then being told off later by the project bigwig for eating bread outside of breakfast time
  • Being forced to change my clothes to go to the evac centre to do the bath cleaning/photo cleaning job by my team leader, a middle-aged uptight Japanese lady, because I would scare the residents. When i refused, she sic’d a bigwig on me who used his bullshit conflict-resolution voice on me to tell me that I basically had to do it. (If we had ended up cleaning the baths, my workpants would have been totally inappropriate, as they don’t roll up) All in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’, which is fine, except that I’ve been volunteering at evacuation centres now since April, and it’s never been a problem before (Tohoku people are really cool).


I’m really enjoying a lot of the people here, and I’m enjoying the work. I think that next time I come up here, though, I will try to come with a smaller group. The realities of a large group seem to mean that those in charge feel like they need to treat us like children. Now that I’ve made some friends, and sort of carved a place, I’m really looking forward to next week.

May 21

The First Night

Typing this on the air mattress, which turns out to be like, a queen-size.


I’m sleeping in the All Hands common room at the HQ tonight, because they didn’t want to move me over to the second set of facilities in the Evac center. Which is fine. Except they made a big-ass deal about quiet/lights out hours starting at 22:30, and it’s now 23:15 and the main gaggle have gone off to the sleeping room, while the admins continue to talk in here with lights blazing.


Given that this room is supposedly going to turn into Grand Central at 7:00, I’d really like to get some shuteye.


Also, it seems like I’m hearing a lot of drama stuff that I probably should—whoops, earthquake—should not be hearing.


Oh well, it’s the first night. I should be happy that I have a degree of privacy to write this that I likely won’t have when I move tomorrow.


First impressions of Oofunato:


  • Smelly: partly fresh, sea air (which I think I’m not a fan of), partly dust, partly sewage
  • Quiet (well, it is a small town)
  • That’s it so far: I arrived in the dark

First impressions of the group:

  • A little bit immature
  • A bit catty
  • A little bit disorganized (they really need a sign down at street level; I found the building no problem, but there’s no indication until you walk up the stairs, which I was loath to do due to my heavy bags… maybe something I’ll suggest when I get to know them better)

First impression of the HQ

  • No flush toilets (washiki that’s just a hole into a sack of some sort)
  • Stinky; toilets are particularly bad
  • Definitely worse for wear
  • More amenities than I expected (I may be able to have occasional sento privileges!)

Anyway, really not looking forward to waking up all bleary-eyed with a whole bunch of volunteers eating breakfast over my head, but I figure I’ll get into the swing of things tomorrow, and once I’m installed at the other place, cheek-to-jowl with my/the comrades, these first impressions will improve.


I’m really looking forward to it.


Maybe if I pretend to sleep now, they’ll be quiet and turn out the lights…

May 21

Today’s Tweets Extrapolated


And the good ship Curry Express is off for Tohoku! (@ YC&AC) http://4sq.com/jmI0TI

I woke up at 4:30, and was on my bike and off to the departure site by 5:20. Good friend Dave had driven my heavier bags over yesterday, so I didn’t have to worry about how to carry them. He will also pick up my bike and drive it back to my house today.


Someone farted on the Curry Express. I suppose it was inevitable.

We left nearly on time (6:10), and while it was inevitable that someone farted, at least it wasn’t me.



The driver didn’t forget to take this down; I saw him put it up. (Aboard the Curry Express.) http://lockerz.com/s/103320684x2_6288c6c

None of us were quite sure what this mean, other than the driver had less patience with us this week. Who can blame him? A bus full of adults is noisier and much hard to control than a bus full of easily-cowed schoolchildren.

Road breakfast of muffins and samosas aboard the Curry Express.

I personally preferred last week’s croissants, but the samosas were amazing.

The Curry Express is making great time. Only 130km to Sendai from here.

We changed routes this time, avoiding central Tokyo, and saved more than an hour just by not sitting in traffic!

Just a few klicks out of Sendai. Stopped for a slash, and suddenly had to run back to bus before they closed the highway!

This was a hoot, watching our Japanese navigator and bus driver trying to herd everyone back from the toilets when they found out the highway was closing.

Arrival in Sichigahama. Time to serve some curry (in the rain).

Photos soon (still on a bus). Fewer people than last week, and although it was raining when we arrived, we actually ended up serving indoors this week, AND it stopped raining and got sunny. After we finished serving the people living there, we served the volunteers, some of who were cute, and some of whom were very tattooed.

Curry served. Cats herded. Back aboard the Curry Express and bound for Sendai station.

Not quite. The group did its usual kerfuffling. This isn’t an exact science. I could see that our driver and guide were getting a little antsy, as was I by this point, because we were coming up on 15:00 and I had a feeling that my last train from Sendai to Ichinoseki was sometime around 16:00. My bus from Ichinoseki wasn’t until 18:20, which I probably shouldn’t have mentioned, because I think people fixated on that time…

We just passed a 5-storey mountain of bulldozed rubble.

And I just checked the train schedule. It’s now 15:15. My “last” train is at 16:43, which will give me about 45 minutes on the other end, in a station I’ve never been before, to figure out where to catch the bus.

There is some doubt as to whether I will make my train at 16:40.

Given how close we were to Sendai, I kind of wish they’d dropped me before this second leg of the trip to drop off some food, find out what else is needed, and chat with volunteers. By this point I’ve made it clear what my deadline is. The driver and our navigator know what I fear: we will not make it in time.

