A house is a home

When homes fall apart 

Initially, my field trip to Nagano was scheduled for mid-late October 2019. However, Hagibis thwarted this plan by strongly hitting central and eastern Japan. The heavy rainfall which came with the typhoon caused severe inundation in several prefectures of the archipelago, including my destination: the Hokuriku Shinkansen depot was flooded, leading to the destruction of ten out of thirty trains that serve the region. Houses, bridges and roads were devastated, and some parts of the landscape ravaged. 

When about one month and a half after, I finally undertook my journey, I was shown around the disaster area. The atmosphere was calm, sincere, snivelling. Seeing the still standing train cars, the damaged houses, empty restaurants and stores, the trees covered with mud, and the garbage spread on the ground, I was overcome with emotion. At some spots, poles had a 5-metre mark, illustrating the water level that was attended during the flood.

Since rescheduling, the programme for my stay was adapted and should not only comprise the visit of Nagano 1998 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’ legacy, but also include one day of volunteering in the disaster area. The day after my arrival, we therefore headed out early to the Prefecture’s Northern Disaster Volunteer Centre. Dressed warmly, wearing gloves and rubber boots, equipped with a hat, goggles, a breathing mask, onigiri and tea, we arrived shortly before 9am at the centre. Together with about 30 other newcomers, we were kindly welcomed and briefed about safety precautions and the progression of the day. Also, the volunteers were asked were they came from. Most were from the region, yet some from various parts of Japan. The last ones were particularly acknowledged. Then, we registered, and wrote date, name and the assigned working sector on a sticker that was to be stuck on our jacket. 

Following, we got systematically divided into groups of five people. A volunteer staff member explained some organisational elements and a group leader (リーダーさん / leader san) was designated. リーダーさん was in charge to fill in and keep a paper with the names and phone numbers of the members. We introduced ourselves and got together on board of a shuttle bus that brought us to a Satellite Volunteer Centre. Our centre was settled in a former Nagano Prefecture Branch Office which had endured strong damage during the typhoon. Again, our group got some information, this time about the lot of land that we would be working at. We took five shovels and two wheelbarrows, without really knowing what we were going to use them for. About four groups of five people gathered around the same lot. The nearby small, empty and partly damaged house served as a storage room and shelter. The task was quickly explained and fairly easy to understand: pick up all the garbage you find, and dig if it is buried under the ground. Then, shift it to a pile. 

As far as I could see, there was definitely enough work for us… 

Enthusiastic, I reached for the first item I saw. It was a blue cloth that was half buried under the ground. After some minutes of digging, I pulled, and found myself with a big pair of trousers. { I knew that fortunately relatively few people had died in the district and therefore I could get rid of the thought that the owner of the clothing may not be alive anymore } However, the pants in my hands, I imaged where their possessor may be. I questioned if he (deducing from their shape and size) was with his family or friends, if he could rest in someone else’s house, and if he would come back to live here in some weeks or months. Also, I wondered if ever he would miss his blue pants or think about how his belongings got removed. { He may currently have other concerns though } Then, I found a blanket, and several small espresso cans. The blue pants owner must like coffee. Or were the cans someone else’s ? I felt disrespectful for my thoughts. So, I decided to henceforth focus on my physical activity. The mission turned out to be like a treasure hunt: the more items I found, the more satisfied I started to feel. 

As it was advised, every half an hour, we took a 10-minute break. After the first two shifts, when in-between mud, dust and delusional digging I slowly started to lose my sense of orientation, I realised how important these breaks were. Sometimes, I felt almost offended, when within only few minutes of absence, someone had dug out and removed my garbage. Of course, I was conscious about the absurdity of this thought, and did very much appreciate the cooperation. As a matter of fact, we frequently complimented one other’s exploit. 

At half past noon, we had a lunch break. At our Satellite Centre, there was everything one could need: mobile toilets, basins to clean the boots, soap, mouthwash, hand sanitiser, towels, spare goggles, gloves, food and drinks. 

The second half of the day, men should continue to remove garbage at the morning’s lot, whereas women were asked to “clean” houses. The house I was assigned to stood on a bare, wooden structure. Impressively, its first floor seemed to be in good condition. I wondered if the owner would rather live in a place with a half-damaged base, or if the house would soon be demolished. Therefore, I was concerned about the utility of my task. However, I did my best to remove the dust. 

At around 3pm, the mission was to be ended. Exhausted but satisfied, I joined the other members of my group. As they were all male, they had continued the morning’s task. リーダーさん handed in our group’s sheet, confirming that everyone got back safely. We went through the same cleaning procedure as at lunch time and headed off to the shuttle bus. Many volunteers stood in line, so we had to wait for about 20 minutes. When we arrived at the Northern Disaster Volunteer Centre, we found again basins to wash our boots, soap and mouthwash. Then, we were offered hot (delicious) tea, apples and onigiris as well as big smiles, warm お疲れ様でした / otsukaresamadeshita (meaning “thank you for your hard work”) and バイバイ / bye bye’s. 

That Saturday, all in all, an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 people volunteered in Nagano Prefecture; a mass that is certainly not easy to manage. Nevertheless, everything went very smoothly, and the centres were incredibly well organised. 

One day of volunteering is for sure not enough to reconstruct the house of blue pants’ owner, let alone to sincerely help the region. Though, more than I had imagined could be done within only few hours of cooperation. From my perspective, volunteering in a disaster area is an educational and essential experience for a researcher in urban studies, as it may be for any human being.

In the respect of all those who lost their home, I do not publish any photograph of inside the disaster area. 

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