Warzone Japan 2011

Socks for Japan has completed 13 distributions of socks and care letters in Japan’s disaster zone, covering some 322 km (200 mi) of coastline rocked by the March 11 earthquake, slammed by the ensuing tsunami, and partly torched by fire.

On our many excursions, I’ve noticed first-time reactions of volunteers. Most people think they’re prepared for the devastation because they watched it on TV news or saw photos in a newspaper. That’s what I thought prior to my first distribution. The impact of the real place overwhelms everybody, however. Immersing yourself in the rubble, driving between the stacks of crushed cars and splintered houses, covering your mouth and nose to block out the stench of dead fish and old mud and other sources of miasma nobody cares to consider, is more than any news story can prepare a person to experience.

The common reaction is, “This is a warzone.” Everybody says so. I wrote in Drowning Hearts at Lady River on April 12:

It came as a shock to me that seawater gone angry enough inflicts as much damage as the firebombing of Dresden or the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Onagawa, which means “Lady River” when translated literally, looks today the way Dresden and Hiroshima looked after their calamities.

In our past four distributions, I noticed that Onagawa isn’t alone. Many towns along Japan’s disaster coastline look like pictures of World War II and other conflicts. To highlight that, I collected 32 of my photos covering distributions in Natori and Iwanuma on April 20, Ishinomaki on April 24 and 27, and Minami Sanriku on May 1. I edited the photos to reflect their wartime mood.

Brace yourself, and join me on a journey through Warzone Japan 2011 to appreciate why Socks for Japan continues supporting survivors.

Wide open spaces from the ocean inland enabled the tsunami to sweep much of Natori and Iwanuma clean. It took all of our energy just to keep breathing as we drove along this road:

The coastal neighborhoods of Natori and Iwanuma appear bombed-out:

Among many other places, the tsunami broke through Ishinomaki’s retaining wall:

wiped out the frontage road:

and proceeded into town:

where the military now operates daily:

The heart of Ishinomaki’s devastation feels like it will never end. Roads are just paths scraped through mountains of ruined property. Rich people and poor people became equal in the wave, all their cherished possessions reduced to the same dross on mud:

In Minami Sanriku, the damage lies closer to the coastline, torturing survivors with frequent glimpses of the water that forever changed their lives — and ended the lives of their loved ones:

The main harbor and nearby downtown were hit hardest:

After the earthquake, officials rushed to the town’s disaster management center to announce emergency measures over a public address system. As they warned residents of the encroaching tsunami, it swamped the town more severely than anybody expected. The disaster management center itself succumbed to rising waters, with 20 of the 30 officials working inside it killed by the very danger they warned against. The mayor survived by shimmying up an antenna, still visible on the remains of the center:

Soldiers work everywhere in Minami Sanriku’s desolation:

Back in Ishinomaki, where heaven and hell collided two months ago:

a placard among cherry blossoms on a hillside overlooking the devastation expresses what may be humanity’s most plaintive wish, ever unfulfilled on this violent sphere we call home:

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  1. Devan Paddock
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason!

    I’m trying to ship about 300 socks to you, but fedex is requiring some sort
    Of phone number to get through customs. Can you e-mail me with that info?
    Unfortunately because of this minor speedbump these won’t go out until first thing
    Tomorrow. Sorry for the delay!


    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      No problem. I emailed you the phone number.

  2. Dale Buckeridge
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I look at these pictures every day and make sure my family and friends see them. Then I say, “Be thankful today for what you have”!

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      I’ve noticed similar reactions among people involved in our project here, and people following us from afar. Realizing our fragility and how much of our lives depends on luck of the draw is the fast track to perspective. Thank you for mentioning it, Dale.

  3. Mell M.
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    God Bless you and your organization.

  4. Leslie Sakaguchi
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    As a basic survival mechanism, human beings are both blessed and cursed with the ability to reassign painful events to different places in their memories. However, to completely forget would be a great crime. It’s the job of our hearts to make sure such things are assigned to the right places so that we can stay connected and compassionate, but sometimes even the best hearts need a little help to do so. Thank you so much for the photos and your eloquent narratives.

    Arigato gozaimasu!

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I agree, Leslie, and you’re most welcome.

