In Sendai, A Tough Year of New Priorities
Anne Thomas is a teacher who was living in Sendai, Japan at the time of the massive earthquake and tsunami. A letter that she sent to her friends and family, describing resilience and cooperation amid the devastation, went viral.
"If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets," she wrote. "People keep saying, 'Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.' . . . Somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.
Still in Sendai, Anne kept writing letters, which are now being published in a book. A year after the tsunami, she sends this update:
Dear Family and Friends,
It seems hard to believe it has been a year since the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami came rumbling through, causing so much havoc and dismay. So much has happened since that tumultuous time, and so much has yet to be done. But where are we now? How are things one year later?
Change is very uneven. So the way you would answer that depends on where you are. In Sendai life bustles. Construction is going on everywhere. Old buildings are being torn down or repaired. New places are springing up. Water and sewage systems are being replaced and roads repaired. It is definitely a city rebuilding itself, and stands proud in the process.
But step outside the city proper or look deeper than physical reconstruction, and things can be very different. Last year, of course, there were seas and mountains of rubble, thousands of people in shelters, and rescue work in full swing. Now much, but not all, of the immediate debris has been cleared away, leaving huge tracts of empty space with only frames of houses left to show where thriving neighborhoods once stood. Evacuation centers have reverted to their original purposes – schools, hospitals, and community centers. And now temporary houses have sprung up along the entire coast and within cities. Some are in small groups with a few families, others almost like villages. But the clearing up of the debris continues almost non-stop and the remains of bodies are still being uncovered.
Happily, ever so slowly people are being allowed to open temporary shops, housed in structures similar to the new homes. These small establishments are in clusters, making small restaurant alleys or teeny arcades of shops for fish, vegetables, or tea.
“We are so thankful for this opportunity to work again,” one man told me. “It gives us hope. But we can be here only two years. Then we have to stand more on our own. Can we do it? I don’t know. The entire backbone of our economy, fishing, has been broken. It will take a long time, say ten years or more, before we are back to where we were. That is, if we ever get there. Our future is so uncertain. We have today. Only that. I have this shop. I hope it does well. I hope we all do well. We are supporting each other. But we need other people’s support, too. Thank you for coming to my shop today.”
Other people are not as fortunate. The economic situation in this region is very depressed. Thousands are still without work; hundreds are homeless. Displaced people from Fukushima have flocked to Sendai and live in rickety old dormitories, waiting, hoping to someday be allowed back home. But the fishing and farming industries, the basis of that once-welcoming prefecture, are in shambles. People just shake their heads and say, “poor souls” whenever Fukushima is mentioned.
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Depression is on the rise, and suicides. So volunteers are being trained as “Listening Counselors.” They go and simply listen, lending support as people pour out their woes and try to work through the confusions of their current lives.
Everywhere there is still a strong urge to support and help others. The magnificent supportive beauty so overtly apparent a year ago is still with us. But the general feeling now is one of deep sadness, or of waiting. Sadness and wonder. Waiting and determination. And also hope that comes from the strong belief that if we try hard enough, we can make things better. And we make every effort to find the courage to accept what life gives us and find reasons to be grateful.
Coupled with the darkness and depression of these times, there is a sense of promise. Priorities have shifted. Values are more basic, more connected to people. Gratitude for small things once taken for granted finds a place in every home.
The other day I went to visit friends and their new baby. “She is our future,” they proudly said to me. “And she is our contribution to Japan’s future, too. That is why we named this teeny sparkle of hope what we did: Niina, “Encircled in a Rainbow.”
Anne Thomas adapted this letter for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Anne is the author of Letters from the Ground to the Heart—Beauty Amid Destruction, a collection of her letters in the days immediately following the Japan earthquake, and some of the responses she received from people around the world. Proceeds from the book go to the Sendai Yomawari Group, a long-established organization serving the needs of Japan’s homeless, a population which is now exploding.
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