By Atsuko Fish, Co-Founder of JDRFB
I could not believe my eyes when I first saw the damage from the Great Eastern Japanese Disaster. My heart was tearing apart as I watched my beloved home country being devastated by massive waves of water. A few days after the disaster, we announced the creation of the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund Boston (JDFRB) and started raising funds right away. JDRFB was created in March 2011 as a local vehicle for giving aid to those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The purpose of JDRFB was to provide financial aid to organizations conducting immediate and intermediate relief efforts on the ground.
From my experience with disaster relief, I knew that time was of the essence and that it was important to secure food, water, shelter, and most importantly doctors and medication. Less than a month after the disaster, we deployed a small group of Japanese doctors who were teaching and practicing in Boston. All the doctors and medical practitioners were eager to assist the people of Tohoku and received emergency disaster training prior to the departure.
Determination to Go Tohoku
Very quickly, I knew I needed to go to Tohoku to see the devastation with my own eyes. The U.S. State Department issued an official statement warning U.S. citizens not to travel to Japan, and my family and friends were concerned as well. Nonetheless, in supporting emergency disaster relief programs, needs assessment is essential. Furthermore, I knew I would be held accountable for putting JDRFB donations to good use. People responded generously, and whether it was the $10 donation from a child’s bake sale or the large corporate gift, every dollar was important to us. The best way to ensure donations went to the right nonprofits was to evaluate need and programs in person.
On April 14, my daughter, who insisted she accompany me, and I finally managed to travel to Tohoku and saw nothing but black sands for miles and miles, with no sign of life. It was apocalyptic. Roads were closed, communications were down, there was no electricity or hot water, emergency shelters were still being setup, and people were still in complete shock.
Resilience of Tohoku People
While being awakened by constant aftershocks, I had a glimpse of how scary and horrifying it may have been for people in Tohoku to experience such a catastrophic disaster. What moved me most in Tohoku, was the resilience and strength of the people. They were calm, never complained, waited patiently for services, thoughtful of one another, and displayed immense gratitude. For me, it was an illustration of great integrity amidst emotionally and physically agonizing circumstances.
I visited an emergency shelter in Sohma, Fukushima and was impressed by how spotless and organized it was even with 700 people living in a condensed space. The people living in the shelter were in need of medical services. Sohma, a city only 20 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, was the location where the JDRFB funded doctors were stationed. Having doctors at the shelter gave tremendous peace of mind to the people. Internal doctors took care of the elderly and sick many of which had conditions that were exacerbated by the disaster and lack of access to medical care. Psychologists spent their time encouraging people to talk about their experiences to help facilitate healthy processing and coping. Pharmacists provided medication in an efficient and methodical manner. It was reassuring to see that the first JDRFB funded project was working well, and thanks to the high standards of public health, no epidemics broke out.
On the Way to Ofunato
After much waiting and uncertain communications, my daughter and I finally met with two people from All Hands Volunteers, a Boston based nonprofit organization that mobilizes large numbers of volunteers to disaster areas around the world. We traveled from Fukushima to Ofunato, Miyagi. Their car was packed with supplies such as sleeping bags, towels, and food. Roads were cleared and reopened enough for one lane of traffic.
The Japanese defense force, together with the U.S. Military, is credited for the speedy repair of the major highways in Tohoku. It was vital for emergency vehicles to travel with supplies and human resources. After seven hours of traveling, we were finally in Ofunato.
The Power of Volunteers
In Ofunato, All Hands Volunteers effectively did any necessary work, regardless of how dirty, physically demanding, or time consuming it was. For example, they cleared and cleaned a fish refrigerating facility filled with rotten fish. By showing their commitment through action, All Hands Volunteers gained the trust of the local people. It was heartwarming to see the relationships between the young American volunteers and the local people grow from total strangers with language and cultural barriers to friends. I am confident that these young American people gained a greater sense of humanity and a better understanding of the importance of philanthropy. Someday they will become global leaders. JDRFB and I are proud to have supported All Hands Volunteers.
Their project was a clear success and made an unexpected impact on the young volunteers and the Ofunato community at large.
Working directly with the people of Tohoku was life changing. With time, people opened up to me and spoke about what it was like to lose everything—their homes, their towns, their livelihoods, and their loved ones. I could not hear their stories without tears, and I had no way to comfort them, except to give them big hugs. It was privileged to get to know the people of Tohoku, and I was honored to be a part of the recovery efforts, especially after being away from Japan for over 30 years. It gave me a new purpose in life and made me feel more connected to my country and its people.
Meeting these young American volunteers was inspiring. As a person with roots in both Japan and the U.S., it was astonishing to see people from two different cultures work together toward the same recovery goal. Their enthusiasm touched everyone and created strong bonds of trust. I admire these American volunteers for their strong belief in making a difference. They took immediate action believing without hesitation that they could make an impact. This positive humanitarian effort inspired me as well as people of Ofunato. It is this spirit that drives the recovery of Tohoku and strengthens our efforts to make sure Tohoku is not forgotten. Lastly, my message to the Japanese people is: let’s keep believing that we can make a difference even in a small way and don’t be afraid to take action.