Watari and Yamamoto

We are finally reaching the hardest-hit areas of Japan’s disaster zone. With each distribution, we find ourselves among wider destruction and greater need for support. That brings mixed emotions. We’re happy to provide support, but wish it wasn’t needed.

I announced last Wednesday that three of us would take 4,000 pairs of socks on a two-day trip to Watari and Yamamoto, two severely damaged towns in Miyagi Prefecture that had issued emergency requests for socks and underwear. The trip was supposed to have happened on Thursday and Friday.

Instead, the need in Watari was so great that we distributed all of our socks on Thursday. We sat in a parking lot, looking at each other, wondering if we could get all the way back down to our base in Sano and back up again the next day to distribute that many again to adjacent Yamamoto, whose coordinator nearly broke down on the phone with disappointment when we told him we had no socks left for his town. “We were counting on you guys,” he said.

We called our base volunteer operation to see how much we had in stock. It could be enough if we received a substantial new shipment, which was likely given recent trends. We decided to make it work somehow, remembering our official organization motto: “Impossible is an impossibility.” We get it done.

But I’m ahead of the story. Let’s review what happened Thursday. At a distance of 271 km (168 mi), it takes four hours to get from our base to Watari and Yamamoto via this route on the Tohoku Expressway:

Route map from Sano to Watari

The Watari shelters were enormous and the need for socks evident every time somebody walked by barefoot or in ratty socks with holes in them. Our supply dwindled quickly as throngs of people cheered our arrival and lined up for socks and letters.

The stories people told were riveting. This grandmother, named Haruko, described her destroyed home and then gave us a tip. “If you ever find yourself in a situation where the world is shaking to pieces and falling all around you, and you can’t find a helmet, put a thick book over your head. It’s much better than a cushion.” Makes sense, and she should know! We spoke with her a while, then she gave food to Takako in thanks for socks and letters.

Our drives between shelters took us through near-total devastation of residential areas. It was obvious why the shelters were brimming with people who’d arrived wearing the only possessions they had left in the world. Most of them lost their homes, their cars, and everything inside them.

Among the piles of rubble, occasionally one or two small identifiable items blink up and demand attention. They’re usually photo albums or individual photos, but other times they’re statues or a child’s painting or an old lady’s wheel chair with her slippers still tied to the foot braces. Three that I saw that day were a photo of girls wearing kimonos before a ceremony, soy sauce bottles from somebody’s kitchen, and a student’s English dictionary.

About the kimono photo and its area, I wrote to subscribers on Sunday:

I smelled ocean long before getting to the coast because seawater seeped into everything a mile inland. Gradually, as two volunteers and I rolled closer to the Watari village epicenter called Arahama, the landscape changed. The now-familiar sight of upside-down cars and overturned trucks and boats sitting in the middle of fields gave way to one house in splinters, then two, then a neighborhood street reduced to rubble, and eventually to an expanse of total destruction so wide that from our point in the middle of it we could not see out.

It felt like the ocean was swallowing us as well, that our van and then our feet would sink into the marshy soil as effortlessly as lives had slipped to sea that day. We parked and walked separately into the scene. I stood on the edge of a former rice field, looking across the mountains of rubble to a lone crane working far away to pick up one piece of scrap, put it in a dump truck, then another, and another, like a Tonka toy run by a child who decided one day to pick up every grain of sand from the beach. It looked that pointless.

The type of sadness I felt staring there hollowed me out. My mouth dried. I chewed the inside of my cheek and repeated meaningless sounds to myself, like “oh” and “huh” and “whew.” I found in the debris at my feet a photo of two girls in kimonos, on their way to a ceremony. I bent to look. They might be dead now, I thought. Then I remembered that after the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the suicide rate among survivors soared as many concluded they’d lost too much to go on living.

I stood back up and looked across that endless trauma, so loud in its silence, and thought for the first time that I could understand their feelings.

We realized early in the day that we did not have enough socks for both Watari and Yamamoto. I double-checked with our base as the numbers grew around us.

We handed out our last sock in Watari at about 10 pm, then hoofed it back to Sano overnight to find a way to get another 4,000 pairs ready for a quick return trip to Yamamoto. I was too tired to drive straight though, however, and kept stopping to sleep along the way. It was 6 am before we made it back.

All three of us caught a few more hours of sleep, then returned to our receiving office to see what could be done. To our great pleasure, we received a shipment of more than 6,000 pairs of socks from Xinmin Secondary School in Singapore. We knew they were on their way and would be arriving soon, but they came more quickly than expected. What good fortune! Prior to their arrival, I received from the school’s teacher coordinator, Duncan Hiew, the following description of how the generous donation came to be:

Our school, Xinmin Secondary School, with volunteers from students of Class 407, The Boys’ Brigade, and The Student Leader Board, has taken up this project. We have managed to collect a total of about 1,300+ pairs of socks and some cash donations with which we managed to buy another few thousand pairs of socks. In total, we are donating 6,262 pairs of socks for this meaningful project.

Our volunteer team got busy on the shipment and managed to cram 4,108 pairs into the van for a quick return trip to Yamamoto. We called the coordinator there, who was ecstatic to hear we’d be on the ground in his town the next day, Saturday.

Pulling up to city hall Saturday morning, the sense of scale hit us. With each trip, we’ve gone higher on the ladder of tragedy. As desperate as Watari had been on Thursday, Yamamoto topped it. The military and government effort underway spoke volumes about the extent of the tragedy in that one small town that had lost some 80 percent of its farmland and an as-yet untold but enormous percentage of its population. We coordinated our day’s plan with the command center at city hall.

