Volunteer interview – Ito Yoshiaki
“It’s great to see the kids happy…”
“I’m a trained chef. I was trained in French cuisine, but I’m a deft hand at making Chinese dumplings too!” laughs Mr Ito.
His bright smile and effervescent personality bring warmth and fun to wherever he is.
“I used to work in Sendai and the neighbouring Ofunato / Tome area, so I know Ishinomaki pretty well.”
After the disaster hit, Mr Ito could not contact his friends in Sendai, Ofunato and Tome for one week. He was beside himself with worry, only to find out that one of his close friends in Ofunato was swept away by the tsunami.
He immediately decided to come to the area to volunteer, and searched for relief organizations which would accept individual volunteers. After an unfruitful search, he saw Peace Boat’s relief efforts being featured on TV and called Peace Boat immediately to register as a volunteer.
“I was just in between jobs, so the timing worked out well… come to think of it though, I probably would have made the time even if I was working at the time!”
Mr Ito started his volunteer stint on April 23, initially with sludge removal. He says he was a complete loss of words at the devastation. The area he once knew was completely unrecognizable.
However, seeing the local people starting up their businesses again and picking up the pieces after the tragedy gave him an immense sense of hope.
“We spent two days removing sludge from a local jewelers. After the job was done we were all given a personal letter of thanks, and the men were given jade and the women pearls. I was so surprised at the generosity of spirit, and moreover that our work was so appreciated.”
Mr Ito said that the presence of volunteers is very noticeable, and that the locals find sharing their experiences of the tsunami with them to be a sort of catharsis. “Thank you so much for listening…” one local person said to him after they had a conversation, showing the different levels volunteers can be needed on.
“I was taking a break for lunch one day during sludge removal. Then the owner of a nearby noodle shop invited me in for some tea. I was covered in sludge, but he told me not to mind. The invitation was only for some tea, but he brought out a bowl of noodles for me, and told me to dig in! I wasn’t even working to clear the sludge from that store… but it seemed that this was a gesture of thanks on his part that I was part of a team contributing to the clean up of his home town.”
Mr Ito, designated team leader, says that it is very important for volunteers to show good cheer and spirit when working. “It would be impolite to seem unenthusiastic I think. It is important to show that we are sincere, and I make sure my team adheres to this.”
When asked whether the generation gap poses any problems, as the volunteers tend to be younger on the whole, Mr Ito responds, “Not at all! I’m used to working with youngsters from my profession, and I enjoy it tremendously.”
On May 6, the Mizuaki Pre-School (where Mr Ito’s team had been working on sludge and debris removal) was re-opened. “It’s great to see the kids happy…” he said. Although Mr Ito may not want to admit it, we saw his eyes well up with tears.