Tag Archives: Free Tohoku

Christmas in Tohoku Part 2

We got talking at the Free Tohoku and It’s Not Just Mud Christmas party, despite not sharing much language, our ‘conversation’ drifting over the head of her small boy, who wriggled in her arms in that way that children do the world over when they decide that Mum has been talking long enough.  He was too shy to look my way at first, burying his face in her shoulder as we tried to get him to wave ‘hello’ or ‘konnichiwa’.  We chuckled over his antics until eventually he looked to see what was happening and we were rewarded with a big smile.

I asked his age and she said he was only four months old, so she would have been pregnant during March.  I thought back to that time, things like how difficult it was to sleep, the huge number of aftershocks, constantly watching the news coming from Fukushima and how the strain affected everyone.  How much harder it must have been in the North, where shocks were stronger and more frequent, family members disappeared or dead and the buildings more damaged.  Then having to face that while pregnant.  I couldn’t believe how strong she was.

Surrounded by the children enjoying the party, running around, chasing each other, jumping like crazy on the bouncy castle, it was great to be able to give them this chance to be kids again.  Imagining the loss and fear that they must have experienced, coupled with seeing their parents – the ones to run to when something scary happens – also looking afraid.  Having to be strong for each other in the face of so much uncertainty and loss must take its toll and I hope the party was able to provide a brief comfort.

After the event finished we had another visit to make.  Our bus headed to Okawa Elementary School, the scene of incredibly tragic events on 11 March.  As the Asahi Shimbun reported:

Of the 108 students at the elementary school, 64 were found dead and 10 were still missing as of April 9. That means that about 70 percent of the students became victims of the tsunami.

(Elementary school in Japan runs from the age of six until 12, when students graduate to junior high.)

By a cruel twist of fate, because of the school’s location at the edge of the city and disrupted communications, rumours had spread that everyone at Okawa school had been saved.  Parents spent an anxious night wondering if their children were scared or cold, before learning that few had survived.  There were reports of a line of children and teachers walking towards the nearby river, because the hill at the back of the school was too steep to climb, when they were engulfed by the tsunami.  The waves had risen above the roof of the school, a two-storey building.

As we arrived there on Christmas Eve, I saw that the school buildings were in a terrible state.  No glass remained and it was possible to look right through the ruins.  The area around the school has been cleared and lorries hurtled past, one after the other, carrying debris from further along the road.  The paper decorations on a Christmas tree standing in the school’s entrance hall fluttered in the biting cold wind and the evening began to draw in.

Waiting to meet members of our group were some of the bereaved mothers of pupils at the Okawa school.  It didn’t feel appropriate to take pictures, but this from Wikipedia shows what remains:

Close to the entrance to the school there is a shrine, with a statue of a mother and child, created by local sculptor Shozo Hamada:

At the unveiling of the statue, he spoke of his hope that it would help the survivors achieve peace of mind.  I hope so too, however difficult that is while the bereaved parents still have questions about what happened immediately after the earthquake on 11 March and wonder if events could have been turned out differently.

If the tsunami came one hour later, if I went to pick them up by car, if the earthquake had hit on Sunday… they wouldn’t have lost their lives, I cannot regret enough.

Sueko Saito, mother of Miku and Takumi

Survivors across Tohoku will be dealing with such mental anguish for many years to come, long after the rebuilding draws to a close.  It is perhaps a cliché, but sharing Christmas with them, though so far away from my own loved ones, showed me how much I have to be thankful for.  No one who was in Japan during March 2011 will ever forget these events, now it is for us to make sure that those directly affected aren’t forgotten as they attempt to rebuild their cities, homes and lives.

If you are in Japan, there are many excellent organisations to get involved with, from It’s Not Just Mud to Free Tohoku and Smile Kids Japan.  If you are in another country – why not visit and volunteer? – or make a donation!

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Christmas in Tohoku Part 1

Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Christmas would be like.  It is not a Christian country and New Year is a much more important festival in the Japanese calendar.  So I wasn’t expecting to see many Christmas trees.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The shopping centres and public areas around Tokyo have their decorations up even earlier than many do in the UK and – kids being kids – everyone is excited about Santa’s arrival, presents and cake.  In school we play games, make Christmas decorations and sing songs, much the same as you do.  In one class, a student got the words to ‘Jingle Bells’ slightly muddled and all his classmates jumped in to tell him the right ones.  You’ve got to get it right for Santa!

Despite – or perhaps because of – everything they have been through, the small people of Ishinomaki are no strangers to the Christmas anticipation.  I could imagine kids in temporary housing asking their mums if Santa would be able to find them, just as my brother and I did after our family moved house late one year.  The charity Free Tohoku was determined to give them a reason to smile this Christmas and so ‘let them eat cake!’ was born.

The idea was to give each family some treats – Christmas cake and cookies – as well as shopping tokens for other things they needed.  Thanks to the generosity of so many, fundraising efforts were a great success.  23 December saw an assortment of friends, colleagues and Twitter acquaintances meet on a cold winter’s night at a remote station in Chiba (about 20 miles from central Tokyo).  We loaded a brightly painted rainbow bus with all the essentials, including but not limited to: helium for balloons; a Santa costume; a hot water heater and – of course! – a Christmas tree.  There was so much stuff I wasn’t sure there would be room for all of us, but somehow everything squeezed in and then our journey could start.

(For the fact fans, it is around 250 miles)

This was my first trip so far to the north of Japan and I would love to tell you all about everything we passed.  But it was after midnight and motorways being more or less the same the world over, there wasn’t much scenery to speak of.  Instead, it was time to try to snatch some shut-eye.  We had lots of kids to entertain soon!

We woke to a gorgeous morning breaking over a much more snowy and hilly landscape than the one we had left behind.  As always when I am awake at the crack of dawn, I was surprised to see how many other cars and trucks were on the road, the days in Japan start early!  We had a quick wash and brush up in the service station toilets before heading into the centre of Ishinomaki, via a slightly circuitous route to the primary school hall, where we met the volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud to get everything unloaded and ready for Santa’s visit.  It seemed like there was so much to do – however would we finish in time?

Many hands made light work of it all and soon the helium balloons and the cafe were up and running:

The bouncy castle was waiting for the crowds:

The Christmas tree was beautifully decorated:

And we had hung up the handmade or decorated Christmas cards sent to Ishinomaki by children in Ireland, Japan and the UK:

I had thought this way of hanging up cards was quite usual but it seems to just be a British thing as many visitors and volunteers asked about it… maybe this will start a trend next year!  Much nicer than putting them away and they helped to cheer up the chilly school hall.

Then suddenly everything was ready, the doors opened and the kids arrived.  The first part of the day flashed by in a blur, but there were huge queues for the bouncy castle and trampolines, as well as a craft area to make decorations, while the parents stopped for a chat and a coffee.  We also had a visit from a clown who made balloon animals and swords, which came in very handy for clobbering friends:

Delicious onigiri was served for lunch and then came the moment everyone had been waiting for…

Excitement was running very high as the kids got their gifts and treats and it was lovely to hear the hall ring with their shrieks and laughter.  We sang Christmas songs, while some made beautiful thank you notes and pictures:

You can see some of the results by clicking on the link in this tweet:

All too soon it was time to load up the bus and head back to the city, feeling  exhausted but happy – as I hope all the partygoers did.  To those who donated either cash or time, a huge thank you!  To the wonderful team of Our Man and Our Woman in Abiko – who asked if I would like to come along – thank you so much, it was a pleasure!  And to all the It’s Not Just Mud team, thanks for everything, I’ll be back before long.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Before leaving Miyagi, the Free Tohoku bus made another stop.  Christmas in Tohoku Part 2 is here.

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How to help Japan

Following the survivors’ stories and video footage, here is the Tohoku earthquake rendered as numbers and facts (with thanks to Michael Soron for his illuminating post):

The government estimates the material damage from the quake and tsunami alone could top $300 billion, making it by far the world’s costliest natural disaster

This means that this year Japan is likely to move from being the world’s biggest donor to the biggest recipient of aid.  Other statistics are notable for the individual stories and hardships that undoubtably lie behind them:

  • A total of 12,485 households in the north were without electricity Tohuku Electric Power Co said
  • At least 79,000 households in five prefectures were without running water, the Health Ministry said
  • At least 95,107 buildings have been fully destroyed, washed away or burnt down, the National Police Agency of Japan said

With much of the attention naturally being drawn towards the ongoing situation at Fukushima nuclear power plant, there is a gap emerging.  People living in evacuation centres need practical assistance now, with everything from food to clothing to transport.

Some innovative and inspiring individuals are helping to make a difference, such as the Dutch architect developing plans for a community centre in Iwate and the Free Tohoku blog, a collective of concerned people seeking to match immediate needs with donations.  One of the Free Tohoku initiatives has been to urge the city of Abiko in Chiba to send abandoned commuter bicycles to those who have lost their means of transport – a vital link to resources and employment.

Faced with the numbers and such unimaginable destruction, it is easy to feel powerless and small, that there is nothing one person can do to assist.  I believe that the opposite is true.  There are links to disaster relief organisations hereQuakebook is available to buy hereBikes for Japan is here.  You and I may not be able to rebuild lost buildings or deliver aid to the stricken areas, but we can support those who can.  Together we can help the people of those areas get back on their feet.

Gambatte! (You can do it!)

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