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Kizuna: Nikkei Stories from the 2011 Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

Operation Tomodachi

My name is Jay Horinouchi, and I’m a Japanese American artist currently living in Tokyo, Japan. I was born in Berkeley, raised in Silicon Valley, attended college in Pasadena and spent most of my professional career in Los Angeles, so I am very proud to call myself a native Californian as well.

Most Californians have some sort of love/hate relationship with earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault line. We pride ourselves on the fact that we are earthquake survivors and laugh at out-of-state folk when they cower at the slightest of jolts. But we also live in constant fear, wondering when the next “big one” is going to hit. I’ve lived through quite a number of tremors of varying magnitudes in the past, as well as the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. So I don’t think I’m over exaggerating when I say I’m no stranger to earthquakes.

Residents of Japan quickly grow accustomed to mild quakes dropping in pretty frequently throughout the year, maybe experiencing a small shake once a week. But a few days ago, we were assaulted by something I have never felt before. The ground started to shake and wobble, and I decided to ignore it as I usually do, waiting for it to pass. But this time it did not go away after a few seconds, as it usually does, at which point I realized this wasn’t our ordinary annoying neighbor popping up for it’s weekly visit. It slowly intensified and then everything started to squeak and screech. My house began screaming at me to get out from under it. The quake felt like it didn’t have any intention of stopping, and as this one kept going a deep sense of fear started to build. I realized that one of the worst things you can feed your fear is time, time to allow that fear to grow and time that you feel helpless. I later found out that the quake was about 5 minutes in duration. On any given day, 5 minutes goes by in a blink of an eye, but when you feel like the world is crumbling to bits around you, it really feels like a lifetime.

The quake didn’t stop there. Within the next hour we were hit with 7 big aftershocks, all above a magnitude of 6. Within the next 24 hours we were hit with 155 aftershocks above a magnitude of 5, with hundreds of smaller ones in between. For the first 24 hours an aftershock came once every 3-6 minutes. The ground would not stop shaking. I felt seasick because nothing felt solid anymore. My equilibrium was gone, replaced with an unsettling sense of delirium. Mentally I was a nervous wreck, nerves were shot because anytime the ground moved, I didn’t know if it was going to be another big quake or a mini aftershock. It’s been a week and things have finally settled down, with an occasional aftershock once a day or so. But at this point everyone is so calloused, no one even blinks when they come. This past week has been one of the scariest and stressful weeks in my life. In reality, what we experienced was one of the biggest earthquakes to rock this planet in recorded history. The quake at magnitude 9.0 was the fourth largest in world history, and the biggest earthquake in Japanese recorded history to be exact. I truly hope nobody will have to endure something like this again.

Back in Tokyo, many power lines were knocked out. Tokyo is a huge city and is also the biggest commuter city in Japan. Business folk can easily commute 3-4 hours each day for work, and it is also pretty common to see people riding the bullet train to work everyday from the neighboring prefecture. All the trains were effectively stopped, and fires erupted in a few locations. Both land-based telephones and cell phone networks were also knocked out of service, and it became almost impossible for people to contact each other directly. Street lights did not work which, combined with the mad rush of people wanting to go home to check on loved ones, created a traffic gridlock that lasted well into the next morning. With virtually every form of motorized transportation offline, many people resorted to walking home. Many people walked up to 8 hours to get home that first day, not knowing what they would find when they got there.

With all of the above, combined with conflicting reports of nuclear radioactivity from the damaged nuclear plants, and all the damage and post-earthquake mentality of the masses, you would think Tokyo would be in chaos. I expected to see people running around looting and adding to the damage and destruction, but that’s probably because I was raised in California. What I saw in reality really blew my mind, and made me proud to be a part of this city.

The one thing that did stay alive was the internet, and the 3G connection on cell phones. While you could not make calls, you could check social networking sites like Twitter. Hundreds, if not thousands of people were left stranded because they literally had no way to get home. Many were stuck in the trains, stuck inside of their office buildings, or just stuck, nowhere to go. Once people started to realize what was going on, Twitter started to explode with information; emergency help information, traffic status, disaster status, alerts for incoming tsunami and earthquakes and more.

