21 September 2011

JAPAN NOW : Six months since the earthquake. What I saw, heard and felt in Japan today and the future.

Since been back to England, I have been hesitating whether I should write this in my blog or not, because it’s going to be a long and sad story. However, by sharing what I saw, heard and felt in Japan, I thought the real view of Japan today that you cannot see over here could be acknowledged, and the ongoing thoughts for their ‘true’ recovery would be spread to as many people as possible. Please feel free to share your thought on this post. (This is the longest blogpost I have ever written, so I apologise in advance for my clumsy writing. Please click to view large images.)

organic paddy field my father helps out is waiting to be harvested. 
this time of year, those golden field can be seen everywhere in Japan, 
but this year some have lost by the tsunami and others fear from the radiation. 
Japan was hotter than I expected. Since my Degree study got started, I have altered my full time job to part time. Considering the finance, I have been holding back traveling to Japan for nearly three years. Nevertheless, after the earthquake in March, I felt the desperate need to see my family. Earlier this month I have flown to Japan as a last minute  quick visit, just for a week. Another reason for this trip was to visit the area that has been affected by the Tsunami. In order to consider how I would continue to support their recovery, I wanted to see them first hand. On the 11th of September, half year since the devastated event, I set off to Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, to meet my old friend.

Blue tarpaulin above house after house in Sendai city. 
Not catching up with fixing the damaged houses after six months.
Miyagi is the prefecture that has been the most affected by the Earthquake and Tsunami. Although My friend N, who lives further inland, did not have the direct damage from the Tsunami, I was so concerned due to the failure to contact her. With her friends help, we found out that one of us could managed to reach to her mobile phone a few days after the earthquake, whilst she was queuing for the water supply for six hours. Her house has got cracks and holes everywhere, shattered windows, fallen roof tiles, within the continued large aftershocks, waiting for the gas to be finally reconnected in May, yet she says “nothings to worry, nothings inconvenient at all.” Sendai station and roads looked totally up-side-down on the news that I saw six month ago, but today things were all back to normal with few reminders. Such a speedy recovery makes me think Japan is resilient and advanced. Yet, whilst we were driving through the city of Sendai, I have noticed a great number of blue tarpaulin covering house after house. Roof tiles (called ‘kawara’) and glass windows were shattered by the earthquake and many still waiting for fixing. Six month on, the roofers (we call them kawara-ya) cannot keep up with the huge orders. Winter comes early in the North. Soon they will face snow. Wishing them to be fixed as soon as possible, I recalled the TV news I saw the day before that a kawara-ya said the order pile is equivalent to ten years. Foreseeing this situation as a business opportunity, more kawara-ya are coming over here from the South. It is said that among them there are some kawara-ya who deliberately rips people off. How come there is always people like that in such a bad time? Having hold my sadness and frustration, we entered the motorway. 

