October In The Disaster Zone

Socks for Japan embarked on two distributions to the disaster zone in October, one to Ishinomaki on Saturday, October 8 and the other to Onagawa and Ishinomaki on Monday, October 17.

While work crews have cleaned up the area dramatically, it is still a disaster zone. Living among the rubble is hard for people. They walk or ride bicycles or drive recently-purchased used cars past wreckage that reminds them of friends lost and businesses washed away. While earlier trips required us to pack food and water because we couldn’t buy them inside the zone, we’re now able to stop at functioning convenience stores and gas stations. The inventory isn’t yet the same as it is in undamaged parts of the country, but a semblance of normalcy is creeping back in. Creeping is the operative word, though, as scenes of damage still dominate the landscape.

Tattered interior at Ishinomaki

Fish on the floor in Ishinomaki

Piles of rubble remain everywhere.

Rubble pile in Ishinomaki

Cheap used cars present themselves in many places, usually in clearings where buildings once stood or in unused parking lots near lost businesses.

Used cars in Ishinomaki

Neighborhoods still slump in shambles, and sometimes the saddest wrecked homes to see are the new ones that were barely completed when the tsunami slammed ashore. “If only we’d waited a month,” the owners must be thinking, if they’re lucky enough to be alive to think it.

Sinking house in Ishinomaki

Tattered home in Ishinomaki

Ruined new house in Ishinomaki

Into the city’s labyrinth of temporary housing neighborhoods, volunteer Rumiko and I drove a regular passenger car loaded with 2,200 pairs of socks and care letters. The days of our 10,000-pair, four-person distribution trips in the HiAce van are behind us — and that’s good. The urgency of Phase One is gone. The need, however, is not.

In some temp neighborhoods, the residential manager helps us announce either over a speaker system or door-to-door that “Socks for Japan is here with warm socks for winter, and care letters, too!” Here’s one manager getting the word out:

Calling to temp housing survivors in Ishinomaki

People are grateful for socks now that nights grow cold. Many told us so, and asked if they could take extra pairs for friends or relatives who were out during the day or unable to leave their homes. We always allow that. Sometimes, we go door-to-door to deliver if there are enough people who can’t walk to our car, or if we learn of a specific person who would like a visit.

Ishinomaki temp housing

Temp housing survivors and Rumiko in Ishinomaki

Rumiko with survivors in Ishinomaki

Thousands of donors know Makiko Oku from our care letter creation page, where she and a team of other bilingual volunteers translated letters from English to Japanese. Makiko did so from her home in New Jersey while completing her Ph.D. I invited her to join us for distributions in Phase I, but she was unable to make the trip then due to her school schedule. Now that she attained her Ph.D., Makiko and her fiance Adam visited Sano and joined me for the October 17 distribution to Onagawa and Ishinomaki.

It was wonderful to finally meet them in person. Makiko and I exchanged countless emails during Phase I, and her team of donors in New Jersey and New York sent thousands of pairs of socks and letters. We also spoke on the phone. By the time I picked her and Adam up at the Sano Bus Terminal, she felt like an old friend. Adam and I hit it off right away, sharing a similar sense of humor, one I don’t find often in Japan. Thus happy together from the get-go, the three of us set off before dawn the day after they arrived in Sano.

While I have grown as used to the scenes of destruction as a person can reasonbly become, it was Adam and Makiko’s first exposure. I recognized the emotions that crossed their faces, particularly Makiko’s as she finally witnessed firsthand the destruction she’d monitored so carefully from abroad. It’s one thing to read about it and watch news clips of it; quite another to walk into it. Back in her mother country for the first time in five years, Makiko experienced a tsunami of emotion from within the devastation wrought by the tsunami of seawater seven months earlier.

Makiko in downtown Onagawa

Makiko in Onagawa Valley rubble

Wrecked house near Ishinomaki coast

Makiko shooting Ishinomaki wreckage

Makiko and Adam at Onagawa clean-up

Both Adam and Makiko learned quickly the art of distributing socks to a crowd. It’s not complicated, but details matter. For example, asking just “How many people?” will result in a confusing list of names as the person runs through their mental list. Asking more specifically, “How many men?” and then “How many women?” and then “Any children?” results in a more efficient order. When a person says, “Oh, and I also have a daughter” it’s important to ask how old she is. She might be 16, in which case she probably needs socks for women, not socks for girls. Getting many such details right results in a smooth distribution — and Adam and Makiko got them right.

