|

Tweets fuel drive to aid stricken north

Social networking site enables volunteers to connect, organize, deliver help to Tohoku faster than ever

by Julian Littler

Marriott Hotel, Ginza, Tokyo. On a chilly March morning less than a week after the earthquake and tsunami, a group of almost 60 people were brought together through Twitter. The purpose of this 7:50 a.m. hotel-front gathering was to collect donated goods to be taken up north to areas devastated by the twin disasters. The meeting was organized in under 12 hours.

Unknown to me, earlier that week my friend Ai had been asked by a friend to find a ride to the northern disaster zone for a Swedish TV crew. I spent the immediate days after the tsunami trying to head north to cover events there, but in the end it was my friend who got me a lift in the same van as the two Swedes.

Ai tweeted for a driver who can speak English. Hiroshi Yashima from Nash Inc., a van hire firm specializing in fashion shoots, tweeted back: Photo shoots were down because of the economy, Hiroshi said, so he had decided to try media location work.

“Location vans are sitting unused all over Tokyo,” he said. His van was big and he “didn’t want to drive north with any empty space.” To make sure he could use the space effectively, he sent out a message on Twitter saying he was heading to Sendai and could take donations. DJ Taro found Hiroshi’s message and tweeted back.

In reply, Hiroshi asked Taro to put out a call for donations on his radio show. For about a month after that, Hiroshi would head north every weekend, delivering donations to different areas. When I spoke to him again recently, Hiroshi had just returned from Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture.

DJ Taro explains that he and Hiroshi first made contact about his initial trip up north at 9 p.m. the day before he was set to leave — just an hour before the start of DJ Taro’s nightly show on Tokyo’s J-Wave radio.

Taro had been working under an emergency contract since the March 11 disaster. Not allowed to leave Tokyo in case another big earthquake hit, he was contracted to make emergency broadcasts in the language of his birth country, Brazil.

Taro put the information from Hiroshi onto his blog and tweeted, “If there is anybody who can gather tomorrow at 7.50 a.m. at Ginza, bring some clothes and stuff and I’ll be there too.” During the radio show he made the same announcements.

When he got off air, Taro tweeted again, this time asking for cardboard boxes for packing up the goods. He collected the boxes himself and arrived in Ginza the next morning, having skipped sleep.

Waiting for Hiroshi to pick me up, I was greeted by someone I didn’t know driving a brand new Audi four-wheel-drive. Disappointingly, it turned out not to be my ride, but instead a Twitter donor bringing four big boxes full of unused waterproof jackets. Hiroshi had sent this donor my address, but the van was too big to fit into the narrow street outside my place.

On the way to Ginza, Hiroshi called Taro to warn him that there might not be enough space. Sure enough, at the hotel we were greeted by close to 60 of DJ Taro’s listeners or Twitter followers, with a grand total of 50 large boxes-worth of donations.

Hiroshi’s van had to be unpacked and repacked to ensure as many boxes as possible could be crammed into the vehicle. Crowding the narrow Ginza side street, everyone chipped in to help sort the donations, repack the boxes and label them. Taro had focused on the plight of families in his calls for donations, and people had responded generously with boxes of baby food and women’s and children’s clothes for the cold northern weather. Mostly women — wives and mothers — had come to donate with next to no notice.

“I have a 6-year-old son and I worry about the children and whether they have enough to eat and are warm,” said Akiko Ayabe, a 35-year-old mother from Yokohama.

All those who gave donations wrote messages of hope and love on the sides of the bus, such as: “We’ll never leave you alone,” “Keep going, take care, with love” and “Don’t lose to the cold!”

Caught up in the giving spirit, the hotel management offered to donate toilet paper, but the van was already full. In fact, there were so many donations that two more trucks were needed to pick up the leftover goods from the Ginza street. Hiroshi and Taro had used Twitter to organize enough donations to fill three large vans in less than 12 hours.

“Many people thought about what they could do and many people called me,” Taro recalls modestly. “I didn’t play such a big part. I’m just a radio DJ; a radio station is not going to help so much. But my radio station (then) started to send trucks to Ibaraki and Fukushima.”

The plan had been to head to Sendai that morning. However, overnight the Swedish government announced they were recommending their citizens give the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant an 80 km-wide berth, so our plans changed. We decided to stay south of the reactor and closer to Tokyo. We headed to Kitaibaraki and southern Fukushima.

We drove north out of Tokyo through Chiba and then northeast in the direction of the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Entering Ibaraki Prefecture, we began to see the telltale signs of earthquake damage: easily visible from the highway, blue tarpaulins were draped over damaged roofs, mapping out the devastation.