  5. Humberto
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Bravest of all peoples, the People of Japan: we cry for you and we pray for you and our hearts be with you. (Humberto/Sandra/Amanda/ Flavia – a family from Brazil)

  6. Posted May 4, 2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Heartbreaking. And even these photos do not quite capture the overwhelming scene when you are standing in it.

    In November 2001, I was visiting Washington DC and went by the Pentagon to see what happened to it during the 9/11 attack. I got off the train with several other people, and we all walked in silence around the behemoth building that is our military headquarters to a small hill on the far side of the parking lot. From the long stretch of sidewalk adjacent to the property, I could actually feel the size of this building.

    Along one side of the amazingly massive structure was a gaping hole the size of three football fields. No one said a word to each other; we all just stood in silence, each person taking it in and attempting to mentally and emotionally process the scene that was before them. A small tree on the hill was covered with mementos brought by others, and had become an impromptu memorial site filled with ribbons, cards and notes. A scrap book with letters from a third grade class was placed at the base of the tree. I took photos of the building, but they do not capture the overwhelming feeling that invokes an involuntary gasp at the scale of the destruction – which was certainly less than at “ground zero,” and less still than what nature has doled out on Japan.

    It is hard to imagine the scale of this kind of devastation by simply looking at photos from the comfort of one’s living room thousands of miles away. To say “It will take years to recover” does not even begin to describe it, but recovery will proceed, as it did in Europe and Japan after WWII. And, there will likely be more earthquakes (and possibly other tsunamis) in the interim. Please keep us posted as to the progress, and if there is anything more we can do, let us know. Thanks again for your efforts.

  7. Posted May 4, 2011 at 1:08 am | Permalink


    I am Bill Hoover and with my Wife, Libby we are interested to know what we can do to help. Is there anything that might help besides socks? Is there any special items that folks need there like combs, brushes, mail clippers, salves, etc that we could send to you?

    Mr. Kelly, I admire you efforts. I lived in Sasebo and in Tokyo (Shibuya) in the sixties. I found the countryside to be beautiful once you left the cities. I have always had a real “soft spot” in my heart for the people because I was treated with genuine respect and friendship.

    Our Regards,
    William F. (Bill) and Libby Hoover
    Las Vegas, Nevada

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      How kind of you, Bill (and Libby)! Survivors are not in need of many supplies anymore, a situation we accurately predicted when choosing socks as our focus. Socks and underwear are the clothing that needs changing daily or more frequently and is what often gets lost in the shuffle. Jackets, jeans, hats, and so on can last a long time. Sure enough, even amid piles of donated clothing and other supplies, survivors are still overjoyed to get fresh socks. Underwear is needed, too, but we’re focused solely on socks. Somehow, “Panties for Japan” just didn’t seem as workable as our angle!

      So, the best way to help is to send socks and letters by May 16.

      I appreciate your kind words about Japan, too. That soft spot in your heart may be Japan’s most famous monument. It grows worldwide by the day.

  8. Cindy Salley
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Wow! These pictures reveal the massive devastation in a way the news media photos have not captured it. My heart goes out to you Jason and all your friends and neighbors. I pray that God will be with you and restore this area so you can live peacefully, securely and know your health is no longer in jeopardy.

  9. Gregory Iwan
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    The grey skies echo a grey dawn, when our biological ancestors first crawled onto a reef or a shore. The dense, life-giving water that served as the spawning ground for higher forms of life is ever able to crush them again. We must always value the day — this day — as a supreme gift, must ever remain true to our connection to the forces of creation. For these very same forces can destroy, can disrupt, can reclaim what was always theirs. Were I a citizen of Minami I would already be thinking of a new beginning, with even more stout defenses against these forces. But always I must be aware that the world is not mine.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      A beautiful observation, Greg. We alternately regard nature as sublime or monstrous when in fact it’s just indifferent to our comings and goings. There’s nothing harder to accept than presenting what’s profoundly moving or disturbing or painful to us, and receiving “So what?” in return. We’re tricked by periods of solace, but not for long.

  10. Don Fey
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    As you know, I have worked to support your efforts with Socks For Japan, and you certainly have my admiration for your efforts. However I am most appreciative of the way you have communicated with your supporters, telling the story with pictures and narrative better than we have seen in any news media.

