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Foreign Volunteers Japan – Things that are still happening

Things that are still happening

(image courtesy Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

I really didn’t know what to say about the one-year anniversary of the quake and tsunami.

At 2:46 on March 11th the entirety of Japan apparently came to a standstill. From Shibuya crossing to Rikuzentakata, everybody just stopped what they were doing, whether they were in a grocery store or on a boat, and prayed, or just stayed quiet for a minute.

I didn’t. I was with good friends at brunch. I didn’t make a conscious effort not to commemorate the anniversary, it just didn’t happen.

Or maybe I didn’t want to commemorate it. In the past few months I’ve avoided thinking about it. It’s still hard to process everything that happened, and when I watch too much news or read too many stories I tend to have bad dreams and feel anxious a lot of the time. I haven’t been north, at least partially because I’m afraid of being so close to everything. I feel guilty about that, feel like it makes me an emotional coward.

These are confusing times. Unlike the people up north, life is 99% great for me, and I have very little to really complain about. But the confusion and the anxiety are still there, and for me one way to try to make sense of them is just to make a list of Things That Are Still Happening.

1. Quakes are still happening. I suppose you wouldn’t call them aftershocks anymore, though they seem to happen a lot more frequently than they used to. They freak me out a lot more than they used to, too. In a way you get used to them, but my adrenaline definitely surges in a way that it never did before, because I know that a quake that starts small can quickly turn into something terrifying.

2. I’m still not 100% sure to think about Fukushima, radiation, and everything that surrounds that whole mess. I stand by most of what I said a year ago, especially the “don’t panic” part. But we know a lot more now. Like the fact that the situation was a heartbeat away from catastrophic, and 30 million people almost had to be evacuated from the greater Tokyo area. The government and TEPCO have done more than their fair share of lying and blaming. At the same time, articles like this one reassure me, and remind me that even though there’s a lot to be angry about, panic is not the answer.

3. The debris is still there. More than 20 million tons of it. It’s mostly been moved into piles, but it hasn’t gone anywhere, partly because the rest of Japan is afraid of nuclear contamination. Just a little over 6% of it has been removed.

4. When I walk into a restaurant, a train station, or a person’s home, I casually take note of where the best place to crouch during a tremor would be.

5. Walking in the city, I notice the construction of buildings and roads and try to imagine how much force they could withstand.

6. More than 300,000 people are still living in temporary housing. This might not seem like such a big deal–it’s better than living in a communal shelter, and it’s better than having no home at all. But the homes are poorly insulated (though volunteer groups have made an effort to insulate them better), and the families who live in them are separated from the communities they’ve known for their whole lives, many of them with few prospects for employment or self-sufficiency.

7. The government is still bickering. Many in the north, watching factional politics take priority over real action, despair of the government ever making real strides in reconstruction and rebuilding plans. NGOs and volunteer groups are doing their best to pick up the slack, but the scale of the work to be done is overwhelming.

8. Volunteers are still digging, hauling, delivering, and doing what they can to boost morale. Really, the sheer variety of what people from so many different countries and backgrounds have done for Tohoku is pretty awesome. Christmas parties for orphans with Santa. Musicals. Barbecues. Tons of relief goods delivered. Mud shoveling. Collecting photos and restoring them for people who have nothing but photos left. Making films. Creating photo essays. Pen pal programs. Foreign Volunteers Japan updates their blog regularly if you want to find out more.

A year later I don’t really have any grand insights or neatly packaged take-away wisdom. I just know that I’m grateful to be alive.


Lindsay Nelson has lived in Tokyo for eight years. She is currently completing a PhD dissertation on modern Japanese literature and horror films.

1 Comment

  1. Bruce Merit says:

    Hello, my name is Bruce Merit.

    I’m a retired fire fighter from Canada currently just volunteering for Habitat for Humanity where I was building homes. I’m coming to Japan on April 16th for two weeks and am willing to volunteer for at least a week of my time in any area that needs my assistance and skills.

    I used to live in Japan for 10 years so my Japanese is limited but I still can get by, I also am used to driving in Japan and have an International driving license. I also enjoy cooking and am very skilled in the kitchen as well building homes or demolition.

    I look forward in hearing from you at your earliest convenience so I may be of some assistance.

    Thank you for getting back to me.

    Yours Truly,