As we continued on, we came across splits in the tarmac and collapsed side roads. We headed towards tsunami country.

Arriving in the small port town of Oarai, we saw for the first time the angry sea that had wrought so much damage a week earlier. Cars were scattered randomly across the roads and the huge car park adjacent to the wharf, which was caked in sand and dirt. Washed over tsunami walls and beached atop concrete barriers, boats lay like children’s toys at the bottom of an empty bath. The wharf was a mess of large fishing boats entangled in each other’s moorings. Nets were scattered everywhere, meshed into huge, seemingly inseparable piles. Starfish and rock lobsters peppered the pier.

Here there were no journalists. The media at that time were focused on the worst-hit areas of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures and Sendai, the regional hub. In two days we saw only one other media crew, a newspaper team from Finland.

After a few hours more driving we arrived in Kitaibaraki. We looked for the city hall to ask about refuge centers and the general situation. We also needed to ask for permission to report from here. The road up to the city hall was blocked, but we removed the roadblock and drove up the steep, dark road behind, which was closed due to the late hour.

Hitting the brakes hard, Hiroshi stopped just in time. The steep road had completely collapsed and crumbled into a mess of bitumen and dirt, cracked and flaky like a dried chocolate cake. Note to self: Roadblocks in disaster areas are probably there for a reason.

After backing out, resetting the roadblock and driving around the block, we arrived at Kitaibaraki City Hall. It had been turned into a refuge center for those who had lost their homes. Five people had been confirmed dead in the local area, Mayor Minoru Toyoda told us. The mayor, whose father had built the city hall, had been staying in the shelter even though his house was undamaged.

We slept in the city hall that night as there was nowhere else to stay. There were no train lines, no food was being delivered to the stores in the area and the water was off. Sleeping on chairs in the entrance hall, we tried to stay out of the way.

Talking to the mayor, who seemed very happy that some media had come to show that Kitaibaraki too needed help, we discovered something surprising: Despite the road signs telling us that we were over 100 km from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, we were in fact only 74 km away. Having already “crossed the line,” we decided that next day we would continue to Iwaki, 45 km from Fukushima No. 1.

It was here in the Kitaibaraki evacuation center that we donated the goods we had brought from Tokyo. Some were off-loaded into the storage space in the sheds next to the city hall, where the Self-Defense Forces had set up a temporary kitchen. The rest were taken to a warehouse opposite the local police station, which was filled with supplies of water, food and blankets.

In the early days of the Tohoku crisis Twitter was used to organize donations, but recently it has taken on another role. The increasingly popular and much-needed volunteer work in the north has also been organized over the social-networking site, particularly by smaller groups.

Minami Yamashita from Hachioji went to Ishinomaki and Mizuhama on April 24 to volunteer. “I can’t make a big amount of money,” explains the 22-year-old, who recently graduated from a Tokyo university. “I can’t even give enough to support one person for one month.” Instead, she decided to offer hands-on help.

Minami’s best friend from high school was studying at Tohoku University, which survived the wrath of the tsunami. However, on that day her friend went to visit another friend near the coast. She was swept to her death by the black wave. This, explains Minami, was another reason why she felt she had to volunteer.

She set to work looking for a volunteer group. Searching through Twitter for a week, Minami finally found Gakutsu. A combination of gaku, the Japanese for “learning,” and tsunagaru — “to be tied together” — Gakutsu was created to connect students interested in joining the post-March 11 relief effort. The group is organized by 20-year-old Yu Hosoda, who has taken a year off from university to help the people in the north, Minami says. Gakutsu organizes locally in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward as well as using Twitter. Among its disparate members are a high school student from Osaka who’s skipping classes to help, a famous magazine model, a carpenter and a member of JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Since March 11, millions of people all over the world have tweeted about the disaster in northern Japan, but much of the unsung relief effort has been organized by small groups of people on a local basis. The use of Twitter to coordinate relief work is not a generational thing, either. Hiroshi Yashima is in his 40s, DJ Taro his late 30s, and Minami and Yu are both in their 20s.

Their stories show the extent to which Twitter has become an invaluable medium in Japan for communicating and tracking down information on a daily basis. They also demonstrate the potential of Twitter in times of crisis to enable like-minded strangers to connect, organize and carry out good work — and all at an unprecedented speed.

Twitter “is the fastest way to send out information,” says Taro. “When there is an earthquake you cannot use the phone line, cannot use the (phone) email — only Twitter worked.”

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp