Saturday, April 16, 2011

Overburdened

An inland earthquake just shook me back into heightened awareness, if I was sleepy I'm awake now. So now I write. It's Saturday and the weekdays past were full of meetings, catching up, presentation planning, and day to day workloads. It's myriad of work life, stress balance, maintaining run rate business whilst seeding new opportunities. Thus is the life as a foreigner working for an American company in Tokyo. Since being here over the years, I've learned that Japanese can be very risk averse. The planning and decision making process can consume nearly twice the amount of time as in other places. The lifespan of projects can involve more meetings and approval levels than frustration levels can withstand. It's bureaucratic and nearly every aspect is done via a committee.


So when I watch the news prior to my trip up north and saw that shelters, refugees, and survivors were struggling to get aid and essentials. My natural reaction was judgmental. I was somewhat critical of how processes could negatively impact the military, national, and municipal crisis management efforts. If things worked at the pace and cycles that I've been used to; there will likely unnecessary burdens befallen on people in need.

I was wrong. I was wrong to assume this as I realized that the people involved in all these efforts are working as hard and as rapidly as possible. These include the local coordinators, volunteers, firemen, police, and military. It's elevated response and elevated considerations for the people in need. They are just simply overburdened. They have been going 24x7 since March 11. At every corner and turn in the areas up north you'll see them out in force searching, distributing, and organizing. They too are regularly being inundated with quakes, radiation fears, smells, and disturbing scenes. The events were a hat trick, one two punch with a third blinding blow. If it were only the quake things would have bearable. But then comes a massive tsunami which is topped off by 6 out of control reactors. It's been long days of initially searching for survivors, containing damage, sheltering, reestablishing life line support, finding the dead, and providing comfort in any which way possible.  If you see these folks you'll witness first hand that they are indeed fighting for Northern Japan's life. When I came across a few of them they expressed appreciation towards all the volunteer groups and people who've come together ease their responsibilities. With this thought in mind, I'm going to proceed with my day today and start coordinating my next trip up north. It's time to step up again.
A Japanese soldier searches through debris

Friday, April 15, 2011

Watching the Line

I'm going to have to say one of the most difficult tasks I had to do was watching the line. Setting up the stations and unpacking the trucks filled with life's necessities was the easy part. The heavy lifting, the moving and staging requires little thinking and concerns. The boxes ranged in size and weight and as long as more was still coming out of the trucks, there was more to give. People appeared from nowhere at times. While setting up,  I'd look back from the distribution station and would notice the line getting longer and longer. The organizers made sure that the group waiting was set farther away from the distributed items in order to allow us to bring more things and make sure that the people selecting goods had enough space and time. For me, managing and watching the line was difficult. It was hard as I sent groups 5 at a time ahead to the station. It was not that the crowd was unruly. Quite the contrary. They were extremely quiet and calm. During the waiting I was able to interact with each one of them. When I sent 5 and the 6th person remained with me. I felt obligated to reassure them. " Don't worry, don't worry, there's a lot of things for all of you..." I'd say. As long as the person near the aid station waived to me to send another group, I was temporarily relieved. My greatest concern was that we'd run out and I would have to send many of them away empty handed. Many waiting had waited earlier in the day in the soup line and then they came to the line to get life essentials such as clothing, toiletries, and such. Now they were in this new line for groceries. It was a day of lines, a day of waiting, and a day of not knowing what to expect. Already worn and weary, many told me that they finally got electricity back in their homes. No gas, no water, but now at least they have electricity. Some opted to break the awkward silence by trying to talk to me in English. One man said out of the blue "American and Japan truly best friends, that I now know..."  I responded to him in Japanese "That's true, that's most certainly true..." It was nice to get a few that made the best of the situation. What I was noticing was that many in line had no idea what was ahead. I assumed that the routine was already set. But I was wrong. When a man asked me what was there, "I said vegetables, rice, cooking oils, and meat..." the man was taken back? "Meat" he said. "Yes meat" I replied. He was so happy that he spread both arms out and waived them as he was talking aloud. "Beef, or chicken, beef or chicken, what will I have..." he jubilantly said. "Both, go for both, there's enough I think for you to get both.." I responded. I looked back, got the signal. "Mr. you can go now..." Then he bowed and scurried ahead. For a moment, I just thought he was odd.
 
