About two years ago, on March 11th 2011, you may remember that there was a terrible earthquake and tsunami that decimated the Tohoku region of Japan and killed over 16,000 people in 20 prefectures.
The tsunami caused massive damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which caused a huge panic about radiation in the water. You can see from this chart that Randall Monroe made a comparison of radiation sources. Obviously, it was very dangerous for the people nearest the power plants—that’s deadly amounts of radiation—but for the rest of us, Monroe’s chart says that the radiation you’d receive in Tokyo a few weeks after the accident is less than the radiation you get from just living in a brick house. (Unless I’m reading the chart wrong, which is quite possible.)
It also caused some tide recession in California, if you remember—some harbors sustained damage and a lot of rich ass holes complained about their boats getting scratched, and meanwhile, a conservative estimate of 1,500 children were orphaned. There was one death in California: even though we are warned over and over again not to go looking at tsunamis, a man in California was taking pictures of the strange tide and got swept out to sea.
Two JET Programme ALTs died, too, which is why, after the earthquake, many JETs fled Japan en masse. That recontracting year saw a lot of new JETs, because they had to replace all the ones that left. You can’t really blame the people who left—some of their friends probably died, and it would be fucking scary to stay in Japan after the fifth largest earthquake in the history of earthquakes.
Some people stayed, but it’s completely understandable that some others wanted to leave. I mean, would you stay? I think it would really depend on your state of mind after the fact—like, if you were so shaken up, it would feel absolutely right and necessary to leave and be somewhere comfortable again after that tragedy. A lot of people who did stay criticize the people that left—and I think it’s unfair to do so. People have to make the choices that are best for them—for their emotional and mental health (and I suppose physical).
I actually could go on and on about the earthquake and the mechanics of earthquakes and tsunamis, because I think the way the earth works is fascinating (shoulda gone into Geology…), but that’s not really relevant to my purpose here. If you want to know some more general facts about the earthquake and tsunami, you can check out the Wiki page here.
So why am I talking about the earthquake and tsunami now? Well, for one thing, the fact is that the area is still recovering, and they still need assistance, so it’s probably good to remind people that this happened and that if you can help, then please do.
Also, I volunteered in Fukushima on Saturday, July 6th with some friends.
The Irrational Fears of Some People
When we first found out that I was going to Japan, my mom told everyone and their dog. The dogs responded with a head-tilt and some panting, but several people asked my mom, “Aren’t you worried about earthquakes?”
My mom, being the awesome rational person that she is, just stared at them and said, “We live in California.”
In other words, shit can go down in California, too. Certainly, we aren’t in as much danger as in Japan (the way California’s fault lines work and I think the way the underwater land is shaped doesn’t really allow for tsunamis on the scale that Pacific Islands often get). We do have nuclear reactors placed near fault lines though.
(For more on tsunamis in the U.S., see the USGS page here.)
The other thing people were worried about was the radiation that was in the water from the Fukushima power plants. And often, my response to that concern was something like this:
“Seriously? You’re worried about getting a little radiation after we dropped a goddamn radioactive bomb on the country fifty years ago? Fuck you. Fuck you and your selfish bull shit.”
People in Japan have been dealing with the aftermath of radiation for years. I think it’s bull shit to whine about getting any radiation poisoning from them.
That, and I wasn’t as concerned with my own health as I was with helping them. When people are so afraid of radiation that they won’t lend a hand, it makes recovery more difficult. :/ So I figured that even though there might be a danger of getting some radiation in me, it was more important to me to aid in their recovery, even if that just meant being an English teacher in Japan (especially since the number of people who wanted to teach in Japan dropped significantly).
Most of my volunteering experience has to do with cleaning the beach, cleaning animal cages, and helping poor people fight the system (or get around the system). (Haha, I don’t exactly know how to describe my volunteer work with that particular organization, so that was the briefest explanation I could come up with.) I’ve considered doing some Habitat for Humanity stuff, but I’ve just never had the money to do it. (I looked at a Habitat project in, like, Singapore, I think, and it was out of my budget. Volunteering! Out of my budget! I think there’s a problem there, somewhere…)
So I was excited to do this particular type of volunteer work—that of helping out after a disaster and helping to rebuild a community. The Workers stuff that I did in college was a little different—that was more about helping people survive in a system that hates them.
My friend Laura is leaving Japan soon, because she’s been here for five years (and that’s the JET limit), and she mentioned once that she never got to volunteer while she was here. Well, I had actually been thinking about volunteering. So we decided to do something together. She looked up a few programs and found one that was really convenient and located in Fukushima.
The program made volunteering really easy. It was 9,940 yen to participate (about 99 USD), and that covered the round-trip bus fare, a meal, and a tour.
We had to leave from Tokyo Station at 6:45 AM, which was a bit difficult, because the earliest I can get to Tokyo Station from Tomiura is 6:56. I had to rearrange a lot of plans—I had a kyudo lesson and an enkai on Friday, but I had to skip the kyudo lesson and leave the enkai early—but I stayed at Leslie’s place overnight to catch an early train to Tokyo in the morning. I ended up having plenty of time to spare.
The bus ride from Tokyo Station to the field we’d work was about 3.5 hours. I slept through most of the trip, except when the lead volunteer—a charming 20 year old girl—made announcements. She also showed a video, but I weighed my options: either watch a video that would probably be interesting, or sleep and actually feel rested for the work.
I’ve listed my priorities for you before, but here they are again: 1. Eat. 2. Sleep. 3. Everything else.
When we arrived at the field, we changed into our rubber boots (much easier to clean afterwards than shoes) and they explained (all in Japanese) what we needed to do.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what kind of volunteer work we’d be doing until about… two-thirds of the way through our planning. XD I had kind of wanted to do something with rice, because I don’t know anything about how rice is planted and harvested. But today, we would be working with organic cotton.
First of all, I loved that it was organic. But I felt like I already knew everything there was to know about cotton farming, because, um, America. I’m pretty sure half of all United States history classes are about cotton.
But anyway, it was worth it, because it would help the community rebuild. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how this was actually helping. But then I remembered that 1) a lot of people in the area either died or fled, and so 2) those people weren’t around to farm anymore, and so 3) if no one was farming in the area, then the area would never recover economically and the land would go to seed. So by not getting paid for my work there, I was helping the people that still lived there get a profit despite not having the resources to do the farming themselves. And hopefully someday, they can use that profit to rebuild their community.
That day, we planted tiny cotton plants in two fields. It was pretty easy work, and the way the ground was shaped made it convenient to squat there and just plant stuff. My back didn’t even hurt or anything.
After planting cute cotton sprouts for about an hour and a half (maybe not even that; it was very short), we took a break for lunch. We took off our boots and went to a hotel, where they served us some bento boxes.
After lunch, we went back to the field and worked for two more hours. We planted a little more, and then we weeded the fields. And that’s when my back started to hurt. Ahh, weeding. You are the bane of my existence.
When I was a kid, my dad used to make me and my sister weed the backyard all the time. He always told us to pull the weeds by the roots, because if you just pull the tops off, the weeds can still grow. So in the cotton field, that’s what I did. My friends went a little faster than I did, and when I commented on that, one of them said, “Well, you’re probably doing it right.” So… thanks, Dad?
After that, we were all done with the volunteering part of the day. It felt a little short to me. I think we could have gone for another hour, but probably not more than that.
We finished around 3:00, and then we went back to the hotel.
Decidedly Not a Shower
Laura said that after we volunteered, they’d let us take showers, since we’d be so filthy. However, during lunch, I found out that it wasn’t showers we’d be taking. It was a bath. In an onsen.
…I was not mentally prepared for that.
Onsen means “hot spring,” but the term is also used for “bathing facilities.” They’re kinda like spas, only people don’t dote on you, you just take a bath. If you’ve ever studied Roman history, it’s kind of like their public baths. In fact, there’s a new manga that is all the rage right now, and it’s about Roman and Japanese baths. It’s… weird.
Here’s the basic procedure of a Japanese onsen: Go into the changing room and get naked. Go into the shower room with your tiny little towel that doesn’t cover anything. Sit down on a stool that everyone else has sat on. Sit there, quietly seething, while two old women blatantly stare at you because you’re the only non-Asian person in the room, and OMG foreigners have, like, alien bodies or something. Wash yourself with the soap and shampoo they have and rinse off with the shower-hose-thing. Get into the pool-sized bath quickly. Stay for 5 minutes and then get out, because it is too goddamn hot outside to be sitting in a hot tub.
Haha. That sounded really negative, but it isn’t really like that. It was too hot in the bath, though, so we didn’t stay for long.
Before the bath, Laura and Rochelle warned me that people would probably stare at me. Which was an irritating thing to realize. I don’t like being the center of attention in the first place, and then I’m gonna be naked in front of people? And they’re going to stare, because I’m different from them? Great. That’s going to do wonders for my self-esteem. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re naked at school.
