The Great East Japan Earthquake

March 11, 2011 - 9.0 Earthquake hit the Tohoku area of Japan and caused an incredible amount of damage. The earthquake moved Honshu 2.4 m (8 ft) east and shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10 cm (4 in) and 25 cm (10 in). Then the tsunami came and wiped out whole towns, and if that was not enough we then found out about the Fukushima nuclear plant that provides power to Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Three of the six reactors had core breaches and Japan declared a state of emergency and evacuated much of the area. For the next several weeks (and longer) no one knew what was going on. Levels of radiation were high, there was high levels of radioactive iodine in the tap water in Tokyo and surrounding areas. No bottled water was available in any of the stores. Over 200,000 people were evacuated and I remember leaving Tokyo that weekend for Nagoya to stay with Jenny’s parents. When I finally returned several days later Tokyo was a deserted ghost town. I remember getting off the train at Tokyo station and taking a cab home. The city is usually lit up with neon but everything was so dark and there were hardly any cars on the road. It too several weeks after that for Tokyo to get back to “normal” but we still had to deal with power outages and conserving energy throughput the summer. Now in July of 2012 the nuclear plants are still in cool down mode and it will take decades to recover in that area.

It was an intense time that moved me greatly and I really wanted a way to give back to Japan as Japan had taken care of me since I had first arrived in 1990. It had given me a life and a career and so many friends. So I decided to go to Tohoku and do volunteer work.

The following is my daily diary of the time I spent as a volunteer in the Tsunami stricken region of Tohoku. There is still a lot of work to do out there and I suspect it will take decades to recover from the physical and physiological impact. Please feel free to contact me if you want to help. There are many ways to support the relief effort.

Link to the full Tohoku Picture Gallery can be found here.

June 5, 2011 - Day 1 - off to Higashi matsushima Sunday morning and off to Sendai on the Shinkansen. Should get there in about 2.5 hours. After that I will take a bus for about 1.5 hours to reach higashi matsushima. The plan is to show up at the bosai (control/volunteer) center and ask them for work that they need done for the next week. A friend of ours, take-chan, has been there a couple of times and says that the work is typically cleaning out the mud in people's houses or moving the destroyed furniture out to help save peoples houses. He was supposed to come with me but he had to focus on his guests, he runs a bed and breakfast type of place. He was kind enough to loan me his tent which was great. Take-chan is a great guy and if you ever get the chance you should visit him and stay with him. So on this initial trip I am solo and do not know what to expect. I did have a lot of tremendous support from Jenny in setting all of this up as well as mike and matt so thank you. Back to higashi  matsushima. It had the largest kaki (oyster) industry in japan before it was wiped out by the tsunami on 3/12. Have been trying to figure out how I can help out and this seems like a great way. I packed as light as I could but had some bulky items so it looks like a lot. The tent, the bedroll, the superb fleece blanket that jenny got me, the knee high rubber boots with steel inserts, rubber gloves, face masks to keep all the dust out and rain gear. For clothes it was one pair of pants, one shirt and a t-shirt and some socks. Was told that clothes will get extremely dirty so not to bring too much. Also showers are not available but perhaps a public bath is there. Let's see how it goes. Also have some small amount of food in case none is available. Take-chan told me that the place to put up the tent is in a grassy area near the evacuation center where people have been living in small areas together since the quake and tsunami. I really have no idea what to expect at this point. Arrived in Sendai. Sendai looks pretty good. Not really sure what I was expecting but it is very lively with lots of people wandering around. I did notice a lot of signs that said "we will never give up" and I spoke to a guy selling sake from Fukushima. Told him that I would buy a bottle on the way back :-) The bus station is about a 10 minute walk. #33 to yamoto. The next stage. So far pretty painless. Got to the bosai center in higashi matsushima. As it was late Sunday afternoon not many people were there. They were very happy to help me out. I met two people, Maki and Takeshi who helped me fill out the forms. They also provided me with maps of the local area, some shops that sold food and water and directions to the local public bathhouse, which was free for all volunteers. Great stuff so far. All very well organized!! The area where I put up my tent was near the bosai center and was pretty empty. There were a few people packing up. The weekend support crowd. I headed out to get some food and water and....beer. I also tried out the bathhouse, which was small but nice. After I got back there were a lot more people setting up tents so this must be the weekday crowd. It is 7:30 and dark now....and with no city lights very dark. Anyways time to have a beer and close out the day.

Day 2 - Higashi Matsushima Got up early (as usual) and walked around a bit. Its about 6:30 am and people were up and about. I walked over by the evacuation center to look around. People were milling around at this early hour. As I walked around the building I looked through the windows and saw people sitting around eating breakfast or reading the paper. There were partitions to mark their living area which was pretty small, actually about twice the size of my tent which can sleep two people of decent height lengthwise. So not a lot of space for these people. The people with kids got a bit more space. They also had some of their belongings as well, I guess whatever they could salvage or what they had acquired since the tsunami. All the people that I saw I said "ohaiyo gozaimasu" ( good morning) to. An older guy , about 70 years old, was looking out the window of the evac center and called me over. He asked me if I was volunteering, I said yes, and he thanked me. I chatted with him a bit and looked inside at his space. The walls of his area were boxes and he had some shirts and that was about it. I wanted to take some pictures but could not do it. Did not feel right. I continued to walk around and saw some older women chatting. They gave me a funny look but after I said "ohaiyo" they laughed and continued chatting. I then spoke to a couple of guys and after they found out I spoke some Japanese they stared telling me about what happened. I was told by my friend Take-chan earlier that it is best yo listen. So I listened. They told me that there businesses had been wiped out by the tsunami and that there was nothing left. The quake was ok but the tsunami had wiped everything out. They did not know how to start up their lives as they were both in their late 60s. The economy of the area was destroyed and it would take 20 years or more to reestablish itself. The were worried about their kids and all the younger people as there were no jobs. The younger people would leave the area and go to Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka or any other place where they could find work and this would impact the local area even more. It was depressing to hear this and more so to see the expressions on their faces but they were also upbeat and positive in a way. They thanked me for coming here to help clean up. In fact everyone I spoke to thanked me. These people have lost everything but they continue to be friendly, talkative and upbeat. Really amazing and a lot can be learned from them. All this by 7am!! Wonder what the rest of the day will bring. People I have met so far!! Mito – Volunteer support worker Tatsuya – Volunteer support worker Mako – Volunteer Support worker Numata-san – From Aichii near Nagoya
The Sacho – from Nagoya Got my work assignment and was put in a group of 7 people. We headed out with wheel-barrels, shovels and some other equipment. We drove down a street that looked like it had been demolished but was in the process of being built back up. At the end of the street we all got out and started work to clean up the property. There was dried up dirt, sand and mud with rotting trees and debris that had been washed up from the tsunami. Our job was to clean it up. The govt has cleaned up most of the big stuff in the area but has left the private homeowners alone to fend for themselves. This is where the volunteers come in. We spent several hours shoveling the rotting debris into bags and putting them on the street so they could be picked up later. It was really hard work and it was hot and nasty. I was gagging from the smell! We finished up around 11:30 and went back to the bosai center. After a quick lunch we were off again to clean up another persons house. This time the tsunami had wiped out the first floor and the people were living on the second floor. Not really sure how they could stand the smell. Another team had come In and ripped the floor out and our job was to remove the mud. Nasty stuff again. It was sweaty dirty smelly but the woman who lived there was very thankful which made it worthwhile. I have to admit that the work is backbreaking but I have met some great people today. The volunteers are from all over Japan - Osaka, Nagoya, Hokkaido, Tokyo and other places. So far I am the only non Japanese person here and there are about 100 people here. They. All seem to know me for some reason :-) Am a bit tired now so off to bed. Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Day 3 What a day! Last night there was an earthquake and it was very weird sitting in a tent feeling the quake. Strange sensation sleeping on the ground with the earth shaking. Last night there was a small party with a guy from Nagoya who shall be named "Sacho" which means the boss in Japanese. We were on the last work detail and afterwards we went to the onsen (public bath) with a couple other people. We came back to the tent area and he pulled out some beer and snacks from his car. He is a 60 year old guy who runs a company in Nagoya and made a 12 hour drive to come here and help out. He then cooked me dinner, ramen noodles, and we continued to drink with several others from Nagoya. We drank late into the night - which is about 8pm for the tent people as everyone gets up when the sun rises around 5am. It is kind of interesting being in a tent community as you immediately become part of a transient family group. People always ask where I am staying and respond kindly when I tell them. They seem to feel that everyone in a tent or are staying in their cars are making a huge effort. Many of the people are older seniors and stay in one location for a couple of weeks and then move on to another area. They have been doing this since the quake and tsunami hit. Those guys area real heroes! And they are always genki (upbeat and positive). I seem to have digressed :-). Anyways the point of all this was that the Sacho and everyone is very cool and friendly. Got up in the morning at around 5am and most people were up. I seem to have fallen into a routine like the other tent people. Get up, say ohaiyo gozaimasu (good morning) to everyone, walk to the store about 20 minutes away, get some breakfast, which is usually onigiri (rice balls) head back and the chill out talking to other people or reading the news. Thank Steve Jobs for the iPhone!!!! The morning work assignment was similar to the last one in the previous day. Cleaning out the under floor mud and sand from the first floor of a house in the same area. It seems that the majority of the people in this area are living on the second floor as the first floors are unlivable. We are about 5 km away from the ocean and the tsunami was about 1.8 meters high when it hit here. The work was hard and it was hot. The 7 of us finished, different groups of seven as people are always coming and going, and then we washed down the side of the house. After that we went to help another group clean up the property of another house. Removing wet sand from the place was pretty tough. There is a ton of dirt everywhere and I have never been so covered in mud and dust!! I actually found seashells there...very intense!! We got back a little late and only had about 30 minutes for lunch before the next assignment. The afternoon work was to clean up a house that had been hit by the tsunami. There were 5 of us in the afternoon group. People were leaving and the overall numbers of volunteers were deceasing. There were a total of about 50 of us now. We drove for about 30 minutes to a fishing port names Tsukihama. The drive was incredible and I will never forget it. We drove through an area where the tsunami had a massive impact. I saw building gutted, boats in the middle of farmlands, forests uprooted, whole farms were destroyed with debris everywhere. It was an incredible sight. It only got worse. As we drove into Tsukihama we saw construction crews leveling the entire town. There was a population of about 300 people that lived here that made a living from fishing. The entire town was evacuated and the houses were made unlivable by the impact of the tsunami. So now the place was being destroyed. Our job was to clean out a house on the other side of the village so it could be destroyed. We pulled up to the house and it was an amazing sight. The house was at about a 30 degree angle and the contents were in a complete shambles. Clothes, pictures, all personal effects were tossed all over the place with some of it rotting it had been sitting there for months. The owner, who was in his late 60s told us to put whatever we could into boxes. He had been living there since he was a boy and we had to decide what to keep and what to throw out. The owner gave us basic instructions and then left as he could not watch us go through his things. It took us a couple of hours to box what we could. At this point I realized, after talking to the other guys, that there is a big shortage of boxes in the area. Everyone needs them so there is a supply shortage. On the drive back I noticed more devastation. I saw what looked like thousands of shells sitting on the side of the road all strung together. I realized that these were the kaki (oyster beds) farms where they are grown. This area was one of the largest producers of kaki in Japan and it is now completely wiped out. An entire industry gone for decades. I also saw where the construction crews were creating huge mountains of debris. This was being trucked in from all over as a dumping ground. This area use to be a park and you could still see the slides and tree houses that children played on. I can only assume that they are using this site, as it is govt owned and not private property. I also saw schools that were destroyed by the tsunami as well ad hotels. These will have to be destroyed and rebuilt at some point, as the damage was too great. It was a tough ride back looking at all this. Got back and did some mundane things like wash my clothes, go the onsen, have a few beers, talk to people and then crash after a long day! What a day it was!!!!

