going back to Japan...

Ai Love Japan, is continuing to provide direct aid to the people affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. we have already cooked a BBQ for them, provided them with some clothes and with the help from some wonderful people in Kaua'i, provided over 850 pairs of slippers for people in Ishinomaki, Kesennuma and Minamisanriku. mahalo to Godwin and Local Slippers.

we will be going back to Japan November 10-24 to follow up with the people we have already met to see how they are adjusting to life in temporary housing units and to see what new needs the evacuees have.

we will continue to interview survivors and bring back more survivor stories, but our main mission is to provide jackets and warm clothing for the coming winter months.

if you would like to support the evacuees, we can now accept tax deductible donations via cash, check, visa, master card, american express, discover and paypal.

to see a list of needs and for more information on how you can help, please visit our Give page on our website.

on behalf of the people of Japan, arigatou gozaimashita!


Kuniko Suzuki's tsunami ride

[NOTE: If you would like to help the people of Japan, please visit the Ai Love Japan website to see how we are now providing direct aid to the people in the hardest hit areas of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures.]

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, 73-year old Kuniko Suzuki was inside her home folding laundry and talking with her neighbors, Nobuko Kasuya and Megumi Chiba, who stopped by to visit.

At 2:46pm, the house began to shake when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake jolted the Tohoku region of Northeastern Japan, knocking out power and causing major damage to roads, buildings and infrastructure. She went outside to check to see if her grandchildren were coming home.

Soon after, the tsunami warning sounded and she was conflicted with what she should do. Wait for her grandchildren or evacuate to higher ground? She decided to evacuate because the week before they had a smaller earthquake and she remembered that the teachers kept the students at the school. She had faith that the school would take care of her grandchildren.

She called inside to Kasuya and Chiba who were busy cleaning the doll case that had fallen off the shelf. She told them “There’s no time for cleaning. A tsunami is coming. Let’s get out of here. ”Because of arthritis in her leg, Suzuki didn’t get around easily, so she couldn’t take the shortcut and had to go the long way.

There are several videos on YouTube taken from an evacuation area on a hillside above the small town of Minamisanriku. You can see entire homes floating and a cloud of dust filling the sky as the tsunami demolished everything in its path. At one point, you can see Suzuki and other residents emerge from between the houses as the floodwaters approached. “I heard crazy noises from behind while I was running. I didn’t turn around.” she said.

In one video, she says she can hear her daughter-in-law screaming, “Mother, run!” In another video, you can see the tsunami waters rush in behind her and then she disappears out of frame. What happened next only she can describe.

“The wave was very big and the wave scooped me up. The waves came from both sides and crossed and made a big tall wave. I was riding on it.” Despite being swept up by the floodwaters, she said she wasn’t scared and remained pretty calm. “I can swim very well,” she said.

“The force of the tsunami was very strong. It happened so fast. [I] rode the wave when the wave hit this area,” pointing to a pile of debris 50 yards away with her cane, “it just happened in a second. Then the roof came down.”

That roof she spoke of was floating in the floodwaters and became her life raft as it came underneath her and scooped her up and carried her to an embankment, 50 yards from where we were standing during the interview. That is where a firefighter plucked her off the roof to safety.

In the roiling sea of debris, it’s a miracle she wasn’t hurt. Not a scratch. The only blemish on her was a bruise on her arm where the firefighter grabbed her.

After she was rescued, she said she sat down on the steps that lead up to the Shizugawa High School, which currently serves as an evacuation center where she and her husband had lived for 4 months. She remembers looking out at the water and seeing houses “drifting like the leaves in the water...like bamboo leaf ships.”

Her life now is like those houses, drifting, with no final destination in sight. “I am wondering what is going to happen from now. You can’t build the houses where the tsunami hit. So we don’t have the land, and no aid from the government. I am very worried about my future. There is no plan from the local government.”

But she remains optimistic about the future. “Even though I am living in a mountain of debris, I have a strong spirit to go through this. I have to do something. I have to live. I don’t want to die like this. If there is a chance, I would like to build a house again.”

For now, she is just grateful that all of her family members are safe. Building a new house will have to wait while the government comes up with a plan for rebuilding the town of Minamisanriku.

But they are a step closer now, she and her husband won the lottery – the temporary housing lottery. Last week, they moved into a two-bedroom temporary housing unit along with five other family members. “It’s small, and it’s not like our own house, but it’s far better than staying at the emergency shelter.”


A day at the Shizugawa High School evacuation center in Minamisanriku.


[NOTE: If you would like to help the people of Japan, please visit the Ai Love Japan website to see how we are now providing direct aid to the people in the hardest hit areas of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures.]

May 18, 2011; Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan – It’s 4:50 in the morning and golden rays of sunshine are already streaming through the glass block windows at the Shizugawa High School Judo Dojo. The sound of rustling blankets can be heard coming from one corner while sounds of snoring emanate from all around. The sliding metal door opens and closes as early risers tend to their morning business.

