Into Ibaraki

We received an emergency request for socks from North Ibaraki City, hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami, and located only 73 km (45 mi) south of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plants. We faced two questions: Was it safe to travel closer to the radiation, and could we justify using precious gasoline for such a long trip?

On the first question, we checked radiation levels for the area and found them to be eight times higher than near our base in Sano — but still safe enough for us to make a day trip into the area. Moreover, our goal is to get socks and care letters to victims and the victims can’t leave the area, so if the radiation was deemed low enough to leave victims in place then it was low enough for us to make the trip. We prepared by taking gear to wear in case the levels rose, and stayed in touch by cell phone with our base office where volunteer Rumiko monitored the situation.

On the second question, we decided to make an exception to our usual policy of operating within a short distance of our base to conserve gasoline. Due to an arrangement with a local gas station that’s hidden away and closed to the public, we can get gasoline in case of emergency. We were careful to make this arrangement so we didn’t take from public gasoline stocks and contribute to the crisis. The gasoline we use is not part of the public pool, and we use it judiciously. We calculated that we’d need a little less than one tank in an efficient car that’s large enough to carry 2,000 pairs of socks. We didn’t have that many in inventory on Monday, March 21 when we debated making the trip, but we had more than 1,000 pairs and decided the need was great enough and our ability to help sufficient enough to justify two volunteers in the field all day, one tank of gasoline, and exposure to higher levels of radiation. Here’s the route from Sano to Kitaibaraki City, which means North Ibaraki City:

Here’s where Kitaibaraki is located in relation to the Fukushima nuclear plants, with our base located at the lower left near Tochigi:

The volunteer who agreed to go with me was Yoshiko, who said she was more worried about seeing the devastation and meeting victims than she was about radiation exposure. We loaded up the car and drove past gas-station lines to the tollways we would take north, and were happy to find the tollways wide open and ready to transport supplies from NGOs and government — our driving on the road did not hinder any transportation. Here are shots of our journey north:

Photos of the drive to Kitaibaraki

I thought news footage had adequately prepared me to see the damage done, but it had not. We spoke very little as we drove through Kitaibaraki. Yoshiko’s quiet sobs were the only sound in the car as we rolled past lives ruined, through rubble where bodies recently lay, past crying people and official workers whose faces had gone stony to avoid constantly breaking down. “Focus, focus,” we told ourselves, but it was awfully hard to do through this scene:

Photos of damage in Kitaibaraki

When we arrived at city hall, workers informed us that about 40 people were staying on the second floor of that building and needed socks. They checked their maps for current demand to send us to the most needy locations. While they worked on that, we took socks to the people upstairs, past emergency signs and missing people reports posted at the entrance. Yoshiko received a radiation update by cell phone. Levels were low and we thought it rude to suit up around people living close to the reactors without suits, so we wore normal clothes and sometimes masks:

Photos of arrival at Kitaibaraki city hall

With map in hand and shelters prioritized by need, we set out through town. Our first stop was an athletic center that had been hastily converted into housing for the recently homeless. Heaps of donated clothing lay around the gymnasium, as we expected to find, but there was not a sock among them. We carried in our boxes, arranged them by category, and announced that we’d come to distribute new socks and care letters from around the world.

A charge of excitement rose up from the sad, stationary groups of people huddled on mats or curled up under blankets. They came over. “For us?” one asked. “Finally, socks!” another cried out, and that word spread quickly through the ranks and people began pouring in from side entrances and doorways we hadn’t previously noticed.

I wasn’t sure at first how to behave. The situation seemed to demand keeping a serious face and wishing everybody well in grave battlefield tones, but that’s not what these people needed. They needed joy, something colorful, some fun in an otherwise long day at a shelter with an unknown future ahead of them. Cheerful it would be, I concluded, smile in place as we explained where the socks came from and answered cute questions about how we could have so many friends, and when the last time was that I saw Makiko, one of our donors in New York City who works hard on our care letter translation page. Her photo and letter were wrapped around pairs of socks, so several people saw them and commented.

“I’ve never met her, actually,” I replied to bewildered looks. “We only know about each other because of this program.” They wanted me to tell her that they love her socks. I wrote her the next day, “I saw your photo many times yesterday in Ibaraki, from boxes to hands and then carefully folded as a souvenir by people who were already wearing the socks you sent. It was very touching, and I thought you’d like to know about it. I can’t thank you enough.” She replied, “What a heartwarming anecdote. I’m deeply touched. There is nothing more poignant than to hear that the people were already wearing the socks.”

People wanted to share their stories. They told me how they’d run barefoot or in socks from their houses to escape the tsunami, which is understandable in Japan because nobody wears shoes at home. This is one reason we chose socks as our item of care. Many people asked if I’d heard anything about a friend or relative still missing. The expressions on their faces when I said I had not made me wish I’d lied. One person muttered in the background, “I’m telling you, they’re all dead.”

An old man with a face stretched tight like a lizard’s had fallen into a hole cracked through his house by the earthquake. Then, the tsunami hit. He couldn’t pull himself free of the hole. Trapped, he knew he was going to die as the water rose up his body, over his feet then knees then thighs then waist then belly then chest. “This is it,” he thought, but the water stopped. An odd calm settled across the surface of the water inside his home. Submerged in it, he gazed across the ocean in his room, motionless and numb and alone, not dead but not sure about life anymore. For two days he remained like that. The water receded and he shivered until he was dry, then shivered more in the cold. Finally, a helicopter arrived and pulled him up through a hole in the roof above him. He arrived at the shelter by himself with just the seawater-soaked clothes on his body. Everything else washed away. He asked if he could take two pairs of socks. I said he could take ten.