Day 4 It was a day like any other day? :-) Today the work assignment involved 10 people setting up 600 sets of tableware for 3 new evacuation centers that were being set up for 200 people each. Dinner plates, coffee cups, Japanese teacups, small bowls, rice bowls and small plates had been donated from different companies around Japan. It was our job to unbox everything and create 600 sets for each person in the evacuation center to use. The work was being done in a temporary warehouse that had been set up. There were three of these warehouses and the Japanese Self Defense Force was loading up supplies out of the other two. Supplies included water, food, clothes and other items like these. The work was monotonous and very repetitive. It was also hot dusty. We spent the day doing this and we were exhausted by the end of the it. So far the work that I had been assigned was pretty diverse and usually simple tasks that needed to be done for the people. Putting together a set of dishes may seem small but knowing that some family that has lost everything would use it provided a good feeling. And I had seen house after house that had been destroyed. This was just in the few kilometer area that I was working in. Think about the impact of the tsunami and the thousands of kilometers of area that were impacted. A lot of people lost everything and doing this type of work has brought it to a personal level. I have tried to talk to each of the owners of the houses to find out more about their story and hopefully have conveyed some of that in these daily writings. We completed the 600 sets in about 5 hours plus an hour break for lunch. The Sacho and another person named Fuji-san were in my group. It was Fuji-sans last day so we went back to the tent site and Numuta-san drove us to the public bath. After that we went to a train station about 10 km away to drop Fuji-san off. That drive was amazing ! I thought I had seen destruction the previous day and now I was seeing house after house, neighborhood after neighborhood destroyed. Wall had been ripped off of buildings and houses, cars were shredded like paper, there was a boat in the middle of a house and the ocean was kilometers away. This just went on and on. After a while you get use to seeing this but it is really tough at first. We dropped Fuji-san off and headed back via the same route. The Sacho was also saying how incredible all this was and I realized that this was the first time he was seeing this. He was really taken aback and after the initial outbursts of surprise he was quiet and staring out the window of the car the rest of the way back. We had dinner and I was off to bed by 8pm as I was really tired and I think the last few days were catching up with me. One good thing was that a large group of people camped out next to me had left. They were very noisy and spoke until about 1 am for the two nights they were there. The walls of a tent are very thin!
Day 5 - Saigo no hi (last day) Got up around 4am and most of the camp was already up!!! These volunteers are something else. They immediately forge a bond with you and you are part of the team. If you are there for more that a couple of days you are family regardless of where you are from or who you are, you are just an equal. As I walked about and said ohiyo gozaimasu to everyone they offered me coffee or something to eat or we simply chatted about what was happening. I realized that these guys feed positive thoughts to each other to keep everyone motivated. They see the same things that I am describing and must get depressed seeing it day after day. Their job, and now my job, was to stay positive and smile and keep each other motivated and help each other just keep going. This along with cleaning houses or removing sand and mud and whatever crap is out there. They are here not only to volunteer and help but to be part of a greater team that continuously moves forward and helps anyone that needs it. And the beauty of it is that it just happens naturally. What an amazing group of people. Today’s work detail was to move furniture out of the first floor of a house. The tsunami had ripped through the house and pretty much destroyed everything. The owner was a 75 year old man who had been living there for as long as he could remember....at least 50+ years. His daughter was there with him and was pointing out which furniture to move out of the house and into another building on his property. There were 5 of us and we didn't have the heart to tell him that most of the furniture was rotting and would not last long. We cleaned it as best as we could and spoke to him some more. I kept thinking that this is something no one should deal with after such a long life. It seems that each of the thousands of houses that have been impacted must have a equally intense story. We got back to the tent site and I discovered that my tent had been surrounded by about 50 or more pre-school kids!!! It was really funny and the teachers were very apologetic. I said hello to everyone and they all responded back in unison with "hello"!! It was too funny!! I then asked them if they knew "ABC..." after which I said "A" and they all repeated it. Then I said "B" and they said.... I am sure you get the picture. The teachers loved it and we did our abcs !!!  It was a great way to end my time there. As I packed up the other tent people came around and said goodbye and asked when I would be back and if our paths would cross again. Most likely never but the most important thing, that I learned, is that regardless of who the person is you start off as a family to keep each other going strong. Everyone I met was regardless of age or where they were from was deeply committed to helping out. Perhaps it was the disastrous impact of the tsunami that has brought people together to help but I feel I have seen some of the best of what people can offer to each other and it is a good feeling. I am sure that I will be back to help out again...soon. Thanks to all the people who supported me on this project.