The Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA)

Diary of a Buddhist Based NGO’s Aid Work

The Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA) was established in 1980 when the Soto Zen denomination organized the Japan Soto-shu Relief Committee (JSRC) for the purpose of assisting Cambodian refugees evacuated to Thailand. With the completion of the emergency aid programs to the refugees by the Soto denomination, volunteers from JSRC established the Soto-shu Volunteer Association (SVA) to continue their assistance. In 1999, the association was registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a public association and renamed as the Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA); the word “Shanti” meaning peace and tranquility in Sanskrit. SVA is the oldest, largest, and most professionalized of a group of Japanese international cooperation and overseas aid NGOs established by Buddhist priests. Its core focus has been supporting educational and cultural activities in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, especially in educational facilities and materials to the poor in urban and rural communities. Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 in the region of Osaka, SVA has been engaging in emergency relief work both within Japan and outside of Japan in Taiwan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. From these experiences, they were prepared to quickly move into action after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11th. The following are accounts of its experiences by staff working and living in the area over the past year.

March 15: Rikuzentakata – A Bleak Plain

Rev. Gido Sanbe, the Vice President of SVA, went to the hard hit city ofRikuzentakatain the far north region ofIwatePrefectureto collect information. He reported that most of the buildings which the tsunami missed still stand, but that beyond the tsunami line almost nothing exists as before. The city center was utterly destroyed and has only a few buildings standing. It is a vast expanse of bleak plain continuing to the horizon. On the 16th, SVA dispatched its Deputy Secretary General and its head of emergency relief to the region.

March 19: SVA Base Created in Kesennuma City

In Ishinomaki, another hard hit city south of Iwate in Miyagi Prefecture, bodies are still being left outside even more than a week since the disaster. So far SVA has been providing the victims with supplies and warm meals as emergency relief assistance. They believe child victims will begin to need special care as more and more frightful spectacles are witnessed. SVA created a base for its activities in the city of Kesennuma, another victimized town just south of Rikuzentakata, in order to help victims with relief supplies and warm meals from the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture to the southern part of Iwate Prefecture. On the 19th, they began sorting through relief supplies, such as blankets, towels and clothing, which they had already received.

March 20: Temples Become Refuges

People with lost families have gathered and taken refuge at not only schools and community centers but also at Buddhist temples. On the 20th, SVA delivered blankets and towels to such temples in Iwate Prefecture. SVA started to secure their own delivery trucks in order to reach other places where provisions had not arrived. SVA has also been touring evacuation sites along with members of the Kesennuma City Council for Social Welfare. The members themselves are victims of the earthquake. Even though their own houses have been left devastated by the tsunami, they work day and night for the recovery of Kesennnuma. SVA has been working with them to ensure a local, site-based approach to the aid work.

March 21: Warm Footbaths and Warm Food

SVA co-organized a program to serve warm meals with the Kesennuma City Council for Social Welfare and Yamanami, an incorporated NPO based in Mogami Town in nearby Yamagata Prefecture. Yamanami brought 25 citizens from Mogami, from high schoolers to 70 year olds, to Jonen-ji temple in the Shishiori District of Kesennuma to help cook imoni—a stew usually made of Japanese taro, pork, and leeks which is a specialty of Yamagata. Meals were provided for 100 people evacuated at the main hall of the temple and for 250 people at houses provided by the Shishiori District. The volunteers also transported water from a nearby hot spring, re-heated it, and prepared foot baths. Many refugees, from babies accompanied by their mothers to elderly persons, enjoyed the warm bath. Once warmed by the meals and the baths, people started chatting and smiles spread around. Residents began encouraging one another with words like, “Thank goodness we’re alive.”

March 23: From Cremations to Burials

Rev. Bunmei Hayasaka, Managing Director of SVA, is himself from Yamamoto Town in the Watari District of Miyagi Prefecture, which was severely devastated by tsunami. As of March 16th, the number of dead and missing was more then 800 people in this area. Everyday the names of victims are being identified, and survivors are asking to hold memorial services even while they stay in evacuation centers. The crematorium is receiving bodies far beyond its limit, so the authorities will have to stop cremations by the end of March and shift to burials. The authorities in other towns, like Higashi Matsushima in Miyagi prefecture, may also have to make this shift as well.

