Tohoku, One Month On

Please excuse the scattershot nature of this rambling work in progress. – m

Today is the one-month anniversary of the Tohoku quake and tsunami disaster, but my flat is still rattling from aftershocks (I counted three today, but I’m sure there were more). Last weekend was actually the first I’ve spent at home in Tokyo since March 11, when the big one hit. Much of the last month I’ve been up north, looking for my in-laws, ferrying supplies to relief organizations, and being a guide for foreign television crews looking to get close to ground zero in the first days after the disaster.

The first of those trips began only a day after the initial quake. At 3:45 PM I’d received a fragmented text from a brother-in-law living up north: Fleeing. After that, it was impossible to get though to anyone in Tohoku via landline, mobile phone, or internet. But the television reports during the first hours, though incomplete or contradictory, were painting an increasingly bleak picture. Onagawa, Ishinomaki, Tagajo, Kesennuma, Minami Sanriku, all the nice little northern towns I’d visited so many times over the last ten years, were now listed as among the worst hit by the tsunami. The extent of damage to the Fukushima and Onagawa nuclear plants was as yet unclear, but I remembered years ago joking with my Onagawa in-laws about the disaster warning intercom installed in their kitchen. This little box would periodically sound a test alarm, like the radio broadcasts I grew up hearing: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System…” (perhaps, given the Japanese context, more like an air-raid warning).

I got the call from Christian Storms (real name) around midnight. A crew from Channel 7 Australia needed a “fixer” for a trip to Tohoku. A fixer’s job typically involves interpreting and translating, driving and navigating, arranging interviews, and securing official clearance to shoot. Not my usual gig, but Christian knew I had family in the affected areas and thought I might be a good fit for the Aussie expedition. Twelve hours later, having bluffed our way through the police barricade at the Tohoku Expressway onramp, the four fellows from Channel 7 and I were driving northbound in Christian’s eight-seater Toyota HiAce van.

I had a vague plan to make a stop at the house of one of my brothers-in-law, in Tagajo, a Sendai suburb, and drop off a Hefty bag of hastily gathered (in retrospect, quite useless) supplies. But our real goal was to get north of Fukushima Prefecture, and up into Miyagi’s Oshika Peninsula, where some of the worst tsunami damage had been reported. We’d been told of an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team that had flown in on a military transport from New South Wales, and hoped to track them down and deploy with them, but we really didn’t know where we’d end up or what we’d find.

Over the next three days, I guided the Aussies from one wrecked seaside town to another, stopping to pick up interviews or shoot an on-camera report, making detours to visit local refugee centers and ask about my in-laws, scrounge gasoline, and sleep on floors. My notes of the trip read like passages from the Divine Comedy, where Dante leads Virgil through the nine circles of hell. (I think the Taoists give hell eighteen layers, but who’s counting?)

The absolute nadir of this first trip has to have been our walk through Minami Sanriku with the USAR team. Our point of entry was about 10 kilometers from the coast, at the back of the narrow valley leading down to Shizukawa Port. We could see how the tsunami had hit the port and then been funneled up into this gorge, taking everything with it. It was like the entire town had been put in a Cuisinart. A snapshot I took during our first walk clearly shows a baseball bat, a fiberglass dinghy, an ice cream vending machine, a small tractor, a Western-style toilet, photo albums, bicycles, cars, trucks, children’s toys, a tool shed, a row of sinks, a water boiler, propane tanks, the roof of a house, a construction crane, and an entire daycare center, all in the same frame. Shredded, compacted, disintegrated, deconstructed, like someone had emptied out a child’s toy box onto the floor and then gone at the toys with a sledgehammer. And then there was everything that wasn’t visible in the picture: fourteen children (smashed into a corner of the daycare center), dead animals, gasoline, heating oil, raw sewage. Then it started snowing, snowing hard, further diminishing any trapped victims’ chances of survival (as if anyone could have survived submersion in sea water and two nights in the freezing cold). The Channel 7 report from Ishinomaki and Minami Sanriku is a pretty disturbing look at what the rescue team was up against.

