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From raw emotion to relief: ‘Quakebook’

What started as the “Quakebook,” now titled “2:46″ after the time the earthquake hit, originated in a shower in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, a week after the earthquake and tsunami devastated the Pacific coast of northern Honshu. A longtime British resident of Japan, who blogs as Our Man in Abiko, trying to think of ways in which he might help survivors, decided he could put his experience as a former journalist to work compiling an anthology of earthquake and tsunami experiences, written by Japan residents.

Via social media platform Twitter, he wrote, “If everyone wrote 250 words — one page — or submitted their favourite (original) tweets, pics or artwork, I could edit, publish it in days.” The proceeds, he added, would all go to the Japan Red Cross Society. That was at 9:13 a.m. on March 18.

In the book’s introduction, Our Man in Abiko writes, “This book was conceived one week after the quake. It was written, edited and completed in seven days to tell people’s stories while their feelings were raw, memories fresh and futures so uncertain.

“If Japan is to lift itself from disaster, enormous effort will have to be expended by a great many people. Tens of thousands are already working together under extreme pressure towards this goal, in the hardest hit Tohoku region, around the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, and throughout the nation and world, in an effort to restore the supply of essential goods and services.

“Millions more have donated generously, and wish they could do more. For the many people around the world who care deeply about Japan, this book aims to take a snapshot of a nation in crisis, told by its people in their own voices.”

Negotiations were under way Monday with Amazon with the aim of releasing the book as soon as possible with all funds gathered going directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society. The following is a selection of excerpts from the book.

Care

I don’t know where to start to write . . . Ten days has passed since the earthquake. My parents’ house is within 40 km of the Fukushima nuclear plant. They’ve been told they must stay indoors. Although the house wasn’t greatly damaged by the earthquake or tsunami, as the house is built on solid ground, they have to contend with the problem of radiation.

Although this is far from the worst case of losing a family member or home, they have scarcely any information regarding radiation. All they can do is watch news on TV. They don’t know really if they are in danger or if they are safe, and fight against an invisible enemy inside the house. Even if they decide to evacuate, there have no gasoline, so they don’t know how far they would get. The trains aren’t running, either.

My 70-year-old mother refuses to go to a shelter and insists on staying at home. She says she’s not bothered by magnitude 3 earthquakes. Even though the government seems to have forgotten her, she is perfectly calm. What is the government doing? Don’t they care about the people in Fukushima? When people living towards the coast were confronted with the threat of radiation, the whole town decided to evacuate without waiting for government instructions. Nobody in my hometown will evacuate. Why? What’s more, they took in people evacuating from the town next-door, so now they feel they can’t evacuate themselves and leave those people behind.

People of the Tohoku region are stoic, compassionate, calm and humble. They have always just dealt with the situation without complaining. Of course they have questions and fears, but they hesitate to show them as they know other people are experiencing far worse.

They don’t expect the government will help them, but they’ve made up their minds to stay here and fight. Rumors about radiation pollution continue to grow. What have we done to deserve this? We are suffering like others in disaster affected areas. The difference is we have an unnatural and unseen danger to deal with. Please don’t abandon Fukushima. Please see the reality. Please give us accurate and timely information. Please get this nightmare power station under control as soon as possible. And please know that Fukushima is doing its best.

YUKI WATANABE
Tokyo (hometown Tamura, Fukushima)

Encouragement

It’s been a nightmare of a week. I pray that everyone afflicted in this terrible disaster will soon wake up from this bad dream, but I don’t have any words of comfort. As an old man with an old wife, I’ve put up with a lot this week. But it’s nothing compared with the lives of those staying in shelters. Now things have settled down a little, I will attempt to convey the thoughts of the many other elderly people I have spoken with.

For us old folk confused by the scarcity of information, the radio has been our most reliable source of news. Many of us oldies are familiar with the radio and listen to late night broadcasts, with batteries that last a surprisingly long time. While we can use ordinary mobile phone functions, we’ve barely been able to operate emergency functions. Batteries run out as we fumble with our phones and the vast majority of us have given up trying to use them.