March 24: Safe Havens Become Isolated Outposts

SVA supplied food, underwear, and tanks of gas to the Iwaisaki Takadai evacuation center in Kesennuma, which was provided by the 1st and 3rd branches of the Soto denomination in Niigata. About 60 evacuees now stay in the center. Perched up on high ground, it narrowly escaped the reach of the tsunami, becoming totally isolated as the surrounding area was devastated. Before reaching the center, you have to pass by the destroyed water gate and walk about one kilometer on a path where there is hardly space to step due to a mountain of oyster shells. As all roads are blocked, it is quite difficult to reach the center, and the evacuees seemed surprised and then pleased when aid arrived. The people of this area culture wakame seaweed and oysters for their living but lost everything in the tsunami. There is no telling when they can reconstruct their living. SVA is continuing to supply relief to these most isolated evacuation centers.

March 28: Training Volunteers

The Kesennuma City Disaster Volunteer Coordination Center was opened. SVA facilitated the setting up of the center with providing documents, receiving volunteers, getting insurance, and matching supplies with needs. A workshop for how to receive volunteers was also run by SVA for the Kesennuma City Welfare Association. As the center is not yet fully functioning, only volunteers residing in Kesennuma are accepted. However, the center is planning to expand opportunities and activities for outside volunteers soon.

March 31: Soup Kitchen

SVA provided a soup kitchen during lunch at Yonezaki Elementary School in Rikuzentakata, where the entire city was washed away with devastating damages to facilities such as banks and supermarkets as well as the town hall building. Community staff members who worked diligently for the soup kitchen were filled with smiles during the event. SVA collaborated with western cuisine chefs from the Matsumoto City Branch of the All Japan Chefs Association in Nagano Prefecture and the chief chef from a Spanish restaurant in Tokyo. Together, 200 servings were provided to the victims sheltered at the school. For three weeks since the disaster, people at the shelter took turns preparing food. With relief and smiles on their faces, they said, “So we don’t need to prepare food today? OK, we’ll take the day off!” Meals at the shelter had continuously been rice balls and miso soup, so the soup kitchen decided to prepare a meat sauce pasta and soup with pork and vegetables. “It’s the first warm and tasty meal we’ve had in a long time!” One lady approached the staff after the meal and said, “Thank you so much for today. Having a warm meal reminds me of the days when we used to eat out. But I don’t think we’ll be able to eat out anymore. All of our properties have been washed away by the tsunami…” After spending significant time in the shelter, victims are at a loss to realize what has been taken away and are deeply concerned about the uncertainty of their lives. SVA strongly wishes that warm meals can release their anxiety.

April 6: Snacks Disappear, Books Remain

SVA is also beginning to provide soup kitchens and rations as well as mental care for children in Kesennuma. SVA has spent many years providing educational and cultural support in Asia, and is starting to implement such work in these disaster areas. Ms. Yamaguchi, a librarian at the Kesenumma City Library, says, “I think books will become a strong source of support especially during difficult times. Food disappears once eaten, but stories you’ve read will remain in your memory. That is why I want to deliver books to children.” Ms. Yamaguchi herself is a victim of the disaster, and her father is still missing. All but one bookstore in the city were washed away by the tsunami. The only surviving bookstore also suffered damages, and its first floor is in a catastrophic condition. With prolonged sheltered life, people are beginning to develop the desire to read. The Kesennuma City Library is planning on offering routine libraries at six evacuation centers in the city. However, this will not be able to cover all 90 evacuation centers in Kesennuma. The Kesennuma City Library’s mobile library car was also washed away and soaked in sea water and heavy oil, destroying approximately 3,000 books. As SVA conducts library activities in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, and Burmese refugee camps, it has begun working together with local people to run library activities for children. SVA remembers the words from one Cambodian girl from the former refugee camps, “Snacks disappear once eaten, but books can be read over and over, and that’s why I like them.”

