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Japan town embraces volunteer who stayed after tsunami

The slender woman in a puffy black ski hat and camouflage pants hurried among the crowd at the opening ceremony for a new vegetable market here, carrying a rolled-up events schedule like an architect with a set of building plans.

Her cellphone never stopped ringing. Between smoking breaks, never finishing an entire cigarette, she dragged tables and ran to consult village elders, playing coordinator.

Chizuru Nakagawa isn't a resident of Ogatsu. Rather, she's the volunteer stranger who came and stayed.

PHOTOS: Destruction in Japan quake's aftermath

"She's more involved than most real residents," merchant Yorio Takahashi said at the opening ceremony, marking the first commerce in Ogatsu since a tsunami wrecked buildings and swept 300 people to their deaths. "She knows what needs to be done."

For months, the 36-year-old Tokyo resident has worked 18-hour days to help rebuild a town she didn't realize existed until the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

She's among the legions of volunteers who have responded to Japan's worst natural disaster, swarming the stricken northeastern coast to clean up wreckage and pound nails into new homes, carrying word that outsiders care about what happens to people here.

There's the Japanese American who sponsored a summer baseball league in the tsunami-hit area; the Tokyo photographer who takes family portraits, turning them into postcards that survivors can send to loved ones; and refugees from Myanmar and Uganda who want to assist the residents of their new homeland.

"Many have been politically persecuted back home. They know what crisis is," said Shiho Tanaka, a spokeswoman for the Japan Assn. for Refugees. "They want to show that even though they're not Japanese, they can help their new society."

In recent years, many younger Japanese, especially those laboring long hours in the big city, had lost their tasuke-ai no kokoro, or spirit of helping, some say. March 11 changed all that.

"The event woke up many young people to the old ways," said Shuken Hatayama, who met Nakagawa after leaving a Tokyo chef's job to volunteer in Ogatsu. "Especially when you see the support that the rest of the world has offered Japan, you know you have to do something for your own people."

Yet few have shown more altruistic zeal than Nakagawa. Rather than just donate weekends, she moved her life to Ogatsu.

Along the way, she has negotiated the often-difficult inner workings of small town life, dealing with jealousy, power struggles and personality differences as she tries to make a difference.

An admittedly impulsive woman and career volunteer who works part-time jobs to pay the bills, she says she does not regret the sometimes heavy personal toll her lifestyle brings.

Nakagawa, who is single, for years inhabited a small apartment in Tokyo, supporting various causes — funds for Chernobyl descendants or memorials to the Holocaust — working for pay only when she had to.

Asked why she never married, had children and settled into suburbia, she paused and finally acknowledged with a sigh, "Yes, that would be nice."

Ogatsu represents Nakagawa's biggest challenge yet. She intends to remain here for two years, until the town gets back on its feet.

She knows that will mean many lonely nights, smoking cigarettes in front of her computer, connected to her life and friends in Tokyo only through cyberspace.

"I have a simple calculation for life," she said, lighting up another cigarette. "When you see people in need, you have two choices, either you help or you don't. I have to help."

It began in late March when Nakagawa approached several Ogatsu men shoveling mud. She had been helping out at local emergency shelters when she heard about overlooked Ogatsu.

The village was still littered with piles of wreckage, where fewer than 1,000 of its 4,300 residents remained, the others having either died or fled. Althoughsome communities drew so many volunteers that many had to be turned away, Ogatsu — isolated by forested mountains, reached only by a twisting, turning road — was left on its own.

Nakagawa asked the men what they needed. When one said they hadn't eaten a hot meal in weeks, she canvassed nearby restaurants for donations and soon served up a warm dinner. The men's faces spoke their thanks.

With so few buildings left in Ogatsu, Nakagawa slept in a city hall meeting room in an adjacent town. She showed up at dawn each day with her sleeves rolled up high, asking what she could do.

She also displayed initiative. She met Hatayama and the two decided to set up a delivery service called "Talking and Tea," visiting newly built prefab units to draw people outside to drink tea and discuss their problems.

"If you ask a person from the countryside if they have troubles, most retreat under a shell and say they're fine," she said. "But when they open up to talk to you about real issues, that's the sign that they trust you."

Nakagawa was soon immersed in Ogatsu's internal politics, personal dramas so frustrating that she sometimes felt like leaving. She ran interference for residents who barely spoke, coaxing groups to become less exclusive and accept residents they didn't know.

She found that most decisions were made by a few wealthier fishermen who in good times employed other villagers. Directing the aid that arrived in town, the leaders often kept the best goods for themselves and relatives, a trickle-down system that Nakagawa wanted to end.

"I tried not to be confrontational, but sometimes I had to lock horns with people. There were tense moments."

Even Hatayama, whose father is a local monk, was amazed by Nakagawa's influence. "She's a peacemaker who wants to make everyone better in their own way," he said.

On the day of the market opening, a steady rain began to fall, driving residents under umbrellas.

The inclement weather cranked Nakagawa into overdrive, as she helped elderly women reach the cover of tents. Her cellphone never stopped ringing.

Most folks here now know her by name. The stranger feels welcome, and feels at peace with her plans to stay for at least two years, until private donations have helped residents rebuild their homes, a hospital, town hall and small businesses.

But Nakagawa has set another, more personal, goal: "I want to help show residents how to walk on their own two feet again, so they can become inspired to help someone else."

She watched a pair of women eye carrots and lettuce, finally able to buy food here in Ogatsu, not 20 miles away.

"Now," Nakagawa said, "the real work begins."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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