Bus Operator Supports Disaster-hit Areas in Miyagi Prefecture

The Yomiuri Shimbun
High school student volunteers shovel snow at the Kadonowaki Elementary School ruins in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 11.

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — Although 12 years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, a local bus operator from Ibaraki Prefecture continues to support the reconstruction of the areas hit by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The bus service has been bringing in volunteers since immediately after the disaster, and is helping educate younger generations on the memories and lessons from it.

A group of young people came from Ota Daiichi High School in Ibaraki Prefecture. A group of about 20 baseball players visited the Kadonowaki Elementary School ruins in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February to learn about the disaster. When the students noticed the staff struggling to remove snow, however, they went a step further and offered to help.

Students from the school’s baseball club have been visiting the affected areas to assist in the recovery and reconstruction efforts since the year following the disaster, and Ishitsuka Sun Travel, a tourism company in Mito, has brought them by bus for over 10 years.

The company’s president, 60-year-old Kaoru Watahiki, learned shortly after the disaster that his friend who was living in Ishinomaki was one of the victims. Determined to help, Watahiki went to deliver relief supplies to the damaged areas shortly after the disaster. However, what he found there was a lack of people to help, rather than supplies.

“Is there anything we can do as a tourism company to help [the affected areas]?” Watahiki thought, which led him to launch the first bus service to transport volunteers in April 2011.

Since then, the company has sought out volunteers from both in and outside Ibaraki Prefecture to assist in removing rubble and debris, among other tasks, and brought them to Miyagi Prefecture by bus. It asked volunteers only for actual costs for running the buses.

Courtesy of Ishitsuka Sun Travel
Volunteers arrive at an area affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

At its peak, the company brought in four large buses carrying about 200 people to disaster-hit areas. It has transported a total of more than 30,000 volunteers by bus so far.

Watahiki changed the bus routes four years ago when reconstruction had relatively progressed. Another reason behind the change was the increasing number of junior high and high school students who were participating in the tours. The route now includes visits to earthquake and tsunami ruins in the hope that young participants will learn about the importance of life.

Current tours include places such as Kadonowaki Elementary School and Okawa Elementary School, both 2011 disaster ruins, as well as facilities where participants can meet with residents who were affected by the disaster.

Participants listen to experiences from disaster victims and help clean up disaster ruins as volunteer activities. Watahiki accompanies the tour and shares his stories of what it was like immediately after the disaster, and what he learned from the disaster victims.

Yusuke Hagiya, a 26-year-old elementary school teacher, came to the Kadonowaki Elementary School ruins with the baseball players from Ota Daiichi High School. He vividly remembers his first visit in 2013 when he was a member of the school’s baseball team. The sight of burnt-out cars piled up along the road left a lasting impression on him.

Now a teacher himself, Hagiya uses a picture book set at Okawa Elementary School to discuss evacuation procedures in the event of a disaster with his students. Hagiya hopes to share his experiences in the disaster-stricken areas with his students and pass on the lessons he learned in his own way.

Even now, there are many young people joining the tours that say things such as “I’m finally able to participate [in the tour] now that I’m a high school student.”

“I want to keep running [the buses] so that children will not lose the opportunity to visit the disaster-affected areas,” Watahiki said, expressing his determination to continue his service.