Horrific reality

More from Bob Stilger:

Dear Friends,

I spent Sunday the 17th traveling to, working in and returning from Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture. Site of some of the worse tsunami damage.

Part of being here is just plain strange. My hotel is shaking as I write at 3 in the morning. I’m beginning to be able to gauge them now. This one is feels like more than a 6 and is continuing for some time. I still do not feel in danger here, but it is a little strange to live like this, checking my iPhone app for the latest earthquake information.

Todays trip requires pictures… More pictures at Flickr.

Today continues to work and settle in me.


Early morning in Roppongi. Just after 5am on a Sunday and the streets are already lively. We rush, a little late to join a Young Global Leaders group going to Miyagi Prefecture. I am the only one not young and the only foreigner.
Something almost surrealistic about getting on a bus in urban Tokyo on a spring morningand going north. Sakura — cherry blossoms are giving way to leaves. As we travel through the countryside, it looks just like green, growing Japan in the spring. We stop at a roadside rest area filled with people and food. Lively conversation on the minibus is interspersed with naps. Young men and women who have done things like started Ashoka Japan this year or Social Venture Partners in years past. All active in various leadership roles in civil society.

Like me, this is their first time to travel to the disaster area.

Hours later, we cross some invisible line and suddenly we enter an area where the tsunami struck. The lively conversations on the minibus quiet and we all look around. I see a rowboat in the middle of a rice field. Then, mysteriously, we cross an invisible line again and are surrounded by fields being worked – with no huge trees scattered like toothpicks. No change in elevation. But the waters did not come.
Now, an elevated highway creates a barrier. Life as usual on one side. Destruction on the other. I was aware of being unprepared for the sight of the destruction. I had not thought about the power of seeing life “as usual” so close alongside, and intermixed with the destruction. A world that works for many surrounding life that works for none. Used car lots with sparkling cars a short walking distance from a wasteland. MacDonalds and Sunday afternoon traffic jams just minutes from destroyed lives. Young adults walking hand in hand towards their homes, only a song away from those who no longer have a home. We sit on the minibus, all talking about how striking this contrast is.

We’ve gotten up before dawn and driven six hours to help, bringing boots, face masks, gloves and goggles. And here, in another part of Ishinomaki City, people fill their gas tanks at self-serve stations in business clothes.


We arrive at the volunteer coordination center. A makeshift campground on a school grounds; roughly 500 people stay here now. Two warehouses, one for supplies and one for food which flow in from all over Japan.
Donations from thousands of individual people. Sometimes mistakes are made – like when people started shipping in cooked rice because they heard there was no water. One small NPO that normally runs a school stepped forward to coordinate. The job needed to be done. They are stretched way beyond their capacity, but invisible to international agencies like the Red Cross which will not acknowledge their work or support them. My organizing self says a network of these NPOs is needed: they could share learning and experience and approach international agencies with one voice that would be hard to ignore.


We continue on and begin to encounter some of the worst destruction. It is almost mesmerizing as we drive along. Mile after mile of debris. Cars in houses; houses on cars. Massive accumulation of trash that was important stuff in people’s lives six weeks ago. I’ve seen it on TV. I’ve seen it on You Tube. I’ve seen
pictures on the Internet.Nothing prepared me for the visual assault of this destruction.
And remember, just minutes away, people live seemingly normal lives. And this is just one neighborhood in one city. Nearly 30,000 dead or missing. Ten times that number living in shelters.


We continued on to high ground, some fifty-five feet above the sea. A hospital stands on this bluff. It’s first floor was flooded. The water
is a sparkling blue today, this little harbor has a lovely entrance. It is an idyllic scene, until one looks ashore. The destruction is immense.
One three story, medium sized apartment building near the sea picked up whole and crashed on it’s side. A car rests atop the shell of another tall building. A family walks through their former home…

The level of the land dropped almost 4 feet because of the earthquake. Then the tsunami came. The tsunami came at nearly 400 miles an hour, almost 60 feet high. A smiling woman greets us. “My house was down there in the rubble,” she said. “Some of us came up here by the hospital. Some went to the third floor of that house over there. Helplessly we watched them be destroyed. This was a lovely place to live. Lots of fish; a cool breeze in the summer.”

“They strung the power lines back up last week,” she says. “It gives me hope.” She thanks us for coming and goes off as we each continue a dazed stare.


We continue onward. Finally I mostly stop taking pictures. This can never be captured in a picture, I know. Taking them is just a way to set aside the anguish, if only for a moment. To dwell in the horrific reality, while setting it aside.

A bike resting on top of a debris pile catches my attention. Someone rode it through these streets six weeks ago…

It takes 30 people 2 hours to clear the remaining debris from a sake shop. Bottles salvaged, cased and stacked. Meaningful possessions now garbage hauled away. Mud shoveled from the floor. Moving with amazing speed and coordination for a team that has never worked together, the purpose clear.


I didn’t even know the owner of the shop was among us. I had thought, ah this is how it works – crews go from building to building and clear away the debris. But then one man said, “please, please each of you take a remaining bottle of my sake away. It is the best in the region.”. How could he smile so much, I wondered. He literally beamed. He’s not focused on what he lost, I knew. He is focused on what he has.


My friends Hide and Yuki had equipped me with over-pants, work gloves, heavy-duty face mask and goggles. A neighbor of theirs who coordinates the volunteer fire department measured my feet and went to get boots to fit me. “It is the least I can do,” he says, “thank you for going while I cannot. All decked out and clumsier than usual, it is only when I feel my right ear’s high-tech hearing aid drop out that I realize somehow in the frenetic activity my left one
disappeared. I carefully retrace my steps and search the muddy floor. Futile, of course. My hearing aid joins the debris of many people’s lives. I still my irritation with myself: many lost lives, homes, businesses and livelihoods, how could I even think about complaining about this loss. I have so much, in so many ways.

We stop for a bathroom break before heading home. Minutes away from where we have toiled, we stop at a mega store, filled with people and all imaginable goods. Unbelievable in it’s own way.

Darkness has settled now. We’ve begun the long trip back to Tokyo. No injuries. Hot showers and every food imaginable in Tokyo restaurants. Clean clothes. Comfortable beds. By the time we arrive, the volunteers with be asleep in their cozy tents in the brisk winds, having spent another full day doing labor that tired me after two hours.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to come. Grateful to have worked alongside such purposeful friends. Grateful for the real gratitude the sake shop owner expressed for returning his washed out shell of a shop to him. Grateful for health and breath and spirit. Iʼm still just in the experience of this. Unable to make meaning. A bit overwhelmed. It has been almost 24 hours since I woke to being this dayʼs journey. Time for sleep.

All pictures taken by Bob Stilger

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