April 8: Victims Become Volunteers

SVA is investigating the needs of every evacuation center in the Motoyoshi District in the southern part of Kesennuma, one of which is the need for bathing. Although baths are being provided by the city and nearby hot springs, many people are limited to once per several weeks and they want to be able to bathe more frequently. As the temperature is rising with the coming of Spring, there is an increase in the amount of dust and pollen. There are mothers who are concerned about their hair although they say, “I’m okay. Everyone’s having difficult times.”There are also needs for vegetables and seasoning, such as ketchup and mayonnaise, due to the limited supply of side dishes to eat with rice. Mothers in Kesennuma are used to their husbands fishing out in the ocean for months at a time, which is why they have managed to stay lively and powerful even in these difficult situations. There are some mothers who are eager to take action and travel from their shelters to the volunteer centers to register as volunteers. SVA has been planning activities to work with such locals.

April 11: Grief Care

SVA visited Rev. Seisho Shimizu, the abbot of Ryusho-ji temple and also a board member and executive officer of the Yamada International Relations Association. Rev. Shimizu has previously supported the SVA Laos office for publishing children’s picture books. It is a three hour drive from Kesennuma to Yamada Town in Iwate Prefecture where there were damages from the earthquake as well as from the tsunami and fires. The area around Ryusho-ji temple was wrecked from the tsunami and fires, but the temple and the attached nursery center remained safe on top of a hill. The nursery school will reopen around April 20 and is planning on looking after 20 children. The remains of approximately 150 disaster victims were laid out in front of the main image in the temple’s main hall. Rev. Shimizu said quietly while containing his sorrow, “We are planning to hold a memorial service on April 28, but there are 60 more people who need to be cremated. I have purchased white spirit tablets for each of the deceased.” The first memorial service will be held for over 200 victims, some of whom are not temple parishioners. Rev. Shimizu has remained in the temple after the disaster with his wife and 14 young people from the neighborhood. “The temple survived and I will fulfill my duties as a monk”, he said in his calm manner which has helped to make the people in the neighborhood feel secure. Even though the town has stopped functioning, there are people who have continued stay active and strongly pray for the restoration of Yamada.

April 11: One Month Later

Delivering supplies to evacuation centers is not just about handing out goods. It’s also a great opportunity to listen to the refugees and to identify their needs. There are currently 75 evacuation centers in Kesennuma where over 6,000 people have been forced to take shelter. While investigations continue for the missing people, SVA is working together with the city’s disaster volunteer center to visit evacuation centers primarily in the Motoyoshi District. At the evacuation centers, there are often complaints that the city’s supplies are not allocated until there is enough for each family, hence the supplies are backed up at the city’s warehouses and not delivered smoothly. Although there have been improvements, not all evacuation centers are receiving sufficient supplies. SVA is delivering supplies, such as mattresses, aluminum mats, vegetable juice, underwear, and T-shirts to those evacuation centers with shortages.

Construction of temporary housing has begun since the end of March and beginning of April. However, providing enough temporary housing for all refugees in the city is a challenge, because Kesennuma is surrounded by mountains and the ocean with little flat land. According to a refugee from the evacuation center at Koizumi Middle School, approximately half of the existing 400 refugees will be moving to Iwate Prefecture around April 12 when the new school semester starts. Refugees are worried about their uncertain future. Although there are privacy concerns, the refugees are supporting each other by checking each other’s health conditions and communicating. Once moving into temporary housing, there is a risk that the elderly and invalids who can’t get out often may drop out of sight. Care programs after transfers to temporary housing will then become important.

April 13: Nutrition Needs

SVA delivered vegetables from Kesennuma City’s Disaster Volunteer Center to evacuation centers in the Motoyoshi District. More than a month has passed since the earthquake, and the refugees have been suffering from shortages of vegetables amidst prolonged evacuation life. The refugees were very happy to have vegetables delivered, and the elderly especially enjoyed tender turnips, Chinese cabbage, and green onions. One of the evacuation centers just received its first meat ration from the city and prepared nikujaga, a Japanese dish with simmered beef and potatoes. Although supplies are being brought into the disaster volunteer center, there is a shortage of vehicles and people to deliver them to the evacuation centers. SVA has been in charge of patrolling and delivering supplies to evacuation centers in the Motoyoshi District.

April 16: New SVA Kesennuma Office at Seiryo-in Temple

SVA’s new office in Kesennuma was built on the premises of Seiryo-in temple in the Motoyoshi District. Thanks to their support, SVA can better deliver necessities to those in need by being based locally. SVA held a soup kitchen at an evacuation center in the Tsuya District of Kesennuma with volunteers from Funagata Town in nearby Yamagata Prefecture. To liven up the evacuation center, rice cakes were prepared from approximately five gallons of sticky rice. Rice with natto (fermented soy beans), rice-cake soup, and pickles were served to refugees as well as neighbors still suffering from water outages. SVA has also been collaborating with school boards from Miyagi Prefecture and Kesennuma City to deliver stationeries to 1,764 students at 11 elementary schools in Kesennuma in time for their commencement ceremonies.

