What is hard to grasp from our side of the Pacific is the vastness of the devastation: 400 miles of coastline hit by the earthquake and tsunami—about the distance from San Francisco to L.A. The Tohoku, or ‘northeast’ region north of Tokyo is largely rural with fishing and farming villages along a narrow strip of land backed by mountains.
Almost 1 out of 3 residents are over age 65, because young people head for the cities as soon as they finish school, for jobs and further education.
Currently more than 200,000 people are displaced in 2200 evacuation centers—many of which are local elementary and junior high schools.
Schools in Japan are typically 3 to 4-story ferro-concrete structures and are usually the tallest buildings in rural areas, and are designated places to flee to in case of a disaster.
Because of the total destruction of bridges, roads, power, water and gas lines, many centers still lack electricity, running water, adequate food, heat and gasoline. For people accustomed to nightly hot baths, the lack of clean clothes and bathing facilities are also hard to endure. Many of the elderly need medical attention, but don’t have access to doctors.
On the bright side, displaced people and volunteers are organizing to distribute food, blankets and other necessities as relief arrives. As I learned from going to school in Japan, children from kindergarten on up are taught to work together in teams and look out for the welfare of others. Gaman – ability to endure or delay gratification, Gambaru – doing your best, not giving up, and Kyooryoku – cooperating with others, are values reinforced in school and society.
March is the end of the school year and graduation season in Japan. Since many schools in the affected region are filled with displaced people, graduation ceremonies have been canceled or delayed. But some schools held ceremonies with the evacuees joining the teachers in sending off the graduates.
April 1 represents new beginnings in Japan—the new school year, as well as the new fiscal year for government and business. It is also when the much-anticipated sakura or cherry blossoms open, beautiful and fleeting. It will take months and years of work to rebuild lost homes and lives, but I pray that spring will bring hope to many people.
Photo of a Sakura in Tokyo © Ruthy Kanagy