Year after Japan’s tsunami, Oak Harbor native helps direct aid work

  • Wed Mar 28th, 2012 9:03pm
  • News

By Amy Daybert Herald Writer

Robert Mangold didn’t waste any time after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit along the northeast coast of Japan last year.

He left his family, home and business in Kyoto and drove to areas hardest hit by the March 11, 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Mangold, who grew up in Oak Harbor, and another volunteer, Mike Barr of Texas, were looking for ways they could help.

“At that time the relief efforts were so disorganized and the government and international community were so overwhelmed by the nuclear issue, the massive humanitarian crisis on the ground was largely forgotten,” Mangold wrote in an email. “From that very early stage we decided as a small unit we would be far more effective outside of the cities.”

After returning home to Kyoto in early April 2011, Mangold, 42, knew that one trip to the northern Tohoku region of Japan was not enough.

So he formed IDRO Japan, a Kyoto-based nonprofit that provides post-disaster aid and assistance as well as long-term support through relief trips and housing. IDRO stands for International Disaster Relief Organization.

A graduate of Oak Harbor High School and Edmonds Community College, Mangold has lived in Kyoto since 1994. He first arrived in the country in June 1991 when he was stationed at Iwakuni, a small Marine Corps Air Station on the Seto Inland Sea.

“Although I did not travel a great deal around the country then, I did feel strangely as if I had come home for the first time,” he wrote. “There was an instant connection.”

Mangold now owns an art gallery in Kyoto. His wife, Mitsuru, and 9-year-old son, Logan, live with him in Kyoto.

After the disaster, foreign volunteer organizations had a hard time navigating through Japanese bureaucracy, and domestic groups were having a hard time working together, Mangold remembers.

These things led him to establish an organization where anyone who wanted to could volunteer.

Mangold and other volunteers signed a charter for the newly established nonprofit. Then they filled a van with carpentry tools packaged in small kits, traveled to reach people in the hardest hit areas, and gave them the kits to start rebuilding.

The nonprofit’s board of directors includes three Americans and five Japanese, all who have full-time jobs outside of the organization. Over the past year, IDRO Japan has sponsored 10 relief trips from Kyoto.

During these trips, which have lasted up to seven weeks, volunteers cleared debris, rebuilt homes and businesses and distributed relief supplies, among other things.

One project Mangold will always remember involved rebuilding shrine gates for a community of fisherman in the town of Onosaki. Although the shrine was still there, three consecutive torii gates — the red gates that lead to shrines — had been smashed or washed out to sea. The project was part of a seven-week summer work camp and brought joy to a community of people still living in school gymnasiums.

“The looks on the faces of the locals was inspiring, such joy in that devastated landscape,” Mangold wrote. “It is this type of pinpoint action which large organizations cannot do.”

One of IDRO Japan’s main focuses in the next six months will be rebuilding small businesses. A long term goal is to build small, expandable houses on private land to get people out of temporary housing.

The volunteers use radiation detectors and work at the closest nearly 62 miles from the damaged nuclear power plant.

“We carry a Geiger counter and take readings several times a day but where we are working in Miyagi, it is only slightly higher than the ambient level anywhere else in Japan,” Mangold wrote.

Volunteers leave their jobs and families behind in order to do the work. Mangold’s wife, Mitsuru, wrote that she respects the volunteers for giving their time.

“There are other people who really want to volunteer but they have a job so they cannot,” she wrote. “My son and I feel lonely that my husband must go, but the children and families who lost their parents and members in Tohoku must feel more sad, so I cannot complain.”

The people in the areas they travel to keep Mangold motivated to continue the work of his nonprofit.

“We go there with the intention of helping them and leave feeling as if we were the ones being cared for,” he wrote. “They are always working right there beside us, and if we go away and come back, they have tackled so many tasks already on their own one feels compelled to do whatever possible to assist them in their efforts.”

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491;

IDRO Japan blog

Founder and director of IDRO Japan, Robert Mangold, updates a blog about the nonprofit’s volunteer work at

For more information about the nonprofit, go to