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Kizuna: Nikkei Stories from the 2011 Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

5 Months after the Disaster & So Much Yet To Do…

After the disaster on March 11th, the narrative then takes on a life of its own.

The stories are raw, shot-in-the-stomach visceral, agonizing; they ripped through the soul.

We Nikkei around the world were scrambling to help in whatever way we could. The pain and suffering of the victims and the survivors was palpable and, personally, with so many friends in Sendai, which was spared the worse of it, the connection is there.

There are so many stories. Tomo and his family left Sendai to spend time in Vancouver. I’d heard stories from friends about buildings that had collapsed; gas, electricity, and telephone problems persisted for weeks; massive transportation disruptions continue even five months afterwards and serious radiation problems at Fukushima’s nuclear plant are ongoing.

Five months later, it is troubling that I still hear from friends in Tohoku that so little is being done to help the victims. With another downturn in the world economy, there is more of a focus on the strength of the Japanese yen than there is on the actual human toll of the 3-11 disaster. Are the significant car supply woes of Toyota and Honda really anything compared with what the still suffering souls in Tohoku are still coping with? The relief effort is nowhere near being over.

I do worry about my pal Senji Kurosu in Sendai who had a summer cold and fever. He is over stressed and in much need of rest. My gaijin (foreigner) friends are being a lot more sensible, continuing at their teaching and other work, and doing what they can in their spare time.

Tomo is most engaged, informed, and opinionated about what is happening with the nuclear situation in Fukushima. He wrote recently that his wife takes regular radiation readings in their backyard and actually shovels off the “hot” top soil. He reports to me about what the nuclear experts around the world are saying (none of it good) and the little that the government is doing to diminish the future risk of radiation to the children of Tohoku.

Linda Ohama’s “Kids for Kids” Quilt Project

The result of students from all across Canada sending in quilt patches to create large blankets, they were displayed in several schools in Tohoku and brought more attention to the cause in Japan (though they didn’t receive any attention here in Canada). She is now in Onomichi (close to Hiroshima), her home-base in Japan, where she is recovering from her grueling schedule and the swelteringly summer heat.

View kid’s quilt project >>

Photo courtesy of Linda Ohama

Letter from Linda in early July from Tohoku:

I am in the car right now, driving to Ishinomaki to work with students this afternoon.
And this morning to attend a lunch at Okawa Elementary where they lost 100 students, 10 teachers.
They had the funeral yesterday and there is something there this morning for 4 months anniversary.

Already 4 months.
Love, Mom
aka Linda

Linda’s letter to her Prof. in Japan:

Well, it has been a week in Tohoku now.
It has been incredibly emotional, inspiring, and shocking.
But mostly inspiring.
The simple laughter over simple things like women at the temporary housing anxiously starting a ‘tsukemono’ club... making pickles together.
And seeing the young students create their cloth letters with so much thought.
And walking around what used to be communities and streets and fields.

I am spending at least another week here.
Have already worked with the students of Yuriage Junior High School now.
Their school is vacated as the tsunami swept through the first two floors and the teachers, students and some town people survived on the rooftop and third floor for two days before rescue.
They lost 16 students, but have 126 incredibly inspiring students who are being bussed from temporary housing to another school.
They get to stay together as classes and with their own teachers from Yuriage.
They are amazing. So inspiring.
Now, I will head north along the east coast.

You would be moved by the photographs that have been recovered in the debris.
I volunteered with some volunteer firemen over the weekend to clean and wash these found photos.

The power of lives being caught in photos struck me very strongly.
So many happy faces and moments in over 2,000 photos we cleaned over the weekend.
Those happy images remind us of many important things in life.

But, I need to do some lectures when I leave here because my yen is going to be gone.
And there is much that I can share in a lecture.
I am intending to leave Tohoku on July 14.

If you or anyone you know has room for a lecture, please let them know that I am available.

With thanks,

On August 10:

Hi Norm,

I am maintaining a good balance compared to what many others are doing. Cross is working far too hard. He has also been in hospital for an IV and a few other tests in recent weeks. He has lost quite a bit of weight and despite family and friends telling him to slow down he is maintaining a crazy schedule.
His efforts are hugely appreciated in his community but I worry that he can maintain the current pace for another six months.

Anyway it’s exactly six months today from the disaster and while huge challenges remain more and more stories of just small victories in the rebuilding process such as fishermen making their first catch, local markets being reestablished, schools reopening etc are being seen on the news.

Very hot here but all is well.