We returned to Tokyo, all of us affected by the horrors we’d seen, but also deeply moved by our encounters with the people we spoke with: mothers who’d lost infants, orphaned children, people with nothing left but what they’d gathered onto their blanket on the high-school gymnasium floor (at one refugee center we visited). The Aussies had been to Christchurch, and I’d seen news reports from St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina; we all had notions of the destruction we’d see. But nothing prepared us for the stoic grace and quietly composed forbearance of the survivors. I’d found all my in-laws and, though they were undeniably pleased to see a familiar face, they were also standing fast, intent on sticking together and staying put, and refusing offers of refuge in Tokyo.

What a shock it was to return to Tokyo, where everything seemed business as usual, if not just a bit subdued and less well-lit. (It seemed downright peaceful compared to where we’d just been.) The Aussies made their uplink the first night back in Tokyo, and the next day I drove them to Narita for the trip home to Sydney. I have to admit to being mortified by the sight of all the expats lining up to get flights out of Japan. The number of surfboards visible in the queues suggested an early Spring Break for some. Christian said he saw two guys in a fist fight over the last seat on a Tehran-bound flight.

And then, almost as soon as I’d returned, I was planning the next trip to Tohoku, this time with a brother-in-law and cousin living in Tokyo. Oh yes, and Alex, a freelance war correspondent who tagged along, and quickly emerged as the sole wild card and source of levity of this otherwise somber expedition (more on him in a moment). Our plan was to take badly needed supplies to relatives in Tagajo and Onagawa, and their neighbors. My cargo manifest for Trip #2 includes the following: eighty (80) liters of heating oil, fifty (50) small propane canisters for cooking, toilet paper, wet tissues, assorted fresh fruit and vegetables, water, water tanks, water pumps, coleman camping lantern, blankets, adult diapers, Maxipads™, iodine tablets, galoshes, AA-size dry cell batteries, cell phone chargers, instant ramen, pasta, boil-in-bag curries and stews, socks, underwear, two cases of Asahi Super Dry beer, various sake and shochu, and a Chinese checkers set.

Regarding Alex, our  travel companion, veteran of many wars, and fresh from Libya on his first visit to Japan… To his credit, he took some very impressive shots of the sights along the way. He does have a good eye, I have to give him that. But he also managed to kill our car battery and use much of our precious gas with all his Satphone and BGAN charging. Yes, I’ll admit, he entertained us with many stories of his misadventures in Libya and Bahrain, and taught me a few Arabic phrases that will no doubt come in handy the next time I am interrogated by the Colonel’s security forces. But after a couple of hours, I think we all grew tired of (even suspicious of) Alex’s Munchausen-like rambling. The last couple hours of the journey to Tagajo, I let my brother-in-law take the passenger seat while I feigned sleep in the seat next to Alex’s.

A choice Alex-related diary entry: Alex needed to borrow flashlight to go out to van and charge computer. Father-in-law proffered old-fashioned battery-powered flashlight, but A. insisted on using brand new hand-crank rechargeable LED unit given father-in-law by refugee distribution ctr (and chided father-in-law for wasting precious battery stock). He returned, having killed car battery, needing jump start, and broken hand crank off new flashlight. In my humble opinion, this guy just behind Tasmanian Devil and Hurricane Katrina for wreaking chaos. No wonder he got kicked out of Libya. Keeps offering to drive – think we should let him?

When I told Alex about the fresh futon my mother-in-law had prepared for him, he answered that he was happy to use his sleeping bag, and ended with another pearl: “Perhaps you’ve noticed already, but I’m very low maintenance!” As if. Enough said about Trip #2.

