One Year Later

It’s March 11, one year after the earthquake and tsunami that killed 16,000 people and forever changed the lives of many more. As time spans are wont to do, this one appears short and long. I remember clearly that day a year ago when I worked as usual in my office and then heard the roar of the quake coming through the earth under me. Boom! Just like that, life changed.

Everybody was on emergency footing and remained that way for about four months. That amount of time in emergency mode is long, and as normal life recedes then turns into a vague memory and then eventually reappears when people wander back to work and family life slowly resumes, the time span lengthens in the mind. One year was covered on the calendar, many years were packed into the experience.

Today, Socks for Japan is attending a memorial service in Ishinomaki. I wish every volunteer and donor who helped us help survivors could join us there. To aid loyal supporters of our effort and many others in remembering the journey from afar, I’ve assembled a walk through the disaster zone in words and pictures from last year’s reports.

March, April, May, June, and July of 2011 were a different life within normal life, so intense that they spawned a subculture among people who were directly involved. Many of us did not know the towns we visited prior to rushing there to help. We know them now, but the way we know them is as disaster zones. Once they’re rebuilt, we won’t be able to find our way around them anymore. We learned to navigate the paths scraped through piles of rubble and tsunami swamps. Streets and intersections won’t feel right. The moment in time that took us to those coastal towns was just that, a moment, and it’s disappearing. The way we came to know the towns will not happen again, we all hope, but it happened once and we were there and we ought not to forget the fragility of our lives so masked by modernity. We are all easily killed.

I wrote In the Quake Zone on March 12, 2011, just 21.5 hours after the quake, and recalled, “Wave after wave coursed through the land, sending power lines swinging and roofs crashing and the ocean surging. The trains stopped. The emergency announcement system blared that the power had gone out due to the quake.”

We didn’t know yet how bad the situation was in Tohoku, nor how serious the Fukushima situation would become, but there were early indications: “Isolated reports from community leaders holding radios on the streets informed me on the way home that northern Japan lay in ruin. The voices came leaden, delivering facts so directly that their effort to suppress emotion was in a way more emotional than if they’d cried out their sadness at each collapsed school or deluged farmhouse. The chain of facts overwhelmed me. There was no break, no ‘In other news’ transition to a different grim event, much less a weekend human interest sideshow. One statistic after another emanated from the radios in a legato of misfortune.”

March 11 was a Friday last year. On the following Sunday night, we began Socks for Japan after thinking about what we could do to help without causing more trouble for relief workers. I explained on the website that people in emergencies often forget socks in favor of more obvious items like blankets and jackets; that socks are available anywhere, don’t break, don’t go bad in transit, are light and easy to send; that socks with care letters are heartening for survivors; and that survivors had already requested socks on TV. We made clear that “socks aren’t primary support, but a token of care that will last beyond their small mid-crisis comfort.”

The effort was attacked in the comments section of the site and criticized by Felix Salmon at Reuters in his article Don’t Donate Money to Japan thusly: “Some bright spark has set up a ‘Socks for Japan’ drive. I’m not making this up. I trust that none of my readers are silly enough to send socks to Japan, but this is a great indication of how wasteful a lot of well-intentioned giving can be.”

Turns out, hundreds of people were “silly enough” to do just that and our effort barreled ahead. It was not silly, of course, as we were one of the first groups to arrive on the scene with fresh socks and support for stunned survivors while larger organizations were still figuring out how to proceed. Some cities asked us to help their people, and quickly if possible. We later donated our data to Professor Jose Holguin-Veras from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who is an expert in disaster relief, for a report on our effectiveness. His department is still working on the report, but early indications are promising.

Despite running an efficient operation that took care packages directly to survivors for 7 cents per, we knew all along that there’s more to supporting survivors than finding the cheapest way to deliver bulk goods to them. What about heart? What about spirit? What about a non-bulk, high-quality pair of socks delivered by hand with kind conversation and a hand-written letter from somebody cheering them on? Here’s what that looks like:

I dare Felix to ask any recipient of our socks if they found the sight of our van slogging through mud to hand out socks and letters from around the world to be “silly.” Go ahead, Felix. I’ll take you to them myself, and we’ll start with the town officials who called us for help. Here’s how to reach me.

Our first excursion into the disaster zone happened on March 21, when we received an emergency request for socks from North Ibaraki City. The radiation danger was very high then and the gasoline shortage still acute, but “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.”

Photos of Kitaibaraki Otsu Port distribution

Our next distribution was to Iwaki on March 27. From the report: “It’s located just 40 km (25 mi) south of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, so close that one percent of it was evacuated due to radiation concerns. Despite radiation in the area remaining within safe limits, perception of extreme danger has led to most shipping companies refusing to take supplies to the Iwaki area. That’s why we were asked to supply socks and care letters to survivors in shelters around Iwaki.”

Photos of sock distribution in Iwaki

Photos of the old and young of Iwaki

On March 31 and April 2, we went to Watari and Yamamoto.

From April 7-10, we distributed 10,448 pairs of socks to survivors in Ishinomaki and Onagawa.

It was the trip that produced one of the most touching moments in our journey, and the iconic photo that became the most discussed and re-posted of all the ones we shared. Here’s the description and photo, from Drowning Hearts at Lady River:

“When we’d worked our way through about half the crowd, a quiet boy with scratches and cuts on his face pushed to the front. He tapped my arm and asked, ‘Is it OK if I just sit next to your van? I won’t make any trouble. I just want to sit next to it.’ I said sure. He pulled over an orange crate and sat with his head bowed, with no further explanation. We kept distributing socks to the crowd until everybody was gone.

“Still the boy sat. ‘Would you like some socks?’ I asked. He said yes, and took two plain white pairs from the bag I held open to him, a most humble choice. ‘How about more for your family?’ I offered. He shook his head and began to cry, and I guessed at the reason he didn’t need more socks. I tried talking to him but he didn’t want to talk. He said I could take a picture of him, but not of his face. I never found out what happened to his family or why he wanted to sit by the van. Maybe his father once had a similar van. Maybe his mother used to drive him and his siblings around town in a similar van. We’ll never know. Eventually we needed to leave, and all I have left of that boy is my memory of his quavering voice and the photo he allowed me to take.”

On April 13 and 17, we distributed 9,998 pairs of socks to survivors in Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma. Rikuzen lost 10 percent of its population and Kesennuma suffered disasters on top of the disaster. From The Day The Ocean Burned:

“The tidal wave sent two tuna boats colliding in the harbor where they caught fire, then washed farther inland fully ablaze to ignite the oily waters submerging the town. Observers of the fiery scene on the night of March 11 described it as ‘surreal’ to see the hamlet shaken by the quake, swamped by the wave, and consumed by the flames.”

The distributions continued to other towns along the devastated coastline, taking socks and letters from the world’s churches and community centers and neighborhoods and individuals into scenes nobody ever thinks they’ll see outside of history books.

Volunteers came from far away to help distribute socks. Shanta and her son Hashim traveled from Qatar. I relayed in Friends from Qatar: “Hashim told his mother when they’d returned to Qatar that he wished time could have moved more slowly. ‘Each time we were distributing socks,’ he remembered, ‘Mr. Jason would say, “OK, after this bag, we have to go,” but so many more people needed socks. If time would have moved slower, we could have given out more socks.'”

Joe from the United States and Shufang from Singapore helped Mrs. Takahashi clean the bottles she retrieved from her destroyed inn, a story recounted in Mrs. Takahashi’s Inn.

Other remarkable foreigners who joined us in the field included Adrian from Singapore, Anindya from India, Joss from South Africa, and Kirsten from Australia. From the United States came Adam, Hanna, Jaime, Kaho and her family, Makiko, Rich, Roger, Sarah, Shawn, Stuart, and Yuya. Japanese who went included Akina, Asuka, Atsushi, Hiroko, Hiroyuki, Kiku, Miwa, Morio, Nae, Naoko, Rumiko, Sachiyo, Siena, Takako, Tatsuya, Toshiaki, Yoshiko, and Yukie. All of these people risked radiation exposure and braved the disaster zone to help people they’d never before met.

We distributed our 100,000th pair of socks on June 4, but found it bittersweet because of the emotional drain that the effort was having on our volunteers.

By October, survivors lived in temporary housing complexes and the nature of our distributions had changed. Our intrepid interpreter, Makiko, and her then-fiance Adam, flew in from New Jersey to join their first distribution, to Onagawa. From October In The Disaster Zone: “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 Onagawa Valley rubble

There’s so much more to highlight, I’m discovering, and I think that’s really the point in this one-year retrospective. The event was so big that I won’t stop thinking about it for the rest of my life, and I’m not alone. A single day triggered a multi-month project that spawned a lifetime of reflection for thousands of people.

Thank you for reflecting with me today.

The girl high-fiving Jason for her perfectly-sized socks

Siena among the rubble of Minami Sanriku

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  1. Sandi Fry
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Our group from Lancaster, PA was humbled and honored to do anything for the people of Japan. You are not forgotten! Jason, you and your organization still amaze us!

  2. Eng
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Jason, I think of you and your organization often, and am humbled by your brave efforts to bring comfort to the people of Japan. I also often wish I could have been there physically to help with the distribution. Again, thank you for all you do in this effort.

  3. Heather
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much Jason – what a beautiful recap. Even with this brief revisiting of the whole experience, particularly in seeing the faces in the photos, all the emotion wants to come flooding back. If this is how it affects me, on the other side of the world, I just can’t imagine what it’s like for you and everyone there. It’s such an honor to have had a tiny part in this effort.

  4. Bernardine G. Berube
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much Jason for sharing your heart-warming story, and thank you for doing this work for the Japanese people.

  5. Posted March 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Jason, thank you so much for your follow-up article. What you have done is amazing and living in Japan, I know that socks were a very-much needed item after the inital outpouring of support. Often times, the basic necessities are forgotten. Thank you for realizing this and for sharing your experiences. Japan is a truly beautiful place, in its environment and in its people.

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