The Day The Ocean Burned

Last Wednesday and Sunday, April 13 and 17, we distributed 9,998 pairs of socks to Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma, hard-hit towns that straddle the border between Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. Had we known in the field how close we came to an even 10,000 pairs, we would have tossed another couple of pairs to somebody — anybody — but we didn’t know and the count tallied 9,998. Here’s the route map from our base in Sano using the Tohoku Expressway, a distance of 435 km (270 mi):

Volunteers Yoshiko and Miwa joined me Wednesday for our now-standard 3 am departure.

The drive from the expressway to the coast is bucolic, betraying nothing of the ruination that awaits at the juncture of land and sea:

but it’s not hard to know when you’re getting close:

The coastal portion of Rikuzentakata, a fishing village that once boasted a population of 23,000 but lost 10 percent of it on March 11, is gone but for the standing dead shapes of a handful of buildings in the rubble.

Its 46-year-old mayor, who lost his wife on March 11 but has not yet told his children that their mother is dead, told Agence France-Presse, “I think it will take at least 10 years to rebuild this town.” He doubts whether it will ever fully recover, with thousands of people “now simply too scared to live here.” One survivor, a 43-year-old man, added, “How can you want to live here after seeing the floods swallow your friends and relatives? I grew up with the sea, the sea raised me. I used to love taking walks down to watch the sea, but now I can’t look at it any more.”

Here’s our black van in the wasteland:

Clean-up proceeds at a slow pace:

because the devastation is extensive:

and people still search for bodies and belongings:

With normal roads ruined and makeshift roads changing frequently or becoming impassable, we needed help finding our way to survivor shelters, as we’ve needed in several disaster towns.

We finally arrived at our first shelters, and found the need as great as we expected it would be. Upon hearing that we came bearing socks, happiness, and notes, survivors lined up for their allotted two pairs per person.

At our midday shelter, the biggest in town, we were met by Japan’s public broadcasting company, NHK, for a filming of our distribution and an interview afterward. The producer and crew were gracious, promising to stay out of our way and advising us to “just forget that we’re here.”

The distribution went well:

with a lot of good people receiving socks and letters:

including this cutie at the very end:

followed by a warm interview with NHK:

In the afternoon, we drove out of Rikuzentakata through its back bay, and were dismayed to find it as thoroughly demolished as the town’s waterfront:

An hour or so of pleasant country road provided an interlude between Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma:

then dumped us right back into the ruins:

You’ll notice something different about Kesennuma’s wreckage. There’s a burnt-orange color to much of it, owing to the town’s unhappy distinction of having suffered not just the twin disasters of earthquake and tsunami, but also a third of raging inferno.

The tidal wave sent two tuna boats colliding in the harbor where they caught fire, then washed farther inland fully ablaze to ignite the oily waters submerging the town. Observers of the fiery scene on the night of March 11 described it as “surreal” to see the hamlet shaken by the quake, swamped by the wave, and consumed by the flames. Here’s what’s left:

Smack dab in the middle of the post-apocalyptic landscape rests a giant fishing trawler, the No. 18 Kyotoku-maru, with a “safety first” slogan painted over its bridge. Its crew was forced to stay aboard while the city burned around them through the night. Locals said they worried as they watched that the ship’s fuel would catch fire and explode. It didn’t. The Kytoku-maru is now the city’s most famous landmark, and expected to stay in place for many months.

Nearby are the remains of a 7/11 on a roadside:

and a ghostly edifice rising from the ashes, issuing haunted moans of wind through its open windows and the screech of metal from its frayed siding:

We continued toward the port, passing ruined properties:

flooded streets:

a leveled business district:

a hotel that explains why we sleep in our van:

and a charming yellow cottage that caught my eye as one of the few standing structures amid the mounds of rubble, and because it looked so cute:

Remember this cottage. You’ll see it again later in our story, and meet its owner. Upon first finding it, I knew nothing more than that it was charming. I wondered if there was any way I could find out who lived there and what happened to them. As with other areas of this operation, the stars heard my thoughts and set in motion the wheels of fate that have served us so well.

