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Japan disaster builds international bridges
by Staff Writers
Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) Jan 13, 2012

Out of the tragedy of ruin wreaked by the tsunami that laid waste to large stretches of Japan's northeast coast, a beacon of international friendship has risen.

In a famously homogenous country where foreign faces are rarely seen outside the major cities, international volunteers have poured in to help the victims of Japan's March 2011 earthquake disaster put their lives back together.

Ishinomaki has never been on the foreign tourist trail. A year ago it had a sprinkling of non-Japanese that included English teachers, but it was not a place that many outside Japan had ever heard of.

However, in the ten months since huge waves crushed large areas of the city, washing away or badly damaging half of its 61,000 houses, thousands of people have offered to lend a hand, many of them from abroad.

"I'm doing volunteer work together with people from countries such as Singapore, Canada, Britain and the United States," said Koichi Murai, a 29-year-old ski resort employee from northern Sapporo.

"I know the country is providing money and instructions (for recovery) but it's not moving very quickly," said Murai, who plans to stay in the city for around a month.

"On the other hand, volunteers can start to help quickly, which is an advantage."

Across the disaster-hit northeast nearly 900,000 people have so far joined volunteer activities formally organised by local offices of the Japan National Council of Social Welfare, according to the council website.

On top of that, many other people, both Japanese and foreign nationals, have visited the devastated regions individually or in private groups to help local survivors from the disaster that claimed more than 19,000 lives.

"We have many local friends who don't speak any English at all," said Jamie El Banna, a 26-year-old from London, who moved to Ishinomaki from Osaka in June to help out.

"We just communicate... heart to heart," he said.

El Banna, a former City of London worker who came to Japan in 2008, gathered a group of mainly foreign volunteers through social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

"(In September) I had maybe 20 tents on the campground and I had to find somewhere to put people, in the end I went on Twitter and asked if anyone had a house that could sleep 20 volunteers.

"This old man who uses Twitter said 'you can stay at my house if you want'."

El Banna said the rapid influx of foreign faces to a place he describes as "not really like Tokyo or Osaka" had been a bit of a shock.

"At first people would say 'Oh a foreigner', but now when you know people and they are used to seeing you, it's normal," he said.

Keiko Sanjo, whose badly damaged house was repaired by volunteers, said she had been amazed by the response of people from other parts of the world.

"I was so surprised to see many people not only from Japan but also from other countries come to visit us and help," she said.

Sanjo, a 39-year-old mother-of-three, lost her parents to the tsunami. Her fisherman husband is out of work.

She has decided not to return to her part-time job at a fish processing factory but wants to use her newly-repaired home as the base for a new massage business.

"I want to be at home to see my children all the time," she said.

Nobuko Hashimoto, whose house was also put back together by volunteers, said the tragedy had brought her into contact with people she would never normally have met.

"I did not have foreign friends before as there were few foreigners in Ishinomaki," she said

"But now I have many. They are my great treasure -- the treasure of my life," Hashimoto said.

Hashimoto has offered hospitality to volunteers who came and helped out and often hosts dinner parties for them.

"I was so moved and felt strong gratitude toward them," she said.

"All I can do is to cook something hot -- miso soup and others -- for them," she added.

The focus for volunteers has now moved from its initial stages of cleaning up debris to rebuilding shattered communities and finding work for those whose livelihoods were swept away by the waves.

"The shift is happening now," Banna said, adding that requests for physical andmanual work were declining.

"Instead of relief, its more recovery," he said. "(We) are trying to help businesses or people or communities, which is a bit more of a complex problem, but well do what we can and well be here for a while."

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