Albert Sussler’s moving account of his experience as an aid worker in Tsunami and earthquake-devastated Japan.
Last weekend I joined the group Aichi Volunteers to bring supplies to Ishinomaki, and help clean debris in one of the towns hit hardest by the March tsunami. This group was started several days after the earthquake by people in the area around Nagoya, Japan. The plan was to bus 131 selected volunteers and two trucks of supplies to the evacuation center of Minato Elementary School.
On the bus ride up, each member was asked to introduce themselves and explain why he or she had volunteered. I said I wanted to help the people of Miyagi, the place where I had started my life in Japan some twenty-plus years ago.
My other reasons I did not say.
I was distressed by the many people who panicked and left Japan, in fear of earthquake damage and radiation fallout from the leaking nuclear plants at Fukushima. The overreaction of ‘Fly-jin’, ( a combination of two words: fly as in fly away and jin, meaning people in Japanese), do not help in the fight against discrimination here. Foreigners make up less than 2% of the total population in the country, but some Japanese voices often accuse gaijin (outsiders) of various problems in Japan, way beyond any statistics or logic.
Rather than run I wanted to make a stand.
At first I went to the city office in my city and asked if I could help with the relief. I was told by an official, the city has nothing to do with the earthquake but would let me know if I was needed. On the news and in depictions on wall posters, I had saw variations of: “Charity = Red Cross.” There were boxes everywhere, cashing in on people’s empathy. I have mixed feelings about this institution, with its checkered past of disaster help, most recently in its handling of Katrina aid, when most donations never reached the disaster. Being such a large organization, it has difficulty responding quickly.
Additionally, I wanted to see what was happening with the relief efforts with my own eyes, not filtered by the media or government.
The answers given by the other volunteers were of a similar note. One woman wanted to give help in return for the help her family had received when her own house had been damaged in the Niigata earthquake. The volunteers ranged in age from junior high school students to a man in his seventies. There were several parent/child groups. The last boy, a junior high school student, gave the following justification for his presence: “I was born after the Kobe earthquake, so could not help. This is the great disaster of my age and I want to be part of the recovery. Then I can tell my own children about it.”
Our three buses arrived in Ishinomaki the next morning, under cold rain clouds. City officials told our group that the supplies were needed but debris removal was not done on rainy days. I noticed a lot of military trucks on the roads, now cleared of muck and debris. Half the town of Ishinomaki was leveled or crumpled like houses of cards blown down. The rest of the town seemed unscathed. I had read that 90% of damage and casualties were caused by the tsunami, not the earthquake.
On arrival, our group formed bucket brigades to unload boxes of boots, shovels, underwear, towels, helmets, umbrella, small gas-burner canisters, cleaning rags and vegetables from the trucks. Everything was new and well-labeled. Boxes that were already there, marked “Kobe” and full of unmarked, unwanted, used clothing, were moved to the side of the gym.
Next our group removed piles of empty boxes from previous aid deliveries and put them into the now empty trucks to bring back to Aichi. Our boxes were arranged and opened, the floor was swept.
In the afternoon, families hit by the disaster and from the surrounding areas arrived to receive the supplies. No system was worked out for the distribution of the supplies, so it soon became a mad bargain hunt, a scramble for desirable items. One elderly woman left with five umbrellas under her arm. I could hear her grandson asking, “Why do we need so many?”
“Be quiet,” she answered.
Others who came later were not able to get any supplies. I wondered where the local authorities were, why they couldn’t help in the distribution. Simply put, proper preparation would have made all the difference.
I spent the afternoon on the stage of the gym organizing games with some children. One boy told me his house had been undamaged. Another boy said his house was gone. How about school? It would be starting on Monday, two weeks late. We spun tops on a table. One second-grader asked me,
“Grandpa, why can’t you spin the top? Are you stupid?” I liked his humor and answered,
“I didn’t have toys like this when I was your age. Now I have to learn. So teach me. . .” And he did.
In the late afternoon, when the crowds had left, the gym, I walked around the neighborhood.
The air smelled of the sea, but not the bad smell I had heard the drier days brought. There was no dust in the air, as the rain kept that down.
When I returned, I smelled curry cooking in the far end of the gym. I went over to investigate. An elderly man from Pakistan worked over a huge kettle—large enough to make 800 meals, he told me.
“When did you get here?” I asked him. He said,
“Several days after the tsunami we left from Nagoya, I and several friends came here and have been at this gym ever since.”
Lots of people needed warm food and he knew how to make it .
On the bus ride home, I pondered on the question: in what way can we best give help to those who need it the most?
Of the Red Cross: I saw no signs for the huge aid organization, though I heard a medical clinic had been set up nearby. Then there was the man from Pakistan, working alone. Feeding the hungry and giving so many the strength to go on.
To donate to the relief effort: Civic Force, a relief organization working in Northern Japan, heavily devastated by the March 11th earthquake.
Albert Sussler lives and works in Japan.