Three years after the disaster struck cities and towns on the northeastern coast of Japan, many still living with the trauma of March 11, 2011 understand they have been forgotten. Understanding is one thing. Liking and accepting this fact is another matter entirely.
Whoever coined the phrase “time heals all wounds” was not referring to collective grief. We are all asking a lot of those scattered throughout five prefectures, those who lost homes, jobs, spouses, children, neighbors, relatives, friends, and colleagues if we think time is meant to make everything better. Perhaps five, 10, or 20 years from now, the several hundred thousand still in pain will be fine. When there is this much heartache, when streets and alleys are heavy with memories there’s no magical pill offering comfort, much less mending. At least, to date, no one has come forward offering such a cure.
Speeding up the process of healing, however, is entirely possible and this is worth examining. If the way to feel relevant is to stay relevant, how can we make this so? Let’s break this down. We know we matter to another when they take time for us. Relevancy is defined by giving attention. The most tangible way to offer attention is to give it in person. In order to extend this gift to those want to remain relevant and remembered, you need to sit, face-to-face with the one in need. This requires a trip.
Tohoku needs visitors. New faces stick out. Foreigners especially don’t blend. With each guest who visits residents see someone who took the time, spent the money, and made the effort. It’s this simple. Your presence matters. Your trip conveys intent, and this is a powerful push forward for the grieving.
The truth is uncomplicated. You came because you care. You dropped money at local eateries, hotels and souvenir stores, you sat next to grandpas in the izakayas and listened to their stories—this is how healing begins. This is why your trip to Tohoku matters.
The question, “What can we do for Tohoku?” can be answered in two words: visit us. The time, energy, and money you spend to make your presence known is a gift that will forever be remembered.
Not everyone can make the trip. Most throughout the disaster region realize the difficulty involved in asking for your company. For those who cannot, I offer you the opportunity to assist through a simple click of the mouse.
The Japanese word for debris, in our case tsunami debris, is “gareki.” An ingenious volunteer from Sapporo stared at the mountains of “gareki” in Rikuzentakata and hatched a plan. With the city’s permission and blessing, he began combing through the giant mounds of bedding, broken furniture, and clothing looking for plastic.
Plastic? Yes. What he gathered were pieces of toys, storefront signs, household items, and kitchen utensils. These were power-washed and randomly tested at a laboratory for radiation. Tests completed and passed, he created a project whereby these bits of plastic were turned into key chains. More specifically, “gare”-key holders. Three small pieces are layered and attached to a key chain by people in town with mental disabilities who otherwise would not have full-time work. Each key chain is unique: no two are alike. Purchasing these items directly supports those who make them. The hourly rate paid to those who make the key chains is 800 yen per hour. In the disaster region, this is not at all a bad way to earn a living.
By using materials that would otherwise go into a landfill, this project promotes environmentally responsible stewardship. By creating jobs, this project fuels our local economy. By using our hands to make these key chains, we promote mental healing, a balm necessary for those in pain. By making these key chains a new community is built. By buying these items you allow this project to continue. Each key chain costs 600 yen — the same as a glass of wine — entirely reasonable.
Whether you choose to travel or buy a work of tsunami art, there are ways you can help. For those who desperately do not want to be forgotten, please consider one or both as you plan your next vacation. A visit to Tohoku will change your life. The purchase of a “gare”-key chain will change the lives of artisans. This is my definition of a true win-win.
Amya L Miller is the Global Public Relations Director, City of Rikuzentakata.© Japan Today