Why this is only blog #3.5 – Return to #Tohoku #3.5

Before I left for Japan, I had figured I would have time to write, in and amongst the crazy hectic schedule I created for myself and the drinking and general shenanigans that went along with returning to see friends throughout Fukushima.  I did fall a bit behind but had written a few blogs and took copious notes throughout my trip about how I was feeling and what I was thinking about.  My initial blog about Tokyo was written in a travel blog style, with descriptive paragraphs, metaphors and the like, in order to entice and excite you and I assume after all is said and done it still will be along those lines.  But there was one thing I hadn’t counted on during this short jaunt through the land of the rising sun.  And that one thing was Soma.

So, on my last night in Japan, sitting in my hotel in Tokyo, I’m going to give the reason for my lack of posting up until now, other than an excuse for not blogging blog (see, Return to Tohoku #3).  And this very well may turn into another excuse for not blogging blog, but hey, you’ve read this far and look how much more there is to go!

This past Sunday, I went with a bunch of foreigners to go and volunteer with Hearts for Haragama, a group I’ve blogged about before.  After spending the day with children from different kindergartens in the Soma area, they took me out to the coast.  The JETs that have been out to Soma a few times decided to take me out to Tsukasa’s (the owner of the Haragama kindergarten) house.

As we began to near the wreckage I had my camera going and got Jay to shoot a video with my Xacti.  At first, it was just as I had seen in the news.  Pictures of buses in the water and some buildings.  But as we got closer and closer to the Pacific Ocean, the utter destruction began to take over.  At first I was amazed at how different everything was, giant concrete tetrapods that had lined the coastline were now gone, washed away by the sheer power of the tsunami.  Cars, still lay smashed at the side of the road, in parking lots and beside the shells of buildings that the tsunami left behind.  We couldn’t even return to the beach that I had gone to almost every weekend of every summer for four years because the bridge that would take us up and over the cove that I had always used was no longer safe to drive on. Continue reading


Canada continues to support Japan through local events

For the last month or so I’ve focused on the fundraising aspect of the crisis in Japan and not much has really changed with that.  Before I get into listing the upcoming events that I’ve been made aware of recently.  I wanted to put out this article from the Japan Times written by an American who became a Japanese citizen about the “fly-jin” and difficulty being a Non-Japanese person in Japan during this ordeal.

Better to be branded a ‘flyjin’ than a man of the ‘sheeple’  A short quote from the end of the article is below.

But it’s the NJ [Non-Japanese] who got it particularly bad, since the worst critics were from within their own ranks. The word “fly-jin,” remember, was coined by a foreigner, so this meanness isn’t just a byproduct of systematic exclusion from society. This is sociopathy within the excluded people themselves — eating their own, egging on domestic bullies, somehow proving themselves as “more dedicated than thou” to Japan. What did these self-loathers ultimately succeed in doing? Making NJ, including themselves, look bad.

That being said, the situation in Japan is still dire.  Over this past weekend friends running Hearts for Haragama, a grassroots charity in Fukushima that I’ve written about previously trekked to help clean up.  The pictures show that almost 2 months after the earthquake and tsunami, there is still a lot that has to be done.  They also give hope as the owners of the Haragama Kindergarten had a small wedding on the beach, a wedding that was supposed to happen on March 12th.

Continue reading

My Fukushima: The Rise of Sickteam.com

It was early 2007 when I decided that I wanted a tattoo to mark my time in Fukushima.  It wasn’t until June, 2010 that I actually went ahead and got one though.  It took that long for me to figure out exactly what I wanted.  But from very early on I knew that it would definitely center around the Fukushima prefectural symbol.    I wanted images that would symbolize my struggle to get there and the person I had become through my time in Fukushima.  Because of this I chose a carp or koi and a dragon, based on the Chinese legend of The Dragon Gate.  I remembered reading it in university in one of my many Japanese history classes and it seemed appropriate, overcoming adversity and gaining power from it.  Many legends came to Japan from China, but this one isn’t that well known to Japanese people, at least the ones I asked, but the meanings of the carp and dragon are essentially the same in both cultures.  The 福 (fuku) kanji meaning, prosperity, good fortune or happiness, seemed appropriate given the fact that I lived in Fukushima city, in Fukushima prefecture.  The colours I chose based on my own family crest that my brother and I have in the same place and got at the same time only weeks before I left for Japan.

