Fixing the broken spaces

Volunteers assemble! Photo: Sarah Jones


Iris Riddell

Iris Riddell, born and bred in Gordonton, now teaches English in Minamisoma, Japan, just 25km away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Not long after arriving, she joined a volunteer group who every month help clean up the ‘broken spaces’ – the gardens and sections of people forced to abandon their homes after the triple disasters. As radiation levels drop, the people are now returning to homes engulfed with weeds and vines. Here she chronicles one outing with the group whose aim is to keep working until there is no more work to be done.

WE ARRIVED at the Minamisoma City Volunteer Activity Centre bright and early, dressed for rough work – scruffy jeans and jerseys over a thermal Heattech layer to keep out the cold.

My friends – two other local Assistant Language Teachers and a German visitor – had already hit up the nearby konbeni (convenience store) to grab our snacks and lunch for the day.

We were the first carload of foreigners to arrive for the November event, although there were already several Japanese volunteers busily preparing tools. We exchanged a cheerful nod and an ‘ohayo gozaimasu’ and shuffled inside to collect a green volunteer vest.

The centre, in Minamisoma’s southern suburb of Odaka, has two mottos. The first is ‘dekiru hito ga dekiru toki ni dekiru koto wo suru’. In English, -‘The people who can, with the time they can, doing what they can’. The second is simply – We’ll keep going until the work is done.

Here’s how it works: people in the community can go to the centre and make a request for a job to be done. The centre then coordinates volunteer efforts, and they have a reputation for taking jobs that others have turned down.

On that particular Saturday, our task was clearing an overgrown bank of trees and bamboo. In the past, we’d helped an elderly woman reclaim her garden, chopped and hauled trees on a slope by a graveyard, hacked away the long grass at a second grave site, attacked a formidable stand of bamboo that had taken over another old couple’s property and cleared a berm of weeds.

Iris Odaka
Iris hard at it on a previous volunteering expedition.


Before long, the volunteer centre and yard was teeming with people – Japanese and ALTs – all chatting happily and ready to launch into the day’s work. There are usually 80 – 90 Japanese volunteers and up to 22 foreigners who turn up in all weather conditions.

Some come from as far away as Tokyo, five hours south of Minamisoma, to participate. Six years on from the triple disasters, I find it incredible people will travel so far out of their way to help.

For our motley gaijin (foreign) crew, work orders are communicated to us by Sarah Jones, an ALT who has lived in the region for nine years. “When I first came to Japan I didn’t really know how or where to volunteer, so I consider it a great honour to be the bridge to make it easier for foreigners to volunteer in Japan,” Sarah says.

Superstar Sarah Jones tackled an overgrown verge with a wheedwhacker.

“As a foreigner , I have received more kindness than I can ever repay. I volunteer to give back, even if just a little. Over the last five plus years in Minamisoma I have had the pleasure of seeing the recovery process, and I want to do my part to work to restore this area. As a Christian, I believe God entered our broken spaces and so I want to enter the broken spaces and hurt of others. I think of volunteering almost as a matter of course, it’s just something that people do; we help each other out.”

The oldest person to join the volunteer gang was 79, she says. “You really do meet the best people volunteering. I’ve always found the main slogan quite inspiring because it implies that even if you can’t do a lot, just doing what you can is really valuable.”

This time, a group of event organisers wanted help setting up a small candlelight festival that evening, so our carload put our hands up and headed off with a couple of volunteer veterans from Tokyo.

That turned out to be the best decision we made all day, as the festival was being held at a tiny ranch with alpacas and mini deer, which we could feed and pet when we weren’t working. The work itself was good fun – putting up tents, sorting and placing hundreds of candles in juice bottles, and setting up tables and chairs. They even fed us afterwards!

I allowed myself to be distracted by yukimushi a couple of times. Yukimushi are one of the most charming things I’ve ever seen. The name translates as snowbug, and they are tiny blue flies with fluffy white butts that drift around lazily when the weather gets cool. So they both resemble snow, and foretell it. The kids at my school love to chase them as they are slow and easy to catch, and they happily sit on your hand for a long while before flying away.

It’s blurry, but he’s fluffy anyway, so… Photo: Anne Hirsch

Once we’d finished we headed back to the centre. Progress was well underway with crews assembled at the top and base of the bank, cutting trees and bamboo and hauling it to the truck. I joined the hauling team for a while, using a handsaw to cut the branches into smaller pieces before lugging them into the truck. At one point I was in the truck, stomping the branches to make room for the new ones we were piling in. That was fun.

We wrapped up at around 4pm as it gets dark around 4.30pm at this time of year, having cleared a good chunk of the bank.  Then it was back to the centre one last time to unload and clean the tools before leaving for our evening treat of a dip in the local onsen, or public baths.

Heave ho! Volunteers work together to pull down a stubborn tree that was tangled in the vines.



Wesley Keppel-Henry does her bit for Odaka.


There’s a special kind of magic in volunteering, whatever sort of volunteering you do… but there’s something so tangible about this work in particular, being able to compare before and after photos and taking part in clean-up.

After six years, the centre has nearly completed its mission of assisting with clean-up and rebuilding until there’s nothing left to do.

There’s already talk of heading down the road to nearby Namie, which had been severely affected and is still very much in need of love… but not – the volunteer centre hastens to add – before we’re properly finished in Odaka.



Garden ninjas working in winter…

This region may be improving in leaps and bounds, but there is still work to do.

Dekiru hito ga dekiru toki ni dekiru koto wo suru.




Japanese road cone


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