Then as the ques of 5 repeated their forwarding, I mentioned it again to a lady who found herself 6th in a group and was held back. I bowed slightly towards her and told her that she was in a good place. I told her that the wait is not much longer. She softly asked me what was there. I again mentioned the list of things. When I said meat, she sank back. Then she tilted her head and told me that she's not had meat or full meals in one month. I was taken back. I nodded and could not find what to say. I just bowed again and when it was her turn to go, I signaled politely for her to go. I looked back at the line. If ever there was an iteration that was a revelation that was it. Most of the people there had not had meat and or regular meals in days. This line would sustain them for a few more days. Staring at the line in a different light, I was fearful that we'd run out. I had no idea what was left, but I was hoping. As the ques moved on and the line slowly thinned out, I could see that everyone was leaving full of things. When the last two people moved forward I stepped away and had to buckle over slightly resting my hands on my knees. I felt like I just ran the race of my life. I worked my way back up and saw that here were still things left. The people had taken what they needed and made sure there was enough for everyone else. I was elated that we had run out of people before we ran out of things to give. The persons in line waiting the longest and were last, left with more than enough. Watching the line, watching this type of line was one of the most difficult things to do. The final two people were older women that came on bikes and one had a tiny dog in a basket. Both or them were ecstatic when they received their things. Even within these circumstances there's always a way a smile can find its way. 

That day was bright and brilliant. Clear skies, good weather, and we did something that made a difference. I felt that things were slowly moving on the very long road ahead towards rebuilding. Then that night, a 7.1 quake stuck. Shook the building where I was staying and kept shaking all of us for a long time. My first thoughts after regaining my things and composure was of the people we had just helped. They had one of their better days, but  it ended like this. Now, their electricity which had just came back was gone. Back in the dark, back in the cold. It was more reality than necessary. My next thought was that the line was worth it. For it helped them carry on.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Amazing Man

Days go on. It's back to work and making sure that things keep moving here. Part of doing your part is going back into the system and keeping the machine moving. In Japan its a well oiled precision tuned instrument on overdrive. All perfectly syncing and driven with fervor. We are all components and mechanisms perhaps. This brings me to why the photo, hence I'll go on with with part of the writing that I love to do the most which requires less analytics and more seeing life as it is.

He came into our van in a quiet manner. Older man with big glasses, cap, peppered hair, a beard, and a stout build. His hands were worn from a life of working hard. He had a small bag and carried two books. One was his bible and one was a large manga (comic) book. During the drive up out of Tokyo up to Tohoku, he took turns reading both. He was polite, soft spoken, and very quiet. At rest stops he would get out and walk around on his own. Only a few seemed to know him, but most in the group congregated with only their acquaintances. As I would open up snacks on the road I'd offer to share with him. He'd warmly smile, laugh, and then accept. At the time although quiet, he did not seem remarkable. For the next few days he was with our group. He ate with us, talked with  us, and stayed where we all slept 8 in small room. On the day we reached the Ishinomaki to distribute aid, I began to notice something. As the aid stations were set up, as the lines queued, and as the people interacted with. He seemed very elated. I could see him openly leading people to hard to find items that were lost in the piles. He would stoop down low to the same level as children as he'd speak to them. With the crowds and people he was lost amongst us. I don't think any of us there that day came without sincerity. I believe everyone had the most honest and best intentions. However I could sense that this day meant more to him. He seemed to have a inner perception that offered the right approach to engaging the ones in need. It's likely that many of the people in the long lines had never before sought any form of hand out. Now with weeks of barely enough life essentials fathers, mothers, and children had to wait in soup lines and seek relief. One of the hardest things for me was knowing how to interact with people. What do we say, what do you do, how do communicate to a person who's just likely lost a lot of friends and family. Sorrow and sadness are bountiful; needful things and happiness are not. How do find the right way of making things better without making thing worse. I watched him and learned. He would offer a light bow, a smile when reacted to, and he was one of the few that put smiles on many of the people. He offered sincerity. I can't go on to explain it. I don't know. But I did see that it meant a lot to him to help them. It meant a lot for him to empower them. On a human level he's a really wise man. I had no idea until later. On any other day in a totally different place. The tables could be turned.