Adam and Makiko with Onagawa survivors

Onagawa temp housing survivor

Survivors in Ishinomaki temp housing

Makiko distributing from back of car

They took time to talk with survivors:

Adam and Makiko talking to a survivor in Ishinomaki

Makiko chanced upon one of her own donations, and personally handed the socks and letter she prepared back in New Jersey to a survivor in Onagawa:

Makiko hands out her own donation

They even took care of the Ishinomaki cable guys!

Ishinomaki cable guys getting socks

In the course of the day, we saw several landmarks that hold special meaning to longtime followers of Socks for Japan. Remember Mrs. Takahashi’s Inn in Onagawa? It’s completely cleared away now, and its building site looks like this:

Mrs. Takahashi's inn site after clean-up

The nearby area is cleared as well:

Onagawa clean-up near Mrs. Takahashi's inn

Mrs. Takahashi’s once-busy shelter is now quiet, as most survivors have moved to temporary housing or in with relatives:

Lonely shelter in Onagawa

I took Adam and Makiko through Ishinomaki’s worst-hit coastal path, which longtime readers have seen in many reports, including Warzone Japan 2011. One building stood alone and tall. Some called it “the standing shell,” others “the ghost house,” and everybody knew what you meant if you just said “that place” without further explanation. Here’s how it looked in April:

Ishinomaki standing shell

Here’s how it looks now:

Ghost house in Ishinomaki with new road

Notice the new road in front, and lack of debris all around. This says everything about the current state of affairs. Better? Yes, but so much work still lies ahead.

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  1. Gregory Iwan
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    I noticed in many of the structures that can still be seen a good deal (if not all) of the ground floor has been undermined. The water’s force must have been more terrible than the videos conveyed. The first photo within shows, I think, a school. In any case, the flooring there appears to be a legacy level with warped panels. Stunning. Each time the pictures are studied more new detail emerges. And in the aisles between the temp residences I note well the continuance of Japanese practice — the doorsteps, etc., are spotless. Banzai.

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Good eyes, Greg. Indeed, a lot of foundational structure was washed away and houses ended up propped on lumps of cement. Some just floated away, as seen in videos, to settle later in odd positions sideways or gently atop another house. I’ve seen the latter many times. It makes for a bizarre site when the water recedes.

      Yes, Japanese manners persist through it all. The temporary neighborhoods are tidy and clean. What wonderful people.

  2. Eileen
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the update Jason, it’s so good to be able to see through your eyes how it is there. While the progress is very remarkable, the work to be done there is so overwhelming. You don’t comment too much on how you think the folks there are doing emotionally (although there were lots of smiles in the pictures). I worry for them, I hope they are finding some kind of peace and stability.

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      They’re not as emotionally distraught as I expected, frankly. The sad explanation could be what many are whispering. What is that? There are only two groups of people: those who’ve already passed away and those who are doing pretty well. I think there’s truth in that. The survivors sport a rare mettle. It has not only kept them breathing, it’s kept them smiling.

  3. George Yama
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for the update.

  4. Bob Lee
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason,

    Just wanted to say once again that I am very inspired by the work and your efforts on the Socks for Japan project you put together. It truly is the efforts of people like you that make such a huge difference in so many lives.


  5. Wendy Weger
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Japan still continues to be rocked by strong earthquakes daily….I have the deepest respect for the integrity and ‘soul’ these precious folk exhibit in the face of overwhelming odds…I am humbled yet again every time Jason shares with us his heartfelt commitment to these people….and what I witness in them as they pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward, without blame and anger or regret…I live in the Pacific Northwest, their scenario could well be our’s up here one day..if things do get rough, Jason and his Japanese family will be a reminder of the power of perseverance…Thank you Jason..xox

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      You’re welcome, Wendy, and thank you for the support.

  6. Esther Fieler
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for the update. You are such an inspiration to me for the work you do to the Japanese people. You’re making a big difference on the lives of so many people in Japan and an inspiration to all. I wish i can be there to help. Please let me know what i can do from here…Texas, USA.
    Thanks again, Jason.

    • Posted November 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      You’re most welcome, Esther. Thank you for supporting us from afar, and following our progress.

  7. Posted November 8, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Jason.
    It’s good to hear from you again. Sorry for the late reply. On the day you had posted, I was looking in the morning, hoping for news and there it was, that evening when I returned home.
    I spent two weeks in Japan on the west coast, during October and sensed how very sad and afraid everyone was, even there. It is heartbreaking still.
    Thank you for continuing with your amazing mission and for reminding many of us, there will be great need in areas of Japan for years to come.
    We continue to pray for you, the people you have met and helped and for those who struggle on. All of you are an absolute inspiration.
    God bless you.

    • Posted November 12, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Grade A stuff. I’m unquestionably in your debt.

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