Remembering Japan

By: Kathy Mueller, Canadian Red Cross
Ten years ago, on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a tsunami along Japan’s Pacific coast. Villages, towns and cities along a 70-kilometre stretch of coastline were damaged or destroyed. Electricity was knocked out critically impacting the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. More than 15,000 people lost their lives.
Canadian Red Cross humanitarian worker Kathy Mueller went to Japan to support the Japanese Red Cross in its immediate response to the tsunami. This is her story.

I have worked in areas ravaged by earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods, but nothing compares to what I saw following the tsunami in Japan. The devastation was indescribable. Everywhere I looked houses were flattened, ripped from their foundations, flipped upside down, or burned out.Destruction caused by a tsunami in March 2011
Railway tracks were ripped and twisted from their foundings; huge, thick concrete retaining walls were snapped into pieces; the stench from fires lingered in the air long after being extinguished; and metres-high piles of debris lined the sides of the roads, cleared by the Japanese army to allow emergency responders, including the Red Cross, easier access to affected areas.
I lost count of how many aftershocks I experienced. Widespread devastation of homes and streets after a tsunami hit Japan in March 2011One, in particular, stands out. I was sharing a hotel room with two colleagues from the Japanese Red Cross. We had just gone to sleep when the building started shaking. It lasted for what seemed like an eternity and it was strong. Plaster was crumbling from the walls. The power went out. Emergency lights came on. I ushered my colleagues into the small, enclosed bathroom to wait it out. A hotel staffer then came and evacuated us to the lobby with other guests. We later found out that aftershock measured 7.6 on the Richter scale.
But while I remember the utter destruction, it is the people who continue to hold a corner of my heart.
I remember Yoshii Suzuki who was 73-years-old at the time. He very vividly told me about how the first tsunami wave swept him out to sea and as he struggled to come up for air, how the second wave brought him back and plunked him on top of a house. He was a fisherman who had had some narrow escapes from the ocean over the span of his career. He said this was definitely the scariest.
Koya as an 8 year old, shortly after a tsunami hit his hometown in Japan in 2011Koya (pictured left) would be 18-years-old now. As a precocious 8-year-old he very seriously told me that he was having trouble sleeping at the evacuation centre he and his family were staying in because of all the old men who were snoring. He wanted to be a master sushi chef or a car racer so he could earn lots of money and buy a new house.
Kimie Yamada was an elementary school teacher in Rikuzentakata who led her students to safety in the higher hills. When she came across an elderly woman who couldn’t walk, Kimie carried her on her back. Kimie and her two young daughters were the first to receive one of the prefabricated houses being built by the government. These houses were outfitted with a package of six appliances, paid for using donations received from National Red Cross Societies around the world, including the Canadian Red Cross. Kimie whispered to me that these donations from people in Canada would help her provide a real home for her two girls. Ayane, her youngest, said she couldn’t wait for her mother to make her favourite dish – lasagna.
Matsuhashi family were living in a shrine after a tsunami devastated their home in March 2011 in Japan.My closest bond, however, was with the Matsuhashi family (pictured right). When I met them, they were living in a 360-year-old shrine which somehow survived the tsunami when everything around it, including their own home, fell. They were kind and generous and warm and giving. Seven-year-old Masayuki showed me how to make paper airplanes. His 12-year-old sister Mizuki made me an origami crane which I still have. In Japan, the crane symbolizes good fortune and longevity. In many of the evacuation centres I visited, I saw long strands of paper cranes, hung by survivors.
In this line of work, it’s extremely rare to have the opportunity to revisit people impacted by a major disaster. I had that opportunity with the Matsuhashi family.

Kathy standing with the Matsuhashi family one year after devastating tsunami in Japan in 2011One year after the tsunami, the Japanese Red Cross invited me back to Japan. I immediately asked if it would be possible to visit the Matsuhashis. I remember the reunion as if it was yesterday. They were living in prefabricated housing. Satomi and her children (pictured left) came around one corner; I came around another. We immediately started running towards one another with arms outstretched, ready for a warm hug. They invited me in, and we shared stories over tea.
The connection doesn’t end there. I’ve received updates over the years and have learned that Mizuki, who is now 22, decided to become a nurse after seeing the support provided by Red Cross nurses after the tsunami. She recently had her final exams and is hoping to soon begin her nursing career in a town near Otsuchi, not far from home in Iwate Prefecture. In a recent e-mail she mentions how her parents have built a new home and that the town is bustling with activity.
As a humanitarian worker, this is what it’s all about. Forming bonds and connections, even if just for a moment in time.
A Japanese Red Cross team member with a small child looking out at the destruction left by a tsunami in March 2011I was in Japan for three weeks. I met many strong, gracious, resilient people. People who were understandably hurting. But people who were confident they would rebound and rebuild. As I was leaving, I remember hearing the sounds of babies crying, and children laughing and playing. The cherry blossom trees were beginning to bloom. The paper cranes were flying. All signs that there was life and hope for the future.
Thanks to the generosity of Canadians, corporations, and local and provincial governments, the Canadian Red Cross raised more than $48 million to support the Japanese Red Cross’ tsunami relief efforts. These funds were used to support immediate needs as well as longer term recovery efforts and included the rebuilding of homes; medical support, including the reconstruction of hospitals; educational support, including the reconstruction of nursery schools and gymnasiums; and disaster preparedness, including the restocking of Red Cross warehouses with relief supplies.
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