The Big Issue Japan after the country’s most powerful earthquake: ‘We are not defeated’

A diary by The Big Issue Japan‘s Miku Sano, first published in The Big Issue UK

In Sendai, capital of Miyagi – one of the north-east regions worst hit by the tsunami – all Big Issue Japan vendors are alive and accounted for. Sadly, damage to infrastructure means there has been no delivery of magazines to Sendai, Sapporo, or any of the cities in the north.

Miku Sano, managing director of The Big Issue Japan’s Tokyo office, said: “In Sendai the vendors survived but do not know when they can start selling the magazines again. The vendors and people in Northern cities are fighting for their lives and (to find) loved ones. We are trying the best we can to support them. Things are not easy and will not be the same, but we are not defeated.”

“We are also trying to start our football practice in Tokyo as soon as possible,” she added. “All the scheduled matches were cancelled but many of our vendors said that they want to play football to feel better.”

An aerial view of the Sendai region with black smoke coming from the Nippon Oil refinery. By U.S. Navy photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Diary of a disaster

The Big Issue Japan works with the Sendai Night Patrol Group to help the homeless in Sendai City, one of the worst hit by the 11 March tsunami. Tireless staff members have been providing free meals for anyone sleeping rough as the city attempts to recover from the disaster. Aoki San, head of the patrol team and magazine distribution in Sendai, allowed us to publish extracts from his diary about the relief effort:

14 March
In Sendai, the supply of water and electricity was restored in some parts, but it will take more than a month to restore gas supply. In the Wakabayashi area, the worst affected area within Sendai city, I saw a very long queue of people trying to get half rotten oranges and only one banana. A thousand dead bodies are left unattended in a gymnasium, and there is no information about those unaccounted for. We are planning to provide free meals of curry rice for everyone from 11am. The death toll is too big to comprehend, and many people seem to know nothing about what to do.

15 March
Roads, airlines and trains are not allowed to run except for emergency vehicles, and there is the dire prospect of a shortage of goods. More than 1,000 people queued for a motorway bus. I joined a queue for Daiei Supermarket before its opening at 10am, but 30 minutes after the opening, major goods had already gone. There is a shortage of gas cylinders, noodles, tinned food, batteries and rice.

Public administration is completely paralysed. Sendai City Council opened a help desk today, four days after the earthquake. Hospitals in the city are only able to provide a partial service due to electricity shortages. Without a battery-powered radio, people are getting no information at all. Many citizens don’t know about the accidents at Fukushima nuclear plant. People are ‘information refugees’. Local radio stations function to help people find out about missing persons.

Strong aftershocks at 3am and again at 4am.

16 March
This morning started with rain in Sendai. Today the local radio announced about the food at Wakabayashi city hall, so we had to make 1,000 meals. At lunchtime we gave out curry, miso soup and rice for about 800 people and it was gone in a second. Some hadn’t eaten for three days and queued for the food in the rain.

I am worried because there’s no information about what’s going on at the nuclear power plant. I am worried about the radioactive contamination for the north Kanto region because of the north winds. There are thousands of people sleeping in the elementary schools, city halls and public halls. I will do my best to provide free meals tomorrow, although we may run out of stock if we do so.

21 March
We organised a football training session with vendors this weekend. Vendors and many volunteers participated. Most of our street paper vendors are doing OK, but the ones who are in the worst hit areas face a lot of challenges.

At first, many of us were surprised at how strong and unaffected most vendors seem. However, when you think about it, most of our vendors always sleep outside – which means, in many ways, the “emergency situation” that we are facing now is the kind of life they live on a daily basis.

I hope this crisis will bring us together and that it will give us a chance to think more about the people who have to live in such harsh conditions not only after this earth quake, but every day.

In the meantime, the latest edition of The Big Issue Japan has arrived in Sapporo. Hokkaido is five days behind schedule. We still have earthquakes of a magnitude of five or six on the Richter scale every day in the coastal areas around Tokyo and the north. There is a shortage of electricity and gas in Tokyo and the northern cities. People in Tokyo were panic buying food initially, but that is slowly happening less. Things are still unsettled but everyone is trying to help each other.

Translated by Mayuko Hida, and Yushin Toda (University of Glasgow)
Additional reporting by The Big Issue Japan