Very few people of my generation use the Internet in the first place, and as power is needed to get online, we haven’t been able to use it during power cuts. Even if we connect to the net, we’re poor at finding the information we want. Naturally, we can’t watch television during blackouts.

While we have inadequate access to information, we can ask net-savvy people living near us to get this information for us. For this reason, we are grateful that mobile phones and the Internet provide information. We rely on one company to provide our home with television, Internet and telephone services. While we feared that the infrastructure might have collapsed, the services were quickly recovered. We are thankful for this.

The strength of our generation is our experience. While this disaster is unprecedented, similar experiences such as postwar chaos, oil shocks and the 2005 Miyagi earthquake have kept us prepared. Many people also had stocks of emergency supplies. I pray that old people who are sick or weak can quickly receive medical attention. But rather then telling healthy old folk that you will support them, it would cheer them more to say that you’ll strive to get through this together.

To be honest, it has not been comfortable for people aged over 80. Lining up for hours to get water or do some shopping chills us from the tips of our toes up and gives us back pains. But seeing young mothers of small children patiently waiting for their turn and the impressive qualities of young women who use just a calculator to total up the bills for many customers’ shopping, gives me the strong conviction that this country will not break under these circumstances.

It’s been a while since my wife and I shared activities and fulfilled our respective roles. Our children have encouraged us and this has led to a reconfirmation of our family bonds. We’ve also received much encouragement from unexpected people. I’ve lived for many years. Night has always turned to day and rain has never failed to cease. Conditions have greatly improved during this week, and will get even better next week. This is a manifestation of the fighting spirit of someone born in the first decade of the Showa period. We need to stay strong.

GRANDFATHER HIBIKI
Sendai

Evacuated

I wasn’t able to continue writing since my battery died, but I got an adapter at the Apple Store after arriving in Osaka. Yes, we have evacuated.

Yesterday morning I woke up my son early and told him, “We’ve decided to leave Sendai. Please know that you might not be able to return to this house again. It will be at least a week, maybe a month, or a year before we return. Or maybe never. Start packing your clothes in the school bag. You will not need any of the first-grade textbooks nor your notebooks because there will be no more school in March. You can take your baseball gloves with you, but will have to leave behind the bat.”

The primary reason for evacuation is our concern over the effects of the radiation exposure on small children, in the event of meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I, of course, feel guilty about leaving when I think of our friends who are left behind in Sendai. However, I thought I have to be responsible about my child’s future, and not allow him to be exposed by choosing not to evacuate when means are available, not to mention how much I might regret it.

In addition, small children must be prioritized for care and assistance in a disaster area. Parents with small children, therefore, are not able to do much while just being a recipient of the relief aid. For this reason, we also concluded that a family such as ours must evacuate as soon as possible.

When the first explosion happened at the Fukushima plant, we decided to leave within a week at the most while monitoring the situation. However, Sendai is in complete isolation, with no prospect of reinstatement of the train service at Sendai Station, the airport is completely destroyed, and access to highways is restricted to emergency vehicles only. The only escape route is via Yamagata airport in Yamagata Prefecture and accessible on the regular road. Yesterday on the way to Yamagata, we heard the news of the second explosion on the car radio. We told our son, “We don’t think you’ll ever be able to go back to Sendai.”

Crossing the border into Yamagata, we were shocked to see a different world: traffic lights working and shops open normally. Why was nothing coming into Sendai when there were food and electricity only an hour away, and no access restriction to the regular roads?

In Yamagata, Mayo, my partner, chose to return to Sendai with food, medicine, and other essential supplies. She had been torn, up until our departure, about evacuating while others were left behind. She now strongly insisted on going back. “We don’t need two adults for evacuating one child. I know how to drive back. I have so many friends and I’m concerned about their whereabouts. We have just enough gas for driving back to Sendai.”

