Peter McMillan

There is a part of me which has always resisted the notion of doing volunteer work. I had always thought it was something for other people to do. However, when I saw the long list of the names of the dead being read on News station, I felt a sudden urge to go to Kobe.

Almost upon arrival at the volunteer organization I was introduced to, I lorded up my rucksack with rise, clothes, food, gas tanks and sat off with a doctor, nurse, other careers and a guide, We had been assigned an the area to walk around and investigate conditions of people living on the street and bring them whatever they needed. They had no running water, no toilets, no change of clothes, no means of taking a bath, and almost no hot food. Some people were staying in tents made of blue plastic sheeting. Contrary to television coverage, the lives of many people living in the streets was quite desperate in the aftermath of the earthquake.

We spoke with the people on the streets and learned of their personal experience of the tragedy. One woman had pulled her husband from the crushed house. As we talked I could see into the top floor of her house which was raised to eye revel. The wall was completely stripped away but the room inside was more or less intact, and I could imagine her life before the earthquake.

However, what was really shocking was that many seemed not to have grasped how bad there actual conditions were. When we asked one woman if we could bring anything the following day, she replied that she had everything she needed. The contrast was unforgettable between what she was saying and her disheveled appearance, the wooden building crushed to nothing all around her, and the small fire made of pieces of timber from her house where she was roasting one sweet potato for her and her mother’s supper. I realized that the really big problem in the future would be helping people to deal psychologically with the disaster and helping them restore their faith in themselves.

For the volunteers it was emotionally taxing to witness so much suffering and destruction. There was a young Chinese – American in our group who had come to Japan for a holiday and had been taken by his friend to help in Kobe. Ho was the biggest of the men and carried the largest sack all day without ever complaining. I felt a little sorry for him that this would be his only experience of Japan, and, as he was carrying camera, I offered to take his picture as a commemoration. But when I pushed the focus button I was surprised that all the faces in the view had the same expression. I had a strange feeling that I was looking in to a mirror, and in their pain and anguish I could see my own.

Yet one was also buoyed by the energy of the other volunteers. In the evening we formed a human chain to pass in the newly – arrived goods. As we passed the heavy bags of rice, the boxes of oranges, the used futons, I had to develop a rhythm to keep up with a pace. For that short time I felt as if my rhythm was completely in harmony with the rhythm of others.

Living in Japan for a long time, one comes to live by the divisions of the tannin and miuchi, (relative and outsider) which is probably why I had not previously felt obliged to help those not connected to me. It look the disaster of the earthquake for me to be re – awakened to the reality of my connectedness with others. And gaining this awareness, I could also learn again that in helping others one is really helping oneself. Perhaps if the Japanese, too, can realize that the divisions of tannin and miuchi are only artificial, that we are all really connected with each other, then we can more readily cooperate in practical ways to help the people of Kobe and of any future such disaster. Only if we can learn from the earthquake that in a disaster there are only two groups, those who are suffering and those who can help, can really hope to appease the spirits of the many unfortunate people who lost their lives.