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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34 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  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. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. Dilip
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Helping someone in need is a noble thing and when this type of situations develops people need basic items such as food, clothing and, of course, socks. Good job, Jason.

  7. Sen
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you for all your hard work and bless all the people there. Even though I can’t be there, my prayers for them and all the volunteers will be. The things that all you did are really amazing. Thank you.

  8. Donald Pesavento Jr
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    SFJ team, thank you so much for all the heart you have put into your efforts. I believe Socks for Japan is very worthwhile. I hope none of you ever doubt that for one second. To the future…

  9. Cindy
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    Jason, staff, helpers, all,

    I cannot tell you how much it fills me with joy to watch your kind spirits in action! My whole family has watched Japan this last year and our hearts ached. We felt so helpless and useless. Thank you for giving us a way to give back, but (just as importantly) thank you for giving us a window into the changes and challenges Japan faced…and continues to face.

    You and all who helped you are part of a remarkable and wonderful family.

    Really, my humble words just cannot express our gratitude to you and our support for the people of Japan.

    Blessings to all!

    Cindy

  10. CHRIS - DENVER CO
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I never realized people would have filled up your site with negative comments about Socks for Japan. After reading a couple, there are a lot of a-holes out there. I can’t believe the hate.
    -Chris

  11. Eric
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Just beautiful! A perfect tribute from an eye witness to the event! For the rest of us that were isolated from it the pictures and commentary were a very emotional experience. I thank you for sharing your experience with us. It was devastating and enlightening, even humbling.

  12. Posted March 12, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    It feels like only yesterday and the emotion (for me anyway) is still so raw. You have done what so many of us longed to do and provided an avenue where we could feel just a little less useless. You took love and comfort to people who had suffered more than most of us could imagine, in the form of socks and words of encouragement.
    Thank you, Jason. I still hope and pray to be of more help, but thank you for all you have done to bring comfort to so many people, both those who suffer in Japan and those whose desire is to reach out to them.

  13. Susan
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    What an amazing and beautiful thing you’ve done. I am very grateful I was able to be a part of it- before I heard about the campaign I was searching for some way to simply let people in Japan know they weren’t alone, that I, and many others like me from all over the world were thinking of them. I’d remembered reading that people trying to rebuild their lives after katrina were most hurt that it seemed the world didn’t care about them, so I knew the importance of such an endeavour. I don’t think you guys will be able to fathom what it is you’ve done for the good of humanity in this lifetime; but I pray one day you’ll see it in full glory. Until then may the inhabitants of the heavens shelter & protect you, & be there for you as beautifully as you have been there for others.

  14. Sandy
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Well done, Jason & crew! Such sweet moments of happiness amid the chaos!

  15. Mike
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Much respect. Oh how my heart yearns to share the love that has been shared! May your mission continue rooted in the self-less determination in which it was born. From Dublin.

  16. Miyeko
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Jason, God Bless you and all the people who helped.

    My heart still bleeds for the people of Japan.

  17. Burt Barnett
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    May God bless you always.

  18. Gregory Iwan
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I’ve been sensing that “anniversary,” all right. And one telling photo here shows one sock bag per tatami mat, in essence tolling the loss and the remainder from this monstrous shock. I’m tempted to say that the only thing worse than the water’s onslaught was its retreat. Sometimes the removal of a stressor marks only the beginning of the trial. I know of no people who suffer so nobly as do the Japanese. It’s not stoicism, it’s not a resignation, it’s not a surrender to the elements or whatever deity one claims. I surmise a kind of quiet, humble matching of one’s spirit to fate–an engagement that retains all of both, implying willing acceptance through proud adaptation and hope. We can all learn quite a little from these stouthearted ones, young and old.

  19. John Richardson
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Well done Jason. God bless you.

    John from Knoxville

  20. Jennie and Ross
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Jason,
    One year on we remember you, and your brave and generous helpers who assisted you to distribute the s0cks. Through your kindness, and the socks we sent, we were able to relay our friendship and concern for the Japanese people. Thank you Jason and thanks to your volunteer team.
    We will never forget your initiative

  21. J K
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    That you have had the strength of spirit to persevere, despite the hateful tone of some initial criticisms, is a glowing testament to the truth of the need, to the beauty and efficacy of how you and others reacted and to the generosity and caring of all those who’ve participated.

    Someday, should you ever be in need, may the spirit of those appreciated socks and their well-wishers tap you on the shoulder, smile and warm you’re feet when you’re least expecting it…

  22. Bernie McCune
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    It seems so long ago that we watched in horror at the many places and surely the many people we had known and loved, as they were literally being washed away by these unbelievably monster series of ocean waves. It is a humbling experience to consider our tiny bit of meaningless power in the face of such huge natural forces.

