THROUGH THE FIRE: Don’t Know What to Say? Then Help


(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 17, 2011.)

For the past few days I’ve been inundated, as I’m sure you all have, by the horrific images coming from Japan. Today, I’m at a loss for words.

The incessant stream of images is numbing—mind-numbing, soul-numbing, and spirit-numbing. And yet I can’t look away. Strange how the 24-hour news cycle operates in times of great tragedy. The updates are constant, each one more overwhelming and surreal than the last. Missing persons lists, death toll estimates, tweets from reporters outside the failing nuclear reactors. The disaster is everywhere and unremitting.

I woke up on Saturday and saw a New York Times photo slideshow. One surreal picture showed a large ferry resting on top of a two-story building, like a tub toy in Paul Bunyan’s bathtub. Another had a mother and father looking into an overturned car at the remains of their daughter. She was in a driving school class when the tsunami struck.

Later that Saturday, I looked through the most shocking images of the tsunami yet. They were satellite photos showing before-and-after shots of the cities hit worst. Ishinomaki, April 4, 2010: a colorful mass of houses, schools and ryokan. Ishinomaki, March 12, 2011: a muddy wasteland, desolate, empty of every building. Sendai, April 4, 2010: a bustling city of one million. Sendai, March 12, 2011: a city of one million completely buried under by mud and water. Yuriage, April 4, 2010: a vibrant, bustling city. Yuriage, March 12, 2011: gone, everything, as if it never existed.

On Sunday, the Japanese navy rescued a 60-year-old man who had been floating out at sea for two days. When they found him, he was riding on top of the roof of his home, some nine miles inland from where he was found. He said he was holding his wife’s hand when the roof split and watched her slip away into the floodwaters as he was carried out to sea.

There has been no let-up, no catharsis. Just a steady stream of chaos, pathos and devastation. In the coming days, as we better process this tragedy, I hope there will be someone to stand up and give us some respite. Someone to respond elegantly and poignantly in the face of all of this horror and grief. Someone to contextualize this moment and tell us what it all means.

Because I know I am not one of those people. I am not that person because I cannot begin to understand what the Japanese must be going through right now. I was 3 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake shattered the windows of my house in Northern California. That was a 6.9 on the Richter Scale. Some of you may remember the Northridge quake in 1994. It was one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history. That measured a 6.7.

Friday’s Tohoku Pacific Offshore Earthquake was a 9.0, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded on Earth. That’s 20 times more powerful than any earthquake we’ve ever experienced here.

This is why I am at a loss for words today. I cannot say much about this terrible disaster because I have no idea what it must be like. None of us can.

But there is something we can all do. And it’s very simple. Donate something, anything, to the relief effort (if you haven’t already). If you see a girl in a Red Cross vest standing outside of Ralphs, don’t put your head down and walk past. If you see someone holding a donation box outside of your local Mitsuwa, don’t ignore them. If you are reading this, don’t turn the page. You don’t even have to get up. Just text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10.

Words can be trite. But a text can be a miracle.


Alex Isao Herbach is a freelance writer and sales director for a Southern California toy store. He can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.




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