Not all goes well, though, as you’re about to learn. From Kesennuma’s port area, we drove to the largest shelter in town, housing 1,000 survivors. Our research team had spoken with city hall and received a request to deliver socks to the people there, thus we’d set aside 2,500 pairs just for that shelter and driven the winding country road from Rikuzentakata to Kesennuma rather than distributing all of our socks in the first town and proceeding directly home.

Upon arriving at the shelter, we met one Mr. Kuroi, a heartless bureaucrat of the type that gives government workers a bad name. We introduced ourselves, expecting the usual enthusiastic reception and invitation to proceed posthaste to get socks onto needy feet and messages of cheer to saddened hearts. Instead, Kuroi said, “We don’t do that here. We have a rule that prohibits direct distribution. Sorry.”

“Hold on,” I said. “We received a request from your city hall to distribute here, and we drove 2,500 pairs of socks from Sano in Tochigi Prefecture, more than 400 kilometers away, to do it. You mean to tell me we can’t?”

“Yes. We have a rule. Sorry. Go home, please.”

He turned away as if the case was closed and he could get back to the half-eaten meal on a desk behind him. “Whoa, whoa,” I said in a very different tone of voice. “You think this is over? You think you’ve washed your hands of this and we’ll quietly disappear? You’ve got another thing coming, sir. This fight is just beginning.”

He shot me a look at once angry but curious. This was something new to him. He’s a rulebook boy from a nation of people known for following rules. Hadn’t he just said there was a rule prohibiting distribution? Wasn’t that the end of it?

We walked past him into the shelter to see for ourselves the level of need. It was immediately obvious. People filled huge rooms like the ones we’d seen in many other places. One boy asked what we were doing and we told him we’d come to hand out socks and care letters. “I want some!” he cried out. “But the director told us to go home,” Yoshiko said. “How rude!” the boy snapped.

I told Yoshiko to call city hall to discuss the situation with the person who asked us to bring socks. That person was out. The person on the phone said he had no authority to do anything, and that Kuroi was the city’s top person available that night. Great.

In the main room, a gymnasium, I walked among the mats and asked people if they needed socks. To a person, they said yes and asked if I had any. “I sure do, 2,500 pairs right outside but prohibited from distribution here,” I said. “That’s ridiculous,” they answered. We reached the team of volunteers in charge of the gym, young men who’d come from far away. The second-in-command hailed from Gunma, near our base in Sano. That gave us an instant connection and we told him why we’d come.

“I know for a fact that people need socks,” he said.

I nodded. “So do I because I just asked them. What do you say we go ahead and distribute in here? We’ll set up in a corner, I’ll make an announcement, and we’ll get socks and letters out to people lickety-split.”

“Er, um, right, um,” he scratched his head and looked at me sideways. “Let me just check with my supervisor.” He left and came back with a confused-looking man who asked us to repeat everything we’d explained. We did so. “I can’t just do something without asking,” he said. Of course. “Please wait a moment while I check with the manager of the shelter.”

“You mean the one who told us to go home?”

“Yes. Just a moment.”

Imagine our shock when he returned a few minutes later apologizing and saying he’d been told it’s impossible because there’s a rule. “Do you think it’s a good rule?” I asked him. “I don’t know. It’s not my job to say,” he squeaked through a face strained into lines of distress that he’d etched out many times in his life. “I’m sorry.”

They sure were a sorry bunch around there. We walked past the front desk outside for fresh air and to strategize. “We should just give up,” Miwa said. “Let’s move on. There are other places that need us.” My hair caught fire.

“Miwa,” I told her squarely, “I will not give up. We’re right. Being right counts. It gives us strength to prevail. You think one man on a power trip should be able to deny the delivery of goods to a thousand people who need them?”

