March 22, 2011

Jake Price in Japan: Dispatch From The Quake Zone

Photographer Jake Price produced these images and thoughts on his Blackberry:

No power, ruined homes; the homeless are sleeping in schools and government buildings. I’ve been in a homeless center for the past two nights, with ample food and facilities.

I’m back in Sendai from the epicenter. It’s what I imagine a Sunday on an early spring day to be without all the stores open, although some are. Vegas Vegas — the patchinko parlor — is open, as are the flower shop, a few pharmacies, cell phone stores, a restaurant, and peddlers selling meat in out-of-way places. There are massive lines in other parts of town where established distribution points are, but even there and at stores that are well known, shelves were well stocked. I don’t want to speak too hastily but there might be an overabundance of concern, certainly warranted until supply routes are opened, which I imagine they will be soon. Getting in from Yamagata was effortless, there’s a big airport there and operable roads.

There are some areas that are terribly hit, the port is totally knocked out. That said heavy equipment is already in, the streets are fully open, individuals ordering daily life, technicians climbing electricity poles, the needed spark is fuel for the equipment. Considering the pace at which a modicum of normalcy has returned — in New Orleans it took months for what has begun here within a week — I see the rebuilding gearing up in earnest soon. When it does it will be rapid.

The cold was certainly an issue. My first night at the center, nobody really slept well. I had four blankets over me and a heater nearby. This is good example of how well-equipped this one center was, but an AP reporter said that who gets what came down to politics. People mainly milled around, watched TV, spoke in hushed voices, and turned in the little plots allotted to them. The following evening it warmed a bit, and everyone slept. The hospital reported cases of hypothermia in the preceding days and I was told that at least 10 people died in their sleep. This is the immediate aftermath.

Radiation was something that was on everyone’s mind, constantly on the widescreen TV, but I didn’t really talk about it with anyone. We were outside of the immediate danger zone and there were so many pressing daily concerns like waiting on line for hours for food and going through what was left of houses, that the meltdown was secondary. The air was still sour from the factory and refinery fires, there were oil spills reported, so those concerns took precedence. As the extent of damage is further known I think were going to see more environmental issues come up.

The elderly were hit the hardest. At least sixty percent of the people in the center were elderly. Many of them had kept their savings in cash, so that washed away. Many are now waiting for relatives, sons and daughters, to help them out and will end up living with their children.

While much has been written about Japanese stoicism, I don’t see it that way. There’s a lot going on in thoughts and hearts if you look closely at faces and eyes as well. The events of two Fridays ago were swift and violent; people along the coast are still in a state of deep shock. The first person whom I spoke with in my hotel in Yamagata started shaking and was nearly brought to tears when she heard that I was interested in her story. “Aside from my husband it’s been a week since I’ve told anyone about what happened. I just needed to tell someone.”

As I mentioned, I stayed in a center for the displaced. Although I had my own food, I was constantly being given more. I wanted to turn it down, but to do so I thought would be impolite. While reserved, people were also open, giving, concerned for this stranger who showed up with dirty boots and two bags. Not stoic at all. If anything, I found people determined to keep a gracious spirit alive even during this most trying of times. At the epicenter I did not come across one crack in a single building; accordingly, the same can be said about people’s dignity.

–Jake Price


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