The Iwate Ginga Net project has been ongoing for several years, beginning almost immediately after the tsunami disaster in March 2011. The Net project is designed to both assist the people in the area with reconstruction and day to day life, with an increasing emphasis on cultural restoration, and additionally provide college students with experience in volunteer work and the opportunity to make a difference for school credit.
My involvement began with the 2014 “Natsu Ginga” or summer Ginga Net project; and at the beginning, I admit I had no idea what I was getting into. Aside from a general idea of what the program was about, I didn’t know any of the specifics. My own experience in Japanese, rusty at the time, and the assistance of my Japanese professor allowed me to register on the website, and in time I found myself on a small train stop in the middle of a gorgeous mountain range in a small, rural area of Japan. Not sure of what would come next, I steeled myself and approached the person holding the large, cheerful “Ginga-Net” sign.
I hesitate to give a blow by blow of the following three weeks, but a brief overview finds several amazing things even upon first inspection. The first thing that has to be mentioned is the people. I had no reason to be nervous, as everyone I met had some of the most marvelous attitudes that I’ve encountered. The staff in charge of the project were cheerful and dedicated, and the people we met on the job who lived in the area were kind, hardworking and positive. Most telling of all, and shocking to someone who’d been on plenty of volunteer jobs, was the fact that the students themselves seemed invested and happy about their involvement. Not present was the usual grumbling and sarcasm that one can sometimes find at such things. During daily meals, meet-and-greets and debriefings, the students’ conversation was replete with fun stories on the activities they’d done and the things they had gotten to try and do.
The activities themselves were engaging as well. It’s one of the truisms of the world that: work that has meaning to it will always be more fulfilling and fun, and this was no exception. While sadly non-participant in the program meant to tutor and play with local children (I didn’t trust my Japanese at the time to be able to assist with the tutoring part), I participated in two of the Ginga Net projects. The “Na no Hana” project, which consisted mostly of farming while I was there, and assisting some of the local fisherman in the local area Ryouishi.
With the Na no Hana project, I was able to participate in the cultivation, harvest, sorting and processing of the Na no Hana flower, or rapeseed in English. The project’s goal was multifold, to provide a wealth influx to the region and use the now partially abandoned farmland, to provide assistance to local farmers as well when necessary, and to cultivate the Na no Hana oil for use in bio-diesel projects, a subject in which the head of the project had campaigned extensively. Over the course of my involvement in the project I was able to harvest and sort, by hand and machine assisted, the seeds in question, label the bottles for shipment, and help prepare the field for planting using a variety of methods and tools from ploughing by hand and measuring with bamboo and string to utilizing a tractor.
The other project didn’t have an official project name, which was appropriate to the more personal feel of the project itself. Working closely with a small family, the other volunteers and I, bagged, sorted, and prepared the “Dashi Konbu” seaweed for sale. It sounds almost factory-like when expressed like that, and nothing could be farther from the truth. In addition to other small jobs, cleaning and sorting mussels and such, we also engaged in conversation with the family, played with his kids, went on rides in the boat to see how the Konbu was harvested and a variety of other small things. It was a good experience to see how the people remaining in the area were still making their living in the aftermath.
All in all, it was a precious experience. As a volunteer, it felt less like a job and more like a concerted effort with a variety of like minded comrades. And really, isn’t that what volunteering is supposed to be about?