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Unsung heroes of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake

Posted March. 10, 2014 02:26,   


I haven’t been worried that much in my life. It was March 12, 2011. A day after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, I took a flight from Seoul to Fukushima, Japan. As soon as I arrived at the Fukushima airport around noon on the day, the Tokyo branch frantically kept calling me. “An accident has occurred in the Fukushima nuclear plant. Get out of Fukushima immediately.”

I took a taxi and headed toward Sendai, about 80 kilometers north of Fukushima city. Since the roads were congested with refugees, it took 12 hours for me to travel from Fukushima to Sendai, normally a two-hour distance. Throughout the travel, my mouth went dry and I felt as if I consumed one or two years of my life.

I experienced firsthand how much anxiety the fear for “invisible” radiation may cause among people. Therefore I know how great the people who are brave enough to willingly go to the place in extreme danger are.

Park Sang-hong, an official of the Korean Residents Union in Japan aka Mindan, went to Fukushima from Tokyo a few days after the accident in order to check the safety of Korean Japanese and provide the isolated with food and beverage. He had been married for four years then. His wife asked him in tears not to go, saying, “All people alive have already left Fukushima. Why do you walk into the place?”

Jeon Sang-mun, the secretary general of the Fukushima branch of Mindan, lived in his office for two months after the accident. He received relief sent from every part of Japan and distributed it for Korean Japanese while taking care of the insurance work on behalf of the affected people. He was afraid of radiation like all other people. He thought of fleeing to some safe place with his family 10 times a day. However, his family was calm. When he called his mother to see how she is, her mother responded, “Don’t worry about me, and just take care of Korean residents.” He remained on site throughout the recovery process.

Mindan collected relief supplies in Yamagata Prefecture by using the roads in the west of Japan, which were normally operated. But the problem was to send them to the affected area. Many of the roads in east Japan were destroyed and it was in short of gasoline. Then, a Korean Japanese who runs a secondhand car dealership in Sendai, came out to help. He pumped out gasoline from all of the cars in his shop and offered it to Mindan. Without his dedication, the relief supplies such as cup noodles and bottled water might have not been delivered to the people in need.

I didn’t have any meal for two days after arriving in Fukushima because the logistics system was paralyzed. As I was covering a fishing village in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, the most severely affected area, I heard some people shouting “cheer up.” Japanese volunteers brought food from Tokyo and Niigata by air and made steamed rice and soup on site for the people. Many of the journalists were in awful shape just like the refugees. I still cannot forget the first gulp of soup I had on that day. People around me were eating in tears, saying “thank you” again and again.

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the outbreak of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Due to the earthquake, over 18,000 were dead or missing and over 270,000 were displaced. Among the Korean Japanese people, about 150 households have left their home and are still living in a shelter. I have visited the site once a year after the earthquake. Whenever I go there, I gear the stories of unsung heroes. Their efforts will bring back warmth to the devastated land. I look forward to the day when such efforts give hope to all the survivors of the earthquake.