The days after the Great East Japan Earthquake (東日本大震災)

I came to Japan in the summer of 1994. I liked the country, so I decided to stay put and this is my 17th year here. Life was good, having a happy family, built a house, owning a business and making a decent income. Food is available in plenty, tap water is potable, 24x7 electricity which is a far cry from situation back home where there is a scheduled power outage window 365 days a year and then there are unscheduled ones almost every day, which lasts longer than the scheduled ones. Life was easy in Japan. The sum total of the day was a sense of achievement and a feeling that I gave something back to the country where I'm making a living. That, I'll tell you, is an awesome feeling...

Then came March 11, 2011. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the Tohoku region in northern Honshu, which is now recorded as the fourth largest in the world since 1900 and the largest in Japan since modern instrumental recordings began 130 years ago.

When it happened on the Friday afternoon, I was in my 4th floor office and the building shook. It shook severely. My Japanese colleagues had a weird look on their face and I could tell that this is something big. As I was thinking 'I haven't experienced anything like this in my 17 years in Japan', one of my colleagues, a 48 year old Japanese, remarked that he had never experienced anything like this in his life. So I kept my comments to myself! Soon the news was everywhere. On the TV, Internet, SMS and phone. Predictably, the mobile phone lines were soon got jammed. I couldn't call home but luckily, the internet was working so I got in touch with my wife on Gmail chat and she kept me updated on what's going on in the TV. To cut the long story short, I stayed back in the office that night as the Tokyo subway system got affected. I took the train back home next day morning by when the services had resumed partially.

The following few weeks were terrible with talks of power rationing(I was okay with that!), unsuitability of tap water for drinking, unavailability of bottled water and bread in the stores, reports of impending spike in radiation level in Tokyo and Fukushima becoming another Chernobyl. To top it, the foreign media was going berserk over the news which brought a lot of pressure on us with calls from home to return as quickly as possible. While the Japanese media played down the facts, I knew things weren’t as good as they made it out to be and the Japanese government could not afford to create panic among a population of 35 million in Tokyo but also knew that they weren’t as bad as the foreign media reported. The truth must be somewhere in between but unfortunately, there was no way of verifying anything accurately and independently so we (my wife and I) decided to take each day as it comes and take a decision based on what's happening at that time rather than what would happen. In the end, nothing untoward happened in Tokyo apart from some minor inconveniences in transportation, not eating bread for a few days, long queues to get into a train station, not being able to drive on the weekends etc.

Sensational reporting – Journalism at its worst

Before I go into the heart of this article, let me dwell into some nuggets of aggressive journalism by the foreign media, personally experienced by me.

My goodwill efforts go waste

A prominent local newspaper from my home state(Kerala) contacted me to take my comments on the situation. They broadcast the taped conversation on their TV channel as well as published it on their online edition. So far so good. They contacted me again two weeks later and asked me if I could go around capturing some visuals of what's happening here in Tokyo. I agreed and I was happy that I could contribute to temper the aggressiveness the foreign media was displaying and in some extreme cases, even distorted reporting. So I took my Nikon D-90, which can take still picture as well as record video, along one day afternoon and recorded some visuals of life moving on normally, as a matter of factly, in Tokyo area. Then I took the trouble of editing my video into smaller pieces so that I could send this to them using the YouSendIt free service. Great job, at least one media outlet will show something different, I thought.
Excellent! I thought. Now, not only do I get an opportunity to contribute positively to objective reporting but I am also going to be appearing on TV!
A day passed by and there was no acknowledgement of receipt from their side. So I followed up with a query the next day. Their reply was that for the video to look more genuine they wanted me in the visuals, which meant I have to walk around and doing the commentary while someone else must do the video shooting. Excellent! I thought. Now, not only do I get an opportunity to contribute positively to objective reporting but I am also going to be appearing on TV! So with renewed vigour I went around and repeated the same thing I did two days earlier while my colleague recorded me. Same routine happens again - editing the video, YouSendIt, no acknowledgement and I follow up. Then came the absolute shocker – “Biju, actually the focus has shifted and the state is abuzz with State Assembly elections. No one reports the news from Japan now. We will broadcast this when the situation changes.” My reaction? The less said the better.

