Singaporean Lai Ying Loong was in Japan’s capital when the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11 last year.
“Although I was in Tokyo, I struggled to find normality in the aftershocks that followed. There is a certain part of the horror that I share with the people of Tohoku. You realise they have to deal with so many challenges just to survive. As a human being, I felt I had to do something for them,” says the 36-year-old, who has been working in Tokyo for several years.
Since then, he has been making weekend trips to the affected Tohoku region about once a month, joining other volunteers first in clearing debris and more recently in bringing cheer to survivors.
On his first few trips, when basic necessities were still scarce in the disaster areas, he had to bring his own water, sleeping bag and boots, and slept in tents.
He kept going back.
“It was clear there was so much to do. Most disasters are fairly localised. This one was spread all along the coast. A lot of areas need long-term support.”
Being there, he believes, sends a message to the people of Tohoku that they are not alone in dealing with the disaster.
“It gives them hope and courage. I think that message is important,” he says.
Lately, he has visited residents living in temporary housing because their homes were swept away.
Children from quake-displaced families have their own problems, such as adjusting to new schools and friends, he says. Some have changed schools several times in the past year because they could not bear the taunts of other children who did not directly experience the disaster.
Volunteers like Mr Lai are constantly reminded that even after a year, things are still not easy for the survivors.
“You can’t even say ‘gambarimasho’ (do your best) as it implies they are not already trying their hardest,” he says.
Many have not been able to find work, let alone enjoy the little luxuries in life. “At one Christmas event we organised last year, a woman came up to me and said it was the first time since March 11 that she had eaten any cake.”
He still remembers his first trip up north, about a month after the disaster.
“Nothing really prepared me for what I saw. It was a very tense two days. Immediately after I returned to Tokyo, I went to have a gyudon. I sobbed uncontrollably when the bowl of piping hot beef and rice was put before me,” he recalls.
“The experience has taught me not to take the simple things in life for granted.”
On the third anniversary of the disaster, we look at how life has changed - or not - for the survivors and the country.
Other stories from our archives:
A year after the devastating triple disaster, rebuilding lives and industry along Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, especially the three hardest-hit prefectures, has been painfully slow.
One of the streets in Ishinomaki hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan – is showing signs of recovery.
Mrs Takako Niinuma, 75, has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest devastated by the March 11 earthquake to its former glory for the sake of future generations.
Japan is scrambling to find alternative energy sources as the lights go out at its nuclear power plants this year.
Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka is now still searching for four children and a teacher whose bodies have not been recovered.
Mrs Masako Karino cannot bring herself to return to what is left of Okawa Elementary School. The battered shell of the school was where both her children died when the tsunami hit.
Ms Ruiko Sasahara, a mortician by profession, has been volunteering since disaster struck last year, repairing battered faces so that surviving relatives can say their final farewells.
Red tape and lack of skilled manpower are holding up the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas in Japan, even two years after it was slammed by giant tremors and tsunami waves.