There is no running water. Six portable toilets are lined up outside the dojo – three for women and three for men. A five gallon (20-liter) plastic jug with a spout and a plastic bowl serve as a temporary sink. Soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels and a wastebasket sit next to the jug of water. Cleanliness is of the utmost importance to prevent the spread of germs and diseases.

At 5:30 a.m., Jun Suzuki is standing outside the entrance of the dojo wearing a pair of burgundy sweat pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt under his black surfboard aloha shirt. While he takes his morning smoke, two ladies walk by and they greet each other with a softly spoken “Ohayou gozaimasu.” It’s a friendly exchange between fellow evacuees.
午前5時30分。道場の入り口の前に1人の男性が立っている。えんじ色のスエットパンツに黒の長袖シャツ、その上に黒のアロハシャツを引っかけているこの人の名は鈴木 淳さんという。朝の一服をする彼の前を2人の女性が通りがかった。すれ違いざま、彼らは静かに「おはようございます」、と挨拶を交わした。そこには同じ避難者としての仲間意識がたしかに存在する。

The morning is brisk as a new day begins at one of the 41 evacuation centers set up in Minamisanriku after the March 11, magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan and nearly wiped out this small fishing port in the Miyagi Prefecture.

Suzuki is one of 105 residents at the Shizugawa High School Evacuation Center that sits on a hill above the town where his house once stood just over 12 weeks ago. Most of the residents here escaped with only the clothes on their back. Some, like Suzuki, are just lucky to be alive.

At 5:50 a.m., Suzuki walks across the soccer field and down two flights of stairs to the Tokubetsu Yogo Homu Jikein, a special nursing home for the elderly, where he and his parents fled after they saw the tsunami engulfing their hometown. Inside, he walks down a dark, debris littered hallway and leads us into the room where they were trapped by the tsunami floodwaters.

Over two months later, you can still see the brown waterline just below the ceiling indicating just how close they were to drowning. There was only a foot of air space left to breath. He reaches up towards a metal curtain rod and explains how he hoisted himself up to keep his head above the water. “I thought I was going to die,” he said. If the water kept rising for another few minutes, he and his parents probably would have joined the list of over 14,000 people confirmed dead or missing in the Miyagi Prefecture alone.

Suzuki’s story is just one of the many survival stories to be heard from evacuees who now live in 2559 shelters located throughout Japan. While their lives have all changed forever, the residents try to move forward and return back to as much of a normal life as one could possibly have under the circumstances.

At 7:00 a.m., the school children are all dressed in uniform and board shuttle buses bound for schools in Iwanuma, 30 minutes away. The parents who still have jobs, go to work just as before. Others do chores around the shelter. The elderly go for walks or sit around drinking tea, eating sembei and talking with their new neighbors on the other side of the three-foot high, 1/8-inch thick cardboard wall that separates them. This is their new life living in an evacuation center.

There is very little privacy. As you walk through the shelter, you can see inside each family’s living space. You can see who’s neat and who’s messy. One family made a door that opens and closes. Another made a sliding door held by a clothes clamp. Blankets are neatly stacked against the cardboard walls.

There are 40 families living in the roughly 3000 square foot dojo. None of the cardboard cubicles is more than 70 square feet. Despite the cramped quarters, there have been no conflicts. Everyone has adapted well to their new living conditions. Everyone understands each other’s plight. This is their new community.

At noon, lunch is served for the few residents who remain at the dojo during the day. There is a full kitchen they can use to prepare family style meals in large metal pots and bowls. Today, they are having packaged onigiri (rice balls), takikomi gohan (mixed rice) and miso soup.

After lunch, some residents walk upstairs to browse through the free market. Residents can pick up every day items like diapers, soap and clothing as well as books, toys and school supplies free of charge.

Outside, final touches are being completed on the newly constructed temporary housing units. The protective fencing is being removed and asphalt was being finished and sealed, but the units will remain uninhabitable for the near future. There is still no running water in many parts of Minamisanriku. The water supply is still contaminated from the tsunami that flattened this quiet town nestled between the hills of cedar trees and the Pacific Ocean.

Wet clothes dance on the clothesline in the afternoon breeze while another load of laundry is agitating in the washing machine. Nearby, Sena Sato, 4, and Ruka Sato, 5, each play with a hula-hoop.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, Japanese Self-Defense Forces from Okinawa, who are stationed at the high school, off load cases of dried kitsuden udon into the school’s gym which serves as a warehouse for supplies. Shortly after, they carry jugs of hot water to be used for an evening bath.

A group of dentists arrive at the shelter to inspect the dentures of some of the residents. Doctors and counselors make regular visits to ensure everyone’s physical and mental well-being. Volunteers do everything from cleaning the portable toilets, taking the elderly to run errands and playing with the children.

