Socks for Summer

On July 6, Socks for Japan embarked on its 32nd and final distribution for Phase I of its relief effort connecting supporters from around the world with survivors of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Our HiAce van carried 8,800 pairs of socks and letters to Ishinomaki and Onagawa, and we surpassed 150,000 pairs distributed.

Volunteer Rumiko and I left Sano at 2:30am to meet volunteer Akina in Ishinomaki at 8am. The sun rose beautifully over the Tohoku Expressway, setting up fine weather for outdoor distribution.

Sunrise over Tohoku Expressway

Akina and her family live in Higashi Matsushima, part of the disaster zone. They all survived but some of their friends did not. Akina’s father, Kawamura-san, is one of our best field contacts for finding survivors in need of socks. Once we met them and Akina joined us, we drove deeper into the zone on its still dusty roads.

Dusty road through Ishinomaki

Our first stop, and the place where we handed out the 150,000th pair of socks, was Hashiura Elementary School. The student body of survivors gathered in the gymnasium to hear speeches by the principal, a teacher, and yours truly about the importance of sticking together in times of trouble. The principal said that “all for one and one for all” is the spirit in which “our friends from around the world have brought us presents today.” The children listened, then lined up to receive three pairs of socks and letters for each member of their family. Teachers and staff helped us distribute.

Akina and Rumiko setting up in the gym

Socks for Japan distributing to Ishinomaki elementary students

Jason filling a student's sock order

Students who were absent that day, or who attend schools too remote for us to reach, filled out family order forms and placed them inside tote bags. When we finished handing out socks and letters to students in person, we filled bags and lined them up on the stage.

Socks for Japan orders in bags

Our next stops were kindergartens and nursery schools, all getting ready for the Tanabata star festival the next day by hanging poetry and pictures and hopes on bamboo wish trees. Many of the hopes this year were for lost family members to return and washed-away houses to reappear.

Socks for Japan with kindergartners in front of a Tanabata wish tree

Jason handing socks in front of a Tanabata wish tree

One little girl said she had a secret to tell me. I leaned close to hear her tiny voice in the noise of the room. She said, “My feet are pretty small and I’m afraid you don’t have any socks to fit them.” I told her we could look together, and proceeded to hold Lilliputian sizes in different colors to her small feet. She nodded when they were correct; shook her head when they weren’t. We found three perfectly sized pairs, then she high-fived me and thanked me for the kindness, adding, as if she were a business owner, “Please come again!”

Jason listening to the girl's secret

The girl high-fiving Jason for her perfectly sized socks

A preschool director told us that most of the children had already gone home when the tsunami hit, but four remained along with 10 teachers. She said the water was “black as coal when it burst through the front door into the main hallway.” The teachers grabbed the children and ran to the other end of the building, but black water surged in everywhere. They climbed atop a box type air conditioner and huddled there while the water washed away the inside of the school and smashed cars and houses and people against the walls. They clung together helplessly, but every one of them survived on top of that AC unit.

The director of a different preschool said her children didn’t fare as well. Most were drawing or napping in an upstairs room when the earthquake struck, so the staff could evacuate every child. It was pure luck, she explained, because at other times the children were scattered throughout the school and it would have been harder to gather them quickly. Just when the school looked fine, parents and grandparents came to pick up their children and the tsunami killed many of them as they fled to their cars.

The director saw one grandmother running through the water while holding her granddaughter’s hand. A piece of wood struck the grandmother. In that second, her hand relaxed its grip on the girl and the child washed away forever. The grandmother still looks at her hand when she recalls the day, opening and closing it, blaming herself for failing the most important grip test of her lifetime.

Another director said the children at her school have gradually calmed their nerves over the past four months and have begun normal conversations and normal childhood games. She told of a lunch shortly after March 11 when one student said, “Our car was thrown, but I wasn’t.” Another remembered, “A lot of water came and I was drowning!” A third added casually, “So-and-so died, but I didn’t.” Such conversations are less common these days, and the director thinks regular life is returning.

The second half of our day was scheduled in Onagawa, the city whose devastation so moved me on our first visit in early April. Since those harrowing days, Japan has made admirable progress in cleaning up the disaster zone. On the way to Onagawa from Ishinomaki, we drove on this familiar neighborhood street:

Ishinomaki neighborhood cleaned up street view

Ishinomaki neighborhood cleaned up house view

which looked like this back in April and May:

Ishinomaki neighborhood street in April 2011

Ishinomaki neighborhood yard in April 2011

Ishinomaki neighborhood yard in May 2011

The phone company has been hard at work to reinstate service in areas even before they’re cleaned up.

