100,000 Pairs of Socks

Last Saturday, June 4, at a humble, water-damaged motorcycle shop on the edge of Onagawa, Socks for Japan distributed its 100,000th pair of socks.

The day began with our usual 3 a.m. departure followed by a mystical sunrise across the Tohoku Expressway as we drove north toward the disaster zone. Joining me on the trip were longtime volunteers Rumiko and Sachiyo, and remote volunteer Kirsten, an Australian working in Tokyo, whose disarmingly sweet personality made everybody feel as if their favorite aunt had come along for the ride.

We met our coordinator for the day, Onagawa Town Assembly Vice Chairman Nobushige Miyamoto, an elegant man born in the small village that now lies in ruins where he lost friends and family on March 11. He told us as we drove from one small shelter to the next that the population of 10,000 is now down to 9,000.

He said he’s taken more than 1,000 photos of his ravaged hamlet. Passing through scenes of destruction, I asked if he’d grown used to the devastation — a stupid question. If ever a tongue deserved to be bit, mine was it and the moment was then. He said, no, he had not grown used to it and never, ever will. He won’t leave Onagawa, however, because it’s his hometown and the sea is in his blood even as his family’s blood is now in the sea.

He’s working with surviving members of the town assembly to draft a recovery plan by August. In between, he helps coordinate relief efforts for survivors and knows every tiny, tucked-away shelter. Thanks to him, we were able to reach mountainside groups at the ends of path-like roadways that few people know about.

A shelter above the downtown damage zone greeted Mr. Miyamoto and us with a hint of surprise, as if many had promised but few had actually shown up. I asked the young woman in front of me in the photo below, Miss Suzuki, if she needed socks and she said, “Yes, because I want to change them every day.” Indeed!

Inside that shelter, we met Mrs. Sumae Ishimori, whose hobby is making flower arrangements from decorative ribbon. Her home survived March 11, and she thought about ways she could help her struggling neighbors. She took all of her expensive ribbon and began visiting shelters where she shows people how to make one floret of a hydrangea. With enough children in a class or people in a shelter, the number of florets adds up quickly so that big, round flower heads blossom in the room. She leaves the flowers on display to show people what they did together. She says the experience strengthens the bonds between them. However, she ran out of material and there’s nowhere nearby to get more. A group of doctors who discovered her lack of ribbon will soon deliver a full supply so she can continue her mission.

At midday, we arrived at the makeshift building that serves as a motorcycle shop for Mr. Miyamoto’s son. We’d monitored the quantity of socks distributed so we knew we’d hand out our 100,000th pair at that location. We pulled from the van our special bags, posters, and the magical pair of socks with its bonus handkerchief and stuffed dog toy and hand-made letter — all assembled from different donors in different parts of the world.

We began handing out socks to people who gathered, all of whom had lost relatives and homes and cars, but who have somehow remained cheerful in the dragging months of sorrow and slow recovery. The public displays of happiness are often temporary affairs, breaks in a thick cloud cover, but are in a way more cherished for their brevity. These survivors certainly deserve a brief “joy break,” as I heard one lady describe it.

I was tickled pink to hand one boy a pair of socks and a letter from Boulder, Colorado, home of my alma mater, the University of Colorado.

An imaginary bell rang when pair 99,999 slipped into survivor hands. “Everybody stop!” we cried. The gathered people froze. “We’re pleased to announce that we will now hand out our 100,000th pair of socks right here in this motorcycle shop to Mr. Nobushige Miyamoto.” As people rearranged themselves to make space for a celebratory handing of the socks and taking of the photos, one boy told his friend, “There’s no way they handed out that many socks here.” His friend replied, “They didn’t do it all here, you dope. They’ve been other places.”

The red poster Rumiko’s holding in the top photo now hangs in my office, reminding me of the day. Here’s how it looks up close:

Then, the moment was gone. It’s a milestone to pass a big, round number but, really, how is the 100,000th pair of socks any different from the one before or the one after? What the moment did do for me, though — and I later found out for Rumiko, too — was send my mind back to the first weekend after the disaster when I worried whether we’d be able to make a meaningful impact by distributing, say, 10,000 pairs of socks. Could our small band of volunteers handle that kind of volume, I wondered. How I underestimated the dedication of people comprising Socks for Japan. To all you survivors and donors and sock processors and bandwidth contributors and word-of-mouth mavens and reporters who don’t run away: this moment’s for you.

