Remember Japan

Looking Back at the Deadly Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster

Genki Kino, perched on the nose at Fukushima before the nuclear disaster. In the background you can make out the infamous nuclear power facility. Photo: Takahashi

Four months after the Great East Japan Earthquake spawned a tsunami that claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the world’s focus on Japan has begun to fade. Between the apocalyptic walls of burning water, the ensuing nuclear power disaster, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, it was easy for us to feel like the disaster was simply too much to comprehend. Unfortunately, it was even easier for us to forget. As the waters receded and the cleanup efforts began, coverage of the event waned and Japan fell to the back of our collective minds.

But some of us can’t forget. For surfers like Nick Mita, a Honolulu man with strong ties to Japan, the tsunami is always there. A standout surfer in Town, Nick competes on the Japanese circuit for half of the year and spends the other half working a day job in Hawaii. Even today, he can vividly recall watching in horror as places that he likened to second homes were purged of their buildings and people. Prior to the tsunami, the town of Sendai, one of the hardest-hit areas, was marked by some of Japan's most fertile beachbreaks, so much so that the town played host to one of the most popular contests on the Japanese circuit. It was a special place for Nick. Today, it's a wasteland.

"Japan is like a second home to me. I have friends there, favorite places to eat, favorite places to surf. Sendai had some of the best waves in Japan in the winter. When I was watching the tsunami live on CNN, it felt like I was watching my friends die in front of my eyes. I felt helpless, like there was nothing I could do about it," recalls Nick. "I called my uncle, my close friends, but there was no answer. Not even from people in Tokyo. The lines were filled up. That got me really worried. I had a hard time sleeping that night and I definitely said some prayers. I still pray every single night for the people there."

In the days following the deluge that seemed to clearcut Sendai and much of Japan's northeastern coast, word of the growing nuclear crisis in the town of Fukushima began to spread. Damaged by the tsunami, three of the six battered nuclear reactors in the town experienced a meltdown and subsequently leaked hazardous nuclear materials into the land, water, and air. And like Sendai, Fukushima was also a renowned Japanese surf haunt known for its idyllic beachbreaks that skirted the nuclear reactors. The town is now considered too toxic to fully inhabit.

In April, TEPCO, the agency originally responsible for maintaining the nuclear plants, announced that 520 tons of radioactive water had leaked into the sea through cracks over a six-day period. With radiation levels still high and some of the reactors still not under control, some experts state that it could take decades for life in Fukushima to find some sense of normalcy. Surfing in the area, for the time being, is out of the question.

For Honolulu's Jun Jo, a one-time pro turned retailer and co-founder of the brand In4mation, the devastation he saw in Japan spurred the drive to give back. With a deep-seeded history with the people of Japan--like many Hawaii pros, Jun competed and spent decades traveling through Japan--he just had to take action. And with the help of other Honolulu-based retailers, the Aloha for Japan relief effort was born. In the ensuing months, according to Jun, the sale of the Aloha for Japan tee shirts would raise an estimated 6 million dollars.

“We started Aloha for Japan as a group effort with a few other retailers in the area like Fitted, Barefoot League, Buti Groove and our company, In4mation. We actually had the idea to get together as a group and do something that would benefit the local community before the earthquake hit," says Jun. "But once that happened, we got together for an emergency meeting to see if there was something we could do to help. We all work with graphic designers and we came up with the Aloha for Japan logo and theme right there. A few days later we had the shirts printed and in the shops and it started to gain a lot traction in the media. We partnered with the local government and banks in Hawaii and it really started to snowball from there.”

Although the amount of money raised is staggering, for Jun and the others behind the Aloha for Japan project, a truer measurement of success was found in the solace that they were able to show the people of Japan that they were not alone.

“The fact that we’ve raised nearly 6 million dollars is amazing,” added Jun, “but it’s not just about the money. It’s about showing support for Japan and that we’re still behind them. That we’re still here to help."

If there’s a common thread to be found between surfers both directly and indirectly affected by the devastation in Japan, it’s the urge to not be forgotten. To remember.

“I think a lot of people have already forgotten about what happened in Japan,” says Jun, but that’s the nature of the media today. It’s a new headline every day. The people in Japan are some of the hardest working in the world. It’s the norm to work from 8 to midnight six days a week. They’ll rebuild and come back. I’m sure of it.”

Like Jun, Nick Mita also believes that Japan can bounce back from this disaster, but they’ll need our help and support to do it.

“I don’t want people to forget about Japan. They are far from recovered. So, in any way you can, please help. And hey, if you’re out surfing and you see someone from Japan, say hi, shake their hand. Show some aloha. Make them smile. Give them a wave. One wave…it could be a wave that this guy will never forget for the rest of his life.  As we say in hawaii, show your aloha.”