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Foreign Volunteers Japan – Kizuna International: A Meiji University-based Student Volunteer Group’s Experiences in Tohoku

Kizuna International: A Meiji University-based Student Volunteer Group’s Experiences in Tohoku

A break from weeding around a tsunami-damaged home - time for a debate about the TPP! (with thanks to Hai Huynh for permission to reproduce this photo here)
















Where are the Students?

While volunteering with Meiji University students in Ishinomaki City in August of last year, I experienced a rite of passage for Ishinomaki volunteers: the early morning tour of the seafront district of Kadonowaki, demolished by tsunami waves and fire on 03/11. The tsunami sludge and debris piles were still deep then, and I took every sight in. The thick litter of artifacts testifying to the advanced age of many former owners – a Bach concerto record, geta sandals, the Showa era photo albums; a bunch of flowers and a message left on the foundations of a vanished house, imploring missing family members to come home; another bunch of flowers left by a mother outside the scorched shell of Kadonowaki Elementary School, with a message asking her child to “live happily in Heaven”; a big empty lot where a resident said whole families had once lived, now almost all gone; a car perched high in a tree, tumbled grave stones, and dried tsunami sludge permeating everything.

I’d only got halfway through this and I was already choking back tears. The two men I was with were “otokorashii” (manly) types, so I walked ahead of them until I’d brought myself under control. Still, I couldn’t hold back my anger. “There should be a student volunteer army here to clean this all up!” I fumed as I gazed over Kadonowaki’s vast debris fields. “Where are they all?” For all I could think of was, I’d come to Ishinomaki with only 12 students and one other teacher. I’d seen some other student volunteers from the local Senshu University campus, and a couple from Keio University. They didn’t seem to count for much amongst the many volunteers I’d seen in Ishinomaki. Why weren’t more coming, from my university or from others? After the Christchurch Earthquake in February 2011, a student volunteer army of 10,000 mobilized itself from New Zealand’s universities within a month, in a country whose population is the size of Osaka’s. I didn’t blurt that comparison out, but my companions were silent anyway, embarrassed by my emotional outburst.

There are probably others who’ve asked the same question: “where are all the students?” I now realise that for many reasons too complicated to discuss here – inconsistencies between different universities’ policies on student volunteering, parental fears about radioactive fallout in Tohoku, inflexible part-time job bosses, the gloomy economic outlook and the structural rigidities in Japan’s job market which drive 3rd and 4th year Japanese students to focus so single-mindedly on job hunting – my judgement was too harsh. My impression is that student volunteer mobilizing has been mostly localized to particular campuses, is on a modest scale, and that it’s unfair to expect more in the circumstances. That in any case is how student volunteering can be characterized at Meiji University.

Kizuna International’s Volunteer Experience

Kizuna International was formed in April 2011 out of some discussions between my colleague Robert Hamilton, myself and two third year students in our department, Dustin Seo and Isozaki Kaname. We agreed that teachers would take a background advisory role in the group, while participating in its activities. From the outset we used Facebook to advertise and recruit for members. We realized early on that we had the support of Meiji University, which refunded half of volunteer-related travel costs and allowed students to take time off from classes for volunteer activities. We are lucky to have a strong advocate in Ms Kondo Makiko at the Izumi Campus Volunteer Center, who has lobbied strongly on our behalf to ensure that university support for our activities has continued into 2012.

We are also lucky to have a dedicated group of core members who have maintained high motivation and spirits throughout the past year: in particular our leader Dustin Seo, as well as Harlene Tupaz, Mengxiang Tang, Hidaka Masato, Hwan Lee, Aida Chie, Simon Eve, Takada Keisuke, Fujimoto Sohei and Junsu Yeo. Since April of last year we have grown to a group of 100 members, about 70 of whom have volunteered at least once in Tohoku. Some 40 of our members are overseas students.

Since June of last year we have sent 5 large groups to Ishinomaki City, each numbering between 12 to 25 students. Most of them have been Meiji University students, but a few have been from Nihon, Dokkyo and Rikkyo Universities. Three teachers including myself have been involved in these trips as well. Our members have also undertaken a number of smaller group or solo trips on their own initiative.

Our first large group trips, in early June and July-August 2011 were with the NPO Peaceboat. On these occasions we were involved in cleaning out tsunami sludge from drains, roadsides and private businesses. Our July-August trip coincided with the Kawabiraki Festival and our members helped with festival preparations, as  well as manning food and information stalls during the festival. Seeing fireworks shooting bravely over toppled buildings and cheering crowds only four months after 03/11 was one of the highlights of our Ishinomaki experience.

Peaceboat provided a cheap and well organized volunteer experience – which was also top-heavy with paternalistic rules. Since some of us found this paternalism a little disagreeable, we looked round for a different organization to work with. After a chance meeting with Jamie El-Banna at the Kawabiraki Festival and some online chat afterwards, we decided to switch to his group, It’s Not Just Mud, and we’ve been working with INJM since October of last year. We took at once to INJM’s relaxed but professional outlook, and to the home-like atmosphere of the two tsunami-damaged houses in Watanoha that it has renovated and turned into an HQ.

Our activities with INJM have been varied, and have included tsunami sludge removal, tsunami-damaged home renovation work, gardening, furniture making for evacuees in temporary housing, and assisting local fisheries workers with seaweed harvests.