My third trip to Tohoku since the quake was as a fixer for a Russian TV crew (though, in addition to their camera gear, we packed a couple suitcases of energy bars, candy, beef jerky, dried fruit, loaves of bread, canned drinks, and other give-aways). My co-pilot on the trip was J., a friend of Christian’s and veteran director of J-porn videos (one of the nicest fellows I’ve ever met, and an amazing storyteller). Igor, Mikhail, and the sound guy  were not the most upbeat bunch, but their Geiger counter’s beeping helped us stay awake during the six-hour drive up the Tohoku Expressway past Fukushima Daiichi reactor. (The sight of the three Russians in the rearview mirror wearing hazmat gear nearly caused me to drive off an embankment.)

This time, I visited Miyagi Prefecture’s Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, both busy fishing ports prior to the disaster, and now reduced to rubble. Ishinomaki’s summer harbor festival has been a regular visit of mine for many years, but it’s impossible to imagine any celebrations held here now. The numbers of dead, missing, and homeless here are staggering (early on, Ishinomaki’s mayor estimated the death toll would top 10,000 in his town alone). I’d seen the destruction in Ishinomaki three times now and, though the waters had receded, it was still amazing to see how far inland the tsunami travelled. Even several kilometers inland, I could see rice fields flooded with seawater, enormous sinkholes, and waterlines above storefront windows. A unique interactive feature in the Times helps convey the nature of the damage along the coast.

Kesennuma and Ishinomaki were previously very similar towns, but the post-disaster scene at Kesennuma had a distinctly different tone from Ishinomaki’s, because of the amount of fire damage in the area around the Kesennuma docks. As far as I could surmise, fuel containers spilled their contents into the sea, causing an enormous fire that was then swept inland by the tsunami, consuming everything in its path. Left behind was a twenty-foot-high pile of burnt and rusting wreckage extending the two or three kilometers from the water’s edge to the inland foothills, and several kilometers in either direction along the shore. Houses and stores, cars and trucks, and people, no doubt. The Japanese military had started to cut roads into the debris but, from an overpass nearby, they looked like ants lost in a sandbox.

In Kesennuma, we witnessed communal burials for quake and tsunami victims. Normally Japanese cremate their dead, but the local crematoria, overwhelmed by the sudden demand, were offering victims’ families the option of temporary burial until the situation stabilizes. A Health Department supervisor I spoke to said the official estimate was for a two-to-three-year wait before proper funeral services would be available. In the meantime, families participating in the ad hoc services here seemed to have decided to focus on their own survival. No one likes a funeral (well, obviously), but this was the grimmest thing I’ve ever seen, even with all the other death and destruction around: family members lining up to say goodbye and stuff keepsakes into open wooden coffins, followed by hard-hatted health workers nailing the lids on and lowering the boxes into the ground (earth movers and excavators working in the background).

My in-laws were making do for the time being, so I didn’t make any personal visits during Trip #3. Instead, we unloaded some supplies at Ishinomaki’s Aoba Middle School, one of the largest refugee centers in the Ishinomaki area. The Trader Joe’s swag I’d brought with us nearly started a riot among the kids there. School and city officials there were grateful, but seemed exhausted and overwhelmed. To be honest, our supplies seemed insubstantial relative to the number of people living at Aoba (just one of hundreds of similar facilities commandeered to shelter the homeless here).

I just returned a few days ago from Trip #4. I travelled with Christian Storms in his HiAce, our only goal this time being to transport food up to affected areas. I took an early train out to Chiba to meet Christian and then drove the HiAce with him to a local supermarket that specializes in restaurant supplies. There, we picked up about $1000 worth of cooking oil, instant noodles, boil-in-bag curry and stew, wet tissues, condensed milk, pasta, tomato sauce, canned tomatoes, sausages, umeboshi, nori, chazuke mix, furikake, honey, microwave rice, juice cans, and can coffee. Then, at a nearby produce market, we picked up carrots, shungiku, onions, green peppers, spinach, shimeji, daikon, renkon, gobo, leeks, apples, oranges, cabbage, and the like, leaving plenty of room for the shipment of food we’d arranged to pick up from Second Harvest Japan.

