British Columbia·Exclusive

Canadian volunteers tackle Japanese tsunami cleanup

In the two years since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of northern Japan, Canadian volunteers have been pitching in to help survivors get back on their feet.

Helping hands aid Japan clean up 2 years after the devastating tidal wave

In the two years since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of northern Japan, Canadian volunteers have been pitching in to help survivors get back on their feet.

For former Quebec resident Christine Lavoie-Gagnon, standing in the shattered city of Ishinomaki still elicits a swirl of conflicting emotions. In one neighbourhood she's returned to often since the 2011 disaster, she says where there were once 149 homes, only seven remain.

"Those who live there tell me at night it’s so lonely and sad and quiet at night," she said. "They want people to come back and live in the neighbourhood."

That hope is likely years away. Two years after of one of biggest earthquakes in recorded history generated a tsunami that wiped out vast parts of Japan's Tohuku coast line, the enormity of what must be rebuilt remains mind-boggling.

An estimated 300,000 Japanese continue to live in temporary accommodations. Just 35 per cent of the 23 million tonnes of rubble generated by the disaster has been removed, and the target date of March 2014 to get rid of it all seems a stretch.

Many survivors complain the US$262 billion earmarked by the Japanese government for reconstruction has taken a painfully long time to show up on the ground. And yet, in many modest but meaningful ways the contributions of Canadians are helping make a difference.

Gagnon's efforts stand out. The native of Alma, Que., has lived in Tokyo for 19 years, working in a variety of communications jobs. She covered the disaster as a journalist and says what she saw in Ishinomaki left her deeply unsettled.   

"When I came back to Tokyo, I couldn't just sit on my couch," she recalled. "I had seen it, I had felt it."

The estimated 3,000 people killed in Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi prefecture, amounted to almost 20 per cent of all the nation's tsunami-related deaths. An estimated 40,000 homes were obliterated.

Hockey Day in Japan

In the days, weeks and months afterward, Gagnon led teams of "weekend warriors" from Tokyo to help clean up.

As many as 1,000 people signed on to her non-profit group that eventually became known as Nadia. It was named after the car she packed with supplies for the journey to the disaster zone.

That's where she met Joji Hiratsuka, another Canadian originally from Edmonton, whose passion for hockey had led him to the same conclusion about the need to help.

In the days after the disaster, he was playing in an old timers tournament in Thailand with his team the Tokyo Canadians. The tsunami was all anyone could talk about.

"The guys on the other teams took up a collection and got about four or five thousand dollars," he said. "That's what got me into the volunteer thing."

Hiratsuka joined up with Gagnon and since then has helped make the aftermath a little happier for hundreds of families. He organized a hockey-day barbeque and clinic in Ishinomaki for kids who lost their equipment when the tsunami swept away their homes.

"They lost their rink and had to drive three hours to skate," he recalled. "Basically, we invited all the kids and their families to have a couple of days of fun and hockey."

ESL teacher stays for cleanup

Nanaimo, B.C., native Sophie Delisle decided helping the kids of the tsunami-zone recover would also become her mission. She was 18 months into a teaching contract at a Japanese middle school when she and the other in the staff room felt the building shake.

After running outside, she left with a colleague who feared her family in nearby Ishinomaki needed help. "We knew a tsunami might be coming, but we didn't think it would be that big," she said.

By the time they arrived at the home of her friend's family, the water was already lapping at their ankles. Once inside, Delisle said, they discovered the home was empty and her friends parents already safely evacuated.

But by then the rising water had consumed their vehicle, Delisle said, leaving them trapped in a nearby building where they would be stranded for three days: "There was cardboard, which we used to keep warm at night."

Rescue eventually came in the form of some tatami mats neighbours floated in, allowing the trapped women to paddle their way out.

Delisle said some of the other temporary English teachers in Japan left right after the disaster, but she "decided to stay because of the earthquake — just to be with my students, and my students said they didn't want me to leave."

With the heavy cleanup and debris removal over, the next projects for the volunteers at Nadia involve rebuilding.   

A $100,000 donation from global financial giant JP Morgan will let them set up a warehouse to store donated lumber and construction  materials, Christine Lavoie-Gagnon said.

And she says in Ishinomaki, the civic plan calls for some of the devastated neighbourhoods to be turned into parks.  Her group will help build the playgrounds.

"They tell me they can keep a smile on their face because of the volunteers," she said. "They don’t feel forgotten."