The Future

At one of our campus meetings, when the topic of becoming a university circle came up, one of our members asked – “So we need to think, what will have become of this group 10 years in the future?” If we think of ourselves as only a “helping” volunteer group, then we will have a short shelf life. In a way this is good news, because the job of volunteers in a disaster zone, after all, is to help its people recover their lives, and the sooner they can get up on their own feet and continue their lives without such assistance, the better. Of course that time hasn’t come yet, so we’ll continue to send groups up to Ishinomaki to work with NPO’s such as INJM.

During the Summer vacation we also plant to sponsor a small number of students in month-long volunteer internships with some NPO’s working in Miyagi Prefecture. We’ve come to realize the importance of our members engaging in long-term volunteer work, because of the depth of skill and experience that they can acquire, and because it provides enough time for building lasting relationships with members of local communities.

The key to the longer-term future of our group lies, I believe, in the building of such deep ties with people in the Tohoku region. When I think of the hard work and sacrifice put in by full time Japanese and foreign volunteers in Tohoku since 03/11, the contributions of student volunteer groups like Kizuna International look rather modest. However, almost all of its members are very young, with long working lives ahead of them. The recovery of Tohoku is not going to be completed any time soon. There is still a massive amount of rebuilding to be done, and there is he equally hard task of undertaking reforms and cultural changes to reverse decades of economic and demographic decline in the region. It is my hope that members of Kizuna International will hold onto the ties they have built with one another and with Tohoku’s people, whether they continue living in Japan or return to their home countries. I hope that in the future they can make valuable contributions to the life of the region, as business people, as tourists, and as friends of Tohoku.

In Ishinomaki with Peaceboat, June 2011

Clearing tsunami sludge from an Ishinomaki street, June 2011

Kawabiraki Festival, July 31st 2011. Thousands of lanterns are released onto the Kita River, one for each of the souls lost on 03/11

Meiji University teacher and students at Kawabiraki Festival, August 2011

Kawabiraki Festival Crowds, August 2011

Digging sludge out of a narrow drain, August 2011

With It's Not Just Mud, November 2011. Leveling ground for a temporary bathhouse

Student jamming with local abalone fisherman and part-time rocker, Suenaga Hideki

Relaxing with Jamie El-Banna at INJM HQ, November 2011

Hidaka Masato as volunteer Santa, Fukushima City, December 24th 2011

Another Meiji University team at INJM HQ, December 2011

Tearing drywall out of a tsunami damaged home, December 2011

Ishinomaki, 12/03/11

With the mayor of Ishinomaki after giving a presentation at the Sea Japan Maritime Exhibition, April 2012

Dustin Seo at a recruiting session for Kizuna International, at the Meiji University Volunteer Center, May 2012



Shaun O’Dwyer is a research associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, Tokyo.  He has a DPhil in philosophy and womens studies, University of New South Wales, Sydney.  He has been added to the FVJ blog as a guest editor, so please feel to write questions directly to him.


  1. Jay Wong says:

    To Whom This Concern,

    my name is Jay Wong and i am from hong kong. i was wondering how i can join your volunteering group?? my plan is to come to Japan in September alone to find volunteering work. i have no experence in this kind of work but im a quick learner. my goal for this trip is to help people and to learn Japanese. i know a few languages, they are Cantonese English little bit of Japanese and Mandorine.

    i hope i can hear from you soon.

    Best Wishes
    Jay Wong
    email address: jayjay_1087@yahoo.com
    facebook address: doggie_heaven2002@yahoo.com

    • Shaun O'Dwyer says:

      Hello Jay, I’m very sorry I didn’t see your comment until tonight. You can find Kizuna International’s Facebook page via this URL-http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/116386331778190/?fref=ts
      It’s an open page, so easy to apply. Shaun

  2. Tsubasa Sakata says:

    To Professor Shaun O’Dwyer,
    Im the 2nd year student of Meiji University.
    I wonder if i can use this page as a source for our essay…

  3. Haruki Fukushima says:

    To professor Shaun

    Hello, I`m now writing about an essay about Tohoku Earthquake and doing research about volunteer acitivities. How do you think of the effectiveness of the volunteers in this quake?

  4. Tyler Durden Volland says:

    let me apologze for contacting you like this, but, seeing the quality of its usual content, the Japan Times refuses discussions in a form or contact.

    Reading this morning’s article about Abe, Yasukuni and warcrimes left me puzzled.

    “We can only hope that politicians like Abe are smart enough to change their minds and take this course.”

    Are you saying you are asking this question seriously?

    Mr Abes views were well known, and yet, he was voluntarily elected by an enourmous majority. This is a country where less than one third attends elections, having understood the reality of the power structure of a feudal state, und thus the complete uselessness of reasonable effort.

    Your article otherwise strikes me as the view of a reasonable man, so, please, explain to me, why you end your article with such childish hopes instead of writing what can be expected of a Professor who writes in a newspaper…

    • Shaun O'Dwyer says:

      Dear Mr Volland, I’m surprised you couldn’t comment on the article itself – all you need to do is register a Disqus comment account, which is quite simple, and then write your comment in. If you post the comment at the end of the Japan Times article, I will reply to it – but Foreign Volunteers Japan is not really the forum to be discussing the Yasukuni Shrine and constitutional revision, I’m sorry!