That raised an issue. Should we allow people to take more than one pair? We could tell they needed them. A new pair of socks today would not be so new tomorrow, less so the next day, even less the next. It was obvious that the situation would not end soon. Is it better to take very good care of few people or pretty good care of many people? What a call. We checked the map and the time to see what we could reasonably accomplish in the day. We realized that we’d never get beyond a few shelters. The compromise we reached is that people could take up to three pairs of socks. The rest we’d leave with city hall to pass out as need arose. People asked us to return to the shelters again, but we knew even as we said it was a good idea that it was impossible to know when we could do so.

One man put his socks on immediately, a thick pair of B.U.M. brand in black with grey toes and heels, and started parading around the tatami mats with his pants hiked up so everybody could see. “Look how fashionable these are,” he said to the crowd, then to his wife, “An American sent these to me. They’re not Japanese. They’re American.”

Photos of fashionable B.U.M. socks in Kitaibaraki

Yoshiko helped a cute five-year-old boy named Nagato Ohira pick out his socks, and he took a liking to her. He showed her where he was “camping” and where the other members of his family slept, unfortunately including his younger sister, Komugi, who annoyed him to no end. The look on her face told me the feeling was mutual. A little while later, after we’d moved to a different part of the athletic center to give socks to people who could not move, Nagato caught up with Yoshiko and said breathlessly, “This is my last piece of good candy, but I want you to have it.” He gave me a piece of ordinary candy. We carried the pieces home where they will remain uneaten forever in memory of the day we took socks to Nagato.

Here are photos of our athletic center stop:

Photos of Kitaibaraki athletic center distribution
Our next stop was Otsu Port, and it was even sadder. Located close to the water, it housed people from neighborhoods that don’t exist anymore. When we first arrived, I asked one man if his house was badly damaged. “No,” he replied, “it’s gone.” I said I was sorry, and felt terrible to have asked such a question. He must have seen the feeling in my eyes, because he clapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’ll be alright. It was just a house. We’ll make another one.” He turned to his wife, so small and vulnerable-looking next to him, standing in rumpled clothes with her mask on tight and her head nodding without words and her eyes shiny. “Right?” he asked her. She nodded more.

An old woman was the clear leader at that shelter. She boldly announced what we’d brought and, again, we heard, “Finally, socks!” She stood over the crowd that gathered around the boxes, barking out orders and reprimanding uncivil behavior. Somebody made the mistake of saying within earshot of her that blue wasn’t his favorite color and she cried, “Don’t talk about colors at a time like this!” He agreed that it was wrong, and so did several others. The old woman looked at me with fire in her eyes, then smiled and pumped her fist to say, “Let’s keep these people in line.”

Behind me, two men spoke while putting on new socks. “They brought these to Ibaraki,” one said. “To Ibaraki!” he repeated. I turned to look. The other man nodded and said, “Foreigners, too.” They looked pleased.

Three ladies sat together on a blanket after receiving their socks, all three engrossed in reading the letters. They looked so happy and kept turning to each other to share what their letters said. They noticed us noticing them, and the eldest among them held her letter up and told us, “This is wonderful.”

Here’s the second shelter, at Otsu Port:

Photos of Kitaibaraki Otsu Port distribution

So it went. Our socks and letters that day came from England, Malaysia, and the United States. American cities represented were Coffeyville, KS; Colorado Springs, CO; Honolulu, HI; Kapolei, HI; New York, NY; Seattle, WA; Rancho Viejo, TX; Tualatin, OR; Wichita, KS; and Wooster, OH.

Nighttime arrived. Scenes of destruction materialized out of darkness as we drove through town, somehow more frightening than in daylight. I thought the darkness would comfort by hiding damage. It didn’t. A haunted stillness hung on the coastal town, punctuated by glimpses of terror like this:

Car on wall in Kitaibaraki

Back at the athletic center where we’d begun, we spoke with a young man working at the city hall. He spoke some English and said he understood the worth of the socks and letters from abroad. He assured me he would watch over the inventory and make sure the socks made it to those who needed them, and would explain to recipients that they were proof the world cheered for Kitaibaraki. He handed me his city hall business card showing a photo of a red pagoda on a coastal rock outcrop. “It’s the symbol of our town,” he explained, then added, “but it’s gone now.”

We paid one last visit to the Ohira family, where three-year-old Komugi sat drawing pictures by flashlight near a campstove:

Photos of Komugi at night
It was time to go home. As we left the shelter, Nagato, his sister Komugi, other sister Yotsuha, and mother Megumi stood at the entrance and waved to us until we turned from the parking lot onto the still-haunted roads of Kitaibaraki. Tsunami sand scratched under our tires. Orange city lights reflected off streets wet from the day’s rain. Rubble slouched in organized piles on either side of the road in walls of once valuable goods. Ovens and tatami mats and blankets and roof shingles offered dramatic proof that villages don’t fare well when stirred in a pot of angry seawater.

I couldn’t wait to leave, but felt guilty for it because I kept imagining the faces of the Ohira family and the ladies with their letters and the man with his new B.U.M. socks and the city hall worker carrying cards with photos of a symbol that no longer exists. I’ll go back one day when it’s brighter and happier, and little girls can draw pictures at tables in their own warm homes with just the flick of a light switch.

Photos of a tsunami damaged street in Kitaibaraki at night

Click any photos above to see the entire gallery.

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  1. Aldritch Parsons
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    How does it look at the Tokai Plutonium Reprocessing Plant on the coast by Hatachinaka?

    • Maria Naito
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      My husband works at the Tokai Power plant ( which automatically closed after earthquake). Not yhe procesdjnv pkant you ask about but in Tokaimura there is no major damage like from the devastating pictures further north damaged by Tsunami.

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