Schop-Dan (pronounced 'skopp-dan', meaning "Shovel-Team") is a team of weekend volunteers whose mission is to clean up houses struck by the March 11th tsunami in northeast Japan. They center their activities on the town of Yamamoto-cho, Miyagi prefecture, currently assembling at 9:00am every Saturday and Sunday at Yamashita station.

Hobonichi founder and editor-in-chief Shigesato Itoi got to know the organization through Twitter. Rather than just doing a simple interview for the website, though, Hobonichi contacted the organizers to ask if we could actually participate in Schop-Dan's work instead.

Our instructions were simple enough: "Meet at Yamashita station, 9:00am, on Saturday or Sunday. We 'schop' different sites each day, so details will be given when we meet. Find our team wearing a navy t-shirt with the Schop-Dan logo. Bring work boots, masks, towels, work gloves, something to keep you cool, drinks, lunch, and extra clothes. Don't forget to come with volunteer insurance."

Five people from Hobonichi -- Nishida, Sato, Kohno, Taguchi and Sugano -- prepared themselves as per the instructions and headed for Yamashita station one Sunday morning.

The trains were still not running after the tsunami hit, and at the station the tracks were covered by weeds. In the station office it is as though time stopped on March 11th. We soon met a group of people wearing the Schop-Dan t-shirts: "Joining Schop-Dan today? Sure, follow us."

As soon as we got to the site, Schop-Dan started to take the big furniture out of the house, and took down all doors and windows that were unsafe.

We were each given a shovel and went into the house, but then we stood there for a while not knowing what to do. We eventually followed what the others were doing, and started scooping up the mud on the floor with the shovels. The mud was heavy with water and salt and took quite a lot of strength just to shovel even a small amount. Twice, three times, we scooped and poured the mud onto a dust pan. Embarrassingly, we already began to worry that we would not last the whole day.

But Schop-Dan leader, Ryo Taira, told us: "Until this spring I had no shoulder muscles. I couldn't hold anything heavy." This gave us some encouragement and we got down to it again.

It looks as though the house had decayed a long time ago and the mud had then found its way inside and settled there. Since the huge wrecks had already been taken away from the streets; it almost seems that the area has been vacant for decades. But of course that's not the truth. What seems like an open lot today is a place where the tsunami indiscriminately washed everything away on March 11th, leaving an offensive emptiness. Likewise, all the mud inside this house was brought here by that same giant wave as it rolled in from the coast.

We kept on shoveling and scooping inside and out, but at times there seemed no end to the mud. It was everywhere; even the toilet tank was full of mud and could not be used.

Then you realize something strange: The house is intact above a certain line. Above it, the posters hung by the family's grandchildren had remained safe and dry. Tableware, the piano, and books on the bookshelves would have stayed perfectly organized had they not been exposed to the tsunami's destructive waves. It must have been a very tidy and organized room. The family must have slept, ate, and spent time here together every day.

The owner of the house had said, "If you find anything, you can just throw it away. Just chuck it away." Indeed, we found many things in the mud. Kitchenware, clothes, plates, wallets, more clothes, stationery, photos, a trophy, message cards, and even pictures painted sometime ago. At the back of the shelf, we found a picture safely stored in a box. We took it to the owner and asked if he wanted to keep it or not.

"Ah, this is my grandson's. He drew this way back when. Don't know if he still wants it but maybe I should keep it for now. My grandson is now in his third year at university and lives in the city. He says he doesn't want to see this house again and won't come back. Absolutely not. Won't even come near."

We heard many similar stories from the Schop-Dan organizers as well. "Some victims of the tsunami can't bear to see their own house, nor even get close. It probably triggers flashbacks." Seeing their house in such a state would make people remember the terrible day, the loved ones they lost and the destruction they suffered.

Before coming here, the five of us read over Ryo Taira's blog, the Schop-Dan website, and e-mails from Schop-Dan staff. One phrase caught our eyes: "Actually the house may not be livable even after the clean up." Miracles can't be worked but we can do what we can to relieve the damage.

This place packed with mud and debris was once somewhere for a family to gather, a base for their everyday lives. Many could only stare at the place dumbstruck; some can't even go near it because of fear. Vast quantities of mud filled every inch of the house; the rooms were no longer the same rooms anymore. And time goes by. Weeds grow, bugs multiply, floors decay. It's just too much to stop this on your own.

Clean away the debris, sweep the mud outside, and rescue what is left of the family's precious possessions. Looking at the scale of the destruction wrought by the tsunami on March 11th, this may not seem much. But for those victims it would surely be a different experience to stand once again in front of a house no longer buried in mud, cleaned up as much as humanly possible. For those people coming back to see their homes for the first time, there would surely be less trauma and pain if at least all the mud was gone.

This is Schop-Dan's goal.

(To be continued…)

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