“No, but he said it’s impossible.”

“He said there’s a rule. We need to break the rule. Listen to me. We work for two enormous groups of people: the tens of thousands of survivors, and the thousands of people around the world who’ve donated time and money and socks to us in the expectation that we’ll get them to people who need them. One man — one man! — cannot be allowed to abuse so many people on our watch.”

We called our main researcher, Takako, who couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She wanted to speak with Kuroi directly. I told her we’d call her back from the front desk. Then, I held a little pep talk before we went back in. “Do not give up,” I said, gripping both women’s shoulders. “No matter what happens, what is said, or how loud it gets, stand by me and back me up.” Miwa and Yoshiko promised they would.

Back in we marched. Kuroi came to the window with a look saying, “You again?”

“We need to distribute these socks and letters,” Yoshiko said, “so please talk to our main researcher about the situation.” She handed him the phone with Takako waiting, and he spoke with her for several minutes.

When he handed back the phone, Takako said she’d had no luck. Yoshiko began explaining again to Kuroi how far we’d come; he cut her off. “I get your emotion,” he said, “but there’s a rule. I’m sorry.”

“City hall told us to come,” Miwa said.

“City hall made a mistake.”

“The survivors here need socks.”

“Some do and some don’t.”

“Then let’s make an announcement. The ones who do can line up to receive them and the ones who don’t can stay on their futons. What’s wrong with that?”

“There’s a rule.”

“Don’t you care about your people’s needs?” I asked.

“That’s not the point.”

“That’s exactly the point!”

“There’s a rule.”

“But does it make sense? How many people are here?”

He wasn’t sure.

“In good shelters,” I explained, “they know precisely the number of people there each day and they monitor how the number changes.” He shrugged. I continued. “Do you know whether those people in that room right over there need socks?” He shook his head. “Well I do,” I said. “I just asked them. All of them. Go ahead and check. All of them.”

“Protecting our rule is more important than distributing your socks,” he said.

“To whom?” I asked.

“Everybody,” he replied, but in a way that made it obvious he doubted his decision to enforce the rule. Boy was this a mistake, he thought, but how do I get out of it now without losing face? I can’t change my answer.

Yoshiko picked up on it immediately, too. “This is just about your pride. Your stinking pride is preventing a thousand people from receiving fresh socks. How does that make you feel?”

“It’s not about my pride. You’re all confused.”

“Your pride is more important to you than caring for people in your charge?” I asked. “You care more about an arbitrary rule and your tiny slice of power than you do about comforting stricken people in your own town? You’re pathetic!”

A group of his workers had gathered behind him, and a group of survivors had gathered behind us. Nobody sees this kind of action in a survivor shelter, where calm and collected are the watchwords of group survival. What’s going on? everybody wondered.

“Fine,” he retorted. “I’m pathetic. I don’t care. Go home.”

“We won’t go home,” I said flatly. “Not until these socks are distributed to these people.” I leaned across the counter to address the workers behind him. “Does anybody here have the power to set this man straight? Can any of you see he’s denying fresh socks and letters of encouragement to a thousand survivors? Anybody? Anybody?”

That sent a murmur through the group. The one in front gestured to the manager and said something to the effect that he was the boss, so it was his decision.

“Ah,” I tried mockingly, drawing upon a most un-Japanese side of myself, “but what are we to do when the boss is an idiot?” That hung in the air a moment. “What’s the suggestion here, people? Do you actually expect us to drive away from here, over a distance of more than 400 kilometers, in a van filled with 2,500 pairs of socks that we brought all the way here for these people? Is that what your team is telling us?”

“We’re telling you there’s a rule,” Kuroi said. “City hall was wrong. It’s not my fault.”