Minami Sanriku. Town that has been wiped out by the 30m height Tsunami. 
Recked ship and destroyed car still remains in the sight.
Driving about two hours further north, we headed to Minami-Sanriku, where  almost the whole town was wiped out by the Tsunami. Well before we reached the town centre, still among the mountains where we could not see the sea, we have noticed a strange thing. Supposed to be a deep green forest tree line in the mountains have turned into dull brown. As we looked around, it began to appear with destroyed cars, fallen electric poles, empty houses without glass or wall, and twisted rail way lines. I was stunned. The brown trees were due to the wall of sea water. Had the Tsunami come this far? We continued along the main road and drove through the mountains. As soon as we came down on the hill, unimaginable view appeared in front of my eyes. The exact sea line was rather faded, but the whole area from where I reckoned is the sea to the bottom of the mountains were completely empty. In the distance, I could see something looks like huge piles of debris and concrete buildings here and there, but other than that, there was no sight of people or even the sound of birds. Is this really the town centre? My friend N who has passed by here in the past doubted where she was, as if she could not recognise anything, so we decided to drive further up. We drove between the mountain, and before we knew it, we found ourself at Bayside Arena on highland, where people had evacuated to until recently. In Arena, the ceremony for those who lost their lives was held since that morning. The ceremony had already finished by then but we still saw several people in black. It has gone passed three o’clock. I was going to pray when I hear the siren at 2:46, but silly me, there won’t be any siren where there’s no electric and stuff. Instantly I realised that it was the town centre where we passed earlier. “There really was nothing!” At the entrance, there were still many lists of missing people and lists of body found next to it. The newest ones were only the day before, most of the recent ones were found in the sea and indicated with no longer clear identification of sex or age. My heart sank when I thought of those who have been looking for missing loved one for the past six months. 
Petrol station about 1km far from sea.
You can tell the Tsunami hit real hard from the shattered metal frames.
a rice cooker pot buried on the ground. one of many remnants of life. 
We left Arena and went back to the town centre we drove passed earlier. Near a small bridge we stopped, there were hundreds of destroyed vehicles lined neatly. Numbers were sprayed on its body. Is that indicating the place the car was found or the dead body within? Looking towards the sea from the top of the bridge, I could see the area still filled with water and a wrecked ship. Looking back the opposite toward the mountains, about 20, 30m height of brown trees were stood right up to the end of mountains, along with the huge piles of debris in front. On the opposite side of the river, one empty concrete building was left with a car stuck on the edge of the roof. I walked toward the building with my camera. It seems to be that most of debris were already tidied away, and all I could see that day was sand the Tsunami has left on the ground and weeds growing wildly up on it. From time to time I saw remnants of life, such as a single shoe and a rice cooker container buried under the ground in between the marks by a bulldozer. Apart from the main road that has been put in order, I could not identify where the houses or roads used to be. That three storey concrete building was revealing a part of kitchen or entrance, and through the wall the Tsunami has taken down I could see the mountains beyond. Around there, it must be about 1km or more from the sea. I walked a little further to the main road, there was a petrol station. By the shape of metal frames that distorted into one side, I could tell the Tsunami hit real hard. I began to feel uncomfortable to take photos. 
Looking toward mountains. 
Long line of ‘brown trees’ shows how far the Tsunami came. 
A car washed away and stopped on the top of this three storey building. 
Driver survived & rescued next day.
