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Final impressions of Japan

Japan, April 1, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shoes at the main evacuation center in Shizugawa, Minami Sanriku Cho. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mr. Ooyama cutting hair at the Shizugawa main evacuation center, Minami Sanriku Cho. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fuminori Onodera, 49, sits among ruins in Shizugawa. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

As I prepare to leave Japan, there are so many impressions of this disaster and the Japanese people that stick in my mind. I’d like to share a few.

Dignity: Despite the cramped conditions, traumatic circumstances and uncertain future, the Japanese people have retained an amazing sense of dignity and order. In talking to dozens of people in evacuation centers, there were very few — if any — complaints. The shelters were surprisingly orderly and clean. You could tell people were fighting valiantly to make the best of a very tough situation.

I saw this dignity in rows of shoes. It’s traditional for Japanese people to remove their shoes before entering someone’s home. This tradition continues in the evacuation centers, where rows of well-ordered shoes rest outside of classrooms, gyms and hallways — wherever people have carved out small squares of floor to call home. I wouldn’t dare insult the evacuees by walking into their “homes” with my shoes on.

Resiliency: The Japanese people can and will bounce back. Driving through Kesennuma town, I saw stores being reopened, street lights turning on, and people clearing debris. Our team visited a grocery store called Maruhon Cowboy — fantastic store name! — in the middle of the heavily damaged downtown that had electricity, half stocked shelves, and lots of customers. The store manager said they’d started cleaning up the day after the disaster, and had reopened ten days later when the power came back. The speed of that store’s recovery and the get-it-done attitude of the staff were remarkable.

Quest for normalcy: One of my Peace Winds colleagues recently shared that this disaster has made people value “normal life” — its rhythms, comforts and predictability — more than ever before. I think that’s true, and all around me in the tsunami zone, I found people trying to recreate bits of normalcy.

One day I was in a sports complex that's now home to 1,500 people living on every square inch of the building’s floor space. It's an incredible site, and in the middle of this sea of people, two barbers had set up chairs and were cutting men's hair. They had both lost their barbershops, but had decided to cut hair in the shelter to keep themselves busy and help people feel a little more normal in the most abnormal situation you can imagine.

Need: There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not Japan needs assistance because the country is so wealthy and well prepared for natural disasters. My previous blogs have depicted both the Japanese government’s amazing response to this disaster and some of the outstanding needs I’ve seen on the ground.

There’s one image that opened my eyes to Japan’s need for healing more than any other. I was with the Mercy Corps and Peace Winds team in Minami Sanriku Cho visiting the most heavily damaged area of town. Amid a field of rubble as far as the eye could see, I spotted a middle-aged man sitting on a log in front of a roaring fire. He was blankly staring into the distance, not moving.

I introduced myself to Fuminori Onodera. He pointed sadly to a pile of debris to his right and explained that’s where his house used to be. Now his family, including his wife and two teenage children, are staying in a neighbor’s undamaged house. He didn’t know how long they’d be there; he was craving information about what the future will hold. Fuminori told me his children are trying to stay busy and upbeat but one of their closest friends had been killed, they have nightmares, and he is worried about them.

Fuminori — like so many other people I met in northern Japan — looked like he was still in a state of shock, as if he’d become terribly lost. Helping people like him find their way back will take weeks, months, or even years. Mercy Corps and our partner Peace Winds will do what we can to help.