Tohoku Recovery Efforts

On March 11, 2012
It’s hard to believe it’s been one year since that tragic day, when all our lives changed and all of us saw Japan affected in a way we never imagined.  Here in Osaka, when the world slowly started swaying, I had no idea how coming months would shape my communities’ sense of togetherness and responsibility to helping those who needed our help in Tohoku.

For those of us scattered around the country, I imagine we all spent similar, painful minutes watching the same horrific scenes unfold online and on television.  Nightmareish scenes of the ocean sweeping through cities, taking homes and cars, and most tragically, lives with them.  Not just the lives of the helpless victims’, but the lives of all their friends and family, which would never again be the same.

When the waters receded and we all began to slowly come out of our initial shock, we began to recognize the magnitude of this tragedy and most of us started thinking the same thing: “How can we help?”

Unfortunately, in the first few days and weeks, there weren’t many options unless you were a first responder or medical professional.  Elections had just finished for AJET and I was the soon-to-be Chair, so I was able to help in a variety of information gathering and resource providing efforts that were done under the various AJET umbrellas.  Members of last year’s council were working around the clock to help different groups and set up ways to keep the JET community informed and up-to-date on what could be done.  I was proud to assist them with those efforts and do what little I could in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

At the end of the first week after the Earthquake, local prefectural governments across the country were still waiting and had little to no options on how to get relief and supplies to the affected regions.  At that point, I couldn’t stand by any longer or wait another day to start actively helping somehow.

I quickly found out that some groups like 2nd Harvest Japan, Peace Boat, and Kozmoz International were pushing forward and driving supplies to the affected areas, despite the government’s instructions and statements against it.  Reports were pouring in, at this point, on the foreign news and online about dire conditions.  People without clothes, babies without diapers, a lack of sanitary supplies and more.  Finding this out, and hearing these reports, I was determined to get aid and supplies there.

I went to my school, and lobbied teachers and my principal to do a drive of supplies and food for the survivors.  It took a lot of convincing, because of the circumstances at the time.  They were being told one thing by the media and by the city’s spokespeople, and yet another story by me.  I backed up my points and told them that I’d take on the full responsibility for whatever happened.  When I finally had everyone on the same page, it was contingent on the program being “the ALTs project”, to protect the school, and I was fine with that.

In the following few days I was overcome by everyone in our communities generosity.  These people were all just waiting for a chance to do something to help.  Turns out, they felt just as helpless as the rest of us that previous week.  Before I knew it, the PTA, our students, and our teachers brought armful after armful of their own contributions.

At the time, we were taking anything we could get our hands on to help.  Food, clothing, eating utensils, bathroom supplies, paper, batteries, gas…..  Literally: ANYTHING.  It took us hours and hours to categorize the items and box them and mark our total inventory on the boxes and on paper.  I gave a call to my friend, Barry Wyatt at Kozmoz International in Kyoto prefecture and he swooped in with his team with a van and a 2 tonne moving truck that we stacked to the top.

I was determined to see this effort through, and despite the fears of radiation exposure and other things on the news, I climbed aboard with Barry and a few others on our way to Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture.  It took all day and overnight, but those hours did nothing to prepare us for what we’d see.  Peace Boat had volunteers in the field doing clean up and by the time we’d arrived, the volunteers were coming home to their “tent city” at a local university campus where they’d set up shop next to a field house they had converted to a warehouse for supplies to be distributed.  This was “base camp” right next to ground zero for the tsunami.

As we unloaded, I was overcome with emotion looking at these brave souls who had traveled here out of a sense of responsibility and desire to help their fellow man in a time of need.  Without any comforts or even running water, they were bearing the elements night after night, sleeping in tents and grueling in labor all day long at ground zero.  I was instantly struck with guilt that I’d just come here and drop off these trucks filled with supplies, only to turn around and go home.  After talking with some of the leaders of these volunteers, they agreed that I could stay and help them if I wished.

The next couple couple days were days I will never forget.  I can’t even begin to tell you the devastation that I saw, the destruction of a city, the ruins left behind.  But all of those scenes in my mind are standing side-by-side with my personal hope for mankind.  People helping each other.  Grateful citizens arms outstrectched in thanks.  People who were so struck with grief and anguish….And yet still at the same time insisting that we share in what little food they had with those of us there helping.  I saw compassion of the human spirit.  Heard stories that still make me want to cry.  But most importantly, I realized that we’re all part of the same community.  Even though I was “foreign” to these people, during those days there were no “foreigners”.  There were no outsiders.  There was only us, and we were all part of the great community that is mankind.

I left Ishinomaki feeling a great sense of irony.  I had traveled so far to give these people something.  But really, I was leaving with something much greater.  I was leaving with a sense of what this world truly needs.  Each other.

Without each other, we are nothing.  A man that stands alone can never accomplish or be the things that dreams are made of without his fellow man.  No matter where you are, or who your community is, I urge you to remember that we, as individuals, can only be as good as what we make of our communities.  That community may be where you live, it may be your country, or it may just be a group of like-minded individuals sharing a hobby.

I dedicated this year to AJET.  Doing my best to make more opportunities for all of you, so that you, in turn, could do more to make life better for others in your communities.

On this eve of the one year memorial of the daishinsai disasters, I challenge you to make the lives of those around you richer and fuller, by whatever means you can, big or small.

I challenge you again, with the same words I used in my election campaign, one year ago this month: 
Let this be the year that we say: We can do more.  We can help more.  We can be MORE.

Connect with you again soon,

Matthew Cook
AJET Chairman