When I returned to the concrete building, I saw a truck parked and a man who was collecting debris. He repeated the maneuver of fetching debris and piling up in the corner within the same area. Soon he sat low on what looked-like a concrete frame, began to sharpen a sickle with a drip from a bottle of mineral water. I first hesitated but could not ignore so walked toward him. “Must have been hard time…” When I said so, his tanned face looked up to me. Around my retired father’s age, I guessed. “Ship, house and everything has gone...” He stopped his hand, took a deep breath and told me that it used to be his house there. He, who currently living in temporary housing with his survived family, were coming to cut down the weeds growing vigorously in his estate. Where he was sitting was the foundation of his house. “It was really frightening. Such an enormous noise and shook the ground so long. Knew it’s going to be the huge one (Tsunami).” He, a former fisherman, had let his wife and two ground children evacuated in that truck soon after the earthquake and he went down to the sea to try to escape with his ship. With his strong accent I could not quite understand how on earth he has managed to evacuate after that, but I did not wish to question him so I just continued to nod as he spoke. Pointed down about a few meter from his house, he said “When Chile ones (earthquake in 1960) hit, tsunami came to that far.” Since then, the whole town has been preparing for tsunami and practicing for a thorough evacuation every year. Nevertheless, there were many who did not evacuate and lost their life. He recalled his neighbours saying, “Even we shouted out loud to run away, they just assumed it won’t come this far, it will be safe in the second floor… they all died.” Then he pointed out the car stuck on the concrete building, “That has been swept all the way by the Tsunami and stopped there.” A lady who was inside was rescued next day. “She did very well in such freezing cold over night.” He said. What  divides us from life and death? “She didn’t give up at all, didn’t she?” I said. Then he nodded and said “We must not give up from the beginning. She must have never given up until the last minute, mustn’t she...” As if it reminded him of something, he wiped his eyes flooded with tears. From time to time, he stood up and pointed the directions, explaining to me that house too has people who died without evacuation, that area used to be paddy field and so on. He looked up the electric line left stood in front of us, explained there used to be fish nets, futons and all sort of debris stuck on and all were cleared by the Self-Defence Force. Just before ‘black’ Tsunami arrives, there was unimaginable force of ebb tide and he could even see the bottom of the sea. I looked down the sand under my foot, that huge wave has left on his land. Where he indicated “used to be a car park” I could see four concrete blocks as tyre stoppers. Apparently he used to live together with his daughter’s family. “This used to be a prime site right next to the main road. Let my daughters graduated up to university, she has just got a qualification to start up her job. Young people are fighting for the recovery elsewhere, but being over 70s, lost boat, cars and house and all… should I start from zero with huge loan again….” Describing the uncertain future that way, he quietly sighed and continued to sharpen the sickle. 
seeing concrete building and mountains of debris from ‘his’ estate
Like him, there are many of those who cannot decide how to go about from now on. Those who lost loved one and could not even start think about it yet, those who are desperately trying to find a job to support family, those who once evacuated from the devastated area but returned to hometown to support their recovery, those who could not bear with the uncertainty and moved out of their homeland to start a fresh elsewhere. People who were affected have spent this half year in many different ways. Whilst each town has started new plans for their housing and local businesses in order to move forward with a safe and speedy recovery, lots of them are asked to moving out to high land or joining a large business, yet the truth is that it hasn’t gone smoothly as many citizens could not agree. Born and bred in this area, he said “cannot even think about living without the sea.” 
I guessed it has passed about half an hour since I started to listen to him. I could only say “ Sorry for letting you talk to such a stranger, but thank you.” Then he kindly said, “ Talking makes me feel a little better…” Did half year make him able to speak out like this? What those people need now may be time and space to digest slowly. I returned to my friend’s car, having unsettled feeling ‘I could not do anything’. In the back seat, I glanced at the purple wrapping. This year’s lavender from our garden that I kept it for N. “Don’t worry about me, just take it.” Thanking briefly to N, I dashed to him with the bunch of dried lavenders in my hand. He looked little unease. I handed the purple wrap to his hand, “Please do give this to your wife or your grand daughters. When you cannot sleep, it should help you rest.” He opened the wrap and said, “Oh, that’s nice smell. Thank you.” He then put the lavender in the car seat and went back to weeding. 

