Five Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Note: I’m now a regular monthly columnist for Discover Nikkei, the multilingual project of the Japanese American National Museum. For years they’ve repurposed my blog posts, but now the tables will be turned: I’ll write something for DN first, then post them afterwards here. This is the first column I wrote for them.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

I can still remember March 11, 2011, the night of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated a huge swath of northeast Japan, as if it were last week.

It was just before midnight in Denver when I got an alert on my phone. An earthquake had been reported off the eastern coast of Japan. I turned on CNN and watched in horror for the next couple of hours as the footage came in. I saw the tsunami rolling over farmlands and crash into cities, carrying with it buildings and cars and ships. I saw footage of people trapped on rooftops. I saw houses being shoved aside as if they were origami boxes being blown by the wind, before they burst into flames. That was just the beginning; the seven meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were caused by the quake, and the cleanup around that disaster is still ongoing.

The disaster remains the worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, and the fourth worst in the recorded history of the world’s earthquakes. The toll was awful: almost 16,000 people have been confirmed dead, and over 2,500 still missing. Almost 229,000 people have been relocated or are still living in temporary housing.
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Yuki Kokubo’s “Kasama-Yaki” documentary needs some last-minute help fundraising

Yuki Kokubo, a talented filmmaker and photojournalist whom I met at the Asian American Journalists Association convention in Detroit last year, certainly has been busy. She’s been working on a documentary about her hometown of Kasama, Japan, which is not far south of Fukushima, in the part of Japan devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Kasama was hit hard by the temblor but spared by the tsunami. But the town is close enough to the meltdown at the Fuskushima Dai Ichi nuclear power plant that although residents didn’t have to evacuate, they may suffer long-term after-effects of radiation.

The documentary, which translates to “Made in Kasama,” focuses on Katsuji and Shigeko Kokubo, the filmmaker’s parents, who are artists who yearn to live simple, timeless lives making pottery and sculptures. Kokubo is able to capture their stately lifestyle in unhurried, exquisitely detailed camera shots.

Here’s her explanation for why she wants to make this film:

My parents and I moved from Japan to the U.S. when I was eight years old, and they moved back to Japan when I was sixteen. In the weeks following the horrible disasters in Japan, I came face-to-face with the distance that had grown between my parents and myself over the past two decades, not just geographically but also personally. My personal motivation behind this film is to get to know my parents better. Another goal I have for this film is to bridge the gap between the culture that is now mine, and the one I left behind. Many of us have read articles about the “quiet strength” and “resilience” of the Japanese people. I hope to make a film that will provide a window through which the viewer will gain better understanding of the Japanese psyche, and learn how the disasters have emotionally affected the people of Japan.

Here’s the critical fact about the funding for the film: As of yesterday, Kokubo had surpassed the Kickstarter goal of $20,000, with $20,703. However, her largest backer, at the executive producer ($5000) level may reduce his or her pledge because of a family emergency. If the pledges fall below the goal by March 31 (Saturday), Kokubo will lose ALL her funding.

So please take a look at the beautiful video above, and click to the Kickstarter page for “Kasama-Yaki.”

It would be a crying shame if Kokubo weren’t able to finish her film because at the last minute, a donor fell through.

March 29, 2012 update: Yuki reports the supporter who was on the brink of pulling out is going to “make it work,” but now another donor who pledged at a high level may change his mind and keep her from making the Kickstarter funding goal. So, keep the pledges coming — her situation is still precarious.

Matsukawa Kyougaku taiko drummers wow Colorado audiences on “Thank You Tour” of the U.S.

Erin and I missed seeing the Kyogaku taiko drum group from Matsukawa, Japan, when they played full concerts in Colorado Springs and Denver sponsored by Nippon Kan, the non-profit organization founded by Domo restaurauteur and aikido sensei Gaku Homma. The shows were part of their “Arigatou” (Thank You) tour of the United States to show Japan’s gratitude for the outpouring of support after the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed almost 20,000 people. But we were fortunate to get to see a brief sample of their great performance.

