Tag Archives: tsunami

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.

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.

David Guttenfelder’s Visual Reflection on Japan

AP photographer David Guttenfelder has worked assignments across the world over several decades. He admits that his most recent task has hit hardest to home. Mr. Guttenfelder lives with his wife and children in Tokyo, but was on a job in North Korea at the time of the earthquake. Within hours of hearing the news of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the photographer was on his way home, concerned primarily about his family, rather than the assignment.

He was able to return home to Japan quickly, and after meeting with his wife and two daughters, began work covering the country which has been his home for several years. While his family has since relocated to the United States, this is the first time the wartime and disaster photographer has worked in an area that he knew before his assignment. He has an understanding of the Japanese way of life and can appreciate how aspects of their culture shine through even as they face what Prime Minister Kan famously described as their “biggest challenge since World War II.”

A deserted street in Minamisoma, a city within the 20 km evacuation zone of Fukushima Dai-ichi.

Mr. Guttenfelder shows a welcome understanding of the Japanese concepts of modesty and group dynamics, as well as the role of the individual. His goal is not to show the audience something to fear or pity, but to provide images that inspire hope, admiration, and understanding.

Footsteps in the mud originating from a derelict car in Minamisoma.

The photographer allows us to see Japan from the perspective of both an American visitor as well as a resident of Japan. He is both an experienced professional who has been embedded with military groups in Afghanistan, as well as a family man who is witnessing the destruction and rebuilding of the country his children had settled into. The dichotomy of viewpoints has led to some fascinating images.

A stray dog observes the wreckage left by the tsunami in Odaka, Minamisoma.

Mr. Guttenfelder’s story, as well as a full-color photo essay, can be found at the New York Times’ photography blog, Lens: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/conveying-the-sadness-in-japans-stoicism/.

A black-and-white photo essay from Minamisoma is available at http://blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2011/04/13/in-focus-abandoned-town/.

Mercy Corps: Helping the Japan Tsunami’s Littlest Survivors

From Joy Portella, a Mercy Corps employee formerly stationed in Japan:

MARCH 26 – The youngest survivors of disasters are often the most resilient, but also the most fragile. While earthquakes and tsunamis rob children of the same things that most adults hold dear — homes, families, friends — kids lack adult coping mechanisms. The emotional toll can be devastating.

Today in Kesennuma, a city of about 70,000 people in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, I witnessed both the resiliency and fragility of children. In the city’s main evacuation center — a converted sports complex — a play room has been set aside for small children. Today was the first day it’s been staffed by certified childcare providers who are creating activities to make life a little more normal and pleasant under the current, difficult circumstances.

That’s where I met Hidayuki Suzuki, age 40, his wife Miho, age 24, and their three-year-old daughter Rin. The Suzuki family had been living in the evacuation center for two weeks since their apartment was severely damaged by flooding. Hidayuki tells me that Rin is too young to understand the earthquake and the family has been together the whole time, so she’s doesn’t seem troubled.

Dad was more worried about contagious illnesses like colds and the flu, which despite best efforts to practice good hygiene like hand washing and the omnipresence of medical masks, are running rampant in the overcrowded living conditions. Rin, he explains, became very ill when they first arrived at the center. Despite her current cheerful appearance, she’s still on the mend.

In the main auditorium, I met a family with a different story. Hiromi Ito, age 33, had brought her two young children Soma and Kokowa to visit their grandparents, who are living in the center. Hiromi and her children are also evacuees but they have been taken in by her husband’s family. Hiromi’s mother, Masako, had not seen her grandchildren since the quake.

The story continues on the Mercy Corps Blog.