“I’ll grant that. Somebody at city hall made a mistake. There’s a rule that says no direct distribution. Be that as it may, this is the situation that’s unfolded. Based on what we were told, we drove this far with this many socks to be delivered free of charge, and it’s obvious that the rule makes no sense right here right now. You need to make the right decision for the situation in front of you, not the one that some bureaucrat dreamed up in an office far away.”

A wave of hurried talking coursed through both crowds, the workers behind Kuroi and the survivors behind us. An older man named Mr. Hashimoto, who looked like a peer of Kuroi’s, stepped forward from deeper inside the office. We went through the same routine with him in hopes that he could exert some power over the wayward shelter manager. He kept repeating that Kuroi was in charge, to which I kept replying that Kuroi was making a mistake. “Are you really going to send these socks back to Sano because of one man who’s too cowardly to admit he was wrong and that the right move is to allow us to distribute these socks?” Back and forth a few times. He repeated his side, Yoshiko repeated our side, he countered, I countered, and there we stood.

Kuroi said, “Well, it’s too late now anyway.”

“Whose fault is that?” I yelled. “We arrived 90 minutes ago and would be on our way home by now if not for you.”

Silence arose from both sides of the office glass separating the two crowds. Hashimoto looked between Kuroi’s deadpan face and my angry face. He tapped a pen on the counter. Behind him, young men stood rigid but their eyes rolled between their leaders to the curious collection of people in front of their office. Hashimoto looked to me again. I raised my eyebrows. Abruptly, he turned to Kuroi and said, “Break the rule.”

The tension turned to liquid fuel in the veins of every young man on staff. The starting gun shot from Hashimoto’s mouth turned enemies to friends, and the men poured from the office in a legion of helping hands. The survivors behind us clamored in different directions. From within the bustle, Kuroi and I locked eyes. I remembered discovering after a family fight years earlier that there’s no way for me to feel good in the aftermath. If I lose, I’m upset. If I win, I feel guilty. In the pinch of a few parts of a second that we looked at each other, Kuroi and I shared regret. I wished I hadn’t called him pathetic and an idiot. I believe he wished he hadn’t told us to go home. But that was the end of it.

We had socks to deliver!

The young men used two big carts to bring the van’s entire inventory to the main entrance hall of the shelter. They set up tables and made an announcement over the PA system. The hall filled with survivors whom the men directed into a long, winding line to receive socks and letters. In the following photo, notice the front of the line at the table, the line extending all the way to the far end of the entrance hall, and then winding behind the columns back around and out of frame on the right. It’s what a thousand people in need of socks and letters looks like:

We handed out every last pair of socks.

One man took my hand and said, “I heard the whole thing at the office. Thank you for making this happen. Thank you so much.” On the late drive back to Sano — in an empty van, mind you — Miwa said she’d learned a lot that day in the field. “Like what?” I asked. “Like how I shouldn’t give up when I’m right.” That comment warmed me all the way back.

News of the trouble in Kesennuma spread quickly among the Socks for Japan team, with people proclaiming we should never go back to the ungrateful city. Further reflection cooled heads, however, to realize that one man’s lapse of judgment was not grounds for denying needed supplies to a ravaged population. “The need there is great,” we concluded, “and we’re not only going to go back, we’re going to return there on our very next trip.”

We did so in our biggest van yet, and the one that will serve as our official delivery vehicle for the rest of our operation: a Toyota HiAce with a 10,000-pair capacity. It’s not the usual way to judge cargo space, but it’s our way. Its diesel engine saves us money on fuel, and provides plenty of low-end torque for slogging through tsunami mud and flooded streets. Diesel fuel is priced lower than gasoline in Japan, but diesel has a higher energy density to give us more bang for our buck, or yards for our yen. Here it is before its first trip:

and loaded for its 3 am departure with volunteers Rumiko and Tatsuya:

As with Rikuzentakata the previous Wednesday, the drive from the expressway to Kesennuma took us through lovely country.

Eventually, the countryside gave way to the destroyed seaside town.