While all of these choices were very personal and every detail was scrutinized and thought over, all of these things symbolize not only my personal journey but the people that I met along the way.  Living in Fukushima for four years allowed me to meet some of the most amazing people I have ever come across in my entire life.  The people I met in Fukushima were the ones that made my time there so enjoyable and so enlightening.  Fukushima allowed me to get close to these people and form bonds with them that I know will never be broken.  Even years after seeing each other, I can still get together with people from Fukushima and it’s as if nothing has changed and a day hasn’t gone by.

Fukushima has stayed with those who left before me and it will stay with those who leave after me, but everyone’s love for Fukushima still continues on to this day as anyone who has paid attention to the recent events there can easily see.  The amazing people who still reside in Fukushima paired with those who left even long before I arrived have all pulled together to help and this has made me proud to have once called Fukushima my home.

Around 3 years ago, a then first year ALT, Christian B-Cote, began talking about a mythical website and company sickteam.com.  Don’t bother typing it into your browser, it doesn’t exist.  But that didn’t deter Christian, he talked about how all the people in Fukushima from different academic backgrounds and countries had skills and that if we put them together the things we could accomplish would be astronomical.  After that, there were t-shirts made and every event in Fukushima city was sponsored by none other than sickteam.com the non-existent organization.

The problem for sickteam.com was that it didn’t have a product, a cause or an organizational structure.  Through the last month, sickteam.com, unbeknownst to all of those involved has risen into a full fledged organization.  No one is in charge and everyone is learning as they go, but the spirit of sickteam.com has moved people tied to Fukushima to do all they can.

After the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, those associated with Fukushima took action.  People in Aizu opened their homes to those fleeing the east coast.  They quickly became organized, getting gas and supplies and sharing everything with each other.  Teams of people came together to go back into the areas that had been abandoned to get other ALTs and JETs who were stranded.   One foreigner, Ben Griffiths and his Japanese friend even drove from Koriyama to Shinchi, north of Soma on the coast, to retrieve an ALT that was stranded there.

A week or two after the earthquake, some foreigners had returned to their home countries or left for other countries within Asia, while others had stayed.   With this, sickteam.com went global.

Those who stayed began volunteering in shelters in their local areas at schools that had become shelters.

Danny and Janine in Aizu-Wakamatsu via Darren Gubbins - March 19th

Bringing games and clothes for Evacuees in Aizu via Janine Al-Aseer - March 19th

Board games with Rich Estey, Brian Campbell and Danny Murty via Janine Al-Aseer

Galileo spent the entirety of the crisis in Ishikawa-machi helping out at shelters and was even interviewed by local news via Galileo Yuseco

Ryan McDonald and Henare Akurangi in Koriyama via Ryan McDonald

These are only a few of the images that came out of the first few weeks after the earthquake.

For the people of Fukushima that returned home, getting the spotlight on what was going on in Japan and how much help they needed became of paramount importance.   While they had escaped Japan, most that I talked to didn’t feel a sense of relief in getting home and only an urge to go back and help.  Many used the need to help to fuel fundraising events and worked to raise funds and awareness.  About two weeks after the earthquake I talked to Jason Ishida about fundraising and event planning.  We both had to admit we knew very little about how to do either, but that that didn’t matter.  Jay led the way, doing fundraising events pretty much everyday he was in Toronto.  Starting with a talk at the Mississauga convention center.  This fundraiser featured the stories of Jason Ishida, Betsy Anderson, Eric Chan and Anisa Zoubeiri, who all spoke very humbly of their own experiences.


