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Epilogue: the temporary world

Japan, May 19, 2011

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    Christopher Cabatbat for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat for Mercy Corps

There is a place that seems neither here nor there, but somewhere in between. It's a worried place: sometimes uncomfortable, and often lonely.

It's the temporary world in which displaced tsunami survivors in Japan are living right now.

Thousands of families are still sleeping in schools, while thousands more are moving into temporary houses that the Japanese government has built with remarkable speed and craftsmanship. But families will live in these temporary houses for two years or until they can build or rebuild their own homes — and so they face a foreseeable future where "temporary" will be on their minds each day.

Over the last week in northeastern Japan, I've had a long look at this temporary world. It's a place where — similar to anywhere else you'd go — people want to look their best for photographs. Except here, the tsunami took everything but the clothes they were wearing, and so they dress in donated clothing. They sleep on mats on gymnasium floors. As a result, we didn't take as many pictures on this trip, because people aren't feeling or looking their best. We listened closely to their concerns; what they want, as much as anything else, is to preserve their individual and family dignity in this strange temporary world.

In this world, there are also miracles: the amazingness of water coming out of a tap for the first time in two months. The vibrancy of fresh fruit after weeks of ramen noodles. The sounds of a brass band, come from hundreds of miles away, to lift displaced survivors' spirits. Kindness. Laughter. Community.

And the sense of community that has grown in these temporary living places is extraordinary. Very private people are taking pride in the communal cleaning, cooking and care-taking of children. Most of these survivors didn't know each other before coming to live in evacuation centers. Now they are neighbors in this temporary world.

For many, these shared tasks are their jobs for now, since the tsunami took their businesses. And so there are unbelievably hard questions in the temporary world: do I rebuild my home or business first? How do I start doing either of those?

Those are the questions that Mercy Corps and Peace Winds hope to help answer, while helping make families' stay in this temporary world as brief as possible.

As I sit here in Tokyo and think of that concept — temporary — I think of limbo, a place of uncertainty and waiting. Maybe the analogy fits: so many of these survivors have been through a very literal hell in places like Kesennuma, where there were explosions and fire and water taking away an entire city and everything within it.

But here in the temporary world, this near-limbo, the goal isn't necessarily to climb toward heaven — it's simply to regain a normal life.