H&N Blog: Letters From Japan

Survivors pray for victims at the devastated city of Miyako, northeastern Japan. (AP/Yomiuri Shimbun, Naoya Masuda)
Survivors pray for victims at the devastated city of Miyako, northeastern Japan. (AP/Yomiuri Shimbun, Naoya Masuda)

We've been reaching out to people in Japan affected by last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami. We spoke with American teacher and martial arts expert, Jonathan Levine-Ogura. He lives in northern Japan with his wife and two children and he told us that food and gas were in short supply.  Then there was our conversation with Tokyo-based blogger Joseph Tame, which was interrupted by a frightening aftershock.

And we've been getting emails from Japan, like this one from American freelancer Quinlan Faris.

In Hanamaki, things are looking up. Grocery stores are opening for longer hours and actually getting regular influxes of vegetables, meat, fish, and rice. Still greatly reduced stocks from normal, but is amazing and heartening to see shelves fully stocked with vegetables again.

Gasoline is also starting to come in, though it is still strictly rationed and requires waiting in lines for several hours. The same for kerosene- strict rationing but not necessarily long lines. (We need kerosene to heat the house and provide hot water.)

A friend of ours wanted to check on the safety of their friend in Kamaishi, a city on the coast a couple municipalities over. So we got a bag of food from them to give to this friend. We also packed up about four big boxes of our clothes, winter jackets (ski wear, etc.) and bought a few things like diapers, toilet paper, and water at the store.

We went to the gas station just before noon as a line was finishing and spoke with the owner, who offered to fill up our tank since we were driving to the coast with supplies. It was a two hour drive to Kamaishi.

We found the friend of a friend at their house and delivered the food we had been given for them. They were basically ok, though had just gotten electricity back and still lacked water. Local was getting water out of a mountain river and giving it around that neighborhood where houses remain.

Area hit by tsunami is clearly defined. One side of town looks almost normal and the tsunami-hit area is completely devastated. It’s just like you see on TV, cars and buildings piled up and rubble in piles pushed to the side of the road. I was driving so no time to gape. Was somewhat worried about getting a flat tire with all the glass and debris. Somehow didn’t feel right to take any pictures. There are enough images of this available.

After wandering around a bit in Kamaishi we found the disaster relief headquarters and a volunteer center in the evacuation center there. This is where we brought the clothes and supplies we had brought with us. They said they have recently gotten tons of food and other supplies through the port. We had been planning to come back the next day with as many onigiri (rice balls) as we could make, but they told us that volunteer labor was more needed than food at that point. So tomorrow we are planning to go back to help with loading and delivering boxes, or whatever else they put us to work doing.

At the rescue center, when we asked them what was needed most that we might bring, they replied that they weren’t sure and that there were still ongoing rescue efforts taking place as many are still missing from the area. This remained the first priority. The volunteers themselves that we spoke with were locals who had lost their homes. Everyone there was in remarkably good spirits and quite upbeat. They still didn’t have electricity, and asked if Kamaishi and the surrounding area had been on TV. Felt a little embarassed when asked about Hanamaki. Had to honestly reply that were were almost completely unscathed and just faced minor inconveniences.

Both in Kamaishi and in Tono on the way there we saw dozens of Japanese Self Defense Force vehicles and camps. Also saw fire trucks and ambulances from as far away as Osaka and Oita, Kyushu. Not sure how they got up here, but great to see them!

We also talked briefly with the Red Cross workers there. (Asked them for directions, actually.) The Red Cross had set up a camp near an evaucation center and were up and fully running with a treatment tent. Your donations to them are very meaningful. Let’s keep the donations flowing to the Red Cross and other organizations. Don’t hold back!

-Posted 12:49 Monday March 21,

We got this email from a friend's son Daniel White, in Tokyo.

"there has been an explosion at a nuclear plant..."

I can vaguely hear and understand the garbled announcement as I make my way through a surging crowd of mostly middle-aged people wearing surgical masks, snapping up every edible and potable item for sale at a rural supermarket. I ask my wife what the announcement is telling us. "I wasn't listening," she says in a distracted way.

"...these people are scary," she continues.
"People are animals," I pontificate, "they are afraid."

On Friday a massive 9.0 earthquake rocked eastern Japan. It was compounded by severe tsunamis. The one-two punch lead to a nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Radiation is being released. The details are sketchy and suspect. The official announcements urge people to remain calm, while at the same time they are in the process of evacuating a 30 km radius around the plant, and warning of continued meltdowns, rolling blackouts, and severe aftershocks still to come.

Today is Monday. The aftershocks are so frequent I anticipate feeling uneasy when they dissipate. I am chatting with my friend. We are discussing the quantity of rice stockpiles we have. It's an uncertain time. She says that there is likely to be another big one in the next two days. This is quite likely, as I've heard it from many sources. I've become sceptical of the frantic rumors-talk of shortages of gas, water, batteries, and the inability access atms is based in fact, but only true depending on one's location.

Drastic times call for drastic measures, but perhaps there is nothing as drastic in a time like this as remaining serene. The lotus sutra discusses the doctrine of expedient means. It contains a parable about a person whose house is one fire and expounds on the notion that in such a situation the only sensible reaction is cool calculation. These values may sustain us through these times, if put into practice in a skillful fashion.

-Posted 12:15 Monday March 21, 2011

We heard from listener David Waln. His son Ethan first went to Japan on a Rotary exchange in 1996. He then attended college for a semester there and has been teaching English since graduation. He married a Japanese woman, and they are raising two children within 120 miles of the troubled power plant.

