‘Miss Keiko’ returns from relief-effort trip to Japan
When Keiko Ito arrived in Onagawa, one of the Japanese towns hit hard by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, she said it was like stepping into a war zone.
She saw whole apartment buildings flopped on their sides. Parts of the buildings were smashed into each other or were on top of cars. There were even cars hanging off of the rooftops of four-story buildings.
"There was debris everywhere," said Tokyo native Ito, who teaches Spanish and Japanese at Park City schools. "Trains laid in abandon on top of hills and were strewn in the town up to a mile away from their tracks. Even fishing boats were miles away from port."
Furthermore, the watermark from the tsunami was more than 40 feet high.
"I could see clothes hanging from tree branches, and to think that it was worse just a few days before I got there," she said.
Ito, known as "Miss Keiko" to her students, spent a day visiting Onagawa and another town, Ishinomaki, on May 15, and delivering donated clothing from Park City to the disaster site.
She was not prepared for what she saw.
"Onagawa, which is about 40 miles north of Sendai, was like a ghost town, because most of the families moved on to places where schools are on higher ground," said Ito, who returned to Park City a week ago. "The only ones who remain in the town are mostly the elderly who have no families or have nowhere to go."
The senior citizens live in the upstairs gymnasium of a local nursery school, Ito said.
"I was able to visit and it was the saddest sight I ever saw," she said. "They were all laying in their futons (beds) and I was told that some stay in their futons day in and day out."
Still, Ito and the volunteer group she joined were able to bring some hope to the remaining residents.
"We provided a barbecue," she said. "We took the grills and the gas and everything and we cooked meat and fish and shrimp. The elderly loved the fish and shrimp."
Food and grills weren’t the only things the volunteer group took to the town.
"We traveled in a van and also had one truck filled with supplies," she said. "We had a lot of clothes and coolers filled with meat, fish, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, snacks, chocolate and a water filtering dispenser."
During the barbecue, Ito spread out the clothing that was donated by Park City area school students and residents.
"I wanted to do an activity with the children, but a third-grader named Kokoro was the only child still living in the relief center we visited," Ito said.
Kokoro, whose name means heart or soul in Japanese, had lost her father and six-year-old sister during the disasters.
"She still had her mom and grandmother, and the reason they were still in the village was because her grandmother was too old to leave," Ito said.
"Kokoro was really the sunshine of this village," Ito said. "I told her I had some clothes to donate and she went out and got her mother’s cell phone and called people and told them about the clothing."
As the people, mostly mothers, showed up to receive sweatshirts, T-shirts and sweat pants that sported Park City schools’ logos, Ito heard horror stories of the disasters.
Even the men, who were mostly involved in the fishing industry, opened up and told their stories.
"One told me when the earthquake happened, he ran to the port and got on his boat and went out to sea, which saved his boat from destruction," Ito conveyed. "He said, ‘I went over four tsunamis and after the sea calmed down, I came back, but my village was gone. My house was gone and my family was gone.’"
So far, the Japanese National Police Agency has confirmed more than 15,100 deaths and 11,019 missing across 18 prefectures. Also, more than 125,000 structures have been totally destroyed and 225,000 structures were partially destroyed.
"The death toll, according to the some independent research groups, is estimated ultimately to rise to 30,000," Ito said.
Most of the people cleaning up the debris are volunteers, because the main task of the national defense force is looking for the dead, Ito explained.
"The residents are saying the smell is gone, so there shouldn’t be any more bodies, at least in Onagawa," she said.
Regardless of the devastation, the residents show great resilience, Ito said.
"That spirit of gaman, or endurance, is so prevalent in the Japanese culture to the point where I didn’t see any tears," she said. "While we were giving out the clothing, I told one woman to take a sweatshirt to her husband and she said in a matter-of-fact way that he had died in the disaster. I also saw a woman on TV who lost three of her kids in an elementary school, and she was able to carry on a conversation about her son who loved soccer."
Another cultural difference was the absence of looting, rioting or fighting, Ito said.
"Every store from convenience stores to food shops had signs that said,
‘Please, help yourself,’" she said. "Even then, people would go in and only take only the essentials they need.
"When we would give them meat from the barbecue and they would go share it with others, and if a young person received a rice ball, he or she would give it to an elderly person. If an old person received something to eat, he or she would give it to a baby."
That sense of community made an impression on Ito.
"Even in that wiped out location, what sustains the people is the sense of neighborhood, brotherhood and sisterhood," she said. "They have survived by having each person doing what they can.
"There is a volunteer village and anyone who wants to volunteer has to go to the village first and pay to register," she said. "People register, pay 500 yen for three meals, and then they are given a shovel and told to get on a truck and are taken to where ever they are needed."
Ito saw a lot of college students and other young people cleaning the rubble, but also met people from around the world.
"I met a person fro Kyushu (the Southern-most island of Japan) and a person from Tennessee," she said. "I also noticed some people from Southeast Asia as well, and I realized that community spirit, especially when it comes to the global community, is how we can get things done."
Visit Keiko Ito’s blog at http://web.me.com/keikoparkcity/PCUNITES.
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