    But as Jason and the rest of the Socks for Japan worldwide team banded together over the following months and we began to see that our tiny power was increased by our multitude and this growing power became an expanding light in this terrible darkness. And Jason showed us the power of simple love and caring and how it can defeat this darkness. There are always naysayers and some folks will always believe that only governments and large institutions can deal with these disasters. But I have worked with small local search and rescue teams here in the U.S. and I have learned that well prepared and organized teams like SFJ have an important role to play in these events. They are often very early on the scene and have actually listened to and have quickly responded to the victims needs. Personal rather than bureaucratic contact with these frightened people is often enough to calm them and brighten their spirits. And let them know that the world is with them and have not forgotten them.

    My wife and I salute this team and especially Jason and his small band of merry workers for all their sacrifice and love. Ryoko and I have lived and worked among the wonderful people of Tohoku and continue to marvel at their strength and good spirit. We will soon return to northern Japan and Iwate-ken to visit our friends and family there and we look forward to being among the many kindred spirits that we know we will find there.

    Our prayers remain with all of you on both sides of this disaster that has now, because of Jason and SFJ, brought us all together as a family sharing the tears and simple joys that the world sometimes brings us.

    Ryoko and Bernie McCune

  23. Terri S.
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the reminder of the 1 year anniversary of that horrible disaster. You and your volunteers did a wonderful thing for the survivors. Large-scaled disaster relief for major items like food, water, utilities……those are jobs for huge organizations. There is generally little room for comfort and personal gestures of kindness beyond your own neighbors and friends. But you and your crew took it upon yourselves to reach out and bring that encouragement and warmth and love far beyond what anyone would expect. I can not believe how many socks and letters you delivered!! You can all be very proud of your efforts!! God bless you all:)

  24. Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Thank you! I took your advise and wore black, along with many others, in respect, reflection and remembrance of Japan today.

  25. Veronik menanteau
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Gratitude Jason to you and all the volunteers that make it happen. Brings smiles and supports is somehow the deepest way to feel that is the greatest meaning of life. Thank You and all the best to you and yours.

  26. Frith
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Jason, I applaud your work. I have long considered Japan my second home, but it is many years since I was able to visit. I followed your updates all last year, stunned every time by both the destruction, and the smiles, and the brilliance of your idea to donate socks. Congratulations on a superb effort, and all the best to you and yours.

  27. Maica
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for a thoughtful and heartfelt reflection one year later. We donated socks and a letter and have followed your efforts since then. Many thanks to you and all your volunteers for your huge hearts and efforts in supporting the Japanese people. ‘Actions speak louder than words’, your actions have shown so many that there are kind and compassionate strangers everywhere who are wishing the best for others in their time of need. Our prayers and thoughts have gone out to the many who have died and suffered. God Bless you, keep shining your light.

  28. Shawn
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    First time I saw this disaster in Canada on NEWS. I was shocked. I really wanted to help Japan physically. However, unfortunately, there was nothing I can do about it except donating money through RedCross. I still can believe this actually happend to innocent people. Thank God you were there to support these people. I hope everything becomes normal and perfect again.
    GOOD LUCK JAPAN! AND GOOD WORK JASON

  29. Perry Trusty
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the reflection on one year later. Yes, life is short and can be taken quick. I pray for the souls of those killed and for the survivors, I pray for their courage to go on. Thank you Jason and your volunteers for their efforts. It was touching to see your fast response and how people from around the world responded to your message. You and your volunteerare a shining light for all people.

  30. Devan Paddock
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the beautiful recap Jason!
    I was so moved to see the photos once more
    and to reflect on all that has happened in Japan
    this last year. Thank you for the amazing program that
    You put together and made successful last year. I was thrilled
    to donate to such a great cause last year.

  31. Lorri Scott
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    I donated socks and letters for this endeavor. Thank you so much for reporting on the outcome. This post is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. What a tremendous undertaking.

  32. Jim Nasby
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    Jason – I intend to inform friends and family of this wonderful project. Thank you for
    sharing your story along with the exceptional photos. Jim

  33. John in Oregon
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Jason,

    Great recap and wonderful pictures. Funny how someone (Felix?) who do nothing to help can be critical of those who are volunteers. “Socks” was a perfect contribution to help in the days after the disaster. Great idea and so beneficial to the victims. At least one year has passed, just as each year past 9/11/01 brings less heartache. Take care and thanks again for your efforts.

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