Tag Archives: Sendai

May 11: Just two months from current event to history

“Why have the media forgotten us?”  William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of ucanews.com, tries to answer that question.

The earthquake and tsunami were two months ago today.

This morning as I was eating breakfast with the volunteers at Kamaishi, one of them, a local woman, sat across the table from me and asked if I could answer a question for her.

“Why have the media forgotten about us?” She went on to say that all the coverage seems to focus on the problems at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, even though the disaster is still a present reality in the rest of the area.

I said it was the weakness of the media that it has a short attention span. The Japan quake eclipsed the Haiti quake, the revolt in the Arab world eclipsed the Japan quake, the royal wedding in London eclipsed the Arabs and Osama bin Laden eclipsed Kate Middleton. News becomes history very quickly.

That’s the reason the Sendai Diocese Support Center and Caritas Japan have me coming up from Tokyo to report. Their hope and mine is that by continuing to put the situation before an international audience, encouragement and support won’t dry up. Fortunately, according to last week’s figures, ucanews.com is now the second-largest Catholic news source on the web. So, at least among Catholics the story is being told.


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Thursday 14 April

Yesterday morning I gave my first English course since 11 March. Usually we use a spare room for the classes. After losing an hour trying to find a place where we could hold the course, going from one public building to another (media center, support center, etc.), we finally had the class at the home of my student.

Most buildings are still closed for repairs.

During the afternoon, a friend tried to get me a job as a replacement teacher in a language school where he is teaching. I did not get a job but we had an interesting talk. He told me that the director of the school was quite shocked by the fact that so many foreigners had left hurriedly without even taking time to arrange their affairs, e.g. inform their employers, cut off the telephone, water, electricity, etc. I think that it’s quite a common feeling in Japan.

Today Yukiko left the apartment for the first time since our return. The tremors had really upset her and she did not dare to go out alone. Seeing people in the streets, she felt much better.

I also went back to the church to find out how the transport for Shiogama was being organised. They told me it was better to take the bus (500 yen – $6 – each way). I could not help myself from telling them quite forcefully that I was very surprised to see that volunteering was reserved for those who had the means. I was told that the association looked after the accommodation but not the transport. Apart from the fact that I was disappointed not to be able to participate as much as I wanted in the volunteer activities, I found it difficult to understand the clear lack of organisation.

Why was there no coordination between the volunteer organisations like Caritas and the public transport bodies e.g. bus or train to facilitate the transport of the volunteers? It just seemed so evident to me that I was astounded by the lack of coordination.

We began to prepare our packing boxes today. Going to my laboratory I took a few photos.

The first (above) shows the landslide that I witnessed during the earthquake on March 11.

The others show the state of the road near my laboratory.

– Jean-Joseph

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A trip from Tokyo to Sendai

 Minamisoma City’s seaside Haramachi Ward, in Fukushima Prefecture, now reduced to a wasteland. The sea is visible in the background. (Photo by Ikuko Takano, April 2)
 By William Grimm, a Maryknoll priest and publisher of ucanews.com, who has lived in Japan  since 1973, interrupted by short stints in the States, Cambodia and Hong Kong. He will move to Sendai  on Easter Monday “to try to be useful”.


Friday morning, April 8, at six o’clock I left Tokyo for Sendai with Isao Tadokoro, executive secretary of Caritas Japan, and his son Makoto, a graduate student. They were delivering a small van to the Caritas relief operation in the tsunami-ravaged northeast.

At about 11:30 the night before, there had been a strong aftershock of 7.1 magnitude that not only woke people in Tokyo, but also closed sections of the expressway we intended to use. So, we left town expecting that at some point we would have to switch from the highway to local roads. As we traveled, however, the radio kept announcing that sections of the highway were reopening ahead of us. By the time we finished the 5½-hour drive, the road was open as far as Sendai, though no farther.

The going was easy, since there was little traffic, much of it military vehicles. As we reached Fukushima prefecture, home of the nuclear power plant that is now the focus of people’s fears, we began to see some evidence of earthquake damage, though nothing significant. Actually, most of what we saw was a lot of newly-repaved areas, especially where the roadway connected to a bridge or overpass. Along the way, we also saw farmhouses with blue plastic tarps on their roofs, probably because the quake and aftershocks had caused leaks.

