Arwen Niles shares her experiences in Japan

Recently, I was contacted by Arwen Niles, who introduced herself to me as such:

I’m from Akron, but now live in Japan, just east of Tokyo. I moved there in 2007. I came back to the US on the 18th and will arrive in Akron on March 25th. My husband is in the Japanese Self-Defense Force and is now deployed in Fukishima, where the nuclear reactors are.

Arwen came back to Akron to try to get involved in as much fundraising for Japan as possible. I asked her if she would be willing to write a guest post to share her experiences in Japan, and she obliged.  Here’s her story:

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Niles and her husband, Masanori, who is currently deployed in Fukishima (Image via Kazuhiro Nobi/AFP/Getty)

On Friday, March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake hit just off the coast of northeastern Japan. I was at home in my tatami room at 2:46 PM, and, like so many others, I knew from the first tremors that this earthquake was different. Instead of subsiding, the shaking grew more violent, gaining momentum and pitching things from shelves and cabinets. Gathered outside in the park for the next hour and a half, people knew there would be devastation—phone lines were out, buildings had caught fire, roads had buckled—but the extent of the tragedy has proved to be, quite literally, beyond the imagination. People outside of the coastal Tohoku areas watched helplessly as a tsunami bulldozed entire towns, smashing and splintering whatever it didn’t just swallow whole. And then, as if the tsunami and recurring aftershocks weren’t terrifying enough, news spread of the cooling failure and ensuing explosions at several units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

It’s now been over two weeks, and while there have been amazing rescues and incredible sacrifices, the situation in Fukushima has not improved and almost half a million survivors and their pets remain displaced. Foreign media reports claiming nuclear meltdown, panic buying of dwindling supplies, and fraudulent aid organizations make it difficult for people to sift out reliable, useful information. Expats interviewed outside the worst-hit areas were re-contacted by the media and asked if they might be able to remember a few more tragic details. Stories from Tokyo, where people returned to a near-normal schedule as quickly as possible, were run alongside images of demolished coastal towns further north. The news showed shelves barren of some goods, while panning over that which was actually available.

Journalists warned of mushrooming scams fronting as charities, and advised an already nervous public to wait before donating, while bloggers opined on whether Japan was a country that truly needed or deserved assistance, questioning whether anyone needed to donate at all. The extent of damage, now estimated at over 310 billion dollars—making this the world’s costliest natural disaster—was downplayed, while the false belief spread that Japan is both a rich and selfish country that is entirely capable of rebuilding without anyone else’s help, thankyouverymuch. There have been multiple reports bemoaning refused aid and government red-tape, without noting that many countries share the same policies when it comes to accepting and allocating outside aid. Meanwhile, mentions of Japan’s development and relief work around the world are few and far between. These misunderstandings have resulted in just a fraction of the charitable giving seen immediately after both Hurricane Katrina and Haiti’s 2010 earthquake (roughly 10% according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University).

In fact, the Japanese and foreign communities in Japan took advantage of their local presence and adaptability to provide some of the first aid to reach affected areas. Through a network of volunteers, potential donors were able to quickly receive needs assessments and arrange for the distribution of supplies. One of the ad hoc organizations to arise from the disaster and coordinated relief efforts is Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS), a coalition of three long-standing, registered no-kill groups in the area: Japan Cat Network, HEART Tokushima and Animal Friends Niigata. (You can read a recent interview with Animal Friends Niigata founder Isabella Gallaon-Aoki, remarking on the need for a national animal welfare organization in Japan, here )

All funds received by JEARS go directly to animal search and rescue, food, shelter and treatment, and fostering and re-homing. JEARS is committed to keeping together or reuniting as many pets and people as possible, delivering animal supplies to shelters, hospitals and local citizens in tsunami-affected areas. For those animals who haven’t yet been reunited with their families, or who were left behind by people evacuating Japan, JEARS is also working with Animal Refuge Kansai to help set up a network of foster homes throughout the country.

While there have been many heartwarming stories of JEARS-assisted rescues and reunions, of particular interest to me is their commitment to the animals of Fukushima. My husband, Masanori, is in the Japanese Self Defense Force and has been delivering supplies and visiting residents just outside the 12 mile evacuation zone surrounding the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. He tells me about the animals still in the area, such as the thin, wild cats and the filthy dogs that run alongside SDF trucks as they leave. It’s true that there is still a lot of concern about going near the power plant and what to do with the animals found there, but according to David Wybenga, one of the founders of JEARS, while volunteers will not be pressured to go into these areas, food and supplies can be made available for others to pick up, and no animal will be euthanized simply for having been exposed to radiation.

Because JEARS is an organization that I personally support with both my own money and time, and one of the groups I had in mind when deciding to return to the US to help raise funds for Japan’s disaster relief, I was surprised and impressed to see that the people of northeast Ohio had already created an enjoyable—and delicious—event for me to join. I’m looking forward to being able to help people in my home in Japan by carrying out the work that’s being generously made possible by people from my home here in Ohio.

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Arwen Niles is an Akron native living in Japan. She’ll be at the bake sale (TOMORROW!) from 1 to 2pm to help sell goodies and talk about some of the other Japan fundraisers in the area. If you would like to get involved with any of her fundraising efforts, she can be reached at giving.japan@gmail.com.

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4 responses to “Arwen Niles shares her experiences in Japan

  1. What an incredible story! Thank you Arwen for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Miss the bake sale? You can still help. | The Akron Vegan Bake Sale for Japan

  3. Hey, Arwen. Great story. Did you ever stay in England, notably Todmorden?

  4. Stuart~ I did! My working holiday in…1999?

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