For his next visit to the Tohoku region, MMA Fighting joined Inoue to document the journey and bring new light to the ongoing crisis in Japan.
On day two, we visit an evacuation center on the edge of the Fukushima evacuation zone, assist a man who gave Inoue his start in Japan and we start to hear dire stories of things to come.
Our first night's sleep in Fukushima was short. Occasional earthquakes and thoughts of what lies ahead kept me awake until early in the morning. My two precious hours of sleep were rudely ended by an earthquake alarm that sounded on Enson's phone. The warnings usually only sound when there is a major quake coming, and so we were both awake and alert instantly, although we did not move out of bed. The quake was nothing more than a gentle sway in our seventh-floor hotel room. It was severe down south in Chiba and Tokyo and it sparked a fire at the Fukushima power plants, some 40 miles away and a place we would be heading towards.
I ate a complimentary breakfast posing as Enson Inoue (it caused the waiter to pause for a moment when a blue-eyed white man presented a coupon with a Japanese name), but it was far from enjoyable. Japan usually hosts a fantastic breakfast buffet, but the lack of any fresh food was an early morning reminder that we are now much nearer to the disaster zone.
While downing endless cups of coffee to make up for my lack of sleep I scanned the news, looking for post-quake reports from this morning. While the earthquake did not turn out to be so bad, the evacuation zone around the Fukushima power plants had been extended even closer to where we were and the nuclear crisis level had been upped to the maximum of seven -- the same level as the Chernobyl disaster. Just before I embarked on my trip to Fukushima, a French friend revealed that his mother had contracted cancer as a result of Chernobyl. I never wavered in my desire to stay in this area, but it's not a nice thought.
Enson Inoue is integrated in the Japanese community better than any foreigner I have ever met in my five-year tenure in Japan. While he has Japanese blood, he was born in Hawaii and speaks English. For that reason, many considered him an outsider when he arrived in Japan as an English teacher 21 years ago. After concluding my breakfast, I met the man who helped Enson get his start as a real citizen in Japan.
A kindergarten teacher and (ironically) earthquake safety inspector named Mashiko helped Enson get a car, obtain a visa and start a business when he first came to Japan knowing no one and without any money.
In those days, Mashiko was a wealthy steel company boss, but over the last decade, he had seen tough times and had lost his business. The respect that Enson had for this man was clear as he would lose himself in stories of kindness any time his name was mentioned. Already down on his luck, the earthquake had destroyed many of Mashiko's possessions and caused his wife to have a nervous breakdown so Enson and his family repaid the generosity that Mashiko had shown 21 years prior. As is typical in Japan, Mashiko refused the money, but after some time, begrudgingly accepted. It was clearly needed as both men were moved to the verge of tears.
Heading out into the city, we finally saw some signs of life in Koriyama. There had been no one around when we arrived the previous night, but during the day the city seemed much more active. Nightlife in Japan has taken a back seat to frugality over the last month. The city was mostly in tact but some older buildings had crumbled somewhat during the hundreds of earthquakes over the last month.
After Enson showed me where he taught English when he first came to Japan, we happened across a building that had been badly damaged by the quake and was leaning at a significant angle. A scrawny, sickly looking cat limped out of the bushes as we got out of the car, and it warmly brushed against Enson's leg. The cat looked to be abandoned by the damaged building's owner.
An animal lover, Enson grabbed four cans of tuna for the cat and emptied his water bottle into a dish. The cat was starving and gulped down the fish, only to instantly throw it back up. I thought to myself that this poor animal may be a lost cause, but it only led Enson to grab two more cans of tuna, and we spent a good 20 minutes with the ginger cat as it struggled to consume the food it desperately needed.
Eventually moving on, we found more buildings that had collapsed, and while surveying what we thought was a school, a government official came out to talk to us, noticing my cameras and Enson's enormous Hummer and tattoos. When he found out that we were here to help at the disaster zones, the official bowed lower than a man of his age and social standing ever normally would to an MMA fighter and foreigner. I had seen this appreciation with Mashiko and again with this man. We were only on the beginning of our journey into the disaster area, but I was really beginning to understand how much the help and care was sorely needed.
From there, we made our way towards the damaged Fukushima power plants and the edge of the evacuation zone to go to our first evacuation center. A friend of Enson's, a Japanese-Hawaiian surfer named Kirby, met us en route along with a troupe of musicians and clowns that Enson had paid to travel through the evacuation centers.