Train duly missed. Will take the next one and will have 7 minutes to get from train platform to bus stop or I don’t get to Oofunato.

Sure enough, we pull up to Sendai station at 16:45. I quickly try to rig up a way to effectively carry my bags, but to no avail. Also, this entrance has no escalator/elevator. Hilarity, I’m sure, ensues. The next train I know of leaves at 17:43, and will arrive at 18;13 in Ichinoseki. Only 7 minutes before my bus departs.

Paid an extra 1780 to get on the Shinkansen. Now I have 11 minutes to find where my bus is with my Zsa Zsa Gabor overpacked bags.

Good news: found a train that leaves at 17:30 and arrives at 18:09. Bad news: those extra four minutes cost me.

Have made the humiliating call to a good friend for help. Will owe said friend big time.

I call my friend, @peacefulandjust, and humbly ask her if she can find out where exactly I need to catch my bus from Ichinoseki. Just knowing where to go will save me precious minutes.


Made it just in time, all thanks to @peacefulandjust. On the last leg of my trip to Oofunato.

@peacefulandjust comes through. As I’m retying my bags together (this time using my bungee cable), I get a message telling me Bus Stop #5, West exit.  The train stops and I bolt… well, as fast as I can with my bags. I make it just as the bus pulls in. Minutes later, we are on the road.

So, that was my day, in a nutshell. Going to sign off now and save what little power is left on my laptop for an emergency.

May 21

Oofunato Bound At last

21052011034I’m writing this on the bus to Oofunato, which I caught with just moments to spare, thanks to the help of @peacefulandjust (I mean, her help is the reason I caught it at all, not the reason I was running to catch it).


Where to begin?


About a month ago, I signed up with ALL HANDS to go to Oofunato and help out. They rejected me.


Then they changed their minds and un-rejected me.


In the meantime, I got involved in the Universal Brotherhood of Japan’s day trips to serve curry (see my last entry regarding the good ship Curry Express). When they offered to take me again this week to save me money on my trip to Oofunato, how could I have refused?


Packing. Well, there’s an interesting story, too. I’ve never really done this kind of thing before, and All Hands was a little bit vague about the exact work I’d be doing and the conditions I’d be doing it in. Plus, they made it pretty clear we volunteers would be living in our own filth for a week (only cold running water, no showers, 20 people in a small room). So I packed a lot. A LOT. Like the Zsa Zsa Gabor of volunteers. It didn’t help that I also bought 5000 Yen + worth of (heavy) art supplies to donate to local kids in shelters. That was the small grey bag I have dubbed “Megaton” right there.


Aside from that, I packed one pair of work clothes (Japanese carpenters’ pants I bought for a costume party two or three years ago, and a work shirt); a pair of underoos, socks, and an undershirt for each day; a set of good clothes, including a couple of extra underthings, not including the kilt I am wearing right now; two pairs of boots on top of the ones I’m wearing, one pair rubber, one pair tabi carpenter boots; a heavy sleeping bag and a hard hat (which, according to an email from All Hands that I received JUST AN HOUR AGO, I don’t need); an air mattress (probably a mistake); batteries for air mattress; charger for batteries; first aid stuff; safety stuff; my camera; my laptop, plus all adapters and AC… shall I go on, darlings?


Suffice it to say that my luggage consists of one small grey suitcase (carry-on size) filled with art supplies and snacks; a green canvas army surplus laundry bag filled with clothes and, apparently, bricks; the air mattress; my overfilled backpack; my camera bag; and my hard hat (which wouldn’t fit inside anything else.


They said “pack light”. Have I arsed this up?


Oh well…

May 11

Finally Signed Up

It’s been two months today since the Tohoku earthquake, and nearly a month since I first talked about going up to Tohoku to volunteer.


I’ve done a couple of volunteer things here with a local group, and in three days I go up as part of a caravan delivering supplies and Indian curry dinners to evacuees. But that ride has been planned for more than a month.


In the meantime, I’ve finally managed to sign up with ALL HANDS for a one week tour doing backbreaking clean-up labour. I know that opportunities have existed before this, but I had problems either being accepted (due to my poor Japanese skills and/or inability to drive) or joining for logistical reasons (some groups have their volunteers sleep in self-provided tents; I neither have the money to spend on a tent, nor the skills to rough it like that, being 90% city-boy). Actually, ALL HANDS initially rejected me as well, but apparently, someone has dropped out, leaving a place for me. Huzzah!


ALL HANDS has secured part of an office building, cramming 20 or so people into a small room. Apparently we will have cold running water and a roof over our heads, which is enough for me. So this week, I’m spending my time scrounging the following items;


  • air mattress
  • proper mask (ALL HANDS gives me the type, but can’t tell me if they’re sold under the same designation here in Japan as well: N95 or N100.)
  • insurance (found a provider, but need to get my wife to read the terms; it’s all in 日本語.)

Anyway, I’m really excited to finally be doing something concrete, and a bit scared about what I’m going to see.


In any case, allow me to leave you with two photos. These are the ones that are in the MY JAPAN photo exhibition tonight:





And yes, you can tell by the (lack of) quality that these were selected by popular vote, not by a panel of qualified judges. But I guess it worked in my favour this time…