Shizukawa hospital. Tsunami covered a whole building of four storey. 
From its entrance. 
Beyond the recked building frames, another mountain of debris. 
We went back to the road we came, stopped at four storey building covered the front entrance with a massive wall of debris. Shizukawa Hospital. I recalled the view from the news that people evacuated on the roof top after the Tsunami completely filled up to the fourth floor. As you walked inside, the floor was sunk and the ceiling was fallen. I prayed at a small table where flowers were gathered. Looking back the entrance, within the shattered concrete frame, I could see another pile of debris like a mountain. As the sunlight started to fade, we left Minami-Sanriku town. Every time I recall his tanned face, I could only wish so hard for the day when the town regains the light of hope. 
public toilet in front emphasises the height of debris
Including Minami-Sanriku, there are tons of areas that were affected by the Tsunami in the North. After half year has passed, there are still ‘too many’ areas that could hardly see the sight of recovery. The day before I set off to Sendai, I saw the TV program about a lady still in a dangerous condition. Having closed the evacuation centre now and whilst many others moved to provided temporary housings, she could not make it for the selection. Hence she was forced to return to the building affected by the tsunami and continued to live on the third floor of the building, which has no electric, water or gas, where seawater still fills the first floor in high tide due to the sunken ground by the earthquake. There are still many people like her who are not selected to live in the temporary housing and continue to live with fear. 
In parallel to the fact that we show our empathy to them, there is also negative reputation growing toward Fukushima where the nuclear power plants continue to leak radiation today. During my stay in Japan, Media was creating the top news about a politician who described in public Fukushima as ‘a town of death’. Severely criticised his careless voice, he has apologised in public, yet soon after that he was picked up by media again as he shown gesturing to spread the radiation to others when he was visiting Fukushima on duty. In a way, I feel that his description of the town might have been true, especially after having seen Minami-Sanriku with no sight of human or even birds. Nevertheless, people like him, who are supposed to lead the citizens, should never ever say things like that. It just shows how carelessly he thinks of the affected people. Moreover, media does stir it up unnecessary. In such hard time, could not government and media focus on the more important issues? Why can they help that lady in the three floor building, whilst they faffing about? I cannot hide my frustration every time I see such hopeless, careless act by the politicians and media. 
Negative reputation toward Fukushima must be beyond the imagination to those who are in the firing line. My friend who works in Tokyo Electric Power, even works in totally different prefecture, has been working her socks off since then, no time to rest, coping with numerous of phone calls to complain. In a way, she is too the affected one. Think of people who are still in the nuclear plant, working under the fear of radiation without any sleep. They must be working truly the hardest. In newspaper today, you can see the radiation level just like a forecast. In Saitama, where my parents lives, is about 200km away from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, however it has been shown quite high level at times. We still do not know how much radiation has leached under the ground or into the sea right close to the power plant. “If the government cannot help us” trying to minimize their mounted fears, there are many individuals and companies who provides machine to read the radiation level and water jet to wash the radiation off. In Fukushima, there is a town that 80% of population have moved out the town. I hear many people moving out of the main land, to escape from the potential radiation. Many of families who have children seems to have made decision quickly and moved shortly after the earthquake. It is heart braking when I imagine living under the circumstances; to view your hometown getting wiped out as if something took over in second, not knowing if you could ever go back, and people and jobs disappearing.  
During my visit, I watched a documentary about the history of the Nuclear Plant. It  included some American engineers and researchers who were involved with Fukushima reactor called Mark 1. It was said that Mark 1 was the first nuclear system that has been introduced in Japan by US in 1970s, by 1980s it was questioned about its safety among the American engineers. The issue has become quite a big discussion in US, but in the end, they promoted the opinions that to say the likelihood of major accident was  astronomical, and hence has never been reconsidered. That case has been the same when it came into Japan. Despite the American engineers’ concerns about “Mark 1 should not be based in the area that earthquake likely occurs”, the low likelihood of major disaster has been raised more than need of the safety precaution. Whilst safety precaution should have been based on the worst case scenario with back up of back up, how come Japanese government and relevant authorities at that time did not ‘care’ enough? “Japan is safe” somewhat this sort of typical assumption seems to develop over the history of our rapid industrial development since the war. What if we followed up the question raised in America in 80s? What if we thoroughly studied the potential risk and pursued the correct safety measurement? We might have been able to prevent this disaster from happening. Since it did happen, we now have to closely monitor and suffer from the humongous radioactive waste, for another decades and centuries. 
My niece, nine, and nephew, four. 
She has made ‘green sweet’ for summer holiday homework, 
which is aparently representing ‘safe and less energy’. 
Many schools have provided homework related energy saving and nuclear 
this summer. What can we, adults, leave to the children? Fear or hope? 
Six month then. Within the fear and uncertainty, what we, adults, can leave to out children and the next generation? Could we possibly leave them hope? Writing horrible things like this may have create more fear, however, if you turn your back to the reality, believe Japan is safe regardless and did not nurture the sense of precaution, I feel that things can be repeated. In order to regain the hope, we as individuals have to develop the ability to ‘think‘ what we can do, and take into action by step by step without giving up. What we can do now as a adult as an individual. Thinking of that and working toward that seems to be the only way to seed the hope to the future. 
This visit helped me decide to continue to support Japan from now on, as a Japanese and as a tiny part of this world. I am now pondering and planning what I could do as a individual who make things. I apology if you find my writing too pushy, however, I do sincerely appreciate those who read this far. I am hoping that the hope and thought of support to Japan to be spread to as many people as possible from now on. 
An early morning view from my parent’s house. 
I have left Japan with a firm decision...
In March 2011, when the earthquake hit Japan, I started fundraising ‘HELP JAPAN 1000 BIRDS PROJECT’, for which I made 1000 ceramic mini birds and donated those proceeds. The project was completed in May and even now I receive wonderful messages from people who contributed to the project, saying that whenever they see the birds, they think of Japan. I then began to feel that I have done something that did help Japan at the hardest time. Having seen many unsettled life and hardship in today’s Japan and considering their future, I am going to restart a fundraising project in the near future. This time, I would like to run longer, change the method slightly and hopefully deliver the donation directly when I go to Japan in 2012. If you are interested in my next fundraising HELP JAPAN PROJECT 2 or/and happy to spread the words, please do not hesitate to contact me via email or blog. I will inform you as soon as the project is ready to start. (hopefully in new year, as I am currently so tied up with my BA study, I'm afraid... ) 
Thank you so much again for your time. x maki