We reached the cathedral in central Sendai at midday. There was little evidence of damage in the neighborhood. A strut linking the bell tower to the church was broken and though the building is structurally sound, parts of the ceiling have fallen. The nearby Sendai Station was sheathed in the curtains that are used on construction projects. The station was damaged by the earthquake and is undergoing repairs so that train service can be resumed. The general absence of any signs of earthquake damage is proof that Japan’s strict building codes worked. In fact, the news images of the tsunami showed the wave knocking over buildings that had clearly not been damaged by the quake. That’s a comforting thought as I experience aftershocks at home in Tokyo.

My first priority upon arrival (second, actually, if you count looking for a men’s room) was to find a drug store where I could buy some medication for my hay fever. It’s pollen season in Japan and I had forgotten to pack something to control the sneezing and watery eyes that both Makoto and I were experiencing.

Fr. Charles Aime Bolduc of the Quebec Foreign Society took me shopping. He said that there has been no gas since the first big quake and he hasn’t been able to take a nice hot shower in a month. Gas service was supposed to be restored soon, but he feared the latest big aftershock may have postponed that happy day. Fortunately, I was able to get the over-the-counter medicine Makoto and I needed to stop startling folks with our sneezes.

I sat in as an observer at a meeting of the bishops of Sendai and Saitama — the dioceses where the major damage occurred — along with the bishop in charge of Caritas Japan and several other people involved in the relief efforts. They reported that so far as they know, of the Catholics in the area, 12 died, four are missing and 58 families lost their homes.

After the meeting, I talked with Fr. Daisuke Narui who is heading up the Caritas effort. He said they need someone to help with some of their media operations, especially in English, as well as someone who could translate reports to Caritas organizations in other countries. Finally, he said he also wanted someone who could travel to the various worksites and report on the relief efforts for an international audience. I volunteered to go back to Sendai right after Easter and will spend four months working with Caritas Japan, commuting back to Tokyo on weekends for Mass at the parish I help at, do laundry and relax. Since train service will resume soon, that will be fairly easy, since the bullet train between Tokyo and Sendai takes only about 100 minutes.

That night, I was given private accommodations, a sleeping bag on the floor of a walk-in storage closet. The Tadokoros slept on the office floor. I had forgotten how hard it is to roll over in a sleeping bag.

Saturday morning at 5:30, the Tadokoros and I headed out to see for ourselves the destruction caused by the tsunami. As we drove toward the sea, we began to see the effects. Cars and trucks were scattered along the road, looking like the aftermath of some kid’s tantrum. For some strange reason, I was struck by the fact that many of the tires were flat. Perhaps the tumbling in the water, the collisions with buildings and other vehicles or being dragged sideways along the road caused the flats. Not that a flat tire makes much difference if the car is totally wrecked. We passed a fishing boat that was “parked” on the side of the road. It was facing the wrong way (something for which I once got a ticket here), but otherwise looked as if someone had practiced parallel parking with a boat as big as a trailer truck. Houses near the farthest reach of the wave were already being cleaned out, with tatami mats, broken furniture and such neatly stacked at the curb for pickup. As we got closer to the shore, though, the damage was greater.

Our objective was the town of Shichigahama about 20 minutes from Sendai and a sister city of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maybe “was” a sister city would be more accurate. Except for a few houses on bluffs around the town, the place is gone. It was so desolate that there weren’t even crows or seagulls around. The only people we saw was a group manning pumps to drain seawater from a low-lying part of town. My eyes watered, and it wasn’t just from pollen.

Until the day before our arrival, a relief team from Turkey had worked in the town. As a result, the streets were cleared. But, all else was wrecked. In Japan, power poles are made of steel-reinforced concrete. Many were bent over, and some were actually snapped in two. On the seawall meant to protect the town, the sign giving instructions of what to do if the tsunami warning siren blows was still there. No one ever dreamed or nightmared that a tsunami higher than the walls would ever hit.

