NJ helping Japan during this crisis: James Gibbs on his Miyagi Rescue Efforts


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Hi Blog.  As I shift the focus of Debito.org to how NJ residents are being bashed in Japan post 3-11 despite their best efforts, it’s first prudent to start giving an example or two of how NJ are actually trying to help.  Others who are similarly helping out are welcome to submit their stories here either by email (debito@debito.org) or as a comment below.  Well done, James.  Debito


Report on the Miyagi trip this past Sunday after our Saturday fundraising efforts.
By James Gibbs. April 1, 2011

After holding a fundraising event on Mar.26, the following day we delivered donated items along with a fully-loaded van of food and clothes to Onagawa next to Ishinomaki City, which is just north of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. I’ve made the following brief report on the trip along with first-hand observations on the situation and suggestions for future assistance as I know everyone is wanting to do something to help.

We collected three boxes or donated items from guests. The food preparer, Paul, had stayed in the kitchen Saturday night rather than come to event and prepared 30kg of shephard’s pie meat/vegetable mix for the trip. We spent about Y60,000 on food, which was mostly crates of fresh vegetables, fruits, 10 cases of canned coffee, and 20kg of ready to eat meat including spiral hams along with other items and another Y15,000 on accessories like paper plates, bowls, chopsticks, plastic glasses, soap, cleaning alcohol, paper towels, toilet paper, plastic bags, etc.

Early Sunday morning I drove to Maple English School in Shinurayasu where the students had gathered about ten large boxes of clothes, diapers and other supplies. With the van loaded front to back all the way to the ceiling and riding low on the back tires from the weight, I set out for Miyagi with a long-time friend, Ian Cunnold, who runs Maple English School. Our destination was Onagawa Houiku Senta (Onagawa Public Health Center) in Onagawa, which is next to Ishinomaki City, in Miyagi Prefecture. This is a small fishing village that had been mostly destroyed. A Maple student, who was the main organizer of the school’s boxes, had a relative in that particular facility and had requested us to visit there. Thus, it was selected among the hundred or so evacuation facilities. Depending on their needs we were going to unload there or move on to another facility.

Upon arrival at about 5:00p.m., the administrators, who did not know we were coming, were very happy to see us and receive the supplies. They very warmly invited us in for dinner, which was very simple but sufficient and satisfying. They also asked us to stay the night before returning to Tokyo. Roads were a little bumpy and maybe lacking street lights so we were quite happy to accept their offer. It was very cold but we had brought sleeping bags and managed to get some sleep. Our Plan B had been to sleep in the van if necessary.

At 7:30 the following morning I was awakened by a rather rough earthquake and another tsunami warning. It was an eerie feeling while lying horizontal in a sleeping bag in an evacuation center on a hill overlooking total devastation in Onagawa on one side and Ishinomaki on the other side. Later I learned that there was a nuclear power plant almost around the corner, but it was not the one having trouble. Another irony occurred when I also later learned that Onagawa/Ishinomaki was home port to some whaling ships. Driving back it was a comforting thought that we were able to make a good impression of foreigners with these people. Personally I’m not a big fan of whaling, but I stop short of militantly telling people they have to stop their livelihood. I just hope for a more moderate gradual solution to that issue.

There were about 1,500 people in three buildings at that evacuation facility. All things considered the mood among the people we met was upbeat and cheerful, but we heard that some people were starting to get irritable as the situation would tax anyone’s spirits. One young lady we spoke with described having water rushing into her car and barely escaping with her life. Her family was all safe, but two of her friends were missing and two other friends had family members missing. At one point another lady in the office was having an emotional break down, crying and retelling her ordeal as an administrator held her in her arms.

About the supplies and the need for things: There was already plenty of food, water and clothes at this shelter along with lots of cooking equipment and several large human-size gas tanks. But the food was mostly rice, dried and canned items. The kitchen staff was very excited about every other box we opened. Some things were needed and others were not needed. They were particularly happy to see the fresh fruit and vegetables, hams, shepherd’s pie mix, orange juice, paper plates, chopsticks, etc. while they said they had plenty of rice, canned foods and most of the clothes they needed. We asked them to distribute the unneeded items to the other shelters and they said they would.

My overall impression of the situation was that very basic things were needed the first week, while at the two-week mark (when we arrived), those things were in supply while more fresh items like fruits, vegetables, meat, juices, milk, eggs, etc. were needed. With the roads open and gas shortages ending, supply lines should start flowing with no real shortage of things at the three-week mark. Therefore if you are thinking about sending anything by takyubin, please do so only after contacting one of the honbu centers and after confirming their specific requests. It seems that a surplus of things is starting to accumulate and cash donations to the Red Cross might be more useful as they can probably better manage distribution.

