By Marino Saito
Northwest Asian Weekly
Across Japan, people will pause and pray at 2:46 p.m. on March 11.
Three years will have passed since the March 11, 2011, 9.0-magnitude earthquake — called the Great East Japan Earthquake — and tsunami that killed or left missing about 18,500 people in the Tohoku region of Japan. It was the largest earthquake to ever hit the country.
The tsunami also caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, leading to the emergency evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents.
Three years later, tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes around the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Some scientists have warned that certain areas may have to be abandoned altogether.
But according to Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), except for the neighboring areas of the nuclear power plants, there are no dangerous levels of radiation detected in Japan. Tokyo is not within the radiation contamination area, as it is located over 124 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant facilities. The radiation level in Tokyo is similar to that of New York City.
According to JNTO, products distributed to the public, such as food and water, are rigorously inspected and approved by Japanese authorities for contamination safety. The Japanese government has instituted a food product monitoring system from the world’s highest level of standard, screening over 412,000 agricultural products. There are only 2,866 items (0.69%) with exceeding levels of radiation so far, and those have been removed from distribution and disposed.
According to a poll conducted by Kyodo News, more than half of the 42 mayors of towns, villages, and cities from the Tohoku region of northeastern part of Japan damaged by the earthquake and tsunami believe that recovery has slowed down or halted.
In the survey, conducted in February ahead of the third anniversary of the disasters, 22 mayors said the region’s recovery is behind schedule, and 17 said it is proceeding as planned. None said the work was ahead of schedule.
Songs of Hope
In Seattle, an organization called Songs of Hope is planning to hold a benefit event commemorating the disaster. Songs of Hope was founded three days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, with its first benefit on May 1, 2011.
One of the founders of the group is Fumi Tagata, who said she started it because after the earthquake, she couldn’t reach her musician friend in Iwate by phone for three days, which made her nervous. “I couldn’t help her, her family, and the people in Tohoku, as more and more pictures and videos of the disaster were broadcasted,” Tagata said.
A few days after the earthquake, Tagata decided to channel her energy into putting on a concert. “I originally started organizing this concert with my childhood friend, Akiko,” she said. “Then Lisa Maria, who loves Japan more than we do, and had been searching for a way of fundraising as well, joined us.” The initial idea was to find a venue with about 300 seats and have music performed by their musician friends.
“However, the more people who were willing to help the victims in Japan got involved, the larger the scale of the concert became,” Tagata said.
Songs of Hope is a community of Seattle-area musicians, artists, and others who are dedicated to offering ongoing support to the disaster recovery effort. Through concerts and events and providing the latest information about the aftermath of the devastation, they are attempting to create a sense of connectedness that can be extended to the people in Japan from Seattle.
“As a mother myself, I empathize with how parents in Fukushima feel and how they are struggling with the situation in Fukushima, said Tagata. “That’s why we decided to support the ‘Tenohira ni Taiyo no Ie Projec’ housing retreat for children and families who cannot play outside freely in the radiated areas in Fukushima.”
Tagata visited Tokyo last November, and said she was surprised by the complacency.
“I was shocked to see that everything and everyone seemed to not change at all after the disaster,” she said. “Also, what I saw during my stay was only one donation box for Tohoku at a restaurant, and one small musical event preparing for the Tohoku recovery.” Time in Japan passes so quickly, Tagata said, that it “may make people forget things very easily.”
Many of Japan’s mayors also expressed concern that public attention is increasingly shifting from Tohoku’s plight to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Tagata thinks Japanese people in Seattle care more about Tohoku than some people do in Japan. “I think it’s because we live here across the ocean and out of the intense speed of living in Japan,” she said. “We cherish the memories of Japan and anchor on them. As a Japanese living abroad, I might have wider perspectives because I don’t live in Japan. From outside of the homeland, I want to keep sending messages and cheers as much as I can for a better future.”
Songs of Hope will hold its Japan benefit concert at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 9, at the University Temple United Methodist Church. More information is available at http://songs-of-hope.tumblr.com/.
Help from Red Cross
American Red Cross funds have also contributed to the progress of the Japanese Red Cross in the past three years, providing nearly 338,000 survivors with necessary appliances for their temporary housing, such as refrigerators, washing machines, and rice cookers. Red Cross has also helped residents winterize their homes and build community centers, and contributed to soup kitchens, radiation checks, and health and relaxation workshops. In addition, the organization has provided transportation, medical beds, vaccinations, and emotional support for families.
“Three years after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, donations from the American public have continued to help survivors recover and have enabled the Japanese Red Cross to rebuild its medical capacity and disaster preparedness stocks,” said Colin Downey, director of communications for the American Red Cross, Western Washington Region. “The Red Cross continues to provide material and emotional support to survivors as they rebuild.”
First hand accounts
Several Japanese international students now studying in Seattle recalled their memories about the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“I was in my hometown when that earthquake happened,” said Sari Yoshioka, who is from Shimane Prefecture in Japan. “I still remember when I tried to call my friends in Tokyo, but I couldn’t. I sent an e-mail too, but it took one day to contact them. In the near future, I want to contribute by donating some money for the Tohoku region.”
“I was in Tokyo for an entrance test for the university when the Great East Japan Earthquake happened,” said Taichi Ichikawa, an international student from Iwaki city, Fukushima Prefecture. “I could not contact my family living in Fukushima right after it happened, but after a couple of calls, I could. I think I was very, very lucky because most of my friends from the Tohoku region couldn’t contact their family at all.”
Fortunately, Ichikawa said, his family and relatives did not suffer much damage from the earthquake. After the earthquake, he volunteered with a local church, cleaning up a disaster area near the ocean in his hometown of Fukushima.
“As a Japanese, I want to tell to Americans to prepare for everything, assume the worst thing would happen suddenly,” said Hiroshi Fujita, an international student from Nagano Prefecture in Japan. “There are still many people suffering because of the earthquake. I want to go there and see what is going on and find what I can do to help the Tohoku region.”
Ichikawa wants everyone in the world to remember the people who are still in temporary housing in Japan.
“They lost their jobs, especially farmers and fishers who received critical damage to their businesses,” he said. “For example, my hometown faces the ocean, and it is very sad to see the seaside area, which used to have many people and seafood stores. There were seafood festivals before, but not anymore.
“I want to visit some areas in the Tohoku region more and more to see what is going on and how people are doing there now,” Ichikawa said. (end)
Marino Saito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.