April 20: Self-Reliance?

SVA held a soup kitchen at a special nursing home called Koju-en in Rikuzentakata. Koju-en has become an evacuation center where the director and staff are highly dedicated and have been continuing to accept refugees. Refugees were notified by the Japanese government to begin thinking about how to live independently after the two month mark from the disaster. A man, who had come to pick up his meal, however, told us that many of the refugees at this evacuation center are still visiting morgues in search for their family members and have not had time to think about independent living. The man said with a sigh, “This evacuation center is filled with people who have lost their families and relatives in the tsunami. Even if they wanted to think about self-reliance, their workplace and jobs have also been lost in the tsunami.” Others said, “The tsunami took away my family. I am lucky that their bodies were found. People who are able to hold memorial services for their families are fortunate.” For refugees who are visiting morgue after morgue in the cold snowy weather, warm meals seem to give them comfort and open them up to speaking to the SVA staff.

May 5: Blue Sky Café and Concert

SVA held a special Children’s Day event called “Blue Sky Café and Concert” at a children’s playground, known as Asobi-ba, in Kesennuma. Asobi-ba is a unique playground that the International Play Association (IPA) has created with the support from local landlords as a place where the children of Kesennuma can play safely. The playground consists of various activities that children can enjoy out in nature, such as a hand-made giant slide, crayfishing, and cooking with wildflowers. During the concert, children sang along with a guitar played by the playground leader. The lively voices of the children echoed throughout the area. Two months have passed since the earthquake and tsunami, yet scars from the tsunami still remain even right by the fun-filled playground. Restoration will take time. SVA is continuing to stay close to the locals and continue its activities.

May 21: Rice Cake Making Rally

SVA held a rice cake making rally at the Asobi-ba playground in which about 200 people from the region and from evacuation centers participated. The rally was so well attended that seventeen kilos of glutinous rice was consumed by noon time. SVA held a Blue Sky Café inside the hall as it did on Children’s Day on May 5. The Blue Sky Café is popular among various people from children to adults. At the same time, a small scale Blue Sky market was held at which things such as shampoos that do not need water and wet tissues were popular. Some bought them for hospitalized people, but others did so because the city water supply is sometimes unstable. Within the city, people have begun moving to temporary housing over the last couple of days after living in shelters for more than two months. On the other hand, there are still people who need to stay in shelters as they have nowhere to go. Under these circumstances, SVA is continuing to work with people in the region, so they can recover to their normal lives in the near future.

May 7: Gyocha

Volunteers from a group of priests in Iwate Prefecture called Bopennyan Tohoku and SVA held an adapted form of Zen style tea ceremony called gyocha in the gymnasium of Koizumi High School in Kesennuma that now serves as a shelter. During the gyocha, not only coffee and tea were served to the refugees, but volunteers also interacted with them. It is the third time to hold such a gyocha event at this shelter. At first, volunteers had to go around distributing the tea, but now people gather by themselves and say that drinking tea together makes them happy. Many have said, “Strong relationships can be built not just between refugee and volunteer, but between all individuals”. The main topic about which people spoke was the temporary housing. Right after the earthquake, more than 400 refugees stayed at this Koizumi High School, but now there are less than 100 refugees. 93 temporary houses have been built, and many were able to move in. However, there are still many who do not have anywhere to go and must continue to live inside this gymnasium. For those who won the lottery for temporary housing, they have mixed feelings leaving behind those with whom they lived together for more than two months.

July 6: Kesennuma Volunteer Conference

Active NPO, NGO, and other volunteer groups in Kesennuma gathered together for a conference to discuss about collaborating with the Kesennuma District government and Miyagi Prefecture government. The conference was held at Cha Tree, a regional NPO community café. This was the fourth meeting of the Kesennuma Volunteer Conference to which 16 organizations are currently registered. While considering the activities and coverage of each of the organizations, discussions took place about at-home refugees and long-term support for evacuation centers and temporary housing. SVA is continuing to collaborate with the district government and volunteer organizations in order to provide support to refugees and to help regional restoration.

