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Holding back the tears

Japan, April 15, 2011

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One of the most moving things for me on this job has been the number of people — almost all of them men of a certain age — we’ve spoken to who have seemed continuously on the point of tears, and yet instead of breaking down continued to do the unthanked, essential work they are doing.

There was the man running the volunteer center in the devastated town of Minamisanriku who told us about how his wife had been washed away along with most of the town office as he in polite, oblique terms thanked us for suggesting we might bring a psychosocial program to the town.

There was the garrulous, septuagenarian shop owner and proactive community member in Oshima, who called out “I — rab — yu” (the Japanesification of "I love you") the first time he saw me in the community center that had become headquarters for the relief effort. When we saw him later at the makeshift ferry dock, he told us he greets and sees off all the boats now because immediately after the tsunami and the isolation, people would line up for hours before the boat left and, desperate to board, would push and shove, even pushing women, “and that is not acceptable,” he told us. “It’s better now, but I come for every boat to make sure.”

There was the hard-of-hearing official of unspecified authority in Rikuzentakata who said he wasn’t sure about the voucher program we were suggesting because he thought people should try to be self-sufficient once they moved into temporary housing — despite having no job opportunities or transportation — and then, instead of going back into the office, walked away from us, and away from everyone else.

There was the aging business man who came to talk to us about assistance for starting up a small mobile shop, handing us a business card with four different businesses listed on it, including a massive hotel, the empty ruins of which I had seen on the coast. He told us he had employed 65 people, and he wanted to start something to try to keep some of them working, even if it was only selling snacks out of a van.

There was the staff of the Chamber of Commerce in Ofunato, who spoke to us for an hour and a half about the challenges faced by shopkeepers who wanted to rebuild but had no land to do so, and about his friends who had lost relatives, and about how the shopping center we were sitting in had not been able to reopen for several weeks while they tested the structural integrity (a great relief to me), and about his dog which he had kept hidden in the immediate aftermath because he felt guilty feeding it when so many people were going hungry, and about restarting their office with nothing, not even paper or pens.

By the time we talked to him the Chamber of Commerce had a rented office full of people where they were holding consultations with shopkeepers, even though there was very little they could do for them besides listen. We returned the favor by listening to this man talk and talk, about which stores had been destroyed (most of them) and which hadn’t, about peoples' concerns (how to pay their taxes) and about how for a long time they couldn’t even get coffee in that town.

Behind him, next to a small lockbox, was a graceful ikebana arrangement composed of plum blossom branches. Someone besides him, it seemed, thought the small things were important.