Saturday, April 16, 2011

12 Days in Tohoku

Not Just a Bottle of Tea.

How do I summarize 12 days that rocked my world? How can I explain the air and aura of the many ocean side communities that were wiped out by tsunami's so large that nobody imagined, even in their worst nightmares, would come? How can I explain the pain that grew in my chest the longer I was being exposed to such emotional hardships while trying to remain strong and not showing my personal emotions outwardly (to the people who were trying to remain strong)? How can I even talk about any of this when I'm one of the lucky ones who wasn't even affected?

So many people have lost homes, businesses, livelihoods, family members, treasured personal items and so much more. I have lost nothing. However, I've much more respect for this country and the people that live here. I guess I can talk about that.

See the below picture? What do you see? It's my desk at work and I want you to take notice of the bottle in the middle of the picture. It just looks like a regular PET bottle of tea, right? Think again....

I don't remember which day it was now (maybe day 8 or 9), but we were in Fukushima Prefecture again, about 25 kilometers away from the Nuclear Power Plant. At that time, the evacuation perimiter from the power plant was 20km. Now, it's 30. I keep thinking about that as I remember people I met and talked to in that 10km buffer zone that are now being semi-forced to leave their homes and, sometimes, their animals behind. One person gave me this bottle of tea. Yes, gave ME this bottle of tea!! Why?!? Let me explain.

I didn't get the name of the couple I'm going to talk about, but will call them Mr. and Mrs. Sato for this story. The Sato's WERE (before the above mentioned evacuation zone expanded) one of the lucky ones whose house was still standing in Minami-Soma Town. I was with a group of 2 other volunteers and we were actually looking for a cow that we had seen the day before in the "neighborhood" that had only a handful of houses still standing after the tsunami had destroyed most of their neighbors residences. Driving through the neighborhood while the other volunteers were on foot, I was dodging fallen trees, turned over cars and other debris covering the small road in-between houses still standing and houses destroyed. At one corner, I noticed a man outside trying to sweep up a little of debris in the road out in front of his house. I heard a dog barking nearby and saw it was coming from outside the house he was in front of. I parked the van and walked over to talk to him.

I said konnichi-wa (hello), bowed and then explained what I was doing in his neighborhood. I showed him a flier that we had made which listed our organization and the contact members of the founders of the coalition. I explained we were looking for a cow and he gave me the latest news he had. I then asked him if he had enough dog food for his dog. He mentioned that he was running low and that there were 3 other dogs inside and more coming. I asked why and he said that many of his neighbors have their pets at the evacuation centers and are being asked to have them taken elsewhere. Since his house, and the large barn like storage building, was still intact, they were asking The Sato's to "temporarily" keep their animals until they can move out of the evacuation centers......whenever that may be. I bowed, said how generous that is of him and he waived it off like it was nothing and that they would do the same for him. I then told him that I had many bags of dog and cat food that were donated by international organizations in the van. I told him that I'd like to give him food for all the dogs and cats that he is and will be providing shelter for. I saw a twinkle in his eye and his face light up. He bowed deeply and said that would be a very big help. I then drove the car over and as I started to unload the vehicle, Mrs. Sato came out of the house and he explained to her what we were doing. She bowed deeply, said thank you in the most honorific way possible and then asked how many volunteers were with me that day. I mentioned three and, before I could say anything, she disappeared into the house. As I gave Mr. Sato the last bit of pet food, she came back out and gave me three bottles of tea to take for our group. I started to argue, but gave up quickly because I remembered that this is how it works here. It doesn't matter if their lives have been turned upside down because of an earthquake, tsunami AND radiation threats.

As I drove away from the deeply bowing Sato's, I started to shake my head in awe. Here I am, the lucky one from Hokkaido. The lucky one who can drive about an hour and easily get a bottle of tea. The lucky one who can take a ferry back to Hokkaido and be in a place where everyone around me is "business as usual". The lucky one who isn't about to be asked by his government to evacuate his house and the animals he's sheltering to somewhere another 5+ kilometers away.

The culture of this country is one where you give something back if you are able. They felt that the tea was such a small thing compared to the many bags of pet food we were giving them. I saw it differently as stores with supplies were very far away and this tea may become a very important commodity in the upcoming days and weeks. I saw that I had, basically, everything still and their lives were turned upside down. Why should they feel the need to give me ANYTHING....even a bottle of tea. However, to argue or to not accept this tea would've been bad manners on my part. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but I did.....reluctantly.

Now, this bottle of tea sits on my desk at work as a reminder. I am thinking about all the Sato's out there and hoping they continue to stay strong through these very difficult times. While it's been over a month now since the devastating earthquake and tsunami's, the rebuilding has only started. And the radiation threats and problems in Fukushima are continuing and will continue for many weeks and months to come. Please keep these wonderful people in your prayers and thoughts.


Allen said... incredible a story. a gift and lesson well beyond a bottle of tea to be sure :)

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks for sharing this, Toby. We were only there for one day and it was stressful. I can only imagine what a prolonged visit and a series of trips to the affected areas must have been like.

Rodan said...

I am very moved by your post, Toby. We are seeing so many Tohoku fundraisers continuing for good and reputable charities publicized every day in Seattle alone. Wish we could do more.

Becky said...

Wow. Such incredible generosity. Thanks for sharing your stories Toby. It's wonderful to see, even if in a small way, that you are helping people who are struggling so much right now.