As we unloaded, we noticed survivors digging through disheveled boxes of donated clothing outside the first shelter, not one of which contained socks.

In the first shelter, we met two 100-year-old women who survived the tsunami, one of whom was later featured in a newspaper dressed up to celebrate her birthday inside the shelter.

This next story is one of the saddest we’ve heard. The woman on the right in the photo below, named Kumiko, is the only survivor of her immediate family.

Through eyes that were plain cried out, her hands closed or clenched in fists on her thighs, she told us this:

When I heard the tsunami warning, my first thought was of my preschool daughter, Rie. I had to get to Rie. I rushed to my car and drove as quickly as I could to her preschool near the train station by the coast. I knew it would be hit early and hard by the wave because it was so close to the ocean. The problem was, every mother had the same thought and we jammed up the road on the way to the preschool. The wave rose from the sea and bore down on the preschool in the distance where the teachers and children ran toward us. They disappeared in the water, then the wave reached our line of cars and sent all of them tumbling across the land that became sea. I broke free and was saved, but many mothers did not, and died in their cars underwater.

Later in the shelter, I found Rie’s teacher. She had run from the school holding Rie’s hand in her left hand and another girl’s hand in her right. They tried so hard to get away, but the wave overtook them and tore the girls’ hands from the teacher’s. She thought she had been killed in the ferocious water, but she survived. The girls were gone, though. Later, Rie’s body was found far away from the school. I went to a group funeral for her and other preschool students the other day.

She was my first child, and she will be my only. I will never have another baby. Rie was my baby. She was my only one.

The day froze at the end of her story. None of us could speak. The pairs of socks we held looked stupid to us, the letters so small among her words. “We wish we could do more,” we finally said, “but all we can give you is a pair of socks.” I noticed Kumiko looking at our bag of little girl socks. I wished I’d set it down farther away in the room. I wondered if I should offer a pair for Rie in absence, but was afraid it might sadden Kumiko more. I didn’t want to say “good luck” or “tomorrow will bring a fresh outlook” or some other platitude. Sometimes there’s nothing to say, so we just hold people and let them know how sorry we are for their irretrievable loss.

Eventually, we left Kumiko’s shelter and our path took us along the coast. By chance, we saw the ruined train station in the distance and realized with dread that we drove on the same road Kumiko and other mothers had raced down that afternoon when the tsunami struck. Here’s how it looks now:

This is the open expanse on the way to the sea:

where soldiers still look for bodies:

and carry them away in plastic bags:

We saw the remains of the train track:

and men inspecting the remains of the station:

and what looked like the sole remaining evidence that a preschool had once stood near the station, just as Kumiko had told us. The Mickey-and-Minnie sign warns of children running:

It was, indeed, very near the station:

We stood in front of the foundation, a harsh wind from the sea whipping our backs and grinding sand into our eyes, making more acute the realization that Rie died in that spot running toward those mountains in the most terrifying seconds of her short life. If there’s any consolation in the power of the tsunami, it’s that it killed quickly the little feet that could not outrun it.

Of course she could not outrun it, I told myself when we drove up from the sea to the road that would take us to the next shelter, and looked back at Yamamoto’s coastline. What little girl could cover that distance at all, much less with more speed than a barreling tidal wave?

A man walked out to look. People nearby surmised he was visiting his former neighborhood as did many others in an attempt to salvage something from the chaos.

The lay of the land blessed us with a long time between the coastal devastation and our next shelter. It allowed us to regroup, dry eyes, and cheer up for survivors in need of a boost. We found them, and their glee at receiving socks and letters was as much a favor to us as our care packages were to them.

The girl in the next group of photos grew especially excited about her fuzzy new pair of yellow and white socks. She said, “Yellow and white, my favorite! So warm, so warm!” She read her letter to herself, then shared parts of it with her mother. As I watched them, I wondered if the mother cried every night at the kindness of the heavens that spared her daughters that Friday afternoon when so many others perished from their mothers’ arms forever. I told her, “Thank goodness your most precious possessions survived.” She replied, “More important than the air I breathe.”

We handed out our organization’s 10,000th pair of socks that evening in Yamamoto, to somebody among this crowd:

The volunteer group at the last shelter of the night offered us dinner after we finished distributing socks. I was starving by that time. The men, most of whom lost their homes along with friends and family members but who became volunteers to help others in the shelters, said the few laughs we gave them were their only happiness all night. The tough guy on the right said to the man in the middle, “You were so depressed just a little while ago and — ah, never mind.”

The tough guy sat next to me during dinner. I asked him if it sometimes felt wrong to him to laugh, as it did to me. He said, “Not really. We’ve tried the other reactions. Laughter’s about the best one, you know what I mean?” I’m starting to.

I slept many times on the side of the road home again in what would become another 6 am return for us. In the half-awake zone of late-night driving, lulled by the sound of the engine and warmed by its heat, I thought about Socks for Japan and all the good people helping us run it. I thought of the thousands of hands overseas choosing socks and writing letters, our hands holding them out, and the thousands of hands grasping them. It’s the missing hands that won’t let me rest, and they’re the ones I can do nothing to help. That’s the burden of the survivor, I guess. If it torments me so, how much does it torment Kumiko?

We have to push on. All around us are signs that the living will not give up, like this one placed boldly where Rie took her last steps and where another child will one day play in ocean waves:

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  1. Posted December 21, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    May all pending tragedies for the world be eliminated, the past trauma and surviving hearts find healing, and harm to mother earth lessened.
    May you (Jason) and the volunteering team find further excellence in all that you do, so the altruistic goals are met and the wisdom that started all this shall be sharpened. It is my sincere wish to join you folks in person soon.

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