Regards, James

Letter from Tomo: Aug. 14

Hello Friends,

Since my classes have ended for the semester, I have tried to do some catch-up in regards to the nuclear disaster—one that is now looking to have directly affected the entire nation, and not just the Tohoku region. One would have hoped that as time progressed, things would have looked brighter and more optimistic than they did a few months ago. But, personally, I find the current situation as disconcerting as ever. Each week we find another piece that fits into the puzzle. And the picture seems to be appearing gradually bleaker. I fervently hope that I am wrong about this.

The incompetence, inertia, misinformation, irresponsibility—and in my estimation the criminal disregard and endangerment on the part of TEPCO executives has caused a disaster…the consequences of which appear increasingly worse as scientists survey and analyze what has happened since 3-11. And for reasons that I will cite below, the very worst of these consequences were preventable—even after the effects and initial damage to the Daiichi plant. I believe that this is no longer idle speculation, but documented fact!

The media content I have forwarded here contains a lot of compelling stuff:

In Gordon Edwards’ newsletter: an angry address to the Japanese Diet by Prof. Kodama of Tokyo University. His burning presentation is as moving as it is alarming. He argues that the lawmakers have tied the hands of researchers. He castigates government members for failing to take leadership in preemptive coordination of Japanese science, industry and technology that could bring all their collective resources to bear on the problems of decontamination. You may or may not see the You Tube screens on your monitor, but the links are here.

Tomo’s Comment: Prof. Kodama expresses something I have felt for a very long time. As the foreign press was blathering on about how all that could be done was being done, I was convinced that, in relative terms, very damn little was being done. I believe that my private opinion is being increasingly borne out by the facts. And I think history will record it thus.

Part 1 of Professor Kodama’s speech (Japanese)

When we research radiation injury/sickness, we look at the total amount of radioactive materials. But there is no definite report from TEPCO or the Japanese government as to exactly how much radioactive materials have been released from Fukushima.

In other words, we should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima I Nuke Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount to tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb.”

So, using our knowledge base at the Radioisotope Center, we calculated. Based on the thermal output, it is 29.6 times the amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In uranium equivalent, it is 20 Hiroshima bombs.

What is more frightening is that whereas the radiation from a nuclear bomb will decrease to one-thousandth in one year, the radiation from a nuclear power plant will only decrease to one-tenth.

With so much yet to do…

A comment that I have been making to friends of late is that there are so many competing interests in the world today and there is an overabundance of information all of which we cannot possibility assimilate. Our G8 governments rely much more on NGOs and private donations rather than with getting their countries directly involved with disaster relief.

While it is hard to point any fingers of responsibility here, there are ethical issues (e.g., the privileges of being wealthy) that we rarely scrutinize. This really struck home with me this past week. In the words of the niece of my cousin’s Japanese wife, she escaped the “disaster in Tokyo” to Toronto with her two-year-old child. I guffawed. The extent of her earthquake experience was that two antique cups feel off a shelf and broke. On that same day, I received e-mail from Shogo in Soma, Fukushima, where they are dealing with very real and on-going radiation threats from the nearby nuclear power plant. Shogo, who lost his family house and farm, now commutes two-and-a-half hours each way to work in Sendai. He has not complained once. The niece, by the way, returns to Tokyo in October when the climate becomes more favorable. She has reported no immediate plans to immigrate.

Just last week, too, my old teacher and leader of the official federal opposition party, New Democratic Party, Jack Layton, 61, succumbed to cancer. When I read his final letter (Aug. 20) to Canadians, I couldn’t help but make a clear connection of his life-affirming optimism with that of my dear friends Senji, Linda, Shogo, Nambu-san among others who are blessed with that same clarity.

From Jack sensei’s letter:

“… My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

© 2011 Norm Ibuki

earthquake JPquake2011 tsunami

About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds.

This series shares stories about Nikkei individual and/or community reaction and perspectives on the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the resulting tsunami and other impacts—either about supporting relief efforts or how what has happened has affected them and their feeling of connection to Japan.

If you would like to share your reactions, please see the “Submit an Article” page for general submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world.

We hope that these stories bring some comfort to those affected in Japan and around the world, and that this will become like a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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There are many organizations and relief funds established around the world providing support for Japan. Follow us on Twitter @discovernikkei for info on Nikkei relief efforts, or check the Events section. If you’re posting a Japan relief fundraising event, please add the tag “JPquake2011” to make it appear on the list of earthquake relief events.