A story out of nothing

Another local newspaper, probably the second largest in Kerala, contacted the family home (in his native place) of someone I know and work here in Tokyo. They managed to obtain his wedding photo from his parents and ran a 2-3 column story, which quoted his wife as saying something like this: “when the earthquake happened my husband was away at work and I had no idea what to do with my infant baby. As my apartment building started collapsing, my Japanese neighbours and I started running for our life shouting and crying and we escaped by sheer luck”. Later on, my friend sent an email to our community group saying the story was rubbish, the daily never spoke to them and there was absolutely no structural damage to their building. Much ado about nothing.

Fukushima and Hiroshima in the same scale?

During the days when the Fukushima reactor issue was occupying the front pages of newspapers world over, India’s largest English language daily ran a front page story with two poignant pictures juxtaposed. One was of the Hydrogen explosion at Fukushima and the other ? – the Hiroshima atomic bombing! Mind you, this was the same daily that ran a front page article titled “Endulkar?” when Sachin Tendulkar was going through what appeared to be a brief lean patch of his illustrious career. So much so for sensational journalism.

Lost in translation?

A Japanese TV reporter says on the screen in the typical monotone nature of any Japanese reporter, "minasan jiyutaku ni modorimashita (people returned to their homes)" and its CNN version goes, "people returned to their homes desperately searching for their devastated lives" in a very aggressive tone.

Which brings me to the actual note I sat down to pen.

Part II – Making a difference

I'm a kind of person who wants to be in the thick of action, wanting to get directly involved in what I am doing or wanting to do. Because of that nature, I normally stay away from situations where I think my voice won’t be heard or there is no opportunity for me to get directly involved. For this very reason, I formed a Charity Foundation with the help of my brother back in Kerala and I make all my charity contributions through that Foundation to help the needy people around our area. When this disaster struck, expectedly, there were a lot of renowned worldwide organisations, local NPOs and churches that were accepting donations to help the victims but I was thinking of ways to get a direct and active involvement rather than being a passive contributor. Let me be honest here - I didn't make any monetary contribution to anyone or any organisation.

The word shoganai is deeply enmeshed into the fabric of the Japanese culture and is an attitude that plays an important role in maintaining the orderly nature of their society. Honestly, I had never come to terms with that attitude. If anything, I felt, it shows a lack of fighting spirit (sometimes even a defeatist attitude).

Enter the Mutenda family. One Saturday afternoon, my wife and I had paid a visit to our family friends, Lawrence and Shani Mutenda, a Zimbabwean-Sri Lankan couple and their Japanese and American children (yes, a family of four different nationalities!). During our conversation we learned that a few hundred of the affected families from Fukushima were being moved to Saitama Super Arena which is a few kilometers away from our house. "Lawrence, let us go", I said. There we were at the Arena a couple of hours later with quite a few supplies. That was my first direct contribution and I felt good. At last I could do something that I wanted to.

Giving back to Japan - The real thing

A month later, Lawrence said that he was planning to go to Ishinomaki area to do some volunteer work and was looking for some real support. I was like, "why didn’t you tell me this earlier, man?" I talked to my business partner and he agreed with my idea of supporting Lawrence's initiative as a Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR) of our company, TopTech Informatics. I told Lawrence that TopTech would bear the cost of this activity and I would join him too. So we got going, Lawrence found some more willing souls from our church, he obtained helmets from his company, Morgan Stanley, the school where our children study let us use their shovels and TopTech paid for the food, transportation and clothing.

We left Tokyo at 4:00am on Saturday, April 16 in two cars, one a six seater and the other a four seater, hoping to arrive at Ishinomaki at 9:00am and starting to work around 9:30am. We got off the Tohoku express way at 8:30am but from there to Ishinomaki City Office took another 2.5 hours because of traffic jam due to the damaged roads. It was amazing to see how things are being organized amidst the supposedly chaotic situation there. I mean, the Japanese society is characterized by its discipline and order in daily life and the life here is very predictable. But even in a situation like this – a natural disaster of this magnitude – they City Office had its activities well planned out. The way things were being organised was amazing and is a wonderful testament to doing things the Japanese way.