We parted ways with Mr. Miyamoto and the motorcycle shop gang to drive down the Oshika Peninsula — where more than 1,000 bodies washed ashore in the week following the tsunami — to distribute at a mechanic’s shop. We didn’t make the schedule around a motor-vehicle theme; it just happened that way. The head mechanic and owner had announced the distribution by taping our flier and business card to his garage doors and other survivor gathering spots.

He’d prepared a blue tarp on the ground and said people would enjoy choosing their own socks from a “bountiful pile,” because they’d gone so long without bounties of any kind. We obliged.

People trickled in from the beautiful countryside on a beautiful day in beautiful moods, but there is a sadness in fractions of families that goes without saying. Everybody senses when a single used to be a couple, when a large vehicle used to drive around full, when a man is selecting his own socks for the first time in many years. I once asked a man his foot size and he replied, “I’m not sure. My wife used to know things like that.” He held up his foot and we matched a pair of socks to it. Through days filled with exchanges like that, smiles persist.

Rumiko is one of our original volunteers and the manager of our processing center. Without her sense of efficiency and smooth workflow we never would have achieved the day’s milestone. Yet, she sat quietly at the Oshika distribution. She didn’t mingle with survivors as she usually does. She watched, mostly, helping here and there to keep it moving along, but recorded the scene through doleful eyes.

When it was over, the socks gone and survivors back at various places where they survive, Rumiko asked for a few minutes to walk in the sunshine. Of course, I said. The rest of us cleaned up and talked with the mechanic. A little later I saw Rumiko sitting on a bench overlooking the nearest edge of the disaster zone, where piles of rubble still bake in the sun and soak in the rain.

Days after returning to Sano, she told me she’d questioned what it means to reach 100,000 pairs distributed. “Is the big number what really matters?” she asked. Would Japan be any better off if the milestone had been 500,000 pairs or a million pairs, or worse off if it had been 100 pairs? I’ve battled thoughts like that, too, most often after a long drive when a person receiving our socks appears less happy to get them than I’d hoped they would be.

There’s no answer to whether reaching 100,000 pairs means we’ve helped Japan. I do know we’ve helped some people. They’ve told us. I do know that citizens around the planet cared enough to help. I’ve seen it, touched it, passed it along. I know that, if nothing else, reaching 100,000 pairs means we didn’t stop early and we haven’t stopped yet, and that whatever good we can accomplish we’re still working to accomplish.

And I know that the people who make it possible are the best I’ve known.

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  1. Fran
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Jason, will you continue? I would like to help.

    • Posted June 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      We’re still distributing the inventory we have on hand, and reassessing the landscape now that survivors are moving from shelters to temporary housing neighborhoods. We’ve just started distributions there, so we’ll know more soon.

      The best way to keep abreast of what’s happening, in case we issue a new call for socks and letters, is to join our email list.

      Thank you for wanting to help!

  2. wendy
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Thank you for making it possible for me to show my compassion and concern for others across the world. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone else. Sometimes I forget the effect a few words and something as seemingly simple as socks can have on others’ lives. You are an inspiration.

  3. Adrian Lee
    Posted June 13, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Hi all,

    Congratulations on your 100,000th pair! It’s a great milestone and you have made just as many people happier even for just that day. More significantly 100,000 letters and messages from people all over the world to the people who could use a reason to smile even for one moment.

    Good luck and keep stuffing that van!
    P.S. Do keep me posted if you ever run an “iPads for Japan”

  4. Yvonne Sherrill
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jason,

    Everytime I read the post of the socks distribution it makes me cry, both tears of sadness and joy–sadness that they had to go through this tradegy but joy because the people are so happy to know that somebody in this world cares enough for them. Also their strength in this situation is remarkable; I know that if the situation was reversed I would want someone to care about me no matter what the gift.

    Also, my brother used to sail on an oil freight tanker to Japan and some of the places ring a bell in my memory– my brother drowned at sea during one of his runs so looking at the pictures of Japan trigger memories of him and maybe that is why I cry also, but it also gives me a reconnection to him.

    Anyway, I have more socks in my closet, I couldn’t make the May 16th deadline to get them out so I am waiting for the word from you for the next opening — only say the word and I will be happy to send them.

    Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this moment.


  5. Posted June 12, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Okay, Jason… I think one of the “next steps” in your journey should be to publish a small book including your beautiful descriptions of your efforts and of the people whose lives you made brighter. And use some of the proceeds to help the rebuilding efforts!

    All the best to you, yours, and everyone you’ve helped over the months and years!

    Alan in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

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