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Tohoku Update: Helping hands

We visited Miyagi to see how charity Hands On Tokyo is helping the area to rebuild after the triple disaster of 2011

Hands On Tokyo volunteers tending to a garden in Tohoku

By Nick Narigon

On March 11 2011, the Saito family lost everything. Despite their home in the Miyagi prefecture village of Yamamoto surviving the earthquake that rocked the country that day, the tsunami that followed in its wake demolished the two-storey farmhouse along with the family’s crops, greenhouses, tractors – and livelihood. ‘The family was safe,’ farm owner Kazoo Saito recalls. ‘That was the one thing that brought us comfort.’

Five years later, the rocks are cleared, the greenhouses have been rebuilt and the family’s crops are thriving once again. The turnaround is largely thanks to Hands On Tokyo, an organisation dedicated to pairing charitable foreigners with volunteer opportunities in the country.

After 3.11, the organisation initially focused on just sending supplies, but soon realised what the area really needed was people. Volunteers started arriving in Miyagi every week, to clean up debris and provide free food through pop-up cafés.

‘We were there to provide encouragement and to let people know that they have not been forgotten,’ says Naho Hozumi, Hands On Tokyo’s project manager for disaster services.

Today, Hands On Tokyo has organised more than 80 volunteer projects in the region and continues to send volunteers monthly. Approximately 2,200 volunteers, aged between 14 and 65 and hailing from all over the world, have lent a helping hand.

‘You develop relationships with families that are trying to rebuild their lives,’ says Jay Ponazecki, who has volunteered regularly with Hands On Tokyo since 2011. ‘The people are so positive in light of everything, that it really gives you perspective: there is simplicity in the message that there is incredible power in a smile.’

Ponazecki recalls helping an Ogatsu resident manicure a flower garden at the entrance of the fishing village, the population of which dropped from 4,300 to 900 after the tsunami. The garden is now blossoming and is intended to create a happy memory for returning residents. ‘The last time we went up there we focused on the lavender plants,’ says Ponazecki. ‘They harvest the lavender and sell potpourri in a hop they set up. It truly is a labour of love.’ 

‘We were there to let people know that they have not been forgotten’

This summer, Hands On Tokyo organised a weekend trip with children from a Tokyo children’s home. They travelled to Minami-Soma in Fukushima prefecture – a town where residents were recently permitted to return to their homes after having been forced away due to concerns over radioactivity – and helped a 68-year-old music teacher clear her yard of five-and-a-half years’ worth of weeds.

‘It’s been great for us to offer the children, who tend to be recipients of help for all of their lives, the opportunity to see what they can do for society,’ says Hozumi. ‘It’s just amazing how confident they get after the activity.’

‘The people of Fukushima feel like they have been forgotten. Just showing up is a powerful message,’ says Ponazecki. ‘When we met Saito-san during the first growing season, he was shy and a little embarrassed to ask for help. Now he jokes. He smiles. To some extent, you see the person he was before the tsunami.’

Saito and his wife, children and grandchildren still live in temporary housing, but five years after starting again from zero, this harvest will bring a bounty of produce. ‘The volunteer work by everybody from Hands On Tokyo has been an immense help. We are so grateful,’ says Saito. ‘They always come with so much energy and lots of smiles. The smiles make us happy, and help us to move forward.’

To learn how you can help, visit handsontokyo.org. 

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By: Time Out Tokyo Editors

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