On the bottom of the oceanic floor, offshore from the Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, a massive uninhibited force rippled through the depths of the ocean. Thousands of kilometers away at that exact same moment, I was sitting in a classroom taking a final exam in Japanese at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The range of the seismic epicenter was colossal, measuring about 500 kilometers from north to south and spanning roughly 200 kilometers from east to west. Immediately after the tectonic plates began to shift, waves began to form, and the tsunami was born. The voices of different news stations overlapping each other echoed throughout the wing of the Japanese Language and Studies department. I stood in the doorway of my professor’s office and watched the numbers “9.0” flash violently across the screen.
Seconds later, images of a thrashing wave engulfing the coast of Northeastern Japan replaced the reports of the earthquake. The creature took on a life of its own, indiscriminately consuming everything in its path into a deep malevolent abyss. Beset by the pandemonium erupting on the television, my teachers and I observed in silence, as we were too horrified to even make a gesture of disbelief.
To complicate the matter further, the quake caused a nuclear reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Massive amounts of radioactive material leaked from the plant. Workers courageously put their lives at risk to contain the accident knowing that what they had exposed themselves to would later reveal lethal consequences. People in Fukushima, particularly those who lived in close proximity to the failed power plant, were immediately forced to confront issues of evacuation, loss of homes and income, and safety for themselves and their families.
As I write this, exactly year has passed since the great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. As of February 10, 2012, the number of deceased persons had reached 15,848 and the number reported missing was 3,505. The total number of houses partially and completely destroyed: no less than 370,000. In Fukushima, residents have been forced to evacuate and to this day face daily challenges of evacuation and severe radiation exposure. More than 23,600 hectares of farmland and an estimated 22,000 fishing boats have been lost. Family members, houses, farms, cars, pets, jobs, and dreams were swept away by one swift bellicose torrent, a wave that was supposed to have only occurred once in a thousand years.
Before the disaster occurred, I was en-route to Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, for a one-year study-abroad program as a Boren National Security Education Program scholar from UCSB. The program became temporarily suspended and all students studying abroad in Japan from University of California campuses were immediately withdrawn from the country. During that time, I was an intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF). Under the guidance and mentorship of my directors at NAPF, I began looking for ways to get involved in the volunteer efforts helping the people of Japan.
Later, when the travel restriction was lifted, I moved to Tokyo in hopes of contributing something worthwhile to the admirable efforts of the existing volunteer and humanitarian aid groups. Since then, I have been granted a tremendous and rare opportunity by JANIC, the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, to serve as a volunteer working remotely from Tokyo. In addition, I had the privilege to participate in the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World, the largest meeting worldwide against nuclear energy since the March 11 disaster. On January 14 and 15, 2012, I stood alongside 11,000 other determined individuals: nuclear scientists and experts, distinguished activists, survivors and residents of Fukushima, and global hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings and victims of nuclear testing and waste).
Furthermore, through the generous support of the Jeanie Anderson Memorial Grant Fund and the UC Education Abroad Program, specifically UCSB’s EAP, I have been able to conduct my own independent research on the societal effects of the nuclear contamination in Fukushima.
So far, I have been translating and editing reports and press releases about the activities of various non-governmental organizations and nonprofit organizations. Also, I am involved in a film documentary on the disaster relief efforts as an English voice-over narrator. Through these exceptional opportunities, I have witnessed the outstanding efforts of both volunteers and residents in rebuilding a new and promising future.
Despite never having faced or experienced a disaster of this magnitude, numerous volunteer organizations, NPOs, NGOs, and private enterprises established a network called “Japan Civil Network (JCN) for Disaster Relief in East Japan” on March 30 of last year. Together, they have implemented activities to support the affected people of the March 11 disaster, and the number of participating organizations has surpassed 700. In the true spirit of collaboration and good will, they organized emergency relief services such as temporary housing and the distribution of food and everyday necessities.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is learning about the various ongoing volunteer projects. They range from immediate emergency relief to medium- and long-term reconstruction assistance. Some examples include rebuilding family businesses and shops, transferring residents to temporary housing, supplying schools and nurseries with food and resources, removing rubble, and restoring physical spaces. In Fukushima, volunteer efforts include decontamination, protecting children and newborns, and radio broadcasting.
In the town of Minami Soma, JVC (an NGO) sought to alleviate the problem of inadequate and unreliable news disseminations by broadcasting daily radiation readings to local residents.
In spite of the diverse categories of activities and various locations, the volunteer efforts share one commonality: They all work relentlessly to restore hope and smiles in the local people. The volunteer organizations are grateful to the residents of affected areas for willingly receiving their contributions, and conversely the residents are thankful for the generous actions and thoughts of others.
After losing their communities, which had been built up over the years, some survivors have fallen into depression. However, through activities and services such as physical and psychological therapy, community cafes, tea parties, food truck markets, and health clinics, some residents have gained a renewed sense of hope. For example, at a reconstruction festival in Hisanohama, one woman stated tearfully that she never expected the town to be able to host another festival.
In Kesennuma city, a social gathering was held for residents in temporary housing. A participant there told volunteer staff that it wasn’t until after the tea party that he finally cried for the first time since the earthquake. He had then realized it was okay to cry. It is because of these stories that I believe the indelible memories of the disaster will never overshadow the courage of the survivors.
I would like to whole-heartedly commend the efforts of all of the volunteer organizations and express my great respect and admiration to those who have been affected by the March 11 disaster. I am truly in awe of their humility and strength. I would also like to express great thanks to those who have allowed me to become a part of the relief effort. I pledge to continue to doing all I can to support the people of Japan.
In times of great sorrow and loss this Japanese poem by Kenji Miyazawa titled, “Ame ni mo makezu” or “Not losing to the rain” is recited to elicit feelings of endurance, determination, and inner-strength. I believe it reflects the valor of the Japanese people.
not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind
not losing to the snow nor to summer’s heat
with a strong body
unfettered by desire
never losing temper
always quietly smiling
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there’s no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a lawsuit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there’s drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer’s cold, wandering upset
called a nobody by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become.