Tohoku Earthquake Relief Mission Report (March 30, 31)
by Giles Murray
On the morning of March 30, four 4-tonne trucks left the JOICFP warehouse in Yokohama.
Loaded with goods donated by Japanese and multinational companies, they were heading for Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Ibaraki, the four prefectures hardest hit by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11.
Their cargoes―everything from Wacoal maternity pajamas and P&G diapers to Unilever shampoo and Akachan Honpo baby food―targeted the needs of pregnant women, mothers and babies in the affected areas. JOICFP has decades of experience addressing the needs of pregnant women, mothers and babies in the developing world, but this is the first time it has brought its expertise to bear in Japan.
"The need was there right in front of our eyes," explains Mariko Homma, senior program officer. "We couldn't ignore it." Women confront a unique set of problems after natural disasters, she says, and these are too often overlooked. Shock can cause breastfeeding mothers to stop lactating, or induce periods in young girls. Having to deal with problems like these in a crowded evacuation center with no privacy, few toilets and things like sanitary napkins in short supply can make an already stressful situation even more uncomfortable.
Three JOICFP staff accompanied the trucks in a minivan. "We don't just want to send the goods and have other people take care of the distribution. We want to deliver them to the right people and talk to them to get a clear idea of their needs," explains mission leader Yoshikatsu Kanno. To make sure the goods get to the people who need them JOICFP teamed up with the Japan Midwives' Association, a national body with unparalleled access to pregnant women and young mothers.
That's why that the organizer of the first distribution at Takasaki Junior High School in Tagajo, a town close to the devastated port of Sendai, was midwife Aiko Kasamatsu. Ms. Kasamatsu had assembled some 20 volunteers from the midwife community who unloaded the trucks, sorted and stacked the packages for several hours in the morning of March 31.
By 12 o'clock a line had started to form as local women who had heard about the event through flyers, radio or word-of-mouth arrived at the school. Even though Tagajo was not hit by the tsunami, it has had no electricity, gas or water since the earthquake. As shops are closed, many basic goods remain unavailable.
The distribution started at 1 o'clock, and by 3.30, when everything had gone, over 500 local women had passed through, braving a long cold wait in the sleet. One local company hearing about the event in the morning was kind enough to donate a large number of sanitary napkins that same afternoon.
Some of the women had dramatic stories to tell. Mrs. Masumi Shirahata, currently seven months pregnant, was waiting in line with her six-year-old son, Haruto. She was collecting him from kindergarten when the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11. The two of them ended up spending the night on the kindergarten's upper floor while the teachers used skipping ropes and poles to rescue parents and children who had been caught up in the tsunami. They themselves were rescued the next day by boat by the Self-Defense Force and were able to get home, where Haruto was reunited with his father.
Members of the foreign community had also heard about the event. Twenty-five-year-old Alia Abdureshit, a Uighur who has been living in Japan for five years, and her husband, Alimjam Abdurahman, thirty-four, were there with their four-year-old daughter and one-and-a-half-year-old son.
All in all, more than 500 mothers turned out. "I was most pleased to get water, diapers and baby wipes," said 29-year-old Chie Suzuki, who dropped by later in the afternoon to say thank you, her baby strapped to her front with the brand-new baby harness she had picked up at the event. "These are things it's almost impossible to get around here."
"The midwives did a fantastic job in promoting and running today's event," concluded JOICFP's Mariko Homma. "We're really lucky to have such a network. They have contacts with pregnant women, mothers and babies throughout Japan, and they know exactly what they need. This is the real grass-roots.
Giles Murray, Writer
（information from JOICFP, all photos copyright©JOICFP）