More than a glimpse of Japan

Japan, May 11, 2011

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Today — two months to the day after Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami — I'm on the way to check on the progress of our emergency relief efforts. I'm writing this from an airplane; I'll land in Tokyo about 18 hours from now.

Long days of travel are part of my job as a Mercy Corps writer — unfortunately, so are disasters. Over my seven years with the organization, I've helped respond to dozens of them, even traveling to disaster zones in many cases. And, whether I'm at my desk at home, in a displacement camp or standing amid rubble, every disaster is unique. Every disaster is unsettling and deeply unforgettable.

When I woke up the morning of March 11 and heard the awful news about Japan, it struck me in a different way than any other disaster had before. Because, even though I've never traveled there before, Japan felt somehow familiar. Maybe it has to do with fleeting snippets of Japan through art, games, history and movies over many years, but it seems like I've been catching glimpses — if not an occasional long look — of Japan almost my whole life.

And to watch that familiar culture, those thousands of families, struggling so mightily in the aftermath was heartbreaking. It still is. 

On the day of the disaster, the news kept worsening. The images were unbelievable: fire, water and ruins. But, just hours after I'd risen to Japan's disaster — and after many emails and phone conversations — Mercy Corps teamed up with Peace Winds, a long-time partner organization based in Japan, to raise money to drive an emergency response for displaced families.

That money, donated by tens of thousands of individuals who care about Japan, has been at work for two months now. That work is what I'll be writing about over the next several days.

And so, on long flights like this — into disaster zones — I always have conflicting emotions: I'm both troubled by the prospect of seeing so much destruction and hearing tragic stories, but also eager to see a new place and bring the stories of survivors to people like you. The working days in disaster zones are long and yet, often, it takes longer to get to sleep at night.

As soon as I finish writing this, I hope to sleep a bit. I know that, once I land, it will be instantly overwhelming. Culturally immersive. After all these years, I'll finally be getting more than a glimpse of Japan.

Because as much as a disaster might devastate a country, it doesn't destroy its culture. Its history. Its spirit. And I can't wait to share these things, and Japan, with you through the stories of survivors.