Honestly, I did want to go to an onsen someday. We want to plan a Boso girls’ onsen trip. But this time, it wasn’t really a choice that I got to make, so it felt a little uncomfortable. It was fine, but… I just wasn’t prepared for it.
Also, those two ladies were ass-holes. I was hyper-aware of everything around me at the time, and I felt a few glances now and then, but not anything out of the ordinary. You know, it was like, people were looking around for a place to shower off, so they’re bound to look at people. That’s fine. But then these two ladies, just out of my peripheral vision while I was showering, were hardcore staring. RUDE.
Fukushima, 2 Years Later
After the bath, we took a bus tour of the area. The tour guide—now a different woman—described the area and how it was affected by the tsunami.
And man, was it affected.
We started by driving by a gorgeous beach. It struck me as somewhat ironic that the ocean looked so calm—the waves were pretty minor in most parts of that coast.
There are a few rivers that feed into the ocean in the area. Our onsen had overlooked one of those rivers, and our bus had driven over two others. Laura said that one of the volunteer leaders had told us that the pine trees along the coast protected a lot of the land, but the rivers allowed the tsunami to travel 1.5 kilometers inland (0.93 miles).
I was struck by the lifeguard towers that still stood on the beach. First, that there are lifeguard towers in Japan came as a surprise. I’ve never seen one anywhere else. And then these lifeguard towers were completely stripped—only the concrete was left.
Speaking of stripped—it took me a few seconds to figure out what I was looking at, but the following picture is the foundation of a house.
The entire neighborhood, lying in a valley that opened onto the ocean, was completely demolished. These houses were ripped right out of their foundations.
The tour guide told us that about two-thirds of the people who died in the 2011 tsunami were from this area. And it was quite the area—we drove through for a long time.
I’ve never been in a disaster area before. I’ve never been to the areas that Hurricane Katrina hit, I haven’t been to the East Coast since Sandy (or ever, really), and I’ve never seen war with my own eyes. The drive through the area where thousands of people died so suddenly and tragically was sobering.
At first, I was snapping pictures of the ocean like a maniac, but as we drove deeper into the town, I started to feel guilty about taking pictures. I felt like a spectator of people’s lives—or rather, deaths—and I wondered if it was fair that I was allowed to take pictures of places where people died.
I expressed my concern to a few people afterwards, and they said that it was important to remember and to remind people that this happened—that these people existed and lived here and had families, and the people who are left behind still need help getting back on their feet two years later.
I thought that the fact that there were new houses and new plants growing out of the ruins of the old was a hopeful sign. Like the community is rising from the ashes—er, despite the lack of fires. People are rebuilding and remembering and growing.
That’s something admirable about Japanese people. There’s this Japanese mentality that is somewhat controversial—the “shikata ga nai” phrase, which means “it can’t be helped.” People call this “gaman,” which means “perseverance” and is apparently a Buddhist teaching. It’s a double-edged sword—on one hand, it means endurance under hardships, but at the same time, it can sometimes lead to apathy about hardships that can be remedied, or at least fought against (like social issues).
(For example, sometimes at school when students are bullying each other, teachers say, “Ah, well, it can’t be helped.” BUT IT TOTALLY CAN. GAH!)
However, when it comes to natural disasters, a mentality like this seems to be able to help. Sort of like, “It can’t be helped that the tsunami happened, so let’s just do our best now.”
In the Wikipedia page about the Earthquake & Tsunami Double Team, it says that there was a “notable lack of disorder.” Japanese citizens maintained order—with the help of police and even yakuza groups. They ganbaru’d their way through the tragedy (1). I think this is absolutely admirable, and I think it puts the rest of the world to shame.
World, we gotta step it up. Because even though we can’t save the people who die in natural disasters, there are plenty of other people in the world dying from completely preventable and/or treatable diseases, from pointless wars, from governments who don’t work for their people. And we can save them. We can help.
We need to take care of each other. We need to find where we hid our compassion in the back of our closets and dig it out so we can treat each other better.
And if you can, maybe you could volunteer for a day. Because even though many people have forgotten about the earthquake and tsunami—and many other earthquakes and tsunamis in the past—these people still need a lot of help to rebuild. Let’s try to remember that there are other people in the world, and that we have the ability to help each other. Sometimes we don’t know how, but let’s try.
‘Cause even just planting little cotton sprouts for a few hours can help.
Vocabulary & Notes
1. ganbaru can be roughly translated to “do one’s best”
bento n. a packed lunch. Usually they look like this: