Tag Archives: Japan

Reflections on Japan from USJC Staff

The Sato family home in Kessennuma, where volunteers from America helped local organizations with recovery efforts

U.S.-Japan Council Staff Member Saki Takasu and several Council Members and Board Members traveled to Sendai to assist in relief efforts and learn about the next steps to recovery. Her posts include observations on the breathtaking islands of Matsushima, the recent Shinkansen service to Tōhoku, as well as the Genki Notes program (a joint project between the USJC, Emerson College, and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership).

We would like to share some of Saki’s thoughts on working with the “Flight of Friendship,” From Oregon With Love, which this blog has discussed here:

I joined the Flight of Friendship group after sitting in on meetings in Tokyo… [and] I was ready to become an observer of what is truly happening in the affected regions and to see how the plans and desires from Tokyo and the U.S. could connect with these areas.

And I was surprised.

I was first surprised at the extent of normalcy in the areas. Sendai City was full of people on a Thursday evening – salaried men going out for drinks, young teenagers meeting friends in stores, neon lights on the city streets. Even in Kessennuma City, a coastal city that was hard hit, the train station was intact and buildings looked as if it hand not experienced any tremors. But one cannot be fooled by this façade of normalcy. The economic impact is felt as you step into the semi-empty restaurants, talk to business owners and see the shops that are closed as you walk away from the main street.

Our team was in Kessennuma, and we were assigned to assist the Sato family. We stepped through a path made of old tatami mattresses and entered the back of the house, which now only had 2 walls and a support beam in lieu of a pillar that used to stabilize the house. The area was full of muck, household items and wooden boards. We quickly got down to the grueling task of throwing debris out of the house.

It was important to wear a mask, because the air is full of insects, dust and a noxious smell. Since Kessennuma is a fishing community, there are many canneries and seafood packaging factories nearby. Now, imagine all that unleashed into the city with the tsunami. We didn’t know whether to chuckle or gag when we found fish in the most peculiar places, like rooftops, or hidden in between household items. We also found a 15 lb. tuna (no longer alive) that made its way inside the house. We literally had to fish it out. This is all exacerbated with the stale water that had been trapped for nearly three months. We found many maggots feasting on the mud and fish.

Yoko Sato and her dog Ryu, who survived the tsunami from the second floor of their home

As we worked closely with the Sato’s, we became closer and they shared their horrific experience with us. Yoko has an elderly mother, and on March 11th, she decided to remain at home with her beloved dog, Ryu. They told their neighbors not to look for them, and waited to see what would happen. Right outside their window, they could see a traffic jam of cars trying to get to higher ground. 30 minutes after the tsunami alert, they could hear the water come up, and it reached the second floor. They live right by the river and the seaport, so it was uncertain where the water came from. Yoko’s husband, son and daughter were all away from home, and she wondered if they would be all right. Two days went by, and the Self Defense Force finally forced open their front window and cleared the debris to let them out. All family members survived, and the Sato’s are now living in a rented apartment.

You can learn more about the efforts in Kessennuma, as well as read accounts from the Sato family, on Saki Takasu’s blog.


The Washington Post Reports from Miyagi Prefecture

Washington Post correspondent Chico Harlan wrote a piece for Tuesday’s paper chronicling the rebuilding efforts in a tsunami-struck town. Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture has been the subject of many media reports and, thankfully, many donations and relief missions. This article pays special attention to individuals working in Minamisanriku, including local government employee Jinichi Sasaki:

He writes “OK” several dozen times each day, and Jinichi Sasaki figures he’ll scribble the word for years before anything about his town feels right again.

In this tsunami-obliterated fishing port, rebuilding begins with one word, which Sasaki, a municipal employee, writes — in English — on every invoice and delivery form. He uses it in lieu of a signature, in part because he likes its simple utility — an antidote for a place that was destroyed. A truckload of rubber boots: OK. A fresh crate of rubbish bags: OK. Forty thousand 500-milliliter bottles of water: OK.

Minamisanriku needs all of these things, and after Sasaki stamps his approval on the paperwork, volunteers stack the just-unloaded items in the sports arena that, eight weeks after the tsunami, keeps this town on life support. This is where Sasaki works, carrying three cellphones to keep pace with calls from donors, reminding them of the town’s ever-changing wish list. Inside the arena, boxes of clothing and canned food reach the rafters. Outside, rubble extends for 3.5 square miles.

A sequence of natural disasters March 11 reduced Minamisanriku to a place of profound grief and need. With rebuilding efforts in their infancy, officials such as Sasaki are realizing that the town’s shortages — too few supplies, too few jobs, too little safe land for new homes — could persist as long as the bad memories.

Sasaki’s worrying about the town’s needs prevents him from dwelling on his own. On March 11 he lost his car, his childhood home and his mother. At one point he was swallowed by the tsunami wave, long enough to think about his family and resign himself to death.

Since then, he has worked 60 days straight, and he has come to think that he’ll spend the last 12 years of his career — until retirement, at 60 — procuring and OK’ing the items necessary for an epic rebuilding project. Sasaki often updates the town’s Web site, maintaining a list of Minamisanriku’s top priorities. One month ago, the town had no sugar, no soy sauce, no nail clippers and no masking tape. Now it needs vegetables, cooking oil, sandals and toilet paper.

“Sasaki-san,” one town employee in a pink vest tells him, “there are six trucks outside waiting to unload.”


“Sasaki-san, the Shizugawa High School evacuation center wants 2,000 plastic bowls,” a co-worker calls to tell him. “Can you help us?”


“Are you Sasaki-san?” asks a man in a windbreaker, walking into the arena. The man says that he has come from Oita Prefecture, the opposite corner of the country, because he has the skills to do electrical repair work and wants to volunteer.

“OK,” Sasaki says, directing the man to a volunteer help desk.

The rest of the article, titled “After Japan’s tsunami, a town climbs back,” can be found on the Washington Post’s website here.

U.S. High Schoolers Encouraged to Visit Japan

The Japan Foundation, an agency in Japan which promotes cultural exchanges with other countries, has announced a new initiative aimed at American high school students studying the Japanese language. The JET Memorial Invitation Program is named in honor of Ms. Taylor Anderson and Mr. Montgomery Dickson, two Americans in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program who were killed in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The program will run for five years, with the support of both the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is open to interested high school juniors and seniors who have completed two years of Japanese language study.

According to the foundation, the goals of the program are to:

  • Enhance the motivation of Japanese language learners in U.S. high schools and promote Japanese language education throughout the U.S.
  • Encourage future generations to participate in Jet and other similar exchange programs to Japan, and
  • Develop networks among U.S. high school students who will act as a bridge to connect Japan and the U.S. in the future.

The program will run for over a week and will be based out of the Japan Foundation Language Institute in Osaka. Airfare to and from Kansai Airport in Osaka, as well as to and from the orientation area in San Francisco, will be provided.

The deadline for application for the 2011 program is this Friday, May 13. More information on the program is available in a PDF here.

Kazuhiko Saito on the Psychological Needs of Children

A recent special edition of the Sunday Mainichi included an interview with Kazuhiko Saito. Dr. Saito is from the Department of Psychiatry at Kohnodai Hospital in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, and specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. Below, in a piece titled, “How Do We Protect and Support Children’s Hearts?” he discusses the upcoming challenges of dealing with young victims who may be orphaned, living with developmental disabilities, or dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Special thanks to USJC volunteer Masami Hokama for translating the article.

At the disaster area clinic, the majority of people seeking counseling and treatment are adults. At first glance, many of the children are running around and playing. However, when we asked the children how they are doing, some say they can’t sleep. Some children become clingy, and cry easily. These reactions are often seen in children with acute stress.

A defining feature of this earthquake disaster is that there are so many children who lost their parents. They are protected in a community shelter at the moment, but little by little they will need to face reality. At that time, they will require full-scale psychological care and treatment.