    I live in Kansas, and we occasionally have tornados here. Once I was helping clean up after a particularly large tornado that killed 13 and wiped out a trailer park. The damage there and the damage in the pictures you have posted are almost identical- total, and beyond what one might be able to imagine if they had not seen it. However, even a huge tornado has a narrow path of destruction; at very worst a mile wide and usually intermittent. Those with shelters can reach protection in seconds or minutes, and often there is no loss of life despite major structural damage. This pales to nothing by comparison to the situation in Japan. The damage there is so vast in it’s coverage that from some positions, it would extend as far as the eye could see. There would not be a normal thing in sight, as if the entire world had been destroyed- and I have no doubt that thousands felt exactly that way. It left no quick escape route for most, and as I look at these pictures, I consider the terror of the moment for the people caught in the tsunami, and the agony that the survivors of lost families must feel.

    In the end, what we are is largely determined by how we understand others and how we work together and survive together, and your stories help us understand the magnitude of this incomprehensible event. The need for support exists long after the news media coverage fades. Keep up the good work; we will continue to help.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      You’ve been part of this from the first days, Don, and even helped me personally with supplies for the radiation threat. Seeing your name will always cheer me up in the course of a day.

      You’re right about our identity stemming from our understanding of others and working with them. In doing so, we find ourselves. We find that there’s not as much us to us as we thought, but rather a thimbleful of human spirit that’s also in everybody around us with only marginal differences. We’re struggling down the same path, shouldering the same desperate emotions, punctuated by fun and games along the way.

      Japan’s crisis, which is indeed “incomprehensible,” as you wrote, has shown me that any power I possess lies only in my ability to lend a hand. It can’t be taken away, not by pen nor sword nor ocean wave. Once we help, we’ve helped — no matter what happens later. I think if there’s one thing we carry from this world to the next, it must be the change that happens to the thimble of human spirit comprising us when we’ve stopped caring for ourselves and started caring for others.

  11. Ron Onufer
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Your final photo in this email depicts a Peace Pole, with peace sentiments expressed in different languages on its four sides. A dear friend of mine, who passed away several years ago, enjoyed crafting Peace Poles and giving them to friends as housewarming presents.

    Jason, I’d guess your journal composed of these emails and photos will be edited into a new book. If so, I hope it is your best seller of your many titles. The true story you have documented needs to be told to a wide audience, especially those who have built their dream homes on the sands of coastal areas.

    Heart-felt thanks to you and your volunteers for your long, exhausting days during the Socks for Japan campaign. Congratulations to you and whomever developed the Socks for Japan idea, a wonderful success story.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Ron.

      The peace pole at Ishinomaki brought me to a halt. It’s not only a moving sentiment against the backdrop of devastation, it was nestled among blooming cherry blossoms in twilight. A cool breeze that somehow did not stink swirled around me. I felt so happy for just a moment, but the kind of mixed happiness one feels to know a person didn’t suffer in death or that a child is getting married and will then move far away. Wishes for peace and cool breezes and cherry blossoms are most noticeable before an annihilated landscape.

      As for a book, I will write one and include photos. I hope I get it right so people far away feel the local loss of life, and the emotions that Japan’s coastline disgorged in the months following March 11.

  12. Diane Strickland
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing these photos so that the rest of us can be reminded of our rich lives. How sadly ironic that the one thing left standing is the post reading, “May peace prevail on earth.” Amen.

  13. Valentina
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    We need to see these pictures so that we don’t forget about the people that are going to struggle for survival and that we try to help them. May God bless you and your team for what you are doing and may He give those people strenght to go through all this ordeal. Is there a way to donate something so we can help you in your efforts? Thank you for what you are doing!

  14. Annette
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the photos, even if they’re horrible and very sad. But they give an impression of what the Japanese people have to go through.

    But I hope that the victims of the earthquake and the nuclear catastrophe get help and gain ground for a life after the disaster, especially the old ones. And I hope that cities and villages can be built up again.

    I hope that more people are willing to help outside and inside Japan and I am grateful for people like you, who come up with ideas, how to help and comfort the victims.

  15. Jes
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I really hope your “voluntering job” ends soon, meaning that everything’s solved and no more disasters occur.
    Thanks to people like you, the rest of us have faith in humanity!

  16. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    It’s surreal. Seeing these images, I still can’t believe it has happened – like when you lose someone you love. You keep thinking you will wake up and it will all just have been a bad dream.
    Bless you and your team of angels for what you have endured to bring a tiny bit of peace to those who are living in this chaos and heartbreak.

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