Today marks one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan. In the span of minutes, destruction on a catastrophic scale changed the lives of millions of people. In the aftermath, the world responded to the trauma, sending workers and volunteers on an unprecedented scale. The statistics were staggering. At a 9.0 magnitude, it was the largest earthquake to strike Japan in known history, and one of the 5 worst ever recorded. The resulting tsunami reached heights of over 40 metres, or 133 feet, and in some areas travelled up to six miles inland. Nearly 16,000 were confirmed dead, with over 3000 still missing. The World Bank estimated the economic cost to be $235 million, the most costly natural disaster on record.
A year later, and life in Japan still goes on. Photographs and video show the tremendous achievements in terms of cleanup and rebuilding that have begun, and that still carry on. They reveal the efficiency and the determination on the part of the Japanese people to remain strong, and to keep fighting. What these photographs do not reveal is that the struggle is still very much a part of life in Japan. Families have lost loved ones. Entire communities have seen their industry destroyed. The clash of cultures is thrown into sharp relief: old and traditional fighting to keep the status quo alive, while the young and progressive wish to move forward and look to the future. The Japanese government has no long-term plans or initiatives in place to provide a recovery structure, and the people are left to move ahead in uncertainty. There is still much work to be done. Japan is on the road to recovery, but the journey will last for years to come.
I travelled to Japan in May and again in August of 2011 in order to participate in cleanup and recovery work with All Hands Volunteers, an organisation dedicated to disaster relief all over the world. The trip itself was long and arduous, and when I finally arrived in Ofunato, a fishing town with a population of about 41,000, my mind struggled to take in the scenes. The destruction was beyond comprehension. Over the weeks I spent working in Ofunato, and neighbouring city Rikuzentakata, I witnessed many inspiring moments as well as moments of despair and heartbreak. As volunteers, we lived in the town with the residents and interacted with them daily, worked with them side by side. We shared their joys and sorrows, and became like family.
Reflecting on my two visits to Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, I find that my love and affection for the people and the community is undiminished. If I had the chance to go back today, I wouldn’t hesitate. I was so moved by the experience, and so humbled to share in the recovery efforts, that I hope my heart and soul are profoundly changed for all time. I find that words are such insufficient vessels to convey all that I want to say. I find myself turning memories over and over in my mind, savouring them as deeply as I can. From the hauntingly beautiful lantern ceremony, to the tears shed over recovered photographs of loved ones, I hope to keep all these scenes fresh in my heart for all time.
Japan: I visited your shores to help you in your time of need. I lost my heart to you, and I don’t regret it one bit. Your spirit and your beauty should inspire us all. In your darkest hours, you stood strong and emerged with great dignity. Thank you for allowing me to participate in your journey.
It’s been six months since Japan was devastated by earthquake and tsunami. I count myself privileged to have been involved in part of the recovery efforts based in the cities of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata. To say my two trips there were life-changing is to understate the powerful effect this journey had on my life.
Japan will be recovering for years to come. Nothing I can tell you, show you, explain to you can truly communicate the devastation. And yet, to say that its recovery will be so long is to do a disservice to the heart and spirit of the Japanese people, and those compassionate souls helping them. I was in awe of the way people worked selflessly, tirelessly, happily, and with unimaginable determination. To have seen the communities and volunteers working side by side, and to have seen the shocking amount of work they accomplished is to have been inspired… and humbled.
There are others out there who are working hard to share their experience, and the plight of Japan as well. I want to share one such effort with you. This video was made during the six months All Hands Volunteers has worked in Ofunato, and it is wonderful. Each of the people interviewed, I had the honour of working with. I can’t say enough beautiful things about them. I managed to make a brief appearance in the video, about 0:55. It’s my lovely black overalls and military boots (and an unfortunate view of my backside) that you see working alongside Yukiko-san, digging and sweeping. It’s absurd, but my heart sang that I got to be included (albeit barely) in this video that was able to bring me to tears yet again.
Watch it, and be moved. <3
Before I share the tales of my journey, I wanted to share what some of my first views of the city were. This was shot through my bus window (in the rain), as we drove through Ofunato. Parts of the city were still standing. Those were all the parts I came through as I arrived. It was a completely different story when I drove down to the work site the following day. All I could think was, there used to be a city standing here.
A few more photos here, so you can see what I was seeing.
I’ve certainly dragged my feet long enough.
If you’ve found me, then I hope you are here to track this, and future journeys. As I get comfortable with this medium, I’ll add some more past adventures, but for now I want to start with the inspiration for my blog. This first one is a long one, but it tells the story of how I got to this place.
And the words “my blog” are going to take some getting used to.
In March of 2011, I visited London with a large group of coworkers and friends. We trekked across the pond to visit one of my favourite cities and experience a true pub crawl, in the heart of the city where pub crawling is a rite of passage. London is a place of magic to me. Every visit, I find something new to drink in, something new to experience. It requires me finding alone time now and again to turn these experiences over and over in my mind, tasting them, testing them, caressing them, and dissecting them so as to preserve every little nuance discovered.
Seeking one such moment, I found myself alone in a local pub. I wandered in for a quiet seat and a pint. First thing I noticed was the barkeep and cook fixed to the television, where breaking news from Japan was being covered. Video and images of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami flashed across the screen, with concerned-sounding reporters narrating. The scope of destruction demanded attention. It was jaw-dropping to see. With my adventures forgotten, I slid into a seat and joined their silent little vigil as we watched buildings collapse, water surge, cars and other vehicles swept away. At some point ( I have no recollection of when or how), I found a pint in my hand, but I don’t recall even drinking it. I’m still not sure I did. I’m not even sure I got charged for it. As we three sat there soaking in the news, a group of Japanese businessmen entered the pub. They didn’t register on my radar until they sat at the table beside mine, speaking in hushed voices as they, too, concentrated on the television.
As their presence began to register on my consciousness, I turned to see them. They were being very quiet, but speaking in low, urgent tones among themselves. Mobile phones were being dialed repeatedly. It dawned on me, this is their homeland. I wondered if their hometowns were affected, and even wondered if I should lean over and ask. As I hesitated, those extra moments of observation told me that they wondered the same thing. None of them could reach anyone. Each man’s face wore the strain in a uniquely eloquent way. Pain, worry, shock… and yet they all managed to maintain their composure. Maybe it was just my mood that morning, to be predisposed to emotional and sensory depths, but it felt like I suddenly got the breath knocked out of me. I thought of my girls at home, and how it would feel if the disaster had struck in the US. How would I feel if the panic in my heart was to make certain my girls were safe… but I couldn’t reach anyone to find out? What if I couldn’t speak to them, couldn’t find them, couldn’t know? How horrific would it be to watch Nature ravage the place I called home, helpless and hopeless to do anything to protect my loved ones? I remember watching these men, thinking to myself, How can they bear it?
Later that day, I departed for home. My safe, sound home. The memories of that morning, however, left themselves seared on my psyche. I found myself returning to that morning again and again in my mind. My daughters have always had a deep love for Japan, borne from nowhere I could explain. They embraced the art, the culture, even the language from the time they were little. As they grew up, we did little home school projects about Japan and they amassed an impressive collection of manga and Japanese music. They even gave themselves Japanese names. These little links, insignificant as they might be on the surface, really connected my sense of horror at the disaster. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself wanting to collect them and head over to Japan to fix things, the three of us.
Strange, how our sense of helplessness sometimes translates to a desire to accomplish superhuman heroics.
Wonder Woman tendencies intact, I began to seek out volunteer organisations which were sending people to Japan. I’ve done work with the Red Cross before, but that door was soundly shut in my face. Apparently, lack of medical degree and triage experience meant my help was not wanted. So onto the next. And the next. There were quite a few sketchy groups, a lot of whinging about Red Cross, and a few organisations that seemed legitimate, but unapproachable. In my searches, I eventually came across the organisation All Hands Volunteers. I had heard of their work in Haiti, and started reading what I could find about them. I saw that they had started an application process for work in Japan, and decided (rather impulsively) to apply. After an initial acknowledgement response, I got a “Thanks but we’re full” reply. Less than twelve hours later, I got a “Do you think you can make it?” email.
From there, the journey took on a life of its own. I’ll find another time to tell the story of all the little minor (and major) miracles that made the trip possible, but for now suffice it to say that it still boggles my mind. I’ve never doubted for a moment that I was meant to go, and I’ve never looked back.
24 May, I arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun. One day later, I was on base at Project Tohoku, and began one of the most amazing and rewarding journeys of my life.
Special thanks to Maddy, LT, Aero-Matt, Lee, and Erik for the feedback and the helpful suggestions!