He's homeless. He heard about the volunteer group and was moved to come and help the people. Of my immediate friends, colleagues, and people that I know in Tokyo; I can count very few that have actually gone up and volunteered. Many make have made donations and such. I have no intent to be dismissive. I just want to say this man went right into the more difficult path. When we shared our stories of the day, he broke down and cried. He said he could see in their eyes more hopelessness than people ought to have. He used very few words, but he was honest and moved. I learned a lot from him. I learned that I need to rethink things. I'm a person who'd grown up firmly believe that life is what you make it. There are no entitlements. There are consequences. But now sometimes, sometimes, I think the system fails. Parts of the machine get taken out. Parts get put aside. Nobody wants them. Sometimes they are still very good and worn perfectly into their roles. They may not look as shiny. They may not be new ones milled with technological advances. But they are not useless. Although forgotten, they have value. I heard that he fell on hard times when he lost his job. That because of his age of 61 it's nearly impossible to find income to bring himself out of his situation. He refused to become a burden to his family so he went out on his own. Although homeless he is self sufficient. He collects used books and magazines to sell.  In the homeless community he is a leader. He keeps his friends safe and assists them with guidance, day jobs, and counseling. I have to say this is an amazing person. I have rethink a few things about myself. On any  given day in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo you'd likely pass him and not notice him. Most unlikely will people even want to engage him enough to know his name.

His name is Takahashi-San (Tallest Bridge). He's a good man.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

MAJOR ACCIDENT


Chernobyl = Fukushima: Now I know what's it's like to live within 200 miles of Chernobyl. The Japanese government upgraded the nuclear situation to a 7 on the International Nuclear Incident Scale. It went from a level 5 which was "ACCIDENT WITH WIDER CONSEQUENCES," skipped 6 which was "SERIOUS," and right to a 7. Now this incident is equal to that of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Technically at 7 it's now a "MAJOR ACCIDENT." The good folks at the IAEA have even color coded it for us. Ironically at the same time the government is reassuring us that although there is contamination, it is not posing any adverse health dangers. This did not prevent the order from the government to tell farmers in the outer lined areas of the reactors to stop planting rice and vegetables. Also that all people within 12 miles of the plant have been evacuated. The level upgrade was somehow attributed to the amount of radiation that has leaked and that radiation has "-contaminated the air, tap water, vegetables, and seawater..." We are reassured that it's only about 1/10 of what Chernobyl leaked however it may eventually exceed Chernobyl emissions. The key message after the change to 7 was that the upgrade is not related to the level of danger pertaining to any health and or adverse affects... So, I'm to accept that although there is a lot of radiation leaking into the environment, which is equal to the accident in the Ukraine that turned the town of Pripyat (atom town) into a ghost town; we are not in danger... Breathe in breathe out (no need for a mask yet so they say) and calm myself down. I'd like to believe that we are safe and that there is a low chance of harm. I hear this from many experts and people that I know who are well educated regarding nuclear energy. But wasn't Chernobyl a bad thing? Didn't they have to relocate 50,000 people and depending on which statistic you read the death toll attributed to the MAJOR ACCIDENT varies from a few thousand to over several hundred thousand. Chernobyl was in the middle of nowhere. We are in Japan where usable land is sparse and populations are denser. It's a lot easier to cordon off 200 square miles in the former Soviet Union than here. We are on an island that's not that big. Will parts of Fukushima Prefecture be an abandoned ghost town like Pripyat? What will happen to all the industries like agriculture, fishing, and manufacturing in the area? How could these and the fact that they told people to leave mean that there are no adverse affects? These concerns are what's on our minds here as we monitor the various disasters concurrently inflicting us. I think the officials need to SERIOUSLY consider explaining the WIDER CONSEQUENCES of this nuclear situation with more clarity on a MAJOR scale. We are given very conflicting information which leaves us puzzled and frustrated. All this while more earthquakes and aftershocks bombard us. Since the large quake last night we've had about 100 smaller quakes. The photo I shot below I believe captures the feeling and mood of many of the people here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One Month