The bottom line was people were trying to help each other as much as possible, and the internet was making this possible, in real time. And it didn’t just stop at passing on useful information. Twitter also became a huge message board to help spread the word about shelters for people stranded all across Tokyo, and also got the city more involved as well. Right in front of my eyes, I started to see more and more people opening up their businesses, homes, and apartments for people who didn’t have anywhere to go to take shelter for the night. People were translating in different languages so non-Japanese speakers would understand as well. People were even tweeting messages to the people who were trekking long distances to go home, that they could use their bathrooms if needed. I even saw a nightclub shut down its operations for the night, and open its doors with warm blankets and hot tea. There were girls-only havens, so women could rest and sleep safely. Out of this terrible and potentially hopeless situation, I saw a strong and supportive community materialize, right in front of my eyes. There was an energy in the air filled with hope and optimism. What these people did, on an individual level, was close to nothing. But as a community, I believe they made a huge difference for Tokyo that first night. They believed that every little bit counts.

So I believe that we can make a difference in the lives of the people here in Japan. I’m working with Philanthro Productions and VIVA LA ART! to organize sister fundraising events, one in Los Angeles, and the other here in Tokyo. The Tokyo event that I am in charge of will be a one day art show and silent auction, with artists from all over the world participating. So far I have pledges from artist friends in America, England, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Australia, China, Brazil, Korea and Japan. Together, as a global community, we aim to encourage regrowth and recovery in Japan, as well as cultivate the growing sense of community and hope.

I’m calling the show “Operation Tomodachi,” after the official name of relief efforts by the US military. “Operation Tomodachi” resonates very well being a native Californian myself. It also perfectly symbolizes the idea of “Tomodachi,” or friends, coming together from all over the world for a humanitarian cause. The underlying theme of the show is “ROBOTS” to add a little bit of fun. I think it is undeniable that we all love robots today, as much as we do, because of Japan. Japan may not have invented the first robot, but I feel Japan has made it international and lovable through anime, toys and corporations such as Honda (ASIMO). So in a way, Japan used robots to make the world a better place. But this time around, its time for robots from all around the world to come together, to save Japan with our robots. I love this country very much, and I want to do as much as possible to help, and I have a feeling a lot of other people want to as well. Of course, what a “robot” means to each individual artist is open to interpretation, and each artist is free to express this in any way they feel inspired.

We will be donating 100% of our profits to Direct Relief International (DRI). DRI has an excellent track record and has a 98.8% efficiency rate and also is working directly with the JACL, so we’re confident to know that the money we raise will go directly to those who need it the most. DRI also specializes in medical care/supplies, which Japan is in dire need of. This disaster has been called the worst disaster to hit Japan since World War 2, and the death toll keeps mounting. The situation is nerve-wracking. But at the same time I’ve seen this country pull together in an amazing way that I wish the rest of the world could see, a way that shows true hope. We are all a part of that hope.

Event Details:
VIVA!TOKYO - “Operation Tomodachi”
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Hatos Bar/Gallery - Nakameguro, Tokyo (http://hatosbar.com/)

 

© 2011 Jay Horinouchi

aftershock earthquake internet Japan JPquake JPquake2011 robot social networks tokyo twitter

このシリーズについて

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds.

This series shares stories about Nikkei individual and/or community reaction and perspectives on the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the resulting tsunami and other impacts—either about supporting relief efforts or how what has happened has affected them and their feeling of connection to Japan.

If you would like to share your reactions, please see the “Submit an Article” page for general submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world.

We hope that these stories bring some comfort to those affected in Japan and around the world, and that this will become like a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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There are many organizations and relief funds established around the world providing support for Japan. Follow us on Twitter @discovernikkei for info on Nikkei relief efforts, or check the Events section. If you’re posting a Japan relief fundraising event, please add the tag “JPquake2011” to make it appear on the list of earthquake relief events.