July 29-31: Disaster Relief Payments

For three days, SVA collaborated with the Kesennuma City Disaster Volunteer Center and various volunteer organizations in the city to perform traffic-control during the issuance of disaster relief payments. Approximately 9,000 households in the city were eligible for disaster relief payments. Congestion was expected, and SVA staff gathered at two venues in the city at 7:00 a.m. for traffic control. Approximately 7,500 households visited during the three days to receive their payments.

September 2: Struggles of a Female Student Volunteer in Kesennuma

Sachiko Sugiyama is a 23 year-old senior majoring in International Cooperation at Takushoku University in Tokyo. She first joined a volunteer activity at SVA’s Kesennuma office on April 23. She attended a 5-week program through “Your for 3/11”, a student organization established after the disaster to dispatch student volunteers to NGOs and volunteer organizations in the affected areas.

In the early stage of the program, electricity and water had not yet been restored, and volunteers themselves had to live in an environment similar to the victims living at evacuation centers. Although she has been studying international cooperation in college, this experience was a challenge for Sugiyama.

She went back to Tokyo on May 31 to her usual school life but felt strongly about wanting to work in restoration activities with the people of Kesennuma for a longer period of time. She then gave up her apartment in Tokyo and requested to re-join the SVA Kesennuma office as a long-term volunteer from August 10 through to the end of March 2012. She is deeply involved in the restoration work with the locals through activities such as visiting temporary housing.

Student volunteers at most organizations usually are only on short-term assignments averaging between one day and one week. SVA has often been told by the victims and the regional office staff that they are “sad that the student volunteers are gone soon after they get to remember their names.” As one of the very few long-term student volunteers who have been actively providing support since shortly after the disaster, Sugiyama is very strongly trusted by the locals. She also contributes greatly in coordinating between communities that tend to have strong internal bonds but difficulty in collaborating with other communities. Sugiyama is known “to listen well and to be easy to talk to”, so she has become an indispensible figure in the SVA Kesennuma office.

Kesennuma is famous for its fishing industry but it’s also been known for having the second highest ratio of aging population in Miyagi Prefecture—36% of its population in 2008 was of the age of 60 and above. Moreover, young people who have lost their jobs from the recent disaster are leaving Kesennuma. The energy and support of young people are critical in the restoration of the region. Volunteer activities that the SVA Kesennuma office provides are needed to make up for the temporary loss of such youth power. SVA volunteers, including Sugiyama, have provided various activities such as organizing regional summer festivals at five locations in memory of the disaster victims and in prayers for restoration. SVA is continuing to provide long-term support to restoring Kesenumma so as to encourage young people to regain hope and return to the city.

October 13: Temples Share Experiences to Prepare for the Next One

SVA staff visited two temples in Kesennuma with four Buddhist priests who are members of the Soto-shu Hamamatsu Youth Organization in Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture. Hamamatsu is located south of Tokyo near the coast, which is a similar environment to Kesennuma, and has received predictions of a great Tokai Coast earthquake and subsequent tsunamis. Therefore, the Buddhist priests came to hear stories of how each temple in Kesennuma worked as an evacuation center after the earthquake. Kofuku-ji temple was first visited. Kofuku-ji is located in one of the most damaged areas from the earthquake. Since an elementary school was located nearby, many school children evacuated to Kofuku-ji. Afterwards, these children tended to play outside and voluntary help other people. Their volunteer spirit helped people get together as a team in the evacuation center. They also prayed and performed Buddhist chanting for many of the victims at the temporary graveyard. The second temple that was visited was Sensen-ji, located in the Motoyoshi District of Kesennuma. More than 400 people evacuated here. According to Sensen-ji’s abbot, there had been a more than 90% chance that such a huge earthquake would hit this area, so he anticipated opening the temple as evacuation center. He started repairing the temple and preparing for the predicted disaster in advance. One of the Buddhist priests from the Hamamatsu Youth Organization said, “Their story inspires me. I want to visit here again.”

With thanks and appreciation to Rev. Shunko Chino, Chief Executive Director of SVA, and Sachiko Kamakura, Director of Public Relations, for their cooperation in putting this article together.

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