March 11, 2011 ??
It was a Friday that started like any other for me as a JET Program Assistant Teacher in Japan. I got up, put myself together, and headed off to the junior high school in the coastal town of Minabe, Wakayama.
I finished teaching my classes by the mid-afternoon, and sat in the teacher’s room planning and preparing the following week’s lessons much like any other week.
The thing is, it was not a day like any other.
Without warning, the emergency speaker system goes off and the entire room strains to listen for the emergency instructions that come pouring out at once.
In the limited knowledge of Japanese that I had, I could only make out that it seemed there was an earthquake, but nothing seemed to differentiate it from other earthquake warnings we had received. I didn’t even know where the epicenter was located until a fellow teacher said that it was much further north, near the Tohoku region.
As the preliminary notices of the earthquake’s magnitude and word that it started offshore surfaced, and therefore meant a good chance of a tsunami, teachers started making emergency calls and organizing students to head home. While this was going on, the vice principal went to turn on the TV and, almost immediately, the room came to a standstill.
No one spoke and everyone’s eyes were fixed on those first images of the tsunami hitting the northeast coasts of Japan. It was then that we began to understand the scale of what had just happened…
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents that wreaked havoc on Japan’s northeastern coast. While it may seem a long time ago now to some, the tragedy lingers for many areas and individuals who are still recovering.
The Asahi Shimbun’s set of news articles, collectively labeled FIVE YEARS AFTER, puts into focus how various aspects of society in Tohoku remain affected today.
Many individuals still living in temporary housing with uncertain futures. The fishing industry, particularly Fukushima fishermen, has been hit hard by the stigma that their catches are contaminated by radiation beyond health standards.
Children in about 121 schools continue to experience disruptions to their education due to relocation into temporary buildings that are not yet fully equipped to function as schools.
Faced with all this, what can we do to still help?
1) Give to a worthy cause
Many organizations continue to accept donations to support disaster recovery efforts. My personal recommendation is the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund, created in honor of a JET English teacher, who tragically lost her life on 3/11. Support for this initiative goes directly toward aiding students who were affected and displaced by the earthquake with educational expenses. Global Giving is also organizing a five-year anniversary matching campaign to support initiatives related to recovery, which is rife with worthy causes.
2) Support a local Japanese cultural event
A simple, inexpensive, and yet effective way to get involved and show solidarity with our friends in Japan is to support a local cultural event. In New York, the Japan Society will host a photography exhibition running from March 11 through June 12 featuring photographic responses to the disaster and artistic paths ahead as Japan continues to rebuild, among a series of programming over the next four months.
For those living in the Washington, D.C, area, the Japan-America Society is hosting an event on Saturday, March 12 called Tegami for Tohoku, where people can write messages that will be sent to schools throughout Ishinomaki City, view short films from the 113 Project, and listen to a Japanese koto performance.
3) Volunteer Abroad
About six months after the earthquake and tsunami hit, I joined an Osaka social group called WhyNot!? Japan to volunteer in the Tohoku area. It was an eye-opening experience that brought me to ground zero of one of the worst hit coastal cities, Rikuzentakata-shi. It taught me a lot about the human resilience of the spirit in spite of an insurmountable disaster, and of the critical importance of people-to-people connections.
For those that have the time and the funds to do so, check out Tohoku-based volunteer organizations such as It’s Not Just Mud to see how you can help by volunteering your time on projects that benefit local industries and communities.