One of the few wrecks that was recognizable as a house was twisted off its foundations and though the front wall stood, the rest of the house was smashed into it so that the whole house was only a few meters wide. In front of it, sitting on a piece of foundation was a radio-controlled toy car, white with red trim. It was too clean to have been deposited there by the wave. Someone must have put it there as an impromptu memorial to what — or who — once was.

From there, we went to the neighboring city, Shiogama, home of the Canadian priest who died in the disaster. It is a bigger town than Shichigahama, with several cement factories on the shore. A broken water main prevented our going through much of the town. And, besides, I had to get back to Sendai to catch a 9:00 bus to Tokyo. The Tadokoros were planning to take an afternoon bus.

So, I plan to move up to Sendai on Easter Monday and will try to be useful. I hear that Japanese and American military teams have gotten the airport in shape to resume flights this week. Having watched the videos of the wave hitting the airport, I’m impressed that they could get it functioning again so quickly. Grateful, too, that with the airport fixed and the trains soon to resume service I need not take six-hour bus trips. Fr. Narui also said that though he doesn’t know yet where I will stay when I go back, there will probably be a bed rather than a sleeping bag for me.

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Friday, April 8

Last night, the biggest aftershock since March 11 surprised us around 11:30 pm. Our PCs were literally jumping on the table and then electricity was cut until the morning. Radio broadcasts told people close to the sea to find refuge in high places.

I had lunch with a friend who stayed in Sendai with his family. He told me a story about a friend of his sister-in-law that I want to share.  On March 11 he was working on a construction site at the border between the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima. During the earthquake, he had been thrown off the scafolding, and was left dangling by his security cable. Just after the earthquake, he and his colleagues gathered downstairs in front of the building. In front of them, they saw a wall of water coming towards them. Half of them ran for it but the others climbed back up to the top of the building.

Only those who climbed the building survived.

As there was no other form of transport available, the man walked back home (60 km) along Miyagi’s seashore: among the ruins he saw arms and legs poking out.

My friend, who has spent more time in Japan than me, explained to me that many Japanese living close to the sea are used to small tsunamis, and they have the reflex to find refuge on the 4th floor of buildings. That’s usually enough, but that day it wasn’t.

In the evening, I went to the church: I’ll help cleaning up the seashore on Tuesday.

I also got the answer from Paris 6: the statement about my PhD report is positive.

I still have the papers part to fulfill in order to get the French diploma.

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Thursday, April 7

Yesterday evening, we felt two serious shakes, one of them particularly long. 
I forgot to mention it, but my father went back to France on April 5.
I spent most of the morning seeking work as a French or English teacher in the language schools. I couldn’t find a job, but I have an interview on Monday.

We still don’t have access to the gas and we don’t know when we’ll have it back.
Today, my first lunch at the campus canteen since the March 11. No more free drinking water, no glasses, a very restricted choice, no tray to carry our plates, only disposable dishes.

Bad news this evening. Yukiko receives an email from a friend about Michiko, a former colleague and friend. She came to our wedding party in Sendai, which was organised three years ago by Yukiko’s friends. The day of the earthquake, she took a day off. Her house was was very near the sea. Her body has been identified this week.

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Wednesday, April 6

Here we are, back in Sendai. Still no gas here. The stores, open for part of the day, are half empty. Our return bus from Osaka to Sendai took 13 hours. Our trip in southern Japan was marked by the return trip from Kumamoto (Kyushu) Osaka. A suicide on the road resulted in a delay for our shinkansen bullet train. It was held up at a country station for more two hours, then a final stop in Okayama, where we had to change trains.

Now that I’m back, after breakfast, I go to my lab. My biggest surprise is the fact that all my computers – a Mac, a Windows and a Linux – are working perfectly! Secretaries and researchers are all here, but only three students are present. What jumps out at me too is the almost total absence of people out and about, either in town or on campus.

I finally receive my diploma, accompanied by a letter from the dean of the university to compensate for the lack of ceremony. In the afternoon, I make my reservations for our move back  to France; our flight is on May 7.

Before returning home, I make a detour to the church for information on possible activities to help with the rebuilding. I’m  immediately hired by Caritas Japan. Starting next week, on days when I’m available, I will help with the clearing of the coastal areas. Tomorrow I’ll go around the language schools to find work.

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