We then called a friend of ours with experience in disaster relief from the Kobe Earthquake, and asked about practical needs at evacuation shelters. So Mayo drove back to Sendai, with our car piled up with various medications, female sanitary goods, heating supplies, and food items that are easy to share and distribute. It has been a difficult, painful separation for me, accompanied by a deep sense of regret as we have gone our own ways.

In fact, upon deciding to leave Sendai, we took all that was left in our home (vegetables, eggs, diesel fuel, etc.) to the nearby evacuation shelter at our son’s school. We were told then that no aid had arrived, and saw the profound need for relief goods and supplies. Was I right to just leave when those much-needed goods were right in front of me and that I had an ability to transport them to Sendai? I struggle with these questions. And was I right in allowing Mayo to turn back when the situation was going from bad to worse and the evacuation was becoming more difficult with each passing day? Should I also have gone back?

My son and I remained at Yamagata airport and tried to get on a waiting list for one of the emergency flights. But it was extremely crowded (mostly with those returning from business or sightseeing trips in the area) with a long line of people trying to get a number just to be on the waiting list. While standing in the line we were told that all flights were full for the day, and that we needed to come back in the morning to start waiting in the line again for tomorrow’s flights. I just prayed that we would be called today and kept staring at our number. Fortunately, we were called at the very last minute for the last flight of the day, and were able to arrive in Osaka that night.

Arriving in Osaka, what we saw from our bus to the city was another world. At Shin-Osaka Station, I felt confused. Did the earthquake happen in the same country? But I was finally able to watch the TV at our hotel, and saw the graphic images of roaring floods and the explosion at the power plant, something I hadn’t been able to see under the blackout in Sendai. And I was truly glad at the timing of my son’s evacuation when I heard the news of the third reactor in crisis.

At the same time, my thoughts went out to many children still remaining in Sendai, including our son’s classmates, and was horrified at the worsening situation with no end in sight.

I woke up this morning to the news that things had become even worse and resolved not to return my son to Sendai. It became clear to me that we must help people evacuate from Sendai as quickly as possible, especially families with small children.

Mayo and I are now working to arrange the evacuation for families based on our own experience. We’re also exploring options for places to stay in Osaka. Mayo will be traveling to the Kansai area bringing some families with her.

I have a request for all of you. If you know of any families with small children in Sendai, please urge them to leave. I’ll write more if I have energy left, but I’d like to consult my friends in the Kansai area about our evacuation and temporary housing plans. I really appreciate your help.

(Takanori and Mayo have managed to arrange the evacuation for 30 people by chartering two minibuses. They were to leave Sendai on Tuesday.)

TAKANORI HAYAO
Osaka

Remoteness

I won’t forget the first video I saw of the tsunami. This black mass rolled over the landscape, gulping, chewing and spitting out everything in its path. I waited for the ebb to come, but it didn’t. The black water just kept going and going. I reversed the video and hit pause, staring at the scene frozen on my computer screen. I was frozen, too.

Even with video, it is hard to comprehend the speed of the event and the noise that huge volume of water surging past must have made. The people in front of it must have felt hunted, terrified that they couldn’t escape. In seven minutes of video the whole landscape disappeared. They started tallying the death toll. One dead, then 37, then . . . Hundreds, thousands. Here in the U.K., it struck me that these people were dying without ever knowing if their loved ones survived.

There was more video, of course, of the aftermath. It showed boats where cars should be, cars where people should be and very few people at all. I saw some tearful survivor reunions, which caused me to cry. I know, I have no right to these emotions in my geographic remoteness, but I do feel for them, too.

SYBIL MURRAY
United Kingdom

Voices

Growing up with a sibling that was diagnosed with cerebral palsy since childhood is something I can’t explain in one word to make you say, “Oh, I totally understand what that’s like now.” But what I can tell you is the feeling of having my little sister tell me she’s jealous of me because I can run in the park, to see her cry in her room, pulling her hair out in frustration with her left hand — the stronger of her two hands. That feeling, that hollowness. Because you are allowed to have, by the powers that be, what someone else (who is no less deserving than you) is denied.

