Volunteering in Tohoku

I had just finalized my ferry schedule from Korea to Japan when I got word that I had been accepted to volunteer with cleanup and rebuilding efforts in the Tohoku region with All Hands Volunteers. There are few volunteer organizations operating in Japan right now, and I feel fortunate they accepted me for only a week.

Where will I be?

Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

What will I be doing?

Cleanup and rebuilding. I’m not too sure of the details yet.

Any risks?

Ofunato is over 200 km from Fukushima, but yes, there are still aftershocks and risks involved. Nevertheless, this will certainly be one of my more interesting trips to Japan.

What do I need?

If any readers would be willing to donate to help with MY (not All Hands’) travel expenses, please send to me via PayPal (see below). All extra funds will be handed over in person to All Hands’ officials at the site, unless they tell me otherwise. Ideally, I’d like to raise enough to cover the $15/day expenses for volunteers for six days, bus fare from Tokyo to Ofunato, and return airfare to South Korea.

I’m not afraid, and I’m not ignorant. I know I’m not going to get lethally irradiated and die from spending a week in Japan. By the same token, I know there are still risks involved being in close proximity to a damaged nuclear reactor. I know the country has not completely recovered, economically or emotionally. I know there are some people who haven’t had their livelihood affected in the slightest, with the exception of calming down frantic relatives abroad.

What I don’t know is what it’s like over in Japan right now. I want to change that.

Before the tsunami and earthquake struck, it was my intention to take a ferry from Busan to Hakata in May, catch the shinkansen to Tokyo, and meet a friend to enjoy some lighthearted sushi, karaoke, festivals, and sightseeing. That is still my intention, but now, I feel even more of an obligation to go, to prove to ignorant news-watchers that with all the hype surrounding fear and suffering in Japan, life does go on: businessmen are still bowing and exchanging business cards in front of train stations; hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) will go forward this week. Not all foreigners are “fly-jins”, a term used to describe gaijin who left following the disaster.

Japan needs tourists right now, more than ever. Its economy is suffering due in no small part to recent events. As a former resident, I feel just as closely tied to its well being as I do to my home state of Texas. If people start treating Japan as a nation to be avoided yet lament everything that’s happening, they’re being hypocritical. You want to help Japan? Contribute to the Japanese Red Cross. Buy a ticket, book a hotel in Tokyo and start spending money. Look for a job as an English teacher. Find a way to do business with Japanese companies.

Despite all of this talk, I can understand why some would reasonably (as in, not based on fear) choose not to spend their vacation days in Nippon


One of the biggest draws for me in Japan was the convenience. Things work. Without fail. The trains are always on time. Food is more than plentiful. Almost nothing happens that isn’t according to a set plan. As you can imagine, when something like a 10-meter tsunami does happen, the rest of the system is knocked into chaos. There’s been a lot of talk about the response time of rescue workers getting basic needs to survivors (water, food, gas, medicine), and the truth is, Japan never thought to plan for a disaster of this magnitude. Who would? But when something unexpected happens on so massive a scale, the bureaucracy never fails to stall what would otherwise be necessary support (e.g. disaster relief funds being held up in Tokyo).

I hear the trains are running again, but power outages are still happening. Food is being restocked in stores and restaurants, but supplies are more limited than they were prior to March 11th. Commutes are longer. Add them all up, and it’s not exactly what one looks for in a vacation.


Japan was expensive before the earthquake and tsunami, and it will be expensive long after the affected areas have been restored. In South Korea, I spend roughly half what I would in the US on an equivalent salary. The cost of living in Japan is about three times that of the ROK’s; even on a Japanese income, I was cutting things really tight at the end of every month. I had allocated so much money to spend in Japan in a week, and if food or transportation prices are exorbitantly high, I would risk blowing all my savings. I still advocate spending money for the sake of the Japanese economy, but not to your own downfall.


I’m not particularly worried about buildings collapsing or parts of the earth opening up and swallowing me in the wake of a Richter 9. I know there will be aftershocks in the weeks to come perhaps reaching 7.0. However, traveling to a country prone to earthquakes, even one fully prepared for larger-than-average ones, carries some risk. And we know these aftershocks are coming. All is takes, as I’m sure some have discovered in Tokyo, is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.