Again, we became lost among the makeshift roads, blocked roads, and general mayhem, so Rumiko asked two clean-up workers for directions.

We proceeded into the heart of the destruction:

on a road where our navigation system thought buildings still stood:

through the formerly thriving commercial port:

to a place familiar to me:

I told Rumiko and Tatsuya that I’d seen the yellow cottage on the last trip and had wondered who lived there and what happened to them. I got out to take more photos of it when a white car pulled up in front.

A family got out of the car, and the mother saw me taking pictures of the house. She approached me. “That’s my house,” she said.

“I beg your pardon,” I replied. “I hope you didn’t mind my photographing it. I was here the other day and it caught my attention. It’s so cute. I wondered who lived in it and what happened to them, and here you are. Do you come back often?”

“No. It’s my first time since the tsunami.”

Amazing. What were the chances that I would happen to be driving by the one house in all of Kesennuma that had jogged my imagination as to the fate of the owner, at the very moment when the owner returned to it for the first time since March 11? Rumiko saw us talking and ran over from the van to hear the conversation.

Their family name is Kanno. The mother’s named Yone, and she’s 62 years old. Her daughter, at left in the photo above, is named Akiko. Yone explained that she’d been home during the earthquake, then ran to the nearby mountain when she heard the tsunami warning.

Strangers on the mountain let her stay that night in their home. The next day, she walked along the railroad track to a relative’s place and contacted Akiko, who came to take her mother to live with her family in Saitama, about 10 miles north of Tokyo.

Yone looked at the wreck that is now her home. “I started this restaurant, Yoshimoto, two years ago on April 29.” She shook her head. “What a shame. I came back today to find mementos of my memories. I hope some are left.”

I asked if she would mind us accompanying her inside the house. She said no, and proceeded up the winding stairway that once welcomed her home.

Inside, she was sad to find almost nothing to retrieve. Even small items had been destroyed or had disappeared. She kept saying in a low voice comments like, “That, too,” and “Oh, no” and “So many years.”

Nobody else could find much worth salvaging, either.

They did find a clock stopped at 4:14. They surmised that it kept time for 15 to 30 minutes after the tsunami struck, earning it an affectionate pat and a permanent place on the Kanno family’s memento shelf, wherever that ends up being.

Yone was also happy to discover a decorative curtain still in place, having hung above the water line.

We wished the Kanno family well, particularly Yone, and received from her daughter a cell phone number we could use to keep in touch. Later, I’ll check in to see how Yone has fared since the tragedy. On our way out, here’s how the street in front of her restaurant looked in either direction:

After another quick stop for directions to the first shelter:

we finally found it and got to work:

Our path to the next shelter took us through the burn zone:

where I happened to see a van just like ours, a white Toyota HiAce, among the ashes:

I walked over to it for a closer look, and peered back at how ours appeared, brand new among the same heaps of ash and wreckage.

I paused to consider how recently this:

had looked like this:

The Kyotoku-maru rested nearby:

and we passed her bow on our way:

People still searched and worked among the detritus.

We arrived at our biggest distribution of the day, a city-hall-sponsored supply point where survivors gathered to receive goods. We parked our van in front, put our sign announcing “Socks” on top of it, then walked around the crowds of people with handheld placards like stadium barkers, announcing that survivors could get socks and care letters at the big white van “right over there!” The response was instant — and enormous.

At our next stop, we shared socks with soldiers.

On our way to another shelter, we passed through a different area of destruction. Our van proved its worth by barreling through even the deepest water and mud on the streets without hesitation.

A man called out to us and ran over. He introduced himself as Utsumi Sadakatsu and said he’d received socks and letters from us at the city hall supply point earlier. He was obviously excited, nearly breathless as he told us that to his great joy and surprise, he’d found his car in the rubble nearby — and in it his driver’s license! “This is great news,” he said, “because the government told us we shouldn’t drive without it, even if we lost it in the tsunami. I really needed this! I may not have a car or house anymore, but I’ve got a license!”

