Last Wednesday my wife and I had an opportunity to enter the "hot zone" on a recovery project near Kuji, Japan, one of the areas destroyed by tsunamis that pounded the northeastern coast of Japan on May 13, 2011. Being one of the four civilians allowed on the trip, I had to wear radiation monitors; of course, not a peep. Today, government and civilian relief workers are providing necessary relief without hesitation. Unfortunately, irrational fears prevented necessary rescue and relief operations from getting to this area for almost three weeks, likely contributing to the deaths of many people. Those same fears are still preventing people in rural areas from getting any support, even while the government starts to wrap its rescue and relief operations.
Back to the video, you will see something seemingly historic, or at least highly unusual. Penny and I ended up working among US Marines from Okinawa, US Airmen from Misawa, and Japanese Grand Army from Hokkaido. Important to note here is that the Marines and Airmen were volunteering on their days off. Most Japanese find this to be troubling, confusing. Volunteerism, selfless service for others (especially strangers) is something that we have come to expect in American culture. However, such practice is not part of Japanese culture and its underlying philosophies. Interestingly, western influence seems to be contributing to a cultural shift in this crisis. More on this later; for now, I will finish this though with a quote from a grocery checker with whom I spoke this evening: "Japanese don't volunteer because we don't know how; but the Americans are teaching us how to volunteer, and we can't wait to do it."
The Japanese soldiers were initially hesitant because they were not clear on the command structure. I had to carefully explain to them that we were volunteering to work FOR and with them; not to make them work for us. With some prodding, we all ended up working side-by-side and had a productive day. The project we were working on was supposed to last three days. We finished it in five hours.
Unfortunately, the collaboration was a bit more unusual than we anticipated; J-Army officers put an end to it. I sat in on a meeting with the town mayor who had asked us to help his town and some Japanese Army officers. I can't get into details about the politics in the meeting, but the soldiers were energized and thrilled about working with the Marines and the Air Force; their officers did not share the sentiment. Politics killed cooperation and hindered recovery.
We are still operating in the town at the request of the Mayor, Today, we have two bus loads of volunteers working in this town every day. In addition to footage of a unique international collaboration, an amazing image in here is of the 80 foot seawall that was supposed to protect the neighborhood that was destroyed.
This is a rural village that is distrustful of outsiders, even those of Japanese nationality. I spoke with a mental health professional from Tokyo who was frustrated because the villagers were as distrustful of a city boy as they were of Americans. Only one mental health professional is operating full-time in the town. His main job, his assistant told me, is to prevent old folks from killing themselves. A significant part of this disaster that none seems to yet realize is that the disaster did not only destroy property, economy, and lives; it also destroyed family, culture, religion, and history. The rescue and relief operations may be ending, but the scope of the disaster is still unclear.
When we first started working in the town, people were nervous; they had rarely seen Americans, let alone so many American military members who volunteered to help them recover from devastation. At first, many hid, scowled, or peered in fear. Yesterday, people started asking us to take pictures with them, and many of the survivors lined the streets to wave and bow as we left town. What a difference a week and a little language can make.
Here is the video: