Rushing to Miyagi

Socks for Japan received a van to use on a two-day trip to Miyagi Prefecture on Thursday and Friday. Three of us — representing Japan, South Africa, and the United States — will take 4,000 pairs of socks to Watari and Yamamoto in response to both towns issuing emergency requests for socks and underwear. The following screen capture from the top of Watari’s relief-supply information page shows the list of their most needed items as of March 29:

Screen capture of requested items from Watari-cho

The bullet reads, “Underwear – Socks (men, women, children)” and the asterisked notation under it reads, “Urgently short of these items.” Hours after the above screen capture was taken, Watari changed the color of the “urgent” asterisk message to red.

With this trip, we’ll push farther into the damage zone than we have on any distribution so far. The distance to Watari from our base in Sano is 271 km (168 mi), presenting us with the now-familiar challenge of finding gasoline for the return trip. We’re confident we’ll succeed, however, as the situation is improving and there appears to be ample gasoline off the Tohoku Expressway. We’ll get gas on the way up so we arrive in the area with enough to move from shelter to shelter, and get more on the return trip. Here’s our route map:

Route map from Sano to Watari

The tally of dead and missing from March 11 has reached 28,000. Insurance companies believe the monetary cost will exceed $300B, making this the most expensive natural disaster in history. Sadly for Japan, it was also home to the second-most-expensive, the 1995 Kobe earthquake at $100B with 6,400 people killed. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is third, at $81B with 1,800 people killed. The numbers show that Japan has suffered a traumatic blow, from which to recover it will need all the help it can get.

Miyagi specifically is in appalling shape. The prefectural government estimates that some 146,000 of its vehicles were damaged by the earthquake, 10 percent of the registered total. In the capital city of Sendai, labor offices are receiving 200 job inquiries per day as people realize that the job they held before no longer exists, in many cases because the employer no longer exists. Watari and Yamamoto, where we’ll spend Thursday and Friday, lost almost 80 percent of their farmland to the tsunami.

Miyagi’s survivor shelters are even larger than the ones we visited in Kitaibaraki (Mar 23 report) and Iwaki (Mar 29 report), which is why we’re taking so much inventory. Local officials in touch with us via cell phone requested that we distribute only if we have enough to give every survivor a pair of socks and a letter. That’s our policy, anyway, but the special request shows that shortages are affecting morale.
Which provides an opportunity to address a criticism that Socks for Japan continues receiving from self-proclaimed aid professionals. The longer we successfully run this operation, the harder it becomes to distinguish avowed “professionals” from ourselves in any way that places more weight on their opinions than ours. Most pontificate from afar; we gather evidence on the ground.

Our harshest critics call our socks and letters “SWEDOW” — shorthand for “stuff we don’t want” — to suggest our donors are sending socks and letters for their own gratification rather than the good of the survivors receiving them. Perhaps the critics wish recipients didn’t want our care packages, but the fact is they do. They tell us so themselves when we visit, and government officials overseeing them tell us so when they request that we distribute to the shelters they manage.

In articles about direct-aid operations, such as one that appeared in yesterday’s Daily Yomiuri, you’ll find a list of ways that direct-aid done wrong causes more harm than good. People are advised against sending used clothing, against grouping various items in one package, against shipping unlabeled boxes, and so on.

Distinctions matter, however, and the Socks for Japan model of direct aid is not the sloppy variety. It’s beneficial. We set ourselves up from the beginning to avoid well-known pitfalls. We handle only one kind of item — brand new socks. We sort, label, and pack them with care letters for easy delivery, and we usually conduct the delivery ourselves directly to the shelters that request it. Far from being SWEDOW, our packages are STAFFU — “stuff they asked for from us” — and the reason we know is that we talk to them on the phone every day. What evidence are “professionals” using when they conclude that nobody wants what shelters have requested from us? If they arrive at their conclusion without evidence, then “professional” is not the way to describe them.

They would benefit by reading the following quote from the Yomiuri article, which rings true with us:

“People who want to send relief goods to disaster areas should check such information frequently and try to cooperate with local governments so necessary items can be delivered when needed,” said Norio Takeuchi, deputy director of the Tokyo Voluntary Action Center in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

That’s our philosophy, too, and it’s serving our operation well. We go where we’re asked to go and we deliver what people say they need. That’s direct aid done right, and it’s the way we’ve approached it for the past 20 days. Had we heeded advice to avoid direct aid entirely because it’s always SWEDOW, we’d be in no position to deliver necessary items when needed. Current information tells us people in shelters need socks. Thank goodness we’re able to deliver them.

With that, we’re off to Miyagi!

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  1. Posted March 31, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I am CHEERING LOUDLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! for you and your team, Jason.

    I wish I could send my growing collection of socks and care letters to you right this intant, but alas, I am in Perth, Western Australia and they won’t be quite ready for another week.

    The people (professionals???) who choose to voice their ‘expert’ opinions are of no help to the Japanese people who have lost everything. I am not sending socks and letters to encourage the people in the evacuation centres because it makes me feel good. I am doing it because they need help and you, Jason, have found a way to offer a tiny bit of comfort in their time of unimaginable suffering.

    I think it is important, always for every person to ask themselves the question ‘Are my comments going to be ‘life-giving’ to others or will I be the only one who feels good after I have voiced them?’

    Perhaps these ‘professionals’ are the ones who are seeking to boost their own egos. Perhaps they know a lot about a little and perhaps they know nothing about Japanese people. I hope they will humble themselves and learn something here!

    Love and blessings to you and your team, Jason. Words cannont express the gratitude!

  2. Amy G.
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Jason and everyone, just keep on doing what you are doing. Your blog posts make me so emotional when I see and hear about the people receiving personal letters and this small item of comfort. I’ve lived in Japan, so I can just picture the happy looks on their faces when they see that people from other countries care about them. This is a very nice and well-organized project!

    I’ve lost a lot a respect for a couple charities that I used to have near the top of my ‘respectable’ list. I did give to the Japanese Red Cross directly – – and it seems good to give to groups whose ground-presence is primarily Japanese. I was much less impressed with the ability of some groups who normally do good work in Africa. Japan is not the place where these groups have the right language skills and cultural expertise to work effectively. (I’m sorry to say that an NGO interview with a 12-yr-old child left me horrified that his interviewer knew no Japanese and asked very insensitive questions. It left me thinking, wow, that aid worker should just pack up and go home – how is making a child relive the terror of going through what he’s been through helping?!? ) But what has me MOST disappointed in these groups, is that some of their spokespeople have come out in the media to tell people that we shouldn’t be sending our money to Japan. Perhaps these groups can’t help, but it is crazy to think that Japan doesn’t need our help!

  3. Posted April 1, 2011 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    I’ve read the people who are criticising you and it makes me very sad.. I’ve just read the Watari page through a (bad) google translation, but it catches the sense i think – and yes, the socks and underwear bit is in red now, and urgent seeming. I’ve read in many places now that the large things are getting through, but it’s the small things that get forgotten. Above all, we must not loose sight of the human angle – people, without homes, without everything they treasure – bringing small comfort through a pair of socks makes people realize they are not forgotten :) Keep up the good work – I hope to send more socks soon

  4. Heather
    Posted April 2, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Since when did it become a bad thing to feel good from giving????

    It depresses me to no end when I see people make this accusation, because it shows just how disconnected from the heart (and truth) humanity has become.

    It all boils down to intention. If you’re giving to serve your already blown up ego, that’s one thing, and that feels ‘good’ in one way. If you’re giving to help another human being in need, with no expectations in return, that’s very different, and that feels good in a much better way. It’s called having an open heart, and no one should feel bad or guilty for that.

    When you truly give from the heart, you can’t help but receive – it’s the nature of it.

  5. Michael Nettrour
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink


    I hope some of the NGO’s realize how shortsighted they are being. I will forward, what I learned here to an US gov’t funded agency (CFE) Community For Excellence (HA/DM) that works to train governments and NGO’s how to deal with disasters. Your touch and presence among these people is therapeutic for the survivors Thinking about a game kit for distribution among the children at these places. (Jump ropes, jacks, small dolls, etc. Thank you for being, the hand of God, providing for needs.

  6. Becky Moder
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    People that do good always have critics: it’s called envy, jealousy, and too much self centeredness.

    Jason and team: Keep on doing what you are doing and ignore the grumpy “professionals”. You are capturing joyful faces to share with us and those faces love the socks, love the letters, love knowing people do indeed care so very much about their suffering.

    Becky C

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