We should be aware that children with developmental disabilities such as autism and Asperger disorder are very sensitive to the change in the environment. One of the problems is that these children are not able to continue with their medical therapy because of the disaster.

The majority of children without developmental disabilities recover from acute stress without individual treatment. The chance of recovery without medical therapy increases with proper support and protection in the group. Therefore, we need ensure the safety of children’s play at shelters, and allow time to play with children. We’ll be able to diminish PTSD by watching over and supporting children. Also, aid workers can support parents, relatives, and staff by conveying an intention to stand by. Children need someone who can give assurance that it is normal to return to child-like behavior in this situation.

It is important to listen to children if they want to talk, but we absolutely should not pry and get deeper into the details of stress. At one time it was said that debriefing is best to cure PTSD, but it became clear that it was not only completely useless, but very harmful and deepens the wounds. The Japanese Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has created a guide to deal with acute stress and is distributing it to the victims and supporters of this disaster.

At the shelter, some junior and high school students are helping adults with volunteer work. It is these children’s way to fight their own anxiety and stress, in the form of preoccupation with the role. To those children, it is important that adults give them a moderate role to help and give appreciation. “Thank you very much.” “You’ve been a great help today. Those people, everyone was happy, don’t you think?” – Sharing these feelings with them has the same impact that being hugged by parents or teachers has on small children. This is a big and meaningful support to them. Those junior and high school students are also tense of course, so the supervising adults must schedule their breaks, too.

Earlier I’ve mentioned that there are many children who have lost their parents. Among them, children who truly have no place to live need to be guaranteed food, clothing and shelter with a child protection facility once people start to move out of local shelters. Also, it is necessary that the receiving facility work together with the local child welfare agency to build up a support system to deal with deep trauma caused by the disaster for those children. At some point, psychological care specialists will be needed.

Some children may go to the child protection facilities far away from where they grew up. Therefore, it is necessary to build a system that protects and helps children bounce back not only locally, but also at a national level. It is an important mission this country must bear.

Architects Join Together for Rebuilding Effort

From Hitoshi Abe, chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture & Urban Design and director of the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies:

Dear Friends,

Japan today is facing an unprecedented crisis. The images coming from Japan convey unbearable scenes of a horrible calamity, as well as the bravery and composure of the Japanese.

Sendai, the city at the center of the stricken area, is my hometown where I was born and raised. My parents as well as many relatives and friends live in this beautiful city. Sendai is a university town filled with students and is referred to as the forest city because of its abundance of greenery. The numerous festivals celebrated in the region, including Sendai’s Tanabata, Kesennuma’s Tenbata Festival, and Ishinomaki’s Kawabiraki add color to the scenery of the seasons, while deepening the bonds of the people who belong to communities large and small.

All of this has been lost, or heavily damaged, in the recent disaster. The countless beautiful landscapes by the sea that I, along with many others, enjoyed since childhood exist no more. The damaged buildings of the university where I studied cannot be entered. Many are still searching for family and friends. The scope of what has been lost, what will be lost, is immeasurable.

Over 150 architects in Japan got together to form Archi-Aid, an architects’ network to support reconstruction following the East Japan earthquake and tsunami. I ask for your understanding and support…

Archi-Aid has established the Sendai Design League, based at Tohoku University. Their goals are

  • supporting regional reconstruction and development through an international network
  • the revival of architectural education
  • the accumulation and illumination of disaster knowledge

Their Japanese-language website is available at http://www.archi.tohoku.ac.jp/html/archiaid.html. Donations from the US can be made in English through Archi-Aid’s partner, Architecture for Humanity at http://architectureforhumanity.org/donate/form?program=Archi-Aid.

Yuta Hakoishi Grieves, Remembers His Father

Yuta Hakoishi, a 12 year old from Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, lost his father in the March 11 tsunami. This brave young boy was inspired to send his diary to the Mainichi Shogakusei, the edition of the Mainichi Daily News for elementary school children. Below is an excerpt from the translated diary, posted on the English-language Mainichi Daily News website:

March 11: We were practicing a song for our school graduation ceremony, when a huge earthquake hit. At first I thought it was just another earthquake. And even after an alert was issued for a major tsunami, I didn’t think there would be one. I thought that if a tsunami did arrive it would only be about 10 centimeters high. But I was completely wrong. What I saw was water and rubble being washed along National Route 45. I saw my mom and dad arrive at Osawa Elementary School before the tsunami arrived. But then I saw my dad going back out in his truck. I was worried about him. “Please don’t let him get swallowed by the tsunami while he’s driving,” I prayed.

March 18: Mom lost hope, saying dad still hadn’t been found after all this time. Granddad cried and said, “We’ll do our best and build a new home, and make sure that you can all go to school. Even if your dad doesn’t make it, we’ll do our best.”

March 23: The day of our graduation. As we sang the song “Arigato” (Thank you), I was thinking: “Dad, it’s because of you that I’ve been able to graduate. Thank you.” Then for some reason, my voice went shaky and I started crying. That night I had a dream. It was a dream about my mom and dad coming back from a supermarket in Miyako.

March 25: One of my relatives got a call on their mobile phone. They said a firefighter had found somebody who looked like my father. We rushed there, and I saw my father lying down, with his mouth open. My older sister started crying. My mom didn’t say anything and my younger brother stayed close to our relatives. When I touched my father’s face it was colder than water. In my mind I kept thinking, “Why did you go back?” Then I kept telling myself, “What good is it for me to worry?” but the more I said it, the more tears welled up in my eyes. I saw the titanium accessory that my father had worn, a good-luck ankle charm that he bought in Tokyo, and his wedding ring and mobile phone. What surprised me was that his watch was still working. When my father died and even when he was swallowed by the tsunami, it kept ticking. My dad’s watch is now mine. I don’t think I’ll ever lose it my whole life.

The rest of Yuta’s story can be read in English here, or in the original Japanese here.

Unfortunately, stories like this are not unique to the Hakoishi family. What is uncommon is for this young child to be willing to share his experiences with other children in Japan, as well as the world. Our thoughts are with Yuta, his siblings, and his mother. We are thankful for his courage and inspired by his resolve.

Small Businesses in Japan

Michihiro Kono stands in front of the remnants of his factory in Rikuzentakata. Photo Credit: Chie Kobayashi for NPR

While most news stories out of Japan revolve around major keiretsu (interlocking business groups) such as Mitsubishi, large automobile companies like Toyota or Honda, and more recently the large power company TEPCO, it is important to remember the role of smaller businesses in the country.

Small Japanese companies do not receive the same level of press in America, often because they are less export-driven than the large corporations, but they have played a vital role in the domestic economy. These businesses have also suffered in the wake of March 11, and it is perhaps their smaller scale that allows their personal stories to resonate more with a foreign audience.

National Public Radio recently reported on Michihiro Kono, the ninth-generation CEO of Yagisawa Company, a 41-person business in Iwate Prefecture, specializing in soy sauce. He was able to save enough sauce to preserve the family recipe, but the rest of his plant, and two of his employees, were lost in the tsunami.

The piece sheds light on the problems facing the minnows of the Japanese economy, who must turn to the government for recovery loans. Larger companies can also rely on large holding companies and banks (the central pieces of keiretsu), and are more likely to receive loans quickly and with favorable terms.

NPR highlights the resolve of Mr. Kono and his fellow small business owners:

Insurance will cover about 5 percent of the loss. A lawyer told him to file for bankruptcy protection.

Still, Kono is determined to help rebuild. He says without jobs, people will leave, lose hope.

“If you’ve lost family, the house where you lived and you have no hope of working with your colleagues again … then what?” he says. “I don’t want this to become the city where, six months later, survivors are committing suicide.”

Local businessmen meet at the driving school [where several small businesses have set up temporary headquarters] to discuss recovery plans. They, like Kono, are hoping to restart by asking the government for low-interest loans and other support. They track other business owners down at shelters, hoping to get them on board.

As we support and encourage Japan’s recovery from this tragedy, please take the time to think of small businesses, their owners, and their employees.