Journey to Tohoku

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Allen Okamoto and Cal Ripken Jr. photo courtesy of Allen Okamoto

In early November 2011, my wife and I traveled to the Tohoku area on the northeast coast of Japan to witness the aftermath of the enormous earthquake and tsunami that devastated that area on March 11, 2011. Watching the tsunami destroy everything in its path on our televisions and the Internet was frightening enough, but in visiting the areas, one can truly appreciate the fact that Japan suffered one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history.

We spent two days on the northeast coast, visiting Sendai City, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, and being driven throughout the prefecture where entire towns, villages, farms and fisheries were completely destroyed. Driving though these coastal areas, one can see huge areas where the houses/buildings are no longer habitable, as well as mountains of debris that have been collected and piled high. Entire towns, villages, farms and fisheries were completely destroyed. We saw a four-story office building turned on its side from the force of the tsunami and were told that the workers inside had rushed to the rooftop of that building for safety, only to be swept away. A hospital that was built halfway up on the side of a cliff had water flood the entire first floor. And the cars with their drivers who sought refuge/safety in the hospital parking also lost their lives. There is another tragic story everywhere one visits.

The affected area stretches 350 miles along Japan’s northeast coast and in some cases the water destroyed property and farms for miles inland. The physical damage to homes, buildings and infrastructure can be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars and will take decades to rebuild. The loss of lives number in the tens of thousands and the lives of many of the survivors will have been forever changed, as children lost parents, parents lost children and untold thousands will be burdened with the loss of property and their livelihood. The untold story is the psychological damage inflicted upon so many.

Along with the incredible clean up and recovery efforts that have taken place in the eight months since March 11, temporary housing has been created for some of the homeless citizens of the area. We saw communities of prefab cubicles but no longer any structures big enough for groups of 20 to 30 people to meet. Also winter will bring cold weather and snow and a slow down in the cleanup.

But when we talked with the people of Sendai and Ishinomaki, we found an unbelievable spirit and belief that with hard work, they will rebound. We learned that hundreds of thousands of volunteers from other areas of Japan have traveled to the devastated areas to assist with the clean up and recovery effort. The non-governmental organizations and nonprofit organizations in Japan such as the Japan YMCA and Japan Platform have mobilized and made strides in helping with the many needs of the people. We met with the Miyagi Prefectural government and learned about their long range plans to protect the area against future tsunami. But their current recovery and rebuild process will take years/decades and Japan will continue to need help.

The Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA) Foundation has raised $500,000, thanks to the generosity of the AREAA members. The money will be designated to the rebuilding of lost homes in Japan. However, according to NPOs, NGOs and government officials, the rebuilding of permanent housing is still years away as there are so many physical and social issues to be addressed. The instability of the coastal land and the fear of future tsunami must be researched. Also, many farmers and fishermen have lived in the same towns and villages along the tsunami-hit coast for generations and refuse to relocate.

Organizations throughout the USA are helping in various ways to support the people of Japan’s devastated northeast coast. While in Japan, we attended a very special event at the residence of U.S. Ambassador John Roos in Tokyo. Three organizations from the U.S. have donated funds to rebuild the damaged baseball fields in the Tohoku area. They include Major League Baseball (MLB), the U.S.-Japan Council (USJC), and the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund (NJERF), which is administered by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

Allen Okamoto and Cal Ripken Jr. photo courtesy of Allen Okamoto

Representatives of the three organizations were on hand to announce this project. I had the honor of representing the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. Cal Ripken Jr. led the delegation for Major League Baseball. The U.S.-Japan Council was represented by board members Henry Ota, James Higa and Paul Yonamine. Also AREAA’s good friend, Congressman Mike Honda, was in attendance as were some of the top players in the Japanese Baseball League, as well as Baseball Commissioner Ryozo Kato.

I hope to see smiles, like the ones I saw on the young student baseball players who were in attendance at the celebration at Ambassador Roos’, on the faces of the families that will be helped by all of your efforts. To know that our program will lift the spirits and morale of families and the communities to which they belong is something that AREAA can be proud of. Thank you to everyone who has generously supported our Japan Rebuild effort to help the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Allen Okamoto is the founding chair and director emeritus for the Asian Real Estate Association of America, which has two components, the national AREAA and the Asian Real Estate Association Foundation. For more information, visit AREAA.org and AREAAfoundation.org.

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