People were just barely starting to clean up with the removal of debris. Probably the next several months will involve clean up followed by the start of rebuilding this summer. Therefore my advice to people who want to help is to send cash donations (rather than items) to the Japan Red Cross and specifically to their fund for cash payments for survivors.

Volunteers will likely be needed for debris removal and rebuilding but please find an established group for such participation before going down there to volunteer. I am still looking for a proper organization that can introduce evacuees with people who can offer their apartments as I think this would be a very effective way for individuals to help. If anyone can recommend such a bulletin board or organization please let me know.

I would also like to add that I think the government deserves an A or an A- for their handling of the tsunami relief. There was about a 50km section of road around Fukushima that had been ripped apart in 30 or 40 places with quick spot paving done, which were minor speed bumps. The fast repair of these roads was short of a miracle. Gasoline was supplied and available on the highway with only moderate lines and in the tsunami area albeit with longer lines. The police and self-defense forces were everywhere and blocking people without proper business from entering. Without any documentation the police gave us a permit and let us enter after we said we were bringing supplies. There was no bureaucratic interference at all. There was no highway charge for the Tokyo to Sanriku trip when we exited the highway. On the way back we showed our permit from the police and again there was no highway charge. This was a very pleasant surprise as we had spent considerably more on the food than the money we collected. The roads were open, and even the neighborhood grids in the tsunami area had been cleared. The shelters had food, water and blankets, and people were being taken care of. It was very clear that a lot of people had been working very hard. Everything went as it should have. All of this was no small accomplishment for the government to manage, and it should receive some credit.

Please note that these are personal observations from the area we visited and the Onagawa shelter complex. The actual situation in different areas may vary.

There were four or five people who contributed extra money and a lot of supplies, which helped make the delivery possible. It really was a group effort with a lot of people coming together. The needs up north are massive, and our delivery on Sunday was only a drop in the bucket. But there tens of millions of people in Japan who are doing things and hundreds of millions, including overseas assistance. With everyone doing a little it will surely add up to make a big difference and help the people in Tohoku recover.

I know there are so many people out there who want to do something to help. I hope these personal first hand observations will help people in better directing their donations and assistance.


11 comments on “NJ helping Japan during this crisis: James Gibbs on his Miyagi Rescue Efforts

  • The Japan Times Tuesday, April 5, 2011
    Foreign volunteers in relief efforts
    NGO trying to involve non-Japanese in ‘international cooperation’ to support Tohoku

    Ever since the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat has sent teams of volunteers to assist survivors in disaster-stricken areas as far afield as Kashmir, New Orleans and Indonesia. But according to Takashi Yamamoto, current director of Peace Boat’s relief efforts in Tohoku, nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed when he first arrived in the small seaside city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture…

    Rest at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110405a1.html

  • On the other hand, you have the foreigners who left Japan following the earthquake who are now being dubbed “Fly-jins”. Not sure if this blog post is the best place for me to place this article here, but I think it’s something worth talking about (as is of course, the articles you have brought up in this very post).


    — That’s part of the bashing. We’ll get to it soon.

  • Hi, I used to live in Japan and am now teaching in Canada.
    I wanted to do an art exchange project with my former schools in Japan before this disaster struck.
    After these terrible events, I thought about having my students create and dedicate some art or a banner to a school in the tsunami-affected areas, to show our support. (we are also holding a fundraiser)

    The problem is I don’t know how to get in contact with a school there or how I could send the piece to a particular school.
    I will be going to Japan next month, but I’m not sure if I will have time to go to Tohoku or if I would even be allowed to go there.

    If anybody has any information that could help me, I would greatly appreciate it!!

    Thank you!!


  • Darn, Bill beat me to it. So I’ll just echo his recommendation of Doug’s Facebook page.

    His reports from Tohoku (9 so far) are very well written, insightful and moving. I don’t know Doug personally but we are both supporting the efforts of Hope International Development Agency, Japan. This is just one of many connections – both new and existing, online and offline – that have become so much more meaningful and powerful in the last few weeks. I used to be pretty cynical about “professional networkers” always seeking to add to their headcount, but the support we received for Japan Coast to Coast last year went a long way to restoring my faith in networks. So this year I’m hoping to build on that and develop the potential for JC2C to support in some small way the huge task of rebuilding Tohoku. This week, we delivered our first truckload of donated bikes and those bikes are already being put to good use at evacuation shelters.

    @TM – one idea would be to ask a website like ELT News (http://www.eltnews.com) or an organization like JALT (http://www.jalt.org/) or ETJ (http://ltprofessionals.com/ETJ/) to put a call out for help from someone who knows or lives in the region.

  • Hi, regarding the flyjin comment above, it seems to be a humorous nickname created by a non-Japanese resident, and used mainly by the English language press. It does not seem to have caught on in Japanese, so not sure it should be counted as ‘bashing’.

