“What I could contribute to the victims was not tangible items. It was the presence of someone who loves, someone who listens, someone who cares.”
—Sabine Taras Thompson (MBA '98)
Sabine Taras Thompson (MBA ‘98) moved to Japan in 2008 and spent what she calls the “happiest years of my life,” living with the Japanese people, working and volunteering. After three years, though, it was time for her to return to the United States, where she would pick up her career as a senior HR analyst for BlueCross BlueShield of Florida. As she left, she realized that the Land of the Rising Sun had made an imprint on her heart.
Then on March 12, 2011, what would become known as “the Great East Japan Earthquake” struck the island nation, followed by several powerful tsunamis that brought waves reaching more than 130 feet. Sabine watched the televised reports of the devastation in horror.
She spent a frantic morning trying to contact Japanese friends, many of whom were stuck in offices without a clue about the fate of their loved ones. By that afternoon, Thompson started contacting aid organizations, looking for a volunteer opportunity so she could go to the country to help. Agency after agency turned her away because her language skills were weak and she had no background in disaster relief.
Finally, she found an opening. Within days, she was on a plane. Against the backdrop of massive destruction, loss of life and shell-shocked survivors, Sabine began to help in some of the simplest ways possible – shoveling mud, holding a hand, listening. On the one-year anniversary, she laid a bouquet of white chrysanthemums on the beach in Shichigahama and reflected on the loss and hardships, but also the courage and rebuilding.
“It was a year of significant change for the area, but also a year of significant personal growth for me,” she said. “This experience helped me bloom as a human being.”
Following, Sabine provides additional comments about her experience.
Q: When you stepped off the plane the first time you went over, what was your first impression of the damage?
A: The first time I went, I arrived in Tokyo. Things didn't seem that different, one week after the disaster. I know there was a shortage of gas and food, but it wasn't directly visible just moving around the city. There were no planes, buses or trains to the disaster area that early on, so I drove up with my team. That's when I gradually saw the extent of the damage.
I wrote a caption for a photo I took that captures how I felt, I think: "T?hoku was not the Japan that I know. The Japan I knew prior to volunteering in T?hoku was cherry blossoms, tea ceremonies and beautiful shrines. The destruction contrasted heavily with all the beautiful places I had visited in the past, but I came back from my trip loving Japan more than ever." It was definitely a very different experience from the time I had spent living in Japan before. During my second trip, the cherry blossoms were out, and it was really strange to see the beautiful pink blossoms surrounding all the destruction.
Q: Was there a particular sight that really brought home the scale and gravity of the destruction?
A: I took a lot of pictures of the cars in Tagajo city, because that was the first thing that grabbed my attention. Smashed cars everywhere. In Shichigahama, the sight that I'll never forget is all the flooded rice paddies, full of houses and cars that had been carried by the wave and dumped there. There's a video on my FB page that shows pictures I took in March, and compares them to pictures I took in the same areas in November. I put it together to show the progress and as a message of hope... I was inspired to do it because of this little boy at the shelter. When I arrived in March of last year, he was so little and I remember thinking how hard it must be for his family to live at the shelter with such a young child. A few months later, he started walking. He made me think of how progress is happening in the area. It's slow – baby steps, just like with the little boy – but the recovery is ongoing.
I have to say, the big damage was not what got to me the most. The small items were the things that got to me - a stuffed animal or a single shoe in the mud. Even one year later, we are still recovering a lot of personal items in the debris. During my most recent trip, we found human bones in the lots we were cleaning on three occasions.
Q: What was the mood of the people?
A: I saw a bit of everything. I definitely saw some very sad people, especially in the first few weeks. But for the most part, the victims showed a very strong front and were quite upbeat and friendly, very much like the ladies you saw on my FB video. I'm going to quote something else I wrote under a picture. "Japanese people endure hardships with an admirable level of self-respect and bravery. I have been so impressed with the wonderful people I have met in Miyagi. They have been so kind to me, and I have learned a lot from them, just observing the gracious and stoic way in which they handled the tragedy. They really inspired me."
Occasionally, I saw people break down. Several people have mentioned suicide or wanting to die – some because of the uncertainty of the future, some out of grief, some out of guilt (because their houses were still standing while their neighbors' houses had collapsed, or because their children were alive while their friend's children were missing). Right now is when I can see a bigger rift between people – the people who were able to move back to their houses seem to be in much higher spirits than the people who are stuck in temporary housing and for whom the future is still very uncertain.
As a volunteer, I had a very good experience. I'd work hard and come back to the shelter covered in mud, unable to shower because there was no water, but as soon as I'd walk in, I'd be greeted by “otsukaresama's” from the victims (otsukaresama is a word the Japanese use to acknowledge someone's efforts at the end of the work day), victims would give me candy and treats, children would come and play with me. It made the hard living conditions completely manageable. Being a volunteer also meant being greeted by people in the street. People would come to me and simply say, thank you. They could recognize I was a volunteer because of my dirty clothes, and because I'm a foreigner (there are very few foreigners in the countryside in Japan, and most of those who lived there all left the country after the disaster).
Q: How does a person make a start in helping with such massive destruction?
A: There's a picture that was taken in first few days of my volunteering, of me standing in the doorway of a house, looking in. The lady had just opened the door, and things were all over the place. There was still mud everywhere, and all the furniture had fallen everywhere. Smashed items, dirt, grass and fish. It was such a mess and I didn't know where to start. I just started carrying broken items outside to be trashed, picked up a shovel and started removing the mud. It is much more organized now one year after the disaster. We actually have to separate all the debris for waste management so we use different bags for metal, wood, ceramics and glass, etc. But back then, we just trashed everything together and just tried to clean places as well as we could (knowing there was no water). When everything around you is chaos, you shift to emergency response mode. You have to think short-term and try to clear up as much debris and mud as possible.
Q: Were you on the beach for the one-year anniversary?
A: Yes. I went there with friends - a local girl I had befriended while volunteering, a local family whose father and son were very active with the volunteer center and some of my fellow volunteers. The beach was Shobuta beach in Shichigahama, the city where I spent most of my time in the two months following the disaster. I couldn't think of a place where I would have rather been on the anniversary. At 2:46 PM, time when the tsunami had hit a year earlier, we walked to the ocean, left flowers, and said a prayer together.
March 10 was snowy and gray, but March 11 turned out to be a beautiful day. The water was blue and calm. The ocean looked gorgeous. It was hard to imagine this was the same ocean that had caused so much destruction a year earlier. I was full of very strong emotions - grief thinking about the victims, hope for the future as Shichigahama has recovered beautifully in the past year, and gratefulness for all the wonderful people - volunteers and victims alike - who had entered my life in the past year. When I stood there on the beach, facing the ocean and watching all the flowers in the water, I reflected on the past year. It was a year of significant change for the area, but also a year of significant personal growth for me. This experience helped me bloom as a human being.
The mood on the beach was somber. We didn't talk much. Everything was rather subdued that day. A lot of victims actually stayed home. I talked to local people who went to work that day, in spite of it being a Sunday. At the volunteer center, some local volunteers were working as usual. The remembrance events were very simple. I think people wanted to move on and carry on with their "normal" lives.
At night, there were some fireworks on the beaches of Shichigahama. I found the concept a bit strange. One of the victims explained to me, "These are not happy fireworks. They're sad fireworks". I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.