At 5:30, dinner is served. Evacuees line up and pile styrofoam bowls of rice, cucumber salad, watermelon and packaged onigiri onto makeshift plastic and cardboard trays and shuffle back to their living areas to eat with their family. Suzuki hands beer to those of legal drinking age. One resident smiles and slides two cans into her apron pockets. It’s not fine dining, but there is enough for everyone.

After dinner, students head upstairs to a small room with square modular shelving on each side and a table in the middle. Five students are crammed into the 60 square foot space to study with no computers and no internet.

Just steps outside, some other students are treated to a special lesson in the multi-purpose room, equipped with folding chairs and tables. On one side, folded ping pong tables separate it from more living spaces. Empty supply boxes are stacked to create two more walls. On this particular night, a few soldiers from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are teaching the kids Sanshin, an Okinawan style of the shamisen.

At 9:00 p.m., it’s lights out. The sound of rustling blankets and snoring returns to the dojo as solar powered portable lights illuminate the walkways. Most of the residents call it a night. Some sit outside, smoking a cigarette and talking amongst each other.

The future is unknown for these evacuees. Many are not sure if they can stay. Government officials have yet to make a decision on whether or not the residents can rebuild in the tsunami zone or if they must relocate. For Suzuki, Minamisanriku is his home. “I wish I can stay in my hometown.” he said, “This is where I was born.”


earthquake and tsunami aftermath : Minamisanriku


[NOTE: If you would like to help the people of Japan, please visit the Ai Love Japan website to see how we are now providing direct aid to the people in the hardest hit areas of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures.]

i just returned from Japan working on Project Hibakusha : Hope for Peace and afterwards, my good friend Matsui-san and i spent a few days in the Tohoku region documenting the damage and ongoing relief efforts after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Northeast coast of Japan on March 11, 2011.

we didn't go to as many places as i wanted, but quality has always been more important than quantity. we met some wonderful people with some amazing survival stories.

in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, the devastation is unbelievable. with the exception of a handful of concrete and steel-framed buildings, anything below 50-feet (15m) above sea level is gone, washed away by the tsunami. the only thing left are the foundations and the debris. for the handful of buildings still standing, there is nothing left inside except broken dreams.
宮城県, 南三陸町の惨状は我が目を疑うものだった。コンクリートや鉄筋の建物がわずかに残っているだけで、海抜15メートル以下にあったものはすべて津波に流されてしまっている。目の前にあるのは建物の基礎とがれきだけ。流されなかった建物も、その内部はがらんどうだ。そう、残っているのは破壊されてしまった夢だけだ…

a quarter-mile (400m) inland, a car sits on top of three story apartment building.

inside, the apartments were gutted by the flood waters.

3/4 of a mile (1.2km) inland, a 30-foot (9m) fishing boat sits amongst a pile of splintered wood and debris in the shadows of houses that were essentially left untouched.

but the real stories are those of the survivors. meet Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki. they are currently staying at the Shizugawa High School evacuation center in Minamisanriku. what you see in this photo is ALL they have and ALL of it was donated. there is nothing left of their house. they literally survived with only the clothes on their backs.

but despite the loss of all of their possessions, Mrs. Suzuki says that they have all that they need. everyone in her house, her husband, daughter, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren all survived. there are other families who aren't so lucky. they even invited me, my friend and interpreter to join them for dinner in their new cardboard "home".

it is this undying unselfishness and optimism that makes me want to go back and do more for these people. her survival story itself is a miracle.

she was standing outside of her home waiting for her grandchildren to come home from school when the tsunami warning sounded. her husband was at a party on the third floor of one of the few buildings left standing just a stone's throw away from the ocean.

Mrs. Suzuki, with a bad leg, headed to higher ground but couldn't escape the rush of the tsunami floodwaters. miraculously, a house floated underneath her and lifted her above the water level. the house was carried to an embankment where firefighters plucked her safely off the roof of the house.

Mr. Suzuki evacuated to the 4th floor where he and the other party goers also survived. Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki were reunited the following day after Mr. Suzuki walked over an hour through debris towards the high school which sits on a hill that overlooks the town, a walk that normally would have taken ten minutes.

it is for Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki and all of the other people in the devastated areas that i am doing what i can to help the people in Japan. it is for people like them that i hope that we can continue to do positive things for those who have suffered so much loss and yet are grateful for what they have.

if you have ideas on how to help, please feel free to leave a comment. i hope that we can all remember the Suzuki's as we continue to find ways to support the people of Japan.

if you would like to make a donation, please contact me
and send me your email address and i will forward you a list of organizations that i know are doing great things for the people in Japan.

please share this with your friends, family, colleagues and the world. the more people that hear these stories, the more people we can get to help. together, we can make a difference.

issho ni gambarou!!!