NTT at work in the Ishinomaki disaster zone

Work crews have collected a staggering amount of debris. They gather it into piles higher than buildings, with heavy equipment parked at different levels cut into the piles. They then sort the piles into metal, wood, plastic, and such to prepare for recycling and disposal. The country estimates that the March 11 disaster generated 10 years’ worth of trash, and is struggling to manage it all. In the second photo below, notice the mountain of rubble looming at the end of the neighborhood street.

Ishinomaki rubble pile up close

Ishinomaki rubble pile at the end of a neighborhood street

Onagawa has made remarkable progress as well. Its famous “cars-on-the-rooftops corner” looked like this in April and June:

Downtown Onagawa cars on buildings April 8, 2011

Downtown Onagawa cars on buildings June 4, 2011

Downtown Onagawa cars on buildings closeup June 4, 2011

but looked like this on July 6:

Downtown Onagawa cleared photo one

Other parts of Onagawa’s downtown are cleared as well.

Downtown Onagawa cleared photo two

Downtown Onagawa cleared photo three

Many survivors have moved from shelters to temporary homes. Japan built more than 100,000 temporary homes and offers them to certain survivors free for two years. Each one is stocked with new appliances from the Japanese Red Cross and offers quality of living on a par with most apartments.

The Onagawa area received a few too many temp homes from a non-profit organization called Nanmin Wo Tasukeru Kai, which means Refugee Aid Organization. Survivors asked if they could use some of them as stores instead of homes. Access to supplies and shopping is important to residents in the disaster zone, and the ability to continuing operating a lost business is important to merchants, so the NPO said yes. A construction company that was severely damaged by the tsunami and forced to move its operations to a different area, donated its land. It cleared rubble, placed the stores, set up wiring, and supported the touchingly austere grand opening on July 1. This is the entrance to the temporary shopping center in Onagawa’s disaster zone, looking down the hill from its makeshift parking lot:

Onagawa temporary shopping center entrance

The shopping center consists of building boxes and outdoor tents where merchants display goods and greet their neighbors and fellow survivors.

Onagawa temporary shopping center entrance angle

Onagawa temporary shopping center grocer angle

Onagawa temporary store clothing merchant

Onagawa temporary store grocer

We met Reina Suzuki on June 4 when we distributed our 100,000th pair of socks in Onagawa. You can see her and her mother at a hillside shelter in my report. She wore a Rolling Stones t-shirt that day, so I asked if she was a fan. She said she’d never heard their music. “What?” I chided. “That’s unacceptable. You can’t wear a Stones shirt without having heard their music.” I played some Stones tunes for her on my iPod through our van’s stereo, and she liked them. “Then I’ll bring you a CD later,” I told her. “I bet you won’t,” she replied, smiling, but in a way that said she really didn’t think she’d ever see me again, much less a Rolling Stones CD.

Well, guess what?

Our amazing chief researcher, Takako, tracked Reina down and discovered that she and her mother re-opened their floral store in Onagawa’s temporary shopping center. I took a Rolling Stones CD with us that day to surprise Reina and to take the Socks for Japan team shopping in Onagawa. We’ve never been better customers! Here’s Reina with her new CD:

Reina happy to receive her first Rolling Stones CD

and her mother at the entrance to their temporary flower shop:

Mrs Suzuki at her temporary flower shop entrance

We bought LED flashlights at Onagawa Denka Center, the town’s 50-year-old electronics shop that operated near the waterfront until March 11. The founder’s wife is named Yoshiko and she watched the shop that day. She described the enormity of the wave downtown and how effortlessly it wiped out 50 years of progress. She painted on the canvas of our imaginations the magnificence of her family’s former store, and apologized for its current location “in this little hillside box.” We told her it was a lovely shop and that her prices were fair, even under the circumstances, and that she and her family should stand proud in their tenacity. She broke down when remembering the day her family’s store washed away. They barely escaped.

Onagawa Denka Center's Yoshiko remembers March 11

We found just about everything we needed at the temporary grocer, like a mini-convenience store with snacks and drinks perfect for driving. The price of my favorite energy drink, Lipovitan D, a taurine mixture similar to Red Bull in America, was much cheaper in the temporary grocer than in regular stores. It’s usually 140 yen or so. The temp grocer charged just 100 yen flat. I double-checked that it was true and the owner said yes, so I proceeded to buy every bottle in the cooler — and haven’t slept since! Not really. Taurine in energy drinks doesn’t actually provide an energy boost. I just like the taste of Lipovitan D.

Akina and Rumiko in Onagawa's temporary grocery store

Jason buying Lipovitan D at Onagawa's temporary grocery store

From the temporary shopping center, we drove through parts of Onagawa that are still in rough shape but getting better by the day as work crews press tirelessly onward.

Dirt work road through Onagawa

Damaged waterfront in Onagawa

Work crew pressing tirelessly onward in Onagawa

We eventually exited the heart of the disaster zone to the pleasant greenery that surrounds the town, and engulfs the shelter where Mrs. Takahashi stayed until a few weeks ago. You may recall Mrs. Takahashi from my June 3 report, the inn keeper who lost her business and now lives alone. She moved to a temporary housing neighborhood located behind the shelter, beside this welcoming hillside:

Green hillside beside Mrs. Takahashi's temporary housing neighborhood

We arrived to distribute socks door-to-door in the temporary housing neighborhood where Mrs. Takahashi now lives. We met her again and gave her fresh socks, but she asked that we not take her photo this time. Other survivors in the neighborhood didn’t mind, however.

Akina and Rumiko seeing if anybody is home to receive socks

Cheerful grandmother receiving socks in her temporary home

Fashionable grandmother receiving socks in her temporary home

Cute mother receiving socks in her temporary home

Rumiko distributing socks to a family in their temporary home

We knocked on every door in the neighborhood. At the end of our socks, the end of the neighborhood, the end of the day, and indeed the end of Phase I of Socks for Japan, we knocked on this last survivor door to deliver our last pairs of socks for summer:

The last stop for Socks for Japan's Phase I

The sun set over the temporary housing neighborhood in Onagawa, home to Mrs. Takahashi and the Suzuki family and other friends we’ve made in the aftermath of the tsunami. What a joy to help them. What an honor to know them. What a blessed way to revel in the euphoria of still being alive on a planet with green grass in summer and little girls who worry that their feet are too tiny for our socks and industrious residents making stores out of boxes on hillsides and a population of people around the world who rushed to help saltwater-soaked survivors they’ve never even met.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sunset over Mrs. Takahashi's temporary housing neighborhood in Onagawa

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21 Comments

  1. Posted July 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jason and your team of helpers,

    I have followed your work since the beginning and even as things improve for many it is still so hard to read your reports and not shed buckets of tears.

    The love you have poured out for these people on behalf of those of us far away, in body but not in spirit, is a precious gift for us and for the recipients. Your work has touched the hearts (and feet) of countless people, and “thank you” seems inadequate, but, thank you. You have the biggest heart imaginable, you put love into action, and you have blessed more people than you will ever know.

    May God bless you. Arigato!
    Megan

  2. Mary Davies
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you form this wonderful report! What a blessing to know that a mere donation of socks could help so many and lend joy to so many! You who provide this love first hand are definitely angels here on earth. Oh yes, you are!

  3. Sabine Hale
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Hallo Sock team!!!!!

    Thank you for this great report. You guys!!! do the work and make us!!!!! feel great.
    Please let us know what we can do next, where we can help.
    I have never felt so good about a “donation”….communication is everything….a great lesson for any “help organization”!!!!!!!

    Thank you
    :) Sabine

  4. Raquel Fotheringham
    Posted July 26, 2011 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Jason,

    Your just an amazing human being. Thank you for sharing the pictures, the journey with us. I am deeply thankful to God for good souls like you who need to be appreciated and lifted up in this Universe!

    God bless you Jason and all those lovely people in Japan!

    Raquel

  5. Olivier "bil" Leeman
    Posted July 26, 2011 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks as always Jason!

    Is the lady in the pink shirt during your door-to-door session wearing a stock market related T-shirt? Coincidence? Irony?

    Keep up the good work, guys. You are all amazing.

    • Posted July 29, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, her shirt showed a candlestick chart of the market! I laughed and asked if she was a trader, but she hadn’t even been aware that the shirt was market-related. It was an item she received from relief supply. She didn’t recognize the chart as a chart of the market, and didn’t understand the English written on it, so just wore the shirt for its pretty pink color and because it’s a sturdy shirt.

      I sure got a kick out of it. She asked me why I wondered, and I told her that I’m an investor. Then I tried a “changed from stocks to socks” joke, but it fell flat due to the words not relating in an interesting way in Japanese. Oh well. She liked her new socks to go with her stocks shirt.

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