David sent us this message from Ethan, which he received a couple days after the earthquake:

We have power now but no phone or internet, so no skype. We're charging our cell phones so we can still email but the reception's pretty bad--email goes through sometimes but still no calls. There's talk of rolling brown-outs so we're getting things done while we can."

Here is an up date from Wednesday night 3/16

"I went out looking for gas yesterday morning. The first station's was out but they told me of one they thought might be still pumping. I drove there and waited in line turning the engine on and off to conserve gas as the line progressed, but they ran out about ten cars in front of me. I decided to head home rather than waste any more gas looking.

On the way home I stopped at a farmer's market. I wasn't sure what to expect since most of the supermarkets are closed, but they actually had a fair selection. I bought two bags--lots of vegetables, some oranges, rice flour, dried mushrooms, and miso. The lady at the register said that the farmers have plenty of produce, but they don't have the gas to bring it in. It looks like that's the situation everywhere--lots of goods but no way to get them to the stores. Without gas the economy doesn't function; nothing moves. There's talk about gas being shipped from a refinery in Niigata (on the Sea of Japan side) but it will go to the emergency vehicles first. There's no telling when it will be available to the rest of us.

In the afternoon we got an email from the librarian at the school Setsuko taught at until February. She lives close by and sometimes brings her two- year-old granddaughter over to play. Apparently one of the students' mothers runs a gas station and came by the school to see if any of the teachers were in desperate need of gas. The librarian explained our situation the mother agreed to sell us 10 liters. That should last us for a while.

The news from the power plant keeps getting worse and worse. Hopefully we're far enough away that we won't be too badly affected but we're staying inside as much as possible and keeping an eye on the news.

Yesterday was our fifth anniversary. We didn't have any big plans to begin with--go out for lunch, maybe see a movie--but under the circumstances we couldn't think of an appropriate way to celebrate so we just enjoyed each others' company and were thankful for what we have. I'm sorry if our updates aren't as frequent as you would like--it takes a really long time to type on my phone.

Hope you are all well. Lots of love,

-Posted 12:00 pm, Friday March 18, 2011

There are many towns and cities in the U.S. that have sister city relationships with Japanese counterparts, and we checked in with two this week.

First we spoke with Riverside, California mayor Roni Loveridge, whose sister city is Sendai. We also touched down in Plymouth, Massachusetts, sister city to Japan's Shichigahama. Margie Burgess, who is a charter member of the Sister City Committee in Plymouth, connected us with Jamie Rosenberg, a Baltimore native who lives in Japan.

Here's an email from Jamie:

I'm in the center of Sendai, right now. I drove a 4-ton truck full of food with a Christian missionary named John to get here. The weather was breezy and cool in Tokyo, but by the time we reached the north side of Fukushima, it had gotten to the freezing point, and begun snowing. It snowed hard for the last part of the trip. I wasn't able to get to Kesennuma today, but the supply delivery will happen tomorrow, in a truck driven by someone else.

There is no diesel inside Sendai. Lines to gas stations along the highway stretched more than an hour in some places, but we were able to find diesel by getting off the highway in a rural place. We had to move blockers and cones to get on and off the highway, but were not concerned about bothering police. Highways are closed to the public, but we had a special emergency permit. The highways were in good condition, for the most part. There were many places with cracks, some of them substantial, but most of them ran across the street horizontally, and several had already been patched. It made for a bumpy ride, but it was safe. There were only a few places in which the cracks ran with the highway, and they were blocked off.
We passed two long Japan Self-defense Force caravans on the way to the region.

The heart of Sendai seems as it always has, except that everything is covered in snow and ice, right now. There are reports by Tohoku University that the snow contains radioactive particles, but to put this in perspective, it would take 70 hours of exposure to this snow to accumulate as much radiation as a dental X-ray. Still, the US Embassy has begun evacuating its citizens.

I drove up here with the Japanese branch of an international organization, a food bank called Second Harvest Japan. They are responding to the crisis in the region, and along with many other volunteers this morning (most of them foreigners), I unloaded thousands of pounds of food (Coco's Ichiban Curry) at their warehouse in Tokyo. It is through them that I was able to secure food for Shichigahama, and I cannot express my gratitude to the organization or the director.

I wasn't able to get into Shichigahama tonight, but I will be delivering a shipment of food tomorrow morning.

Second Harvest collects information from all of the areas that they visit (including Shichigahama, which they were able to visit today). I have very little good news to report. Tagajo, right beside Shichigahama (the city where the Plymouth delegation always stays) has 10,000 refugees, and they are so poorly supplied that they are only able to provide 1 ball of rice per day. Their local government is confused and giving conflicting information to their residents. Shiogama (the city to the east of Shichigahama, with Shiogama Shrine) is also in a bad way. Several of their shelters are underequipped, and the destruction is so bad that it is difficult to drive through the town.

Shichigahama's list of confirmed dead is relatively low, but it seems that there may have been as many as 900 people swallowed by the sea.

The good news about Shichigahama is that evidently, it's very clear that unlike in other regions, the administration is handling things well and the residents are optimistic. Most of the town employees have survived, and most of them are at the shelters 24 hours per day. This is very stressful and difficult for them, but their sacrifice is obviously showing results.

Between the earthquake and the tsunami, many people came to the Kokusaimura for shelter. I understand that just before the tsunami hit, Hoshi-san, the Office Chief of the Kokusaimura, received word of it, and conferred with staff to order them not to let anyone outside, so that they would not see the tsunami, to avoid mass panic.

I may be able to help an organization in Sendai who received donations from inside and outside the country, since they do not have any English-speaking staff. I will be in Shichigahama all day tomorrow, and then try to make my way back to Sendai to help out there.

-Posted 11:10 am, Friday March 18, 2011

This program aired on March 22, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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