We were told by the City Office in advance that we will be asked to clean up the debris and rubble and that we should bring our own equipment. They directed us to a website where it listed the things to bring along – helmets, water boots, masks, gloves, glasses, shovels etc. As we arrived, we were handed two maps (one for each car), with the location where we had to go marked clearly, and the address hand written on the map so that we could input that into the car navi. There were 100s of other volunteers like us but everything was carried out in an orderly and well organized fashion. This could happen only in Japan, for sure.

So we arrive at our assigned location, which is a row of houses in a narrow alley off a general street. There were two old men, apparently working as volunteers, waiting to greet us. We told them where we are coming from and they were happy to see a group of gaijins - a group of 10 consisting of 7 different nationalities - driving down from Tokyo to help. They pointed us the two houses and we went in. It was a devastating sight for me. I have seen more destruction on the TV and internet but to see this up close and first hand was really heart wrenching.

The houses in that area were left standing but everything in those houses were rendered useless what with water staying at least 1 meter high for 2 or 3 days, everything was tumbled out of the cupboard, the floor was wet and muddy, and every furniture and utensils were lying upside down on the floor. As I laid my hands on a flat panel TV that was lying on the floor, I realised that my eyes were moist with a disturbing thought - this rubble is someone's lifetime savings and memories and I'm going to dump them on the street outside. It was hurting.

It took us about 4 hours to dump everything out of the two houses on the narrow street in front, which will be disposed as industrial garbage later.

kore kara mo gambari masu

During this time I took time to chat with an old lady who was sitting across the pathway and watching us doing our work. She told me that it was her house that we were clearing and she was very thankful that we came. Watching your life’s savings being dumped is not a pleasant site but this lady was maintaining a stoic face. The tragedy might have removed her of all such emotions and she might have accepted the harsh reality as it is. Until we arrived her house, she thought that no one was going to help her and she was hoping her neighbours would help to clear the rubble. As we were preparing to dump things we showed her some apparently new stuff that were not damaged and asked if she wanted to keep them. All she said was "akirame mashita"(I gave up) and asked us to throw away everything. She said she was 86 years old and had moved into that house in the year of Showa 42 and built everything by herself. When I told her that that was the year I was born, she just hugged me and laughed. That was the only time she smiled the entire day.

The resolve that was in her tone will be permanently etched in my memory for the rest of my life.

The gem of our conversation was a statement that really astonished me. Immediately after saying that she built everything herself, she added, "shoganai ne, kore kara mo gambarimasu" (can’t help it but I’m going to work hard from now again). The resolve that was in her tone will be permanently etched in my memory for the rest of my life.

The word shoganai is deeply enmeshed into the fabric of the Japanese culture and is an attitude that plays an important role in maintaining the orderly nature of their society. Honestly, I had never come to terms with that attitude. If anything, I felt, it shows a lack of fighting spirit (sometimes even a defeatist attitude). But in this lady's case, she wasn't blaming the government for lack of support, she wasn't blaming God for all her trials and tribulations at her old age, she wasn't blaming anybody. Just shoganai. So here I am - changing my own opinion of that word and its deeper meaning.

I hope my obachan would be able to rebuild her life and be able move back into her own house sooner than later. I will continue to pray for her. May God give her all the strength, courage and inspiration that she needs. I will try to go back and visit her sometime in the future.

It was indeed a hard day's work out there but the sum total of the day was a sense of achievement and a feeling that I gave something back to the country where I'm making a living. That, I'll tell you, is an awesome feeling...


What we learned from our experience on that day was that the scale and magnitude of disaster is so huge and devastating that there is no single right way of doing things to help the people. Every approach, however small they are, is right and needed.

Biju Paul
April 19, 2011