Jay featured in quite a few news stories but instead of talking about his own experience, he always directed the media back to the people that were there and how they needed help.  One of Jay’s videos made it onto the BBC and he was always pointing out how calm and collected the situation was even before he left Japan.

Even those that were not the focal part of a story, were still home supporting Japan.  At the University of California, Riverside, a story about the relief efforts springing up around campus features none other than Brian Olumba showing support in the photos at the bottom.

The Fukushima JET Alumni throughout the world began to have charity events of their own.  Doug Tassin and Daniel Morales, both former Fukushima JETs and also co-presidents of the New Orleans JET Alumni Association were definitely at the forefront of fundraising.  At last check, they’ve raised over $100,000 for the relief effort.   Former Iwaki CIR Majon Williamson set up a charity that donates directly to Iwaki city in Australia and has raised over $10,000.

Back in Fukushima, groups have become more organized since the quake and have ventured into the decimated region of Soma with supplies and aid.  Dane Cunningham and Octavio Castro were two of the first people I saw head to coast via Facebook.

Octavio serving lunch via Dane Cunningham - posted March 25


Vinnie Burns, Billy McMichael, Kevin Hsieh, Sayaka Gammon, Haruka Watanabe and Darren Gubbins also trekked into Soma in an attempt to help, while there they met Tsukasa who ran a kindergarten.  After giving them a guided tour of the destruction, the group decided to start a charity, named Hearts for Haragama, in hopes of aiding their new friend in re-opening his kindergarten.  To my knowledge, a lot like my conversation with Jason Ishida, none of these people really know how to start a charity or what to do with it, but everyone is learning at a rapid pace and doing a pretty good job if I do say so myself.  Recently the kindergarten had it’s opening day but still needs a lot of help.

Click the image to view the entire gallery of opening day

As other people have returned they’ve joined in to help the Hearts for Haragama charity and many have begun helping in the Soma area.

The people, charities, events and actions all listed above are only a small slice of what Fukushima means to me and what the people who are tied to Fukushima have done.  But sickteam.com, while a non-existent entity, has definitely found it’s calling and while everyone associated with Fukushima helps in their own way, we are all a part of the same thing.  Even if unsure of what we’re doing or how to do it, everyone is trying to make sense of the disaster and return life in Fukushima to what it once was.

Hearts for Haragama

I plan to write more on this, but I’m currently at Jay Ishida’s in Toronto and plan to leave here very soon.  Great “Drink for Japan” night last night.

I just saw this and wanted to put it out there.  A few of my friends have started their own charity in Fukushima in order to directly help people in Soma.  Please check it out and donate.  Also, share the group on Facebook and Twitter.

Vinnie Burns wrote this on Facebook:

7 of us in Fukushima Prefecture have started a charity to help pay for tuition, food, supplies, transportation and whatever else we can for kindergarten students at a school in Soma, Fukushima, an area hard hit by the tsunami. many of the students’ parents have lost their homes, jobs, and everything else so they can’t pay for their kids to go to school. any donation you can make, whether big or small, would be greatly appreciated, and 100% of it will go directly towards helping them. if you have time, please take a look at our website and read about “our inspiration.” thanks!

Hearts for Haragama – Below is a section from the website.  Please check it out.

Tsukasa and his family own and operate Haragama Youchien, a kindergarten in Soma. All 64 of their students were safe from the tsunami as they were aboard a bus being driven by Tsukasa when the massive wave destroyed their neighbourhood. Twenty-seven students lost their homes and are now living in evacuation centers. Many families are now without incomes, as various businesses in the area were also washed away. Fortunately, thanks to being located atop a small hill, the kindergarten itself was untouched by the tsunami. They are already planning to re-open and resume lessons on April 11th – exactly one month after the tsunami ravaged their community – completely free of charge.

On top of this, despite their own personal losses, and with the help of some of the students’ mothers, Tsukasa and his family have taken it upon themselves to provide hot meals and offer a bus service to and from the kindergarten for each student, beginning April 20th. Due to the lack of income and essential resources in the Soma area, we have decided to help Tsukasa in this noble endeavour by providing them with the food, supplies and financial support they need until life in Fukushima begins to return to normal and they can operate efficiently once again.

Thanks to the generous donations we have secured from businesses and other NPOs alike, Tsukasa already has enough food to provide his students with hot meals for the immediate future. However, he still needs our help to cover the kindergaten’s operating costs. By donating, you will be helping to replace destroyed white goods, food preparation supplies and teaching materials, as well as helping cover delivery, transportation and tuition costs which Tsukasa and his family had originally planned to cover by themselves.

Ensuring the welfare and quality of life of the students of Haragama is our first priority. Once we have adequately achieved this goal, any remaining funds will be donated directly to Tsukasa and his family themselves so that they may begin in earnest the long process of rebuilding their lives in Soma. They are wonderful people who have demonstrated great generosity and strength of character since the events of March 11, and we sincerely believe they deserve all the support they can get.

With thanks and love from Fukushima,
Billy, Darren, Danny, Sayaka, Haruka, Vinnie and Kevin

As well, I was sent this link to another chariy where you can buy a t-shirt to directly help the people of Minami-Soma.

And…grabbed the following off of Facebook about Transportation.

For people coming back to Fukushima from Tokyo these days:
The JR buses from Shinjuku and Tokyo station are almost fully booked for Monday. Call ahead of time (024-534-2011 I think) to check for availabilities.
Other options:
– Shinkansen to Nasushiobara. Bus to Koriyama. Bus to Fukushima.
– Bus to Iwaki. Bus to Koriyama. Bus to Fukushima. (this is presently what I’m doing. Not the greatest but…)
– Wait until Tuesday for Shinkansen service to Koriyama and Fukushima.

Good Luck!

More good work from Fukushima JETs

I’ve blogged a bit about Jason Ishida, who’s doing what he can here in Canada, but there are quite a few friends of mine in Fukushima-ken doing their part.  Here’s an example from Darren Gubbins @yankeereview who’s currently in Shirakawa, Fukushima and has been helping out at shelters throughout the ken.


G’day everyone,

This year marks the third and final instalment of what is now a Kennan institution – Darren’s Birthday Hanami!

However this year’s edition is very different. We have all been a part of an indescribable tragedy, and we are all looking for ways we can help. This time around I want to turn the focus away from my birthday and make this into an opportunity where we can support the people of Fukushima. So, this will be a combined hanami/bake sale – the first of it’s kind (maybe?)!

I’m gonna be baking some brownies, cookies, etc. wrapping them up nicely and selling them to the Japanese hanami party goers around the castle on the Sunday. Please, come along, have some drinks, enjoy the sun and the cherry blossoms and let’s get our bake on! Japanese people are constantly in awe of our mystical gaijin baking skills (you know it’s true), and now we can finally put them to good use.

If you would like to bake your own stuff and sell it on the day, of course that is great. I can’t do it all on my own! Please leave a comment with what you’re planning to make and how much.

All the proceeds will be going towards the people of Soma and Haragama Kindergarten. We are in the process of setting up a proper charity so you will know exactly where the money is going.

A final note – even if we don’t end up raising lots of money, it’s the thought that counts. I think it’s important for us to show Japanese communities that we are still here and willing to help them. Also it is a very real possibility that we will have way too many baked goods – that is why I’m also gonna be selling stuff to my staff and students at my schools over the next couple of weeks. You might like to do the same!

So, boys, don your aprons and girls, get your hands dirty! Yoroshiku ne and let’s make this the most delicious fundraising adventure ever!

With love and cookies,