One Month: It's been a month today. The morning was clear here in Tokyo. I'm back from my trip up north and went to my office. All was calm and the bright morning and afternoon sun made for a good day. The sakura trees were in full bloom throughout Tokyo. In the late afternoon overcasts brought a cold drizzle. The clear blue day became gray. Everything seemed fine and no one mentioned that today marked one month since March 11th. Then in the early evening as I was working at my desk an announcement came over the internal loud speakers. There was a klaxon alarm which coincided with a female announcer's voice. The early warning system noted that an earthquake was to come in 45 seconds. Then 30, 20, and 10. Just as it reached 0 the floor started moving. My first thought was how impressed I was at the accuracy of the announcements. Like clockwork, the rumbling began. This quake was  subtle with a gradual increase in movement. The building rocked like a cradle. It was only a magnitude 4 in Tokyo however it lasted several minutes. I got up, gathered my things then tapped a friend on the shoulder. "Let's get out of here..." Then we walked the 24 floors down the stairwell.  Again the building creaked. It was an uneasy reminder. I don't know if these numerous amounts of quakes and aftershocks are normal after a big quake or if seismically we've entered a whole new era in Japan. It's just a lot more different now than in the past 10 years. Before we'd get maybe 1 or 2 noticeable quakes a month. Now there's too many to keep track of. This contributes to more burdens and stress on the people in the disaster zone. Each time the earthquake alarms sound off, I'm sure thoughts of the worse return. These recent shakes prolong hardships, take away utilities, furthermore they are exhausting the relief workers. It's hard to begin to recover when each time you pick up the pieces they get slapped back down. The humanitarian crisis now surpasses all the other that have been focused int the media. It's been an uneasy month. I had planned to write about some of people I encountered during the aid distribution mission. But given today's shadowy reminder, my writing was disrupted. I'll pick up the pieces and write what I intended to write today tomorrow...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Images from the Disaster

DSC_4550DSC_4509-Onagawa-HeloDSC_4502DSC_4499DSC_4417DSC_4471
DSC_4569DSC_4497DSC_4492DSC_4488DSC_4487DSC_4427
DSC_4409DSC_4407DSC_4406DSC_4404DSC_4400DSC_4399
DSC_4620DSC03191ShibuyaRainyNightDSC03189DSC03185Tokyo During the Earth Quake
Images from the Disaster:
Sometimes pictures can offer more than words. I shot these while traveling through one of the hardest hits areas in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. The coastal towns along the entire North East Japan seaboard shares the same type of devastation. The power of the earthquake and tsunami is surreal. Within many of these shots are buried lost lives. Many will never be identified and many more will ever be found. When you stand within these scenes there is a haunting silence which is broken up by echos of a few volunteers and soldiers searching through the debris. When the wind blows through, the clatter makes for an uneasy moment. Some of the buildings were ripped from foundations and were tumbled. It's a view of darkened windows, exposed substructures, twisted steel beams, smashed cement, and charred objects. Cars could be seen atop tall buildings and trees. There were pieces of everyday life indiscriminately scattered. There's a pungent smell. A mixture of dust, decay, dead fish, sludge, and chemicals. The lasting feeling that is carried away from scenes like this can be defined from one word; "Inescapable..."

Orderly Calm

video 
Our trucks and van drove through the town of Ishinomaki. It was a bright clear day.The damage was layered. Low line areas were flooded heavily. Then areas of slightly higher elevation looked nearly untouched. Turn one corner or up a street and it was another world. The areas at the port and seaside looked like a war zone. We continued through town and turned into a parking lot between two closed commercial buildings. One was a dry clean shop whose owner was killed. The other a shutdown restaurant. Another group had arrived before us to set up a makeshift soup kitchen. A long line had formed with people waiting for hours for a meal. Our vehicles arrived and unpacked. We had come today with groceries, water, and essentials. It took over an hour for our distribution area to be set up. As they saw us, a line formed near our station. In a dignified manner they gathered and waited patiently. These people looked very weary and many had not had regular meals for days. Some still had not been able to wash for weeks. The ones with new clothes, likely were wearing donated ones. Many walked for hours to get here. A few had bikes and fewer had cars. Most if not all in our line had lost either a friend or family member. There was a heaviness that I sensed that was hard to contain. We had two stations arranged. One was for sanitary products, household goods, clothing, and essentials. The other was for groceries. When they finished with one station, they were able to go back in the long line for the next station. There was no cutting in line, no yelling, haggling, and or disruption. Perfect orderly calm. When each group reached the aid station to receive their items they were able to take as much as and whatever they liked. What amazed me here was that each person and group took only what they needed. Although the lines and the day was long. No one walked away empty handed. No one took more than they needed and we ran out of people before we ran out of things to give. I can say is that whatever aid is sent here, it will likely never be wasted, hoarded, and most importantly it will be graciously received. In the next few blogs I'll share some of the stories and experiences from a few of the people in line. I'll remember some of these for the rest of my life.