On 11 March 2011, the Tohoku region of North-East Japan was hit by a magnitude 9.0 megathrust undersea earthquake, the most powerful earthquake known to have hit Japan. This triggered massive tsunami waves reaching heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft). The damage was on an unprecedentedly colossal scale: the entire coastal region was razed to the ground, resulting in loss of almost 20,000 lives, 125,000 homes and the destruction of livelihood and infrastructure. As a result of the ensuing nuclear disaster, residents within 10-20 km radii of the plants were also evacuated. Temporary shelters were provided in the aftermath, but animals were not permitted, leaving many pet owners with a choice of homelessness or abandoning their pets. Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS) was founded in the immediate aftermath of the disaster as collaboration of three established and registered rescue NPOs in Japan.
Ulara Nakagawa is a Tokyo-based writer and former associate editor of The Diplomat. She has worked for organizations including the The Ministry of Education, The Economist Group and has written for publications including The Diplomat, The Japan Times and CNN.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. So how did you get involved with JEARS?
On March 12, the day after the terrible tragedy that struck north-eastern Japan, I was sitting at home reading Twitter updates and news reports over the internet of the devastating effects the earthquake and tsunami. I felt totally helpless and useless and paralyzed still with shock. Then, I just happened to get an email from a friend from the Philippines, Ashley Fruno, who is a senior campaign manager for PETA Asia-Pacific… She told me she was flying in the next morning, on assignment to head up to the affected areas and try and save as many animals in need as possible. She asked me if I knew somebody with a local driver’s license who’d be willing to drive a rented car up there. I started asking around while it became apparent that a lot of others also felt as frustrated and helpless as I, because of the danger of big aftershocks, their families were reluctant to let them go up to the region and risk their lives for the cause. Eventually she was able to find through connections someone who was willing to drive – the amazing and fearless founder of the Animal Friends Niigata shelter in Japan, Isabella Galleon-Aoki.
At that point I realized that maybe they could use another body? I can’t drive but thought if there was anything I could do as a pair of extra hands… so I sort of timidly suggested to Ashley I’d volunteer to go along … if they’d have me. I decided on a whim. Isabella had already started talking to two other shelters / NPOs based in Japan, Heart Tokushima and Japan Cat Nework about starting a coalition to help animals affected by the disaster. So I just sort of ended up becoming a part of the first animal rescue response team with JEARS and I helped to set up their Facebook page as I had some experience in doing that from my job at The Diplomat. (I was also planning to do some reporting for The Diplomat as associate editor, as part of the journey.)
Wow. I applaud your courage… I remember being awestruck at the sense of collective solidarity in Japan that seemed to characterize the aftermath. Did you see a lot of people like you and the JEARS volunteers offering aid?
At the time I went up there, I didn’t see any organized volunteer efforts. Really it was just the army pulling out corpses from the smoking rubble and survivors going back to their destroyed homes to look for salvagable belongings… But in the days, weeks and months following, there was of course a tremendous showing of solidarity and volunteer effort – not just amongst Japanese people but also from members of the expat community and volunteers coming in from around the world. It still goes on today, and whenever I hear stories or watch the news I am amazed with the courage, dignity and strength that all these compassionate and brave people have.
I can’t imagine the horror of being amid that devastation, not to mention the danger to aid workers. Did you have to look hard to find animals in need of aid?
Sadly, in the days immediately following the disaster, there weren’t many animals in need of aid, in the highly devastated areas at least. All people and their pets and lifestock in those places had literally been sucked into the sea. Very tragic. We did find a few people walking with their dogs and left food and supplies. It is more the long-term situations that sees people and animals in dire need of aid (e.g. not being able to bring their beloved pets into evacuation centres… cities running short on drinking water and pet food.. etc etc. The list really goes on and on).
A man and his dog reunited by a rescue worker.
On that note, I’d like to ask you about the public response to JEARS’ work. The nature of JEARS has prompted some pretty negative reactions amongst those who think disaster relief should be focused on people rather than animals. I’ve noticed that you handled such criticism very diplomatically in the past – is this a reaction JEARS still faces, and what is your response to critics?
Well, I think the main thing people tend to leave out in that sort of argument is that disaster relief for animals is also providing a service to the affected people. Think about it. You’ve just lost your home, your community, members of your family, friends, photos, memories…everything. Somehow you and your pet dog made it out alive. Then you’re faced with the reality that you cannot keep him in the temporary shelter by your side? And how are you going to keep him alive with no food and water? That is when a group like JEARS comes in. They would go to the centres and talk to people and do what they could to help – whether supply food and water, or offer a safe warm shelter for their pets until people could find stability again.
People clinging to their pets was a common sight amid the devastation.
Similarly, with livestock, a lot of farmers depended on their animals for their livelihood. To help those animals is to help the people hold on to whatever tiny fragment of their lives they had. It’s giving them hope.
Finally