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Asia

Thousands in Japan survive on the kindness of strangers

The earthquake and tsunami of March 11 have left thousands of people homeless in Japan. Hundreds of thousands have been living in shelters since the disasters, waiting to see what the future has in store.

Helpers unload boxes carrying bottles of water

Japanese volunteers are eager to help those in need

When the earth started shaking on March 11, 2011, Shigeru Maeda was in the kitchen of his restaurant. The last few lunch customers were just leaving and Maeda had started preparing lunch for himself and his family.

A hand holding a Geiger counter

The number of evacuees has increased greatly since the Fukushima nuclear disaster

He says the earthquake didn’t seem so bad in the beginning – "that’s why I wasn’t worried. But then it got stronger and stronger and seemed like it would never stop. There had been a pot containing extremely hot oil on the stove – I had planned on making tempura. But then the pot started rocking back and forth so I tried to hold it, but I couldn’t. That scared me. I got as far away from the stove as possible and just then, the pot came crashing to the floor, splattering the oil everywhere. But thank God it didn’t catch fire."

That evening, Maeda and all the other villagers took shelter in the village school. That is when they started hearing the first rumors about the nuclear power plant. People were saying there had been an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but nobody knew anything else. Maeda’s village, Futabacho, is located approximately three kilometers from the plant.

Cardboard beds

Now the 66-year-old is in a shelter near Tokyo, in the city of Saitama. He is a very thin man with grey hair and a friendly face. A few days ago, he and around 2,000 others were evacuated to an arena in Saitama. He has been through quite a lot in the past three weeks, having to move from one evacuation shelter to the next. He says at first it was horrible because there wasn’t enough for everyone to eat. "We had to take shelter in schools and in the first few days, all we got to eat were a few rice balls or a piece of toast. That was it. There was nobody there to help us, no beds to lie down on. We used cardboard instead."

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visiting a shelter for refugees

Hundreds of thousands of people are living in shelters, waiting to see if they can go home

Conditions are better in Saitama. There is a kind of free flea market set up outside the entrance of the arena. The flea market offers the evacuees all kinds of donations – from clothes and toys to cups and towels.

Paper bowls

There are not enough plates and bowls for the 2,000 evacuees. So, around lunch time, men sit around making cardboard bowls. Everyone gathers at the arena’s entrance, bowls in hand and waits in line. Food and beverages are set up on long tables like a buffet. The evacuees move along the tables and take what they please – bottles of green tea, sandwiches, chocolate, tofu and hot dogs. There are elderly Japanese helpers waiting at the end of the tables with ketchup, for whoever wants any.

Japan’s crisis has become much worse since the disasters at the Fukushima plant. But the evacuations have stirred up an atmosphere of solidarity. In Saitama alone, around 1,000 people volunteer to help each day. And those who can’t find anything to do think up something on their own. Two women are holding up signs offering hair washing and manicures. Others are passing out flowers, hoping to make the evacuees happy. There are even two acrobats, who have come to entertain the children.

A woman cries in the rubble of a house

Many people have lost all of their possessions in the tsunami

Shigeru Maeda is very thankful for all the help that is being offered. But he can’t seem to feel the cheer the helpers are trying to spread. His thoughts are in Futabacho and on the fact that he might never again see any of his belongings. "If I had a car, I would drive home right now," he says, "even if there is too much radiation. Time has stood still for me since March 11. I never thought something so terrible could happen. And now I will never again set foot in my house. My neighbor is a farmer. He has cows that haven’t had anything to eat for days. He is worried about them; I reminisce about my home and my pets."

Maeda has not one single possession from his life before March 11. Everything is gone – clothes, photographs and everything else. His only possessions now are the things that people have given him – donations to the evacuees. He cannot imagine what the future has in store. Author: Silke Ballweg (sb)
Editor: Sherpem Sherpa

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