Habitat For Humanity Starts Clean-Up And House Repair Activity In Japan

April 30th, 2011

First Volunteers Get To Work In Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

Habitat for Humanity volunteers from university campuses across Japan work in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. (Anti-clockwise from top) They helped to clear debris at a damaged hotel and a house and repaired the wall of an apartment unit. All photos by Mikel Flamm.

OFUNATO, Japan, 30th April 2011: The first Habitat for Humanity volunteers are repairing houses and clearing away debris in Ofunato, northern Iwate Prefecture, marking the start of the international non-government organization’s response operation in Japan.

Twelve volunteers, aged between 20 and 22, from university campuses across Japan, have given up their ‘Golden Week’ national holiday time to pull out wet floor insulation, tatami mats (traditional Japanese flooring) and clear mud from houses in badly affected Ofunato.

“I wanted to do more than just watch devastating pictures on TV, so I am here to do what I can to help Japan recover,” said Haruka Sakai, 20, a volunteer from Waseda University in Tokyo.

“Only by visiting Ofunato and working with the people affected does the situation feel real. All I see is broken houses and it’s hard to know where to begin, but we will do it one step at a time.

“If the work I do here means that just one family can leave an evacuation center and return home, it will be worth it,” Sakai added.

Ofunato, in northern Iwate Prefecture, about 500 km. north of Tokyo, is one of the three areas most affected by the devastating earthquake and tsunami on 11th March. Ofunato had a thriving fishing industry until tsunami waves, up to 23.6 m. (76-ft.) high, wiped thousands of houses away, and killed nearly 300 people.

(Top) Funimaro Honma may have lost his home and restaurant but he is thankful to have survived with his family. (Bottom) Habitat volunteers and their counterparts from All Hands Volunteers work together to clear the debris from one of Takata High School’s gymnasiums.

Ofunato resident Funimaro Honma lost his home and soba noodle restaurant as well as his two pet cats in the disaster. Despite all this, Honma is happy because he feels so lucky to have survived with his family.

He said the sakura, or cherry blossom trees, bloomed again after the tsunami. This is like the Japanese people – they are tough and will recover to bloom again, Honma said.

In Rikuzentakata city, Habitat volunteer Isako Matsuoka, 20, worked alongside other volunteers to clear one of Takata High School’s gymnasiums.

“High school students in Rikuzentakata, Ofunato’s neighboring city, are now back at school after spring break, sharing the classrooms of the elementary school that was just a little higher up the road and escaped the crushing waves,” Matsuoka wrote in a diary account.

“Part of the elementary school is also an evacuation center, and temporary housing is currently being built in its grounds.

“By the end of the day, the gym was so clean that students could have walked straight in and started playing basketball. The clock at the front of school is stuck at 3.04 — this was when the tsunami struck, about 20 minutes after the earthquake.”

Media reports claim that Rikuzentakata was “wiped off the map” by the tsunami. Over 1,300 people died here and 800 are still missing.

Fifty-two-year-old Kazue Mutakami survived the disaster only because she was in hospital when the catastrophe struck. Her mother and cat were at home when the house was swept away. Her mother’s body was found more than two weeks after the disaster.

Mutakami is among some 600 survivors at a large school gymnasium which has been turned into an evacuation center. She lives within a 2 m by 3 m space within the center.

(Top) Kazue Mutakami now lives in a 2 m by 3 m space at an evacuation center after her home was swept away in the tsunami. (Bottom from left) Hiroyuki Takahashi, his son and his mother are among the first to move into temporary shelter built in school grounds in Rikuzentakata city. Takahashi’s son holds a photograph of his wife who died in the tsunami.

In contrast, Hiroyuki Takahashi, 48, is considered one of the more fortunate ones. He has just moved into one of the first temporary shelters built by the Japanese government in the school grounds.

He lives in the shelter with his son and mother, the only members of his immediate family still alive. He lost both his father and his wife to the tsunami.

“My mother is very old. I don’t want her to die here, so I want to move out as soon as possible. I am not sure how I will do this though as I now have no job,” said Takahashi.

Habitat for Humanity will be working in both Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures alongside partners, like United States-based non-profit organization All Hands Volunteers, to deliver their response operation; providing volunteers for clean-up and housing repair activity, and helping affected families to return to their homes.

At a later stage, Habitat may also be involved in distributing ‘home starter’ kits to families moving in to temporary shelter.

Rick Hathaway, Habitat for Humanity International’s Asia-Pacific vice president, added: “With its focus on shelter, Habitat for Humanity is working with partners in Japan to provide volunteers, tools, and financial support to get families out of evacuation centers and back to their homes, so they can regain some normalcy and piece their lives back together. We need your donations to make sure Habitat can help more families.”

More family stories, an aid worker’s account, volunteers’ diaries and photos on Habitat’s Facebook.

Those interested in volunteering should email [email protected]

To donate, please visit altenheime-hamburg.info or

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on Friday, 11th March, was the largest to ever hit Japan since recordings began. The earthquake created extremely large tsunami waves with heights over 20 meters (65 feet) that struck Japan minutes after the quake, in some cases travelling up to 10 km (6 miles) inland. Over 14,000 people died and 11,000 people are still missing.

The earthquake struck 130 km (81 miles) east of Sendai city, Japan, and this, plus the subsequent tsunami, wrought massive destruction along the Pacific coastline of Japan’s northern islands.

A third, and still unfolding disaster, is nuclear radiation caused by explosions from nuclear plants damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.

Habitat for Humanity International is a global non-government organization that welcomes to its work all people dedicated to the cause of eliminating poverty housing. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built, rehabilitated, repaired or improved more than 400,000 houses worldwide, providing simple, decent and affordable shelter for more than two million people. For more information, or to donate or volunteer, visit altenheime-hamburg.info/asiapacific.

Habitat for Humanity Japan is the Japanese chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. Each year, HFH Japan raises money and sends hundreds of volunteers overseas to help build and repair homes for low-income families. This is the first time that HFH Japan volunteers have supported clean-up activity and house repairs in their home country.

All Hands Volunteers is a US-based non-profit organization that supports volunteers with housing, meals, tools and organized work to provide hands-on assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world. All Hands has developed close working relationships with Japanese government entities and is currently operating tsunami clean-up and recovery programs in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. www.hands.org