From there, a drive over to Second Harvest’s base in Asakusa-bashi. We’d been speaking to Charles McJilton, the director of operations there (and a friend of Christian’s from his Sophia University days), to inform him of our movements and offer him the back half of the HiAce for ferrying some Second Harvest supplies to Tohoku. Charles looks like a live version of Mr. Clean, and is as charismatic, super-organized, and thoroughly positive as you’d want the leader of a relief organization to be. Charles knew that we were planning to visit my in-laws in Onagawa, and had arranged for us to drop a load of supplies off to the Peace Boat folks’ staging area at Ishinomaki Senshu University. Charles and Christian and I bucket-brigade loaded twenty-five 12-kilo boxes of spaghetti, several palettes of instant noodles, and a 50-pound box of fresh spinach into the back. (The HiAce was really sagging after we got all the pasta loaded.) Finally, we filled the remaining space with fifty bright-orange fleece sleeping bags and hit the road.

We hit Sendai at sunset and got off the expressway near Tagajo. My brother-in-law’s family greeted us warmly and was happy for all the vegetables, but I was surprised that the items they seemed most grateful for were the tomato sauce and spaghetti Christian insisted on picking up at the supermarket. The standard rations for folks still in their houses are a single onigiri (rice ball) and a sweet pastry called “melon bread” per-person, two times a day. The father of a work colleague we visited in Ishinomaki told me he’d die happy if he never saw another melon bread again! We had a cup of coffee in my brother-in-law’s living room and then set off in the dark for the Peace Boat camp at Senshu University.

The Peace Boat folks were set up in tents alongside several other volunteer relief groups in the parking lot and on the grounds of Senshu University. We did the bucket-brigade thing again to get all the pasta, noodles, and sleeping bags into the Peace Boat warehouse. The young volunteers we spoke to were all very earnest, dressed in their Gore-Tex anoraks, hiking boots, and spelunking headlights and their operation looked like something from a Patagonia catalogue. There was a nice half-Japanese/half-Libyan kid I spoke to who told me he’d been working at their Ishinomaki post since just after the earthquake, but had been so busy distributing supplies and keeping their warehouse stocked that he’d still not been out to the city itself.

Once the HiAce was emptied of all the Second Harvest Japan stuff, we left Ishinomaki for my in-laws house in Onagawa. Onagawa is the site of a lesser-known nuclear reactor facility, automatically taken offline during the quake, and the port of Onagawa was one of the areas worst hit by the tsunami (reportedly one of every three people in the 12,000-person town has been confirmed dead or is currently missing). The navi-computer in the HiAce is out of date and plotted us a course along the coast road instead of a newer inland route, so the roads were unlit, lined with a wall of wreckage, washed-out in places, and generally scary to navigate in the dark. We got to Onagawa late at night, unloaded some vegetables for my in-laws and their neighbors to divvy up, and shared a couple drinks with folks there, before hitting the sack around midnight.

There was a large aftershock the next morning. We’d been feeling them daily in Tokyo since the quake, but the shaking on the Tohoku coast has a very different character. It shakes more, certainly, but the bizarre thing was that I could actually hear the quake before I felt it. I imagine the quake shook wreckage at different points along the coast well before the earth right under us began to roll. Like hearing an approaching freight train before you see it, I could hear the wave front building in intensity as it approached (my in-laws confirmed this sensation), and all that noise was really something I didn’t expect.

The next day was sunny and warm for the season, so Christian and I took a walk along the concrete breakwater “tetrapods” nearby. My in-laws live at the back of a deep bay whose mouth to the open ocean is only ten meters wide (this is the only possible explanation for why their house was spared by the tsunami). Even so, the amount of detritus washed up here was impressive. Cars, trucks, enormous buoys, shipping containers, roofs, doors, entire houses, sake bottles, shoes, slippers, bamboo soba strainers, a baby’s crib, tires, propane tanks, TVs, refrigerators, blankets, tons of clothing, furniture, photo albums, children’s toys, a motorcycle, paint cans, vending machines… and yet so quiet. It was turning into a really beautiful day now; very difficult to reconcile the sight of all that debris with the background of oyster beds floating on that bay’s peaceful waters.

