Sharing Strength in Japan
Categories: Boots On The Ground: Service Stories, Making Our Difference: TBL CSR, Who We Are, What We Do: TBL Culture & People
Takashi Lee is the Country Manager for Timberland Japan. Below, he shares with us his recent experience traveling to and serving survivors in parts of Japan that were devastated by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March.
On the early morning of June 29th, I was on the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) heading for Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, which is in the northern part of Japan about 400km away from Tokyo. It’s been more than four months since the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, but even now, I am sometimes struck by the false sensation that the earth is shaking.
When the huge earthquake hit Japan on the afternoon of March 11th, I was on the 3rd floor of the building in Tokyo where TBL Japan office is located. Slow but forceful shaking continued for some time, and the magnitude was never a sort of what I had experienced in my life, and I thought then that “the time” was finally approaching to us. All the people in Japan are aware that a fatal earthquake will never fail to happen sometime, but we had been doing wishful thinking that it wouldn’t take place during our lifetime. Unfortunately, it did happen four months ago.
Months later, there’re still a really large number of sufferers who are in desperate need of any kind of support. So, we, TBL Japan employees as a team, decided to turn all the resources to disaster-related activities this year, in place of engaging in usual CSR activities. We have also given up participating in the tree-planting tour to the Horqin Desert this year so that we can send as many employees as possible to the disaster-stricken areas, because we think that the most socially-significant CSR activities we can do now is to help those affected by the quake. This time, as the first step, 12 TBL Japan employees including myself, decided to participate in volunteer work in a stricken area, working together with an NGO Peace Winds Japan.
It was a three-hour ride from Tokyo to Ichinoseki by Shinkansen. When I got off the train, I felt the scenery around the station looked just normal, as Ichinoseki is located inland and far away from coastal areas that were heavily devastated by the tsunami. Tens of thousands of people died or are still missing mostly in those coastal areas.
From the station, we then got on a chartered microbus for Ofunato where we were going to do the volunteer work at a temporary housing site. On our way to Ofunato, we passed through a beautiful coastal town Rikuzentakata, one of the most heavily hit areas by the tsunami. The town is located on the northeastern coast of Japan, along the Pacific Ocean, and was famous for a scenic area with around 70,000 pine trees, but they were completely destroyed by the tsunami. Only one of the trees survived. Local residents see it as a symbol of reconstruction.
Only one pine tree survived, which people see as a symbol of reconstruction
The quake at Rikuzentakata registered a magnitude of 6, and the tsunami that followed 30-40 minutes after the quake reached a height of 16 meters. About 1,800 people died out of the total population of 24,000, with 3,600 houses being totally destroyed.
Before going there, I had seen the spectacle of the town repeatedly on television, and I expected what I would see there. But when I saw the actual scene through my very eyes, I felt utterly helpless in the face of the cruel reality. I was at a loss for words, just opening my eyes wide. As far as I could see, all the structures – I heard there were office buildings, houses, city halls, schools, baseball stadium – were reduced to heaps of rubble to leave nothing on the horizon. Along the road were piles of cars that were smashed out of shape. The entire town was literally “washed away,” and disappeared from the landscape. What I saw there was too divorced from reality and I couldn’t even imagine what actually happened.
Everything was washed away at Rikuzentakata
Passing through the town, we further took the ride on the bus and after two hours from Ichinoseki, we finally got to Ofunato. This town is a part of a wide-spread, coastal national park well known for a beautiful ria shoreline, and is also one of the most heavily hit areas by the tsunami. We could only see the complete view of the town from a distant hilltop, but even from such a faraway place, we could see that the coastal part of the town was wiped out by the tsunami, making it a wasteland.
We finally got to a temporary housing site located at the edge of Ofunato. There’re 27 houses at the site, which were almost completed and ready for occupation. The house was prefabricated, built in a row-house style. Floor plan for each house varied according to the household composition, and average area for 4-6 people seemed to be around 30 square meters at the most. Even with such a small size, it must be a great relief for sufferers to be able to move into an independent space, as they had been living for months in evacuation centers, typically school gyms or public halls, where they are crammed without any personal privacy. Each house at the temporary housing site was furnished with a bathtub, television set, refrigerator, washing machine, and air-conditioning. I thought the houses were much better equipped than those in other countries. But the biggest problem for the people to live there is that they have to bear all the cost of living once they settle down into such a temporary house out of an evacuation center. Needless to say, many of the people lost their jobs and have no income, and yet still have to repay housing loans for houses that no more exist. Furthermore, they can stay in those temporary houses only up to a maximum of two years and have to find their own during that time.
Temporary housing at Ofunato
What we did at this site was to bring in daily necessities, such as bedclothes (futon), kitchen utensils, tableware, low dining table, garbage box and umbrella, to every household. We unloaded the goods from trucks, unpacked and classified them, and then distributed them according to the number of residents for each house. As the number of houses at this site was only 27, it didn’t take much time for us to complete the work, maybe less than two hours. So, after finishing the work there, we took the bus to move to a branch office of Peace Winds Japan.
Carrying bags of rice
Peace Winds Japan is an NGO dedicated mainly to the support of people in difficulties, and has been doing activities in various parts of the world. This time, they entered the affected areas immediately after the disaster and have been carrying out support activities trying to best address the existing and changing needs. TBL Japan collected money from the corporate, employees, customers and consumers, and contributed the money to this organization in support of its activities.
At the branch office of Peace Winds Japan at an inland area of Iwate prefecture, we enclosed shopping coupons of JPY10K (about $120) per person into envelopes to be distributed to those who were transferred into temporary housing units. The great disaster made thousands of people lose everything including household goods. In order to move out of the shelters and to rebuild their lives requires obtaining everything from scratch, so, Peace Winds Japan provides shopping coupons making use of the donations received.
Enclosing shopping coupons
In front of Peace Winds Japan office
We finished the work in one hour and left for a hotel two hours away from the place. On the way, everyone was asleep out of exhaustion. I was so tired myself, but it was indeed a comfortable fatigue.
It was only six o’clock in the evening when we got to the hotel. We were all of a sweat after working under a burning sun, but we went out to a dinner immediately after check-in, even without taking a shower, as we were all so thirsty and hungry. In recognition of our services on that day, we had a small dinner together. The first glass of beer after the good work on a very hot day was one of the best I had ever had.
Drink to our work
On the second day, we went toward another temporary housing site in the same town Ofunato. The scale of the site was much larger than that of the previous day, and there’re about 300 houses built there. We engaged in the same work, carrying daily necessities into each house. There’re about 20 other volunteers and we worked together for all the houses. It was a very hot day again, and the work was much tougher as the number of houses were much larger even though they were covered by more people.
But I was really relieved to receive a few words of thanks from some of the residents. It was the first day for the site to accept people to move in, and I met some of the people who were to live there. They all looked uneasy, whereas I could see some innocent smiling faces of several small children. I was not sure if their parents had been able to survive the disaster or not… I just wished them a bright future ahead.
After finishing the second day, I left the team, but other people stayed there one more night for another work at a different location next day. On my way back to Tokyo, I reflected on what I was thinking about the volunteer work this time. Before going there, I was not sure if our work could be of any significance, because I knew what we could do would be very limited… we would go to the site, do some work for only a few days, and be gone like the wind. I was wondering if it might be merely our self-complacency.
Having actually participated in the volunteer work, however, such a view changed. Going to the actual spot and seeing the tragic state of things, I realized that however many hands there may be, the situation this time can never ever have enough. I have no idea at all how much time and effort it would take until they could restore and reconstruct things there… it could be for years and years. So, I believe it is important for everyone first to do whatever he/she could do. I would like to continue to do everything I possibly could, though it may not be enough, keeping in mind what a famous woman said, “We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”