September 03, 2011

Japan: Life in an Evacuee Center

Rows upon rows of people living in tiny spaces, about the size of a queen-size bed, fill any available floor space of a large convention center in Koriyama, Japan. Families squeeze themselves and all of their belongings into the four walls of the finely sculpted cardboard cubicles, organizing their things around the outside edges of the space.

  • Hopeful Signs

    Shouzou Endo drew bright and colorful artwork on the cardboard walls of his family's makeshift home, bringing hope to many.

  • Evacuee Life

    The evacuee center is a converted convention that served up to 2,500 people removed from their homes near the Fukushina nuclear plant.

  • Remembering Home

    Photos of life before the disaster line the walls at the evacuee center. Hideko Sakurai reminisces about her hometown of Tomioka.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami disaster on March 11, 2011, a permanent road to recovery was formed with the help of caring organizations and passionate young Japanese leaders. Part Two of our story details life in at a camp set up for those forced to evacuate the disaster areas.

Rows upon rows of people living in tiny spaces, about the size of a queen-size bed, fill any available floor space of a large convention center in Koriyama, Japan. Families squeeze themselves and all of their belongings into the four walls of the finely sculpted cardboard cubicles, organizing their things around the outside edges of the space; their shoes neatly left outside of the makeshift entrances.

Walking down a row of these boxy living spaces at the evacuee center, one stands out from the rest. This cardboard space was colored with permanent markers, hand-drawn windows, shrubs, flowers, and smiling cartoon faces which greeted each passerby — a small bright spot among the solemn and cold spaces. The occupant of this space at the Big Palette Fukushima facility in Koriyama-city is Endo and his family. They were evacuated from Tomioka, ground zero for the nuclear disaster that ensued after a 9.0 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011. Before radiation pol­lution forced him to leave his home, Endo worked as a high-end chef. But like many of the other evacuees, he lost his job because no one has been allowed to return to the affected area.

The Endo family home, which stands fully intact, is located in Tomioka, a city near the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Reactor. The Daini Reactor site sits ap­proximately seven miles south of the Daiichi reactor that suffered major damage during the tsunami. On the day that the family was evacuated to a junior high school gymnasium, they assumed it would be for only a few hours. Those few hours turned into days and now months. This family might never be able to return home.

To Endo, the brown corrugated cardboard boxes are not ugly or filled with the stigma of homeless­ness. They are not just trash waiting to be recycled. These boxes are the canvas that he uses to spread hope and encouragement throughout the evacuee center. By folding origami paper, and using paints and colored markers, Endo’s cardboard canvases depict fish, flowers in bloom, and frogs. Each of the art pieces hang neatly on a wall diagonal from his living space. People pass by them while taking a stair­case to the second level of the building. Some pause long enough for him to offer the pieces to them, sug­gesting they take the artwork if it brought them joy. While Endo has lost nearly everything, he mentions only one need; he is running out of origami paper for his artwork, the outlet that seems to be keeping him alive and hopeful. Cheryl Ames, who accompa­nied TEAM on the tour of the evacuee center, offers to send Endo some supplies. Cheryl, a marine biologist who first came to Japan for her Master’s Degree stud­ies at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, has returned to Japan to spend some time volunteering in relief efforts. She compares the living conditions at the evacuee center to that of Ueno Park in Tokyo, an area known for its homeless population.

Like most of the residents at the facility, Endo has an uphill battle ahead of him. He has been marked as a person from a contaminated region, he has been out of work for a number of months, and he lacks a permanent address. Yet hope prevails. While Endo and Cheryl were talking, he mentioned he was wait­ing for one of his art students to arrive. When she did arrive, it was obvious that the recent events had caused her to retreat inward; she never lifted her gaze from the ground. She sat down at the table and began crafting something, taking her mind off of her present situation. While he had nothing to physically give his student, Endo was happy to pass on the hope that he had found in his artwork. Cheryl stayed engaged in the activities around the origami art table until it was time to leave the evacuation center. Deeply moved by the actions of Endo, and the impact the artwork was having on his students, Cheryl knew that the inex­pensive origami paper that she could provide would prove priceless in the amount of hope it would bring into the lives of those in the evacuation center.
 

Touching Lives

Many people’s needs are discovered by simply listening to evacuees talk. In trying to discover a way to get the evacuees to open up, CRASH volunteers were trained by Dr. Andy Meeko to give hand massages to those living in the evacuation complexes. By sitting face to face and helping to relieve the stress of a disaster victim, it gave volunteers the opportunity to listen to people’s fears, doubts, struggles, hurts, and needs. The hand massages were also significant because the volunteers were physically touching the people labeled “untouchable” because of their tie to the nuclear evacuation zone. This was very meaningful to the victims and mirrored the way Jesus would physically touch people when he healed them.

Japanese people are resilient and focused on recovery, even putting others before themselves. Lengthy conversations started by simply asking some­one “Where were you when the earthquake struck?” Within a few sentences they would bare their deep-seeded fears and concerns. Each story differs, and the journeys that lie ahead for many in the evacua­tion centers are unique, but they stand united with one thing in common: Their lives changed the day the earth shook.

-Written by Robert Johnson
-Photography by Robert Johnson

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, Septermber 2011]

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