After enjoying a home-cooked breakfast (made, I fear, using some of the supplies we’d just delivered), Chris and I set off for the 6-hour run back to Tokyo. On the way back towards the Tohoku Expressway, we stopped at the Yusa family’s house (parents of a work colleague of mine). I’d been by to check on them a couple weeks prior, and it was good to see them in better shape, if not high spirits. Their little Japanese-style house had been flooded neck-deep for days after the tsunami, but it was drying out now. All of their things – furniture, appliances, books, and clothing – had been ruined, but the house itself seemed livable, though certainly not comfortable. They’d stripped out all the tatami and fusuma, and were now living on cardboard boxes. And, though their son had already begged them to come to live with him in Tokyo, they seemed quite determined to stick it out in Ishinomaki. Such proud and stoic people! Yusa’s mother gave us a tour of the house, showing us the top shelf of their storage shed where she and her husband and their dog had spent the two nights before the tsunami waters receded. We left our last boxes of food with the Yusas and a couple of their neighbors before continuing on back to Tokyo, mission accomplished.

Chris dropped me off on the outskirts of Chiba around 6:30 PM, and I took the train from there back home. Trip #4  was the shortest trip yet, with more time spent driving than on the ground. No tours of the wreckage, save our little walk along the Onagawa shore, no journalists, and the few photos I took were mostly of me and Christian and Charles loading food into the HiAce. Talking to people we met along the way, it also seemed like the initial adrenaline and shock had worn off and people were settling in for the long slog ahead. The Fukushima Daiichi facility leaking radioactive seawater is starting to re-emerge as a concern for local folks; effects of the nuclear accident may well persist long after life goes back to “normal” for quake survivors. Many expats I know have left town, and many of those currently have no plans to return. They’re being called fly-jin, as opposed to gaijin (foreigners). I’ve also heard the term osharefugee, a portmanteau of oshare (fashionable) and, obviously, “refugee,” describing wealthy Japanese who’ve fled overseas and are using the high yen exchange rates to fund shopping sprees.

But how long can people in Tohoku exist on rice balls and melon bread? I started brainstorming with one of my brothers-in-law, who runs a mobile kebab stand, like an ice-cream truck, from which he sells very tasty Turkish kebab, pita sandwiches, and ice cream, and we came up with a scheme to get him up and running again, offering free kebab and ice cream at some local relief centers. He said that just after the tsunami he gave out his last hundred or so pita sandwiches, and the response was the best he’d ever had (kebab trucks are ubiquitous in Tokyo but are still considered quite exotic in the Japanese countryside). So I’ll supply him with fresh ingredients from Tokyo and he and our niece and nephew will assist him. I think we may even be able to get a couple more kebab trucks up from Tokyo. You may laugh, but wouldn’t anyone living on rice balls and melon bread welcome a hot meal or an ice cream cone? It’s just an embryonic plan at this point, but I think it has great potential!

I’ve now spent half my life in Japan. And, though always living in Tokyo, I have a very special place in my heart for the Tohoku region and, in particular, the seaside towns of the Oshika Peninsula, where my Japanese relatives have lived for generations. I’ve seen now with my own eyes the awesome power of Mother Nature, and the fragility of our cities (so much concrete and steel reduced to rubble in seconds). But I’ve also been moved by the strength of the human spirit in Tohoku’s survivors, and humbled by their dignity and resilience in the face of such incomprehensible tragedy. I’ll keep them in my thoughts, and look forward to the day when flowers bloom again in Tohoku.

Shaken (and stirred),


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