A Perspective On Helping Japan Disaster Victims

Guest Blog | August 30, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Note from SACE High Risk Energy Choices program director, Sara Barczak: SACE Intern Jeannie McKinney authored this guest blog. She is working in our Knoxville, TN office on energy efficiency policy. Prior to her internship, she was living in Japan and thus provides a unique perspective on the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster. Jeannie will provide additional blog posts over the coming months.

With the natural disasters and subsequent tragic events that have been taking place since March, Japan has had more of a presence in the media and in the thoughts and prayers of Americans than usual. For me though, Japan and Asia were already a large part of my life. Having chosen to focus on international studies and concentrate on Japan and East Asia while an undergrad, I wanted to visit and learn more. I studied abroad in Tokyo a couple years ago and fell in love with the beauty of the country, its people and their culture. I knew I had to go back, so I applied for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program post-graduation. At the end of July 2010, I joined the ranks of JETs moving over there, and I spent the last year living and teaching English in Japan.

Having experienced it personally, I can tell you that the first week of May is a very important time for Japanese citizens: it’s the only time of the year that most citizens are able to take an extended vacation from work. Also known as “Golden Week,” April 29th and May 3-5 marks the largest consecutive national holiday Japan has, allowing not only students to take a break but almost all working citizens. Most families just get together for a few day trips, or an overnight to a nearby city or prefecture (Note: a prefecture is essentially Japan’s equivalent of a state, mostly self-governed; there are 47 prefectures in total, each with its own capital city).

I had big plans for my Golden Week vacation: a much-needed get together with some of my closest friends in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. Unfortunately, my reunion plans were canceled by the tragic events of March 11th –the earthquake and devastating tsunami – and by a friend evacuating back to America. Nevertheless, I still had my heart set on visiting Miyagi, and helping out in whatever manner I could with the disaster relief efforts. I didn’t realize, however, that the rest of Japan’s citizens were making similar plans for their big holiday break too.

As a foreigner living in Japan, I wanted to lend a hand in revitalizing a country and a people that had given me so much over the last few years. Obviously, I was not alone; as previous Fukushima updates to this blog have mentioned, Japanese citizens and visitors have been flocking to the affected areas for months. Even now, as normality in most of the unaffected areas resumes and local help has started to decline, groups from all over the world are still braving the radiation and flying over to lend a helping hand.

Post-March 11th, the amount of willingness and enthusiasm, good will and generosity that came from abroad as well as at home, was honestly overwhelming. I was living in a small town in Hokkaido, the northernmost island and prefecture of Japan, at the time of the disaster, in an area that experienced nothing but a few tremors and shakes. But somehow, my community of 13,000 generated so many donation packages within the first few weeks after the disaster that our three little post offices had trouble handling the increased mail traffic. Instead, postal workers had to set out collection bins in their lobbies for the Japan Red Cross to come and pick up on their own.

Donations and aid have also continued to pour in for radiation-zone evacuees. My favorite local sushi restaurant, Hana Ichimonme, even held a fundraiser to gather donations for people in Tohoku. In one weekend, this tiny shop in the middle of the countryside raised over 400,000 yen (about $4,000) for fishermen and farmers. I suppose you could call it a fundraising marathon of sorts, where Hana Ichimonme employees and town locals gathered together to make over a thousand paper cranes in a single afternoon, as a symbol of their support for evacuees.

They also sold a Hokkaido version of Lady Gaga’s disaster relief wristband, which sports the motto, “One for all, all for one.” These bracelets are actually part of a prefecture-wide donation project, a program called the “Hang in There” or “Do Your Best” Japan Support Project. They currently sell these wristbands in convenience stores all over Hokkaido.

Clearly, there’s no shortage of good intentions and eagerness, even in areas barely impacted by these events. The Japanese want their country to succeed, to overcome and thrive once more. But then I have to wonder, why are the reports we continue to hear – and the blog situation updates we have to share with you – increasingly discouraging and upsetting?

The problem is that there is only so much individuals can do on their own, without any direction or instruction from organized groups – especially without advice from the country’s government. Post-Katrina, the biggest complaints here in the U.S. were the slow reactions of the local and federal government to respond. Though nonprofits and volunteer groups were first on the scene, there was only so much they could do without bureaucratic support.

The same can be said for Japan right now, both in disaster areas as well as radiation areas. I never made it to Miyagi Prefecture over Golden Week; a week before the vacation started, I received an email from my prefectural advisor relaying a message from the Japanese government. They requested that foreigners and citizens avoid going down to the affected areas and asked instead for monetary and clothing contributions. There were already too many untrained volunteers flocking to the impacted zones and not enough organizations and professionals to coordinate them. The reason was obvious, but disheartening nonetheless. Clothing and money can only go so far, and seemingly weren’t doing enough; they needed people on the ground, yet frustratingly there wasn’t enough oversight to make use of them.

SACE’s blog posts have consistently referenced the misinformation and lack of factual, real-time updates coming from the Japanese government. It’s not just the missing data, however; there’s also very little guidance, support and advice coming from the ministries, or government departments. The majority of success stories are the works of individual nonprofits or even private companies who have come up with their own recovery ideas. On the one hand, you have articles such as this, which celebrate the efforts of individuals and even TEPCO, the owner of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, to generate energy savings techniques that help relieve the pressure on power grids. On the other, you have massively inefficient energy practices occurring: a 3-story junior high school in Hokkaido, for example, that blasts the kerosene heaters at 27 degrees Celsius (about 81 F), overheating the classrooms until every window is open to the brisk 50 F air outside.

On an individual level, I could monitor my own energy consumption, but I could do nothing to convince the principal that we should consider turning down the heat when our students were sweltering. People wanted to help, but very little was government mandated or even government suggested; thus, the impact was not nearly as great. And many people, such as my principal, were convinced that energy conservation would not be beneficial because they were so far away from the affected areas and they had not been directed or asked to do so by any authority figure.

Admittedly, in a country of roughly 157 million people, Japan’s small government cannot single-handedly rebuild a nation. I think part of it has to do with the division of power. Each prefecture generally implements its own policies, unless federally mandated. It’s the old argument of state sovereignty that we’ve debated in the U.S. for years, and there are several pros and cons to this system. But in mid-March, immediately post-disaster, citizens in Hokkaido were still able to purchase full tanks of gas while individuals in Miyagi were rationed to 10 liters of gas a day – until they ran out. It’s near impossible to expect 47 prefectural governments to separately order gas rations. Japan could have done so much more to help relieve the pressure of energy demand in the affected areas, but they didn’t have the direction. The bottom line is that federal officials needed to step in and take control, but they didn’t.

That’s where collaboration should come in, and where the Japanese government needs to focus more attention. The situation is ever worsening, and new consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are being discovered everyday. Japan’s political instability is further muddying the waters as Prime Minister Kan just resigned, resulting in Japan having six leaders in just five years. While policy needs to be changed and energy sources need to be completely reevaluated, recovery plans need to be pushed to the forefront, now, to deal with this still dangerous situation.

It’s nearly September, but people are still coming up with new ways to help. Coca-Cola modified some of their vending machines in Chiba and two other prefectures, adding a “donate change to Tohoku” option for costumers. Relief efforts may have tapered off since April, but Japan’s citizens have proven resilient time and again. They have demonstrated repeatedly over the last few months that they can take care of themselves and their country, and want to support each other as best they can. But there’s only so much they can do on their own; the government needs to find the best way to help them do this, and lend support to them too.

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