The ability to recover from the wreckage of disaster

Two members of the board of the Jewish Community of Japan, the main organization representing Jews in Tokyo, write about the disaster’s aftermath.

Japan aid_58 (photo credit: Reuters)
Japan aid_58
(photo credit: Reuters)
IN THE WAKE OF THE DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE that struck Japan on March 11, I, Aimee, have chosen to leave Japan with my family. Having lived in Tokyo on and off for about eight years, I’ve traveled between Japan and the US some 20 times.
There are few words for the emotions that have run through my head over the past few weeks, but guilt has been paramount among them.
We left our home; we left the city that has become home to us and welcomed us into its fold.
In the beginning, immediately after the quake, life in Tokyo didn’t seem so abnormal. We met friends to play in the park and went out for lunch to a favorite restaurant. The sun shone and it was warm all weekend.
But there were subtle differences. I went to fill my car with gasoline just in case and waited half an hour to get to the pump – and then paid nearly $100 to fill my tiny sedan. The streets, never overly noisy, were eerily quiet, even though the volume of people remained nearly the same. Everyone had an odd, distracted look in their eyes and people didn’t pay attention to each other. The government planned rolling blackouts for several areas of Tokyo to make up for power needed to send to other areas of the country, since the nuclear power plants, which produce so much of the country’s energy, were in trouble. The Tokyo Tower, an iconic symbol of the skyline, went dark at night to save electricity.
The following Tuesday morning at about 5 a.m., there was an unrelated earthquake right under Tokyo that felt much stronger than its measured 4.0 on the Richter scale. We began to receive grim news about the nuclear reactors. By 3 p.m. we were on a flight into the US.
Was it the right decision? We’ll never know, but it was the right decision for our family and we were by no means alone. Hundreds of people at the airport about to create a Japanese Diaspora – a Diaspora of foreigners displaced from Japan.
I, LARRY, CHOSE TO STAY IN THE CITY I HAVE INHABITED for much of my adult life. At 2:46 p.m. on Friday afternoon, March 11, I was seated in a narration booth at a studio in downtown Tokyo. As I read out the lines of my script, the microphone in front of me began to shake. “Earthquake!” As the word flashed into my mind, I looked out through the glass window that separated me from the director and the sound technician. Our eyes met and we shared the same thought: “Everything is fine. Let’s keep on going.
So, we carried on for 15 seconds or so until the entire room began to shake. We all knew that “this was a big one” and that it was time to get outside. As we walked down the steps, the entire building was rocked by tremors and when we finally made it outside, we saw crowds of people rushing out of the surrounding buildings. We all knew that this was a serious quake and that something bad was happening.
Even in those first moments, we knew that this was going to affect us all.
But after about 15 minutes the intensity of the tremors fell off somewhat, and everyone seemed to simultaneously have the same thought: “Let’s go back in and get our work done!” And so we went back inside and over the next hour and a half or so, we finished the project despite the constant aftershocks.
As I walked back to my office amidst the crowds of people who were calmly walking home, I thought back on how spontaneously and naturally my Japanese colleagues and I each knew that something big had happened, that this was serious, but that right now we each had something important to do. So we did it. And that is why I am here, why I am glad to be here and why I am proud of Japan and proud of its people. It is also why I am confident that once again Japan will recover from the challenge that it currently faces.
DURING THE WEEKS SINCE THE DISASTER STRUCK, we have learned that close to 30,000 people have lost their lives. We have seen the images of entire towns swallowed by walls of water. We have watched as selfless heroes struggled to bring the situation at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant under control. We have been concerned about an array of indices that have shown that there is radiation contamination across a wide range.
And yet there has been a sense of serenity. People in Tokyo have gotten up, watched the news, eaten breakfast and gone to work. The overwhelming response on the part of the people of Tokyo has been to get on with it, to do what we each need to do, and to stay calm and ask ourselves one by one what each of us can and should do.
Within twenty-four hours of the quake, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) contacted the Jewish community of Japap (JCJ) to assist with relief efforts. The board members of the JCJ identified NGO-JEN ( as a great way to channel supplies and workers to those who needed it most on the ground in northern Japan, so they set up a fund to funnel money from the JDC directly to NGO-JEN. To date, the JDC and the JCJ together have raised more than $60,000 for the cause.
The immediate response of the JDC has been a gratifying experience for the community, and has helped NGO-JEN to work more efficiently to put the aid and supplies where they are needed most.
In an average year, the JCJ hosts upwards of 200 people for the first and second night Seders of Passover, and there is no reason that this tradition will not continue this year. Some people report shortages of food in the stores, but it is apparently due primarily to problems of distribution, since the infrastructure of the country has taken such a hit and missing items are quickly restocked. Only the restriction on buying at most two liters of water at a time in most stores remains in effect.
And in Japan, you can count on the public to follow the rules. There will be no looting; there will be no panic. Everyone will come together to help each other work through the challenges. In fact, in general, people seem even kinder than usual and they smile more often. In the normally quiet city of Tokyo, the mood is subdued but not somber.
Time and time again the Japanese have proven their ability to recover from the wreckage of disaster. This time will be no different.
There is an affinity here with the Jewish people. Throughout their history, the Japanese here have proven themselves to be a resilient people, as have the Jews.
Aimee L.Weinstein is a writer and writing professor who has lived in Tokyo for six of the last eight years. Larry Greenberg has lived in Tokyo since 1985. He is the CEO of Urban Connections, a communications services firm. Both have been members of the board of the Jewish Community of Japan for several years.