He showed us where he’d found his car, then explained that at least his wife’s car survived so he’d be able to get around town. “I need to, because we’re in a tough spot.” We asked what he meant, beyond the obvious tsunami-related trouble. “The government has reserved temporary homes for people over 80,” he said. “I’m only 68. The problem is, I’m too old to find new work. Nobody will hire a guy my age. I’m too young to get a temporary home but too old to get a job. At least now I can drive around to find something. I don’t know what, but something.”

The road from Mr. Sadakatsu’s neighborhood to our last shelter of the day was long, and treacherous in places.

At last, we arrived and got busy cheering people up!

The setting sun told us to call it a day. We rolled our van through streets of destruction to the edge of the apocalypse, where a peaceful country road awaited with curves and plush hillsides to rejuvenate us on the way home.

There is always a glow in the night, always fresh green among the ashes, always a new van to trace the final tire tracks of the old. It’s our job to remind people of that. May we do it well and without hesitation, come hell and high water, as happened in poor Kesennuma.

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49 Comments

  1. Pamala Blanton
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this story and sharing with all of us the needs of the people of Japan. What beautiful spirit the people still have. This disaster is bigger than one government or people. The clean up is beyond what I can imagine for those who have survived. The socks are wonderful. Please show us the rebuilding of the buildings like you have shown us the rebuilding of the spirit. Next, do we need to gather wallets and purses so the people can get their identification papers in order?

  2. pengfoo
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    I am so touched by the wonderful work that you are doing. You are both so caring and are bringing comfort to victims of a great tragedy.

    Such devastation! Images provided by your photographs are heart rending. I can’t imagine how people can recover from such a disaster. My heart go out to them. How brave they are! May God help them to recover from the trauma as soon as possible and help them rebuild their community and town.
    Please continue to do your good work. May God Bless You!

  3. Mari Beth Roland
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I know this is an off the wall question. As the workers clean up the towns, what do they do with all the mess? I mean, do they dump it in the ocean? Where in the world do they haul the stuff to? There is so much that needs to be cleared away, but where does it go?

    God bless you all for such a great job you are doing for the people of Japan. It was a lot of work to get my box ready to mail to you, which of course pales to what you are doing. Unbelievable to say the least. Keep up the incredible work!

    Mari Beth

    • Posted May 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the kind words, Mari! At first, they sort the mess into piles of similar items: cars with other cars, refrigerators with other refrigerators, splintered wood with more splintered wood, and so on. Later, they will dispose of it at ordinary landfills as they would any other trash, seeking to recycle as much as possible, burn some of it, bury some of it. The government estimates that the volume is ten years’ worth of regular trash, so it’s a big job — but not impossible.

  4. Posted May 6, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Jason, your account of the sock distribution and the photos are amazing. I don’t even know what to comment here. I’m just sitting here in tears. Thank you for doing what you’re doing. Best wishes from germany, tj

  5. Maureen
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Dear Jason and crew:
    Wow, what another incredible update. As I mentioned before, the news outlets in the US don’t give us much information about what’s happening in Japan, so I really rely on your updates to get an idea of what’s happening. It’s so hard to believe that so many people are still in the shelters and the destruction is just overwhelming. Oh, and having lived in Japan, I think I’ve met a few Mr. Kuroi’s myself! But at least he cooperated in the end and your trip and efforts were not in vain.
    Thank you again for all your work. I will keep the kids at the school (La Madera Elementary in lake Forest, CA) updated.
    ps Loved the glimpses of the cherry blossoms in the background. Mother Nature continues her beautifying work despite her recent ravage of the country.

  6. chris marquis
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    very well done!

  7. curious
    Posted May 31, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your work distributing hope to survivors and the updates with pictures. It’s such a tragedy. I hope you can post about some other people who are making a difference like you are where we can contribute supplies like socks or money. Thank you again.

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