Since March 11th, I’ve reminded myself that in taking action, it is important to remember that there are many people whose voices in times of emergency are ignored, perhaps more so than they are on a daily basis.

Who will speak for the afflicted elderly, children and disabled, both Japanese and non-Japanese? Where can they go? Who will listen and tell them that their needs are just as important as anyone else’s, and begin to address them? Those who have a voice, needing to be expressed — who will make sure that the mouths they come out of are fed, not chapped from cold, not muted by standards of validity or worth?

JESSICA TOMOKO PEREZ
The Bronx, New York

Waiting

When my smartphone chimed at 3 a.m. Friday in Ontario, bringing news of a massive earthquake in Japan, I woke Hiromi. Her parents were in Miyagi. She muttered something about calling them in the morning and went back to sleep. We’d spoken to her dad via video Skype only a few hours ago. It could wait.

Morning came, and the TV showed images of cars washing under a bridge like ice floes on a spring river, fishing boats perched atop buildings, entire villages reduced to mud-covered rubble. We called and called to no avail.

We knew Oji-san would have been at home in Wakayanagi, far enough inland to be safe from the deadly waves, but Oba-san was supposed to be in Sendai for a lecture that afternoon.

The barrage of calls from family and friends began almost at once with my parents offering to cut short their southern vacation. “No need,” we told them, “there’s nothing to be done but wait.” I went to work long enough to fill in my boss and was sent home to wait. Hour after hour, we watched the news. We stared at the horror on TV like rabbits on the highway at night, unable to look away from the oncoming headlights. But for us, that doom would never arrive, only constantly approach. All we could do was wait, chained by distance, helpless to act.

Dozens called and e-mailed to express concern, sympathy, horror and support. Was there anything they could do? Did we need anything? No, there was nothing. Only waiting.

Hours of anxiety stretched into days. The kids were fed at intervals and otherwise left in the care of Nintendo and Walt Disney. I cooked, monitored the news and answered the phone while Hiromi sat glued to NHK’s Internet feed and kept up the hourly ritual of dialing through to a recording in Japan telling us our call could not be put through. Appetite and sleep became a distant memory. I’d give in to nervous exhaustion and medicinal vodka and doze fitfully for a few hours, rising to find her maintaining her vigil while the 24-hour cable news drumbeat of despair rolled on.

I stumbled through work, so preoccupied I could barely string a coherent sentence together. Wednesday came and went without contact, the constant worry and not-knowing gnawing at our souls like a trapped rat. We stayed composed, knowing that the least breach of the emotional dam would mean a flood of panic.

Returning from the office early Thursday, I sat down to try to work and saw that my father-in-law’s cold, grey Skype icon had turned to bright, friendly green. His computer was back online. They had electricity. I hollered to Hiromi and she dashed to the phone.

We called, and at long last, they answered.

The waiting was over.

KEVIN WOOD
Hamilton, Ontario

Want

I have been around Tokyo for 15 years and I feel I am needed here now more than ever. The decision whether to stay is the most complex one I have ever had to make in my life. Japan is my adopted home. I would not leave a burning house alone if my family were still inside.

Our house is not as of yet on fire but I need to be available in the event it does go up in flames. We as a community don’t owe it to Japan. But when I think of the Fukushima 50 risking life and limb, when I think of the children now without parents in the Tohoku region, when I think about the untold damage to the region far beyond the scale of the New Orleans flooding, this is simply where I need to be.

It’s where I want to be.

DAN CASTELLANO
Tokyo

The #quakebook (“2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake”) will be available within a few days as an electronic download, and later, in a print edition. Please sign up to be notified of the release of #quakebook at quakebook.blogspot.com/. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.