On Friday March 11th, I was woken early by the beep of my blackberry. My younger sister was texting me, asking if I had seen the news; Japan had been hit by a massive earthquake and several coastal towns had been destroyed by tsunami that followed. Japan had been our home as children, and we still had close friends living throughout the country. Congested phone lines made it impossible to call anyone so I began frantically reaching out via email and Facebook to friends in Japan, as well as Japanese friends here in the States. One of my first emails went out to the sous chef at the restaurant where I have just completed a nine-month externship. Like so many others he replied that he hadn’t been able talk to his family yet, but remained hopeful that they were safe.
Over the next few days, I became ravenous for any information related to Japan. The ping from TweetDeck rang out constantly as the magnitude of the situation began to unfold. I kept one window on my computer constantly open to Facebook, where status updates revealed the whereabouts of friends, and provided up-to-the-minute news of events occurring in Tokyo, Chiba, Fukushima, Sendai, and elsewhere.
News footage of the tsunami hitting the Tohoku region was heartbreaking. The landscape was all so familiar—a patchwork of rectangular rice paddies punctuated by farmhouses with sloped roofs. Rows of black plastic sheets housing new seedlings. Tiny vehicles driving down the narrow roads between farms. It’s impossible to find words to describe what I felt physically and emotionally as I watched that wall of water bulldoze over the land, dragging houses, boats and cars several miles inland.
When I was eight years old my family lived just a couple blocks away from the ocean in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture. My brothers and I spent countless afternoons collecting sand dollars and rescuing starfish that had washed up with the tide. It had only been my home for a year, but seeing images of the tsunami waves swirling off the coast and then the destruction of the Oarai port was nonetheless gut wrenching to watch.
Other feelings began to set in after the initial shock wore off. Guilt for being comfortable and safe while so many others were suffering. Frustration for not being able to help. And finally depression. Feeling that what I do doesn’t make much of a difference in the world. People always say, “Do what you love”. Well, I love food. So I cook, develop recipes and write about food. I don’t save lives or alter the world in any great way. Most of the time I love it, but when a disaster like this happens it’s hard not to question my life choices.
Judging my daily contribution to the world may have offered a harsh reality check, but it also lent clarity. Thankfully, I believe I have found a use for my particular skills.
On April 10th I’m putting on a fundraiser for Second Harvest Japan, an organization that is on the ground offering real, tangible assistance to those who have been hit hardest. I may not be able to hand out food and water in the stricken areas of Japan, but I can help those who are.
Upon deciding to hold this fundraiser, I reached out to the same sous chef, this time asking if he was interested in helping me cater the event. He responded quickly and enthusiastically, following up a couple days later to let me know that six other cooks from our kitchen and around the city had volunteered their services as well. Chef called later that day to offer his help and to tell me that he would be hosting a large fundraiser at the restaurant.
I’ve come to realize that chefs are some of the most generous responders to crises. Restaurants host fundraisers, donate gift certificates for charity auctions and set aside a percentage of diner’s tabs for relief efforts. When a disaster strikes cooks reach out to each other, looking for ways to contribute what they can.
Often, what they can contribute is simply their ability to give food to others. NHK World ran a story about a ramen shop owner who lost his home in the tsunami. At night he stays in a shelter, but during the day he opens his small ramen shop and serves bowls of noodles to whomever he can. For many staying in shelters, where a typical meal consists of two cold rice balls, this ramen is the only hot meal available to them.
Tens of thousands of people have lost everything in the earthquake and tsunami. There is an urgent need for medical care, especially for Japan’s many elderly who, along with children, have been particularly affected by this disaster. Just yesterday, Kyodo news reported that 320,000 people are staying at 2,100 makeshift shelters in 16 prefectures throughout Japan. It appears that some shelters are still without water, electricity and have very little food. But forget the figures and stats for a brief moment, close your eyes and picture those shelters… Terrified mothers trying to remain brave for their children, elderly who have just lost everything staunchly focused on the current day, because thinking about their future is beyond daunting. Almost everyone has lost a family member or close friend, with poor communication between the hardest hit areas all they can do is wait with fleeting hope that their loved ones are safe.
The news of the disaster in Japan affected everyone differently. For those of us who grew up there, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. To see a country that you love and call home so damaged is painful. There is no doubt that in time Japan will heal and emerge stronger and more beautiful than ever. But today they need our help. Take a moment to look at the skills and resources you possess and see if there isn’t more you can do to aid the relief efforts. Let’s do everything that we can to ensure that those suffering in Japan get medical treatment, blankets, fuel, water and hopefully many more hot meals.Check out these links (one, two and three) to see how others are using their skills to aid in the relief effort.