By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER
A sports arena in Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture, was filled with smiles and gratitude on March 30. From small children to senior citizens, about 150 people all enjoyed the Japanese-style beef stew and fresh fruits that have been luxuries to them since the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Craig Iwamoto, a Yonsei from West Los Angeles, has been on a personal mission to help the disaster victims since he received an SOS from his friend who had become a victim in Iwaki.
Iwamoto, who currently lives in Tokyo, and his friend, Koji Ota, left Tokyo for Fukushima prefecture at 6 a.m. in a minivan packed with food and relief supplies. “Once we reached Ibaraki prefecture, the highway became very bumpy, and you could visibly see huge cracks in the concrete,” Iwamoto said.
They observed that the devastation grew worse as they approached the coastal area, Onahama and Iwama, in Iwaki. Huge fishing ships and tankers were beached on the side of the road, houses were collapsed into each other, and cars were smashed against walls. There were still people searching for bodies.
The power of the tsunami blew Iwamoto’s mind. The devastation was much worse than he had expected. “There was literally nothing left. It was really like a scene out of a movie. All that was left of some of the homes was the flooring. It is surprising how strong water can be,” he said.
Around 8:30 a.m., Iwamoto and Ota arrived at the Iwaki Minami no Mori Sports Park in Nakoso, Iwaki, which had recently been converted into an evacuation center for about 100 people. There was electricity and water, but no gas, and the center was very clean and organized. People were taking off their shoes before entering the facility, taking turns cleaning, and even following a recycling system.
There were only three gas-powered heaters in the entire college basketball-sized arena. It was very cold, but the people there remained calm and focused. “They don’t have the luxury of thinking about the future. They are focused on the ‘now.’ Things like: what will they be eating tomorrow, finding a home, and so on,” Iwamoto said.
He was also surprised to find out that even under these devastating situations, most of the males at the evacuation center are still going to work every day while the older people and mothers take care of the facility’s needs.
Dinner was conducted in three shifts with about 40 to 50 people each time due to the lack of tables, chairs, and staff. Since most of the stores in the region were still closed, even people whose homes survived the disaster come to the center for food.
With the tremendous support from the Nikkei community in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Iwamoto was able to purchase not only 50 pounds of beef, but also fresh strawberries and tangerines, as well as relief supplies.
Iwamoto’s father, Hank, a treasurer of the Nanka Kanagawa Kenjinkai, helped raise funds from the organization’s members and family members in Los Angeles. Atsuya Kajita, who lives in San Francisco, coordinated the donation collection in the Bay Area. Together, they raised over $6,000 within a week.
“The one thing that was not a problem was financial support. This allowed us to do great things for the people of Iwaki,” Iwamoto said, thanking everybody who helped his relief effort.
With 50 pounds of beef, Iwamoto and his friends in Iwaki decided to cook Japanese-style beef stew using demiglace sauce instead of curry. Since most of the people at the evacuation center have been having only bread, cup-noodles, or rice balls, everybody was happy to eat beef and fresh fruits.
The dinner was served to approximately 150 people. They all bowed and thanked Iwamoto and his friends who helped cook. When he was serving, one man came up to him and said in Japanese, “It feels like the first time I ate meat, all over again.”
Nineteen days after the disaster, the evacuation center had received some relief supplies from the private sector — individuals and companies. There were no relief supplies from charities.
Located about 25 miles southwest of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, far beyond the 12-mile mandatory evacuation zone, Iwaki has been hit hard by rumors of radiation. The people at the evacuation center told Iwamoto that they hadn’t seen one charity since the disaster.
“The people of Iwaki are ready to move on and rebuild the community, but there is no one leading this effort,” he said.
After returning to Tokyo, Iwamoto went to the hospital for a radiation check. He tested at 0.1 level radiation exposure, which is the same amount as a chest X-ray. “The doctor said to just take a shower and wash my clothes, and I would be fine,” he recalled.
Looking back on his first relief effort in Iwaki, he said, “We take many things for granted in life. Things like fresh meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables are all luxuries. I would also like to thank the people of Nakoso, Iwaki for treating us like family. This is an experience I will never forget.”
Iwamoto is planning to go back to Fukushima on April 24 to take more supplies and fresh foods to several evacuation centers. He will continue to help through the summer by going there once a month.
“These people lost everything in the blink of an eye. We must also remember they are just like you and me. They did nothing wrong. They deserve to be helped,” he said.
If you would like to help this relief effort, call Hank Iwamoto at (310) 837-6388 or email him at [email protected]