The group was the surprise entertainment booked by the Consulate General of Japan at Denver, for a memorial reception to mark the one-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 disaster. The memorial was the culmination of efforts by the Japanese government to thank the rest of the world.

At the Denver Botanic Gardens, where the memorial reception was held, speakers included Consul General Ikuhiko Ono, who recounted the tragic day last year, and the outpouring of support from Coloradans both from individuals as well as organizations from the Red Cross to the Japan America Society of Colorado. Invited guests got to enjoy an amazing culinary spread provided by Sushi Den and Sonoda’s Sushi.

After the speeches, Deputy Consul General Hiromoto Oyama introdue the evening’s surprise guests, who entered the room and walked through the crowd beating their drums. Before anyone realized, the entire group — of mostly young musicians — assembled on the stage and pounded out a kinetic number with precision choreography.

We were glad we got to see even just a few songs by this talented ensemble. I hope they come back again so we can sit through and entire performance.

Here’s another song they played, featuring members wearing “oni” masks. Oni are demon spirits but not necessarily evil or Satanic like the western devil. They may be scary-looking but they can be just mischievous. Playing taiko isn’t easy — my abs hurt just watching these musicians playing while they’re leaning back.

As anniversary of Tohoku Earthquake nears, Japan thanks the world, shows recovery efforts

It’s almost a year since the 9.0-level Great East Japan Earthquake, as the disaster is now officially called, and the subsequent tsunami devastated a huge swath of the Tohoku region along the country’s northeast coast. With the anniversary looming, many communities in the U.S are planning commemorative events, and many people are remembering how they learned of the disaster.

The initial news of the earthquake, which struck at 2:46 PM local time on March 11, 2011, were horrific: I got an email alert and tuned in CNN late at night Denver time on March 10, and saw the tsunami devour entire towns, outracing cars of residents trying to escape its path. The total toll as of February was over 15,000 confirmed dead with over 3,000 still missing. The tsunami that wreaked most of the havoc after the earthquake was as high as 40.5 meters, or 133 feet — that’s 13 stories high — and washed as far as 10 kilometers, or six miles, inland. Entire towns were erased in one terrible wave. And with the added terror of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai Ichi nuclear plant, a town and its entire surrounding shave become toxic and closed off for decades, with lives interrupted, homes abandoned.

The reaction to the disaster on both sides of the Pacific was swift and supportive. Nationally, JACL announced a partnership with Direct Relief International, which has now given more than $2.4 million in donations to eight organizations in Japan — 100% of all donations went to recovery efforts, with no administrative fees taken out. The American Red Cross takes out a portion of all donaions to pay for administative fees, but it’s the best-known relief organization in times of crisis, and by the end of summer the Red Cross announced it had given $260 million to tsunami relief in Japan.

Beyond such high-profile efforts, there were dozens of fundraising events and benefit concerts across the U.S including in Denver, where a number of fundraising events were held to channel money to recovery efforts. The Red Cross in Colorado raised $3 million for Japan. The Japan America Society of Colorado raised more than $126,000 over the few months and hand-delivered a check directly to aid agencies on the ground in the affected part of Japan at he end of the summer. (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of JASC, although I wasn’t involved in the fundraising efforts.)

The Asian Pacific Development Center’s “Power of Solidarity” concert, which was held just weeks after the quake, raised over $30,000. There were other concerts organized on the fly to raise money for disaster relief and recovery efforts.

All of the expressions of goodwill and condolences — and donations, and volunteer aid workers — from around the world were much appreciated by the Japanese government. In the run-up to the March 11 first anniversary of the disaster, the Japanese government has been sending out groups of diplomatic emissaries to thank communities for their help.

A couple of weeks ago, Yoshio Onodera, the Director of Risk Management for Miyagi Prefecture, the state most affected by the tsunami, visited Denver with a delegation to show his government’s appreciation.
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