Kirby was finishing his trip around Tohoku just as we were starting it. Talking to him gave me my first insight into the real situation in the disaster areas. Kirby's stories were horrifying.
Groups of armed gangs (some reportedly related to Chinese mafia) had been entering the evacuation zones to loot vacant homes and businesses. Kirby had heard stories of rape and murder by these gangs, but as all the police were occupied, they had gone unnoticed and unpunished. None of the large charities had reached the people in need. He had just returned from one village that had received no aid whatsoever and had hundreds of dead bodies stuck in harbor gates. This was not the picture that was painted on TV in Japan. The news in Japan was showing the Fukushima power plant. It was not showing this.
Shaken and disappointed by Kirby's stories, we arrived at the evacuation center. I had intended to try to blend in and stay unnoticed as I find that approach the most conducive to my photography. That changed as soon as I entered the doors and was mobbed by an army of the happiest children I have ever seen. Crawling all over me, laughing, sticking their faces in my camera -- the children's spirits were instantly raised by the sight of our party, and after hearing Kirby's stories, I cried. I didn't want the kids to see that so I managed to regain my composure quickly and started taking in the atmosphere in the evacuation center.
There were around 150 people living in the school gymnasium. No one had any possessions aside from a blanket and a futon. Cardboard boxes separated the families and there was no privacy at all. Many people were in plaster casts or in wheelchairs and this center also housed a significant amount of mentally handicapped evacuees. The majority of people were elderly and they seemed to enjoy my presence and actually asked to be photographed. They were genuinely pleased that foreign press were visiting them.
Several evacuees asked me why I didn't return to Australia when my government told me to. I replied that Japan has been my home for a long time now and that I don't want to leave my home. One lady responded saying, "My son-in-law is Australian and he took my grandchildren and daughter away. Thank you for feeling like Japan is your home." It was horribly awkward, I could think of nothing to say.
The musicians were Christian missionaries that Enson (he himself becoming Christian during his stint in jail in 2008) was financially supporting during their trip in the Tohoku region. Playing Japanese pop favorites and English classics, the evacuees turned off the news and stopped their somber conversations to enjoy a much-needed break. The center had been short on support and there had been no media coverage there, so the attention was appreciated. Enson later confessed to me that he had started to tear up as he saw how much people's spirits were raised, but he was also careful to contain his emotion. Clowns followed the musical performance and the evacuation center started to feel like a carnival until Fukushima was again struck by an earthquake. This time a magnitude 6.3.
Children screamed and started crying, and although the clowns and music continued, the TV was switched back on as we nervously waited to see the damage report and to see if a tsunami would again batter the northeast coast of Japan.
There were some reports of heavy damage in the surfing village of Iwaki. Many of the people in that evacuation center would have been from there, and Enson used to spend his summers there. The music and clowns continued, Enson gave out toys and clothes that he had bought and the children started to have fun again, with the elderly especially enjoying the music. Unfortunately, the mood had changed somewhat. What Enson was doing was clearly powerful, but it was only a temporary distraction. The crisis here was ongoing.
As soon as I walked out of the evacuation center, I was completely exhausted. As Enson noted, the positive vibes you try to give out completely saps you of your energy. I noticed that my face hurt from smiling too much, but it was different muscles that ached. I wonder what kind of strange, contorted smile I was putting on when I was I holding back the tears.
We bid farewell to the entertainers and made our way north to Iwate prefecture, one of the areas badly damaged by the quake and our base for the next week.
As soon as we were in the car Enson dropped his emotional guard, and I could again see tears well in his eyes as he exclaimed, "F**k PayPal! If only those motherf**kers could see what we are seeing here! There is no one helping here?! They are stopping me from helping people! Where the f**k is the Red Cross?!"
Enson's PayPal account was still frozen due to legal issues he did not care to understand right now and he did not have access to any of his money or the donated funds. Although we agreed that care and attention is what these people need, not money, the financial issues still bothered Enson. We sat in silence for a time and then Enson thought back to the cat he helped. That changed his mood for the better. He had organized for a friend to go and find the cat and the thought of it recovering made him ecstatic.
After a several-hour drive, we arrived at Morioka, the capital of Iwate prefecture and our base for our daily trips to the disaster areas. After checking into our modest hotel, and catching up on some work, we headed out to get something to eat.
Tomorrow, we travel to Taro and Miyako. Two small cities that were among the hardest hit by the tsunami. Taro is completely destroyed. Miyako was the source of some of the most terrifying tsunami footage to come out of Japan.