Smiles to Ofunato

On Wednesday, May 4, the Socks for Japan team distributed 5,422 pairs of socks with care letters to survivors in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. Four volunteers made the journey: Sachiyo, Takako, Toshiaki, and I.

We arrived in familiar territory:

where “badly damaged” homes are simply gone:

and “damaged” homes look like this:

On top of losing their homes, cars, and other property, workers in the town’s once busy fishing and shipping industries are out of work, as the bay area where they used to show up each morning now looks like this:

Spirits are understandably low. It’s our job to change that. While survivors have received ample supplies of primary support, they’ve received little direct encouragement and few tokens to hold as evidence that somebody cares about them. We specialize in delivering such evidence, and we’ve seen the transformation it brings to their faces. Sad becomes happy. Despondent becomes hopeful. We don’t know how long the mood changes last, but string enough moments of joy together and a new life can emerge.

When we began, most of the smiles were ours alone:

As we progressed, more people gathered and spirits began to lift:

One elderly woman looked especially depressed when we arrived. Try as we might, we could not get her to perk up with jokes about cute socks or other light banter. She gratefully accepted her socks and letters, but without much pleasure. Here she is just after receiving them:

I watched her return to her futon and expected her to toss the socks aside and resume brooding over the situation. Instead, she carefully opened each package of socks, looked at them, held them against her feet, and read every word of the letters:

Through a hard day in the survivor shelter, the socks and letters worked their magic until she looked over at me and positively beamed:

Midday, we joined a community gathering center where survivors from shelters, neighborhoods, and outlying areas came to enjoy a food line and entertainment. The director asked us to distribute socks and letters at the entrance to the center, behind a supply truck with one side open toward the food line:

People looked happy to get fresh socks and letters along with their food and entertainment, and some of them suggested that we were the entertainment:

One lady shared her french fries with us:

This little supermodel posed for us:

I think I scared one of the littlest old ladies I’ve ever seen:

Our drive to the next shelter took us through rough terrain, to roads that proved impassable due to standing water and debris:

and past a shop that made me remember my sister, Emily, working at Red Frog Coffee in Longmont, Colorado:

I stood in front of it a while and thought, “What if Emily had worked here? Would she be alive today?” I considered that if just thinking about the possibility of losing her to the tsunami made me as sad as it did, how awful must be the lingering days in shelters for people who actually lost family members on that horrible Friday in March.

At our next shelter, some of the survivors lived in tents and I saw our socks on a mat inside an open tent flap:

We set up shop, and the sock festivities began:

At our last shelter, we arrived in time to set up the van for distribution where people exited after receiving dinner. It started as a trickle, but gained momentum quickly:

and brought out a lot of smiles:

Sunset bathed the disaster zone in a warm light, seen clearly from the shelter safely atop a hillside:

We left Ofunato in hopes that we did some good, but knowing that full healing will take years for the seaside town.

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  1. Posted May 15, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Thank you once again, Jason, for going “where angels (and newspeople) fear to tread” to bring back stories of hope (even if only a glimmer) and cheer for these victims of nature’s indifference. I sent two boxes of socks, which should have arrived by now. (I forgot to put my email address on the outside, so I will wait to hear when your team can open the boxes.) I have another box of socks (men’s and women’s, as directed) that I hope to have in the mail today.

    May Felix Salmon eat his words – and his socks ….. ;)

    In peace and wellness to you, your team and the people of Japan,


  2. Mark Grzywa
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    You are doing great work there! Our prayers are with you & the people of Japan!

  3. Michiko Kissinger
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Jason, and your team:)
    Your abundance of energy of love is felt in your words and photos. What you are doing is connecting us to all those people in northern Japan somewhere in our hearts, which otherwise we would not have had the privilege to….What may be difficult for one person to do, when we all come together, it’s possible. But, even if we all want to come together, it takes one person’s love, courage and strong belief to make it happen. Thank you!

  4. rose Yamauchi
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jason,

    Thank you for continuing to distribute the socks. I hope the four boxes our group sent from California arrived safely. I would appreciate a word from your group if you did not receive them as sthe USPost Office will reimburse the group for our postage in that event.
    We are grateful that you and your volunteers continue the good work.
    The photos are excellent.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      We’ll get confirmation to you soon, Rose. So far, we haven’t missed a single shipment but it’s taking us a while to send confirmations.

  5. Esther Fieler
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jason and Team,
    I mailed (through FEDEX) 343 pairs of socks from the students of Meadow Creek Elementary School at Bedford, Texas. These children are very happy to be able to help the people of Japan that were affected by the tsunami and earthquake.
    Thank you for the work you are doing. I’m glad that we are able to help and may God bless us all!
    I’m sure the kids will be happy if they get a letter from you…just to let them know you got the socks.
    Thank you again.
    Esther Fieler

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Esther! I’m happy to know your socks are on the way. I’ll see about a letter one of these days, but will certainly get a confirmation email to you guys eventually. We’re a little behind in that department, but we never forget.

  6. TimHand
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    hello Jason and the A Team,

    What a wonderful job u do.I really appreciate the photos and updates.You have a pure heart and such kindness.I read 1 of ur books and bought 2 more just to get to know u better.u remind me of MOTHER TERESA and have follers like Billy Gram.I wish Oboma was like u and understood things better.I love the way the Japan people stand together and find it easy to see why their products do so well and are in such demand.Blessin to u and all ur team for the outstanding work u r doing there.”I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much”Mother Teresa
    God bless you !

    ur friend always,

  7. Adele Scott
    Posted May 21, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jason and team,

    I have sent a small parcel today with some socks from Palmerston North, New Zealand. While I have been involved in several events locally to raise funds for Japan it was great to do this one small act which seems so very personal. The letter writing was hard as I tried to connect with those who might read them. You guys (and gals) are truly amazing. BIG hugs from downunder, and, as we say here in Māori KIA KAHA = がんばって!!.

    All the best, and thank you for the opportunity to share in your work

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