  • James, and all, re:
    ‘I am still looking for a proper organization that can introduce evacuees with people who can offer their apartments as I think this would be a very effective way for individuals to help. If anyone can recommend such a bulletin board or organization please let me know.’
    Most prefectures are now offering accommodation in some form, often free rent for a period, prioritising the homeless and official evacuees. Others, like Oska and Kyoto are offering apartments rent free for two years to anyone from Tohoku, eg all of Fukushima-ken. I have put details of how to find out about particular areas on my blog in Japanese:
    and English
    I also researched this problem and as far as I am aware there is no one organisation putting together those made homeless or in fear for their families with those offering accommodation. This was the best I could come up with, and I have publicised it as best I could. I could not discover a way of checking that people know about this,or a way of telling people directly on the ground. It may also so be that people are reluctant to leave their home areas.

    I was surprised by the lack of networking between NPOs themselves, and between NPOs and city/prefectural governments. I spent a very frustrating week in Hiroshima banging my head against this particular brick wall in an effort to provide some options fore people wanting to get their children out as we had. This is something that will hopefully be something learned before it is next needed.
    Cheers, and well done for your trip

  • Koreans overcome ethnic divide to aid quake-hit Japanese
    Kyodo News/Japan Today

    KYOTO — Pro-Pyongyang Korean residents of Japan, a target of ethnic and political prejudice in society, have been offering help to distraught Japanese victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

    Leading members of the minority group say they are bound by a common sense of mission to save people’s lives regardless of ethnic origin.

    In Fukushima Prefecture, hit by the crisis at a crippled nuclear power plant, a pro-Pyongyang Korean primary and middle school sheltered some 30 local residents aged 6 through 84. About half of them were Japanese who fled from coastal areas hit by the devastating tsunami.

    About 10 victims each were accommodated in one classroom of the school building, which was furnished with space heaters and futons. There Japanese and Koreans talked about what to do about their bleak future and comforted each other.

    Kazuhiko Hangai, a 51-year-old Japanese resident of Futaba, a town 4 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, took refuge in the school with his father at the urging of his Korean friend.

    Hangai’s 84-year-old father has diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and needs to take 11 kinds of medicine. When Hangai talked about his father’s medical needs, an aid worker dispatched by the North Korean-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, drove the ailing octogenarian to a hospital in Koriyama in the prefecture.

    Hangai expressed gratitude, saying, ‘‘I couldn’t have saved my father on my own.’‘

    While there were no students or teachers at the school because they stayed home to avoid possible exposure to radiation from the nuclear plant, the association sent food and fuel there. One Korean, who owns a yakiniku barbecued beef restaurant, cooked both Japanese and Korean food for the refugees.

    Korean permanent residents of Japan close to Pyongyang can face harassment because of North Korea’s abductions of many Japanese decades ago, an emotional issue in Japan, and the country’s engagement in nuclear weapon programs.

    But the Japanese and Korean victims at the Fukushima school cooperated to do the dishes and shared light-hearted moments, playing baseball and soccer in the schoolyard in the wintry weather.

    All the refugees had left the temporary shelter by the end of March as they moved to the homes of relatives and others.

    Kim Jeong Su, 59, after seeing off the last of the refugees, sounded happy and proud of what the Koreans did for the quake victims. ‘‘We all grew up in Japan. The Koreans and Japanese helped each other as fellow citizens, oblivious to their ethnic differences.’‘

    In Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, some elderly Japanese found their temporary home in a boarding house adjacent to a collapsed Korean primary and middle school. Its teachers also visited several shelters in Miyagi and served rice balls, pork stew and barbecued beef for several hundred local victims, using supplies sent by the Tokyo-based association and other Korean residents across Japan.

    As they went about their relief work, some Koreans from the school stumbled on some 100 refugees stranded at a Shinto shrine in Kesennuma, another city in Miyagi. The refugees rejoiced at seeing the Korean visitors because nobody had come to their rescue until then.

    Some of them broke into tears upon receiving a gift of rice, medicines and kerosene.

    ‘‘We will continue to distribute relief goods to shelters. There are no national borders among disaster victims,’’ said 50-year-old school principal Yun Jong Cheol.

  • Geoff,

    Thank you for your feedback on the apartment thing. Somehow I can imagine that it’s just not very Japanese for people to go through strangers and that most of the apartment sharing is being done through friends and family. Also, I’m guessing that people in shelters may hesitate to leave for something that is not solid or substantial as they may be waiting for public housing or other government provided housing. Once they leave the shelter they might lose some rights or weaken their position for further assistance.

    I don’t know for sure. In any case, if someone knows a person or a family who wanted a place for 1 to 3 months, have them contact me. I could make my 2LDK available and stay in my office during that time.



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