  1. I would like to help any way I can Maki.
    This firsthand account cuts through all the filters and I read with concern at how the devastation continues. The immediacy of fixing the roofs, wondering where they get food and the dissapointment of dishonest and greedy repairmen are distressing. Its a good idea to deliver all the monies in person as you said.
    Thank you for all you have done, and for the enlightening report of what is happening in Japan now.

  2. I thank you for this Maki. It's hard to believe this has only been 6 mos ago. Already, the news in the states had shifted away and it's as if it never happened. There have been other disasters and such to remain fresh in our mind, but it's these that are so devastating that rock me to the very core. I can't imagine starting completely over now, much less at the age of 70! Thank you for this update-it's up to individuals now to remind the world I think. I would love to see what you have planned for fundraising and commend you for keeping this issue in our hearts and minds!

  3. Maki, Thankyou for your first hand report of the continuing effects Japan suffers from the earth quake and the tsunami. I would like to support you in whatever you decide to do. I honor you and your determination to help.

  4. Oh what a sad visit to Japan for you - your account of the damage is very moving, I'll watch your new project with great interest and wish you well

  5. My dear Maki, it must have been hard for you to experience this but I'm sure that this experience has re-ignited your determination to try and do something to make this situation better. What you did with your birds project few months ago was so inspiring and I really admire you for what you've done and what you intend to do next so you have my full support. As soon as you're ready to kick of your project again just let us know, I'll be happy to support you in any way I can and shout out to everyone that can hear me so that they can get involved too :)

  6. Maki, I read your post last night before I went to bed on my iphone. I couldn't post a reply but I thought about your words all day today. I thank you for sharing your experience. Your story is so devastating, so very upsetting. There is not a day that goes by when I don't think about Japan. I hear what you are saying about the nuclear power stations. In hindsight it is hard to believe that they were build in that location, and I agree that that should have been understood much much earlier. In Dutch we say 'na ons de zondvloed', which means as much as 'after us/after our time the floods will come. We always seem to believe that we will be alright, that disaster won't strike in our lifetime. Maybe it's optimism or maybe it's ignorance. We are like ostriches.
    I watched a documentary about Japan the other night. There was a woman who lost her child and learned to drive a digger, because she wanted to find the body of her daughter. I have thought about her every day and I keep seeing that picture of her in her digger looking for her child. I am not sure why I am telling you all this. Maybe to say: we won't forget. I won't and so many people with me won't. I'll support you in any way I can. Keep sharing your stories.
    Much love x

  7. Thank you for taking the time and effort to share this story with us. The pictures are heart breaking... And I cannot help being inspired by the will to live and keep on living under these extremely excruciating circumstances.
    Sending love!

  8. Maki, Thank you for sharing your story, it is absolutely heartbreaking. I think and wonder about Japan every time I look at your little birds.
    I am more than happy to support you in any way I can once you start your new project and to help spread the word.
    Take care.

  9. Maki, this must have been very hard to write, but thank you for sharing your first-hand experience. I too have wondered about Japan and its recovery. Your little birds are always a reminder to think and pray. I too will be glad to support your new project and will share this with my friends.

  10. Anonymous23/9/11 19:54

    It must have been so hard to visit a place you know so well and yet did not recognise. Thank you for all this information, I knew things must still be hard in Japan but here in the UK you don't hear anything about it anymore. I would gladly help support your new project when you ready to start....just let us know
    best wishes and take care Allie x

  11. Thank you so much for reporting this, Maki...I live in California and have been wondering about the recovery, but haven't heard anything in a long time. I'd like to hear about your project when you start up again. Take care...

  12. Anonymous23/9/11 23:08

    Hi Maki,

    I read every word as there is a part of my heart with Japan. It is a place of fond memories for me having lived there while in high school when my father was in the US Air Force stationed in Misawa. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for you while there but I am sure you brought much comfort to those you met along with your friends and family. I bought several birds, kept a few and some gave to special friends who like me think of Japan alot, even now. I will support you and your efforts when you start Help Japan Project2. There are alot of people who want help as noted in previous posts and I am one to be counted in this most important goal to continue to help Japan.
    Denita Purser
    Garner, NC USA

  13. Thank you for your first hand report. It is hartbraking. I will share this on my blog and of course I'll support you with Help Japan Project2.
    Best wishes and take care X

  14. Thank you for sharing your visit with us. I live in the US and hear very little about Japan's recovery on the news these days. I'll be happy to share your story on my blog and to support your next project.

  15. the little birds you sent became an installation on a rock in the Todd River in central Australia
    thank you for taking the trouble to write this account of the situation in Japan today. please let me know if i can help in your next project

  16. It's a really good report, showing the total, unimagined devastation of the landscape but also how it has directly touched the lives of those you spoke to. It is amazing how they find the strength to go on. I keep thinking about and can almost smell the lavender in your parcel and the way your friend knew what you were thinking.
    Keep me posted on your next project
    Pam xx

  17. Hello Maki,

    This is very sad. Please let us know what we can
    do to help.


  18. Thank you for sharin g such a deeply personal experience. It tells me so much more. Please let me know when you launch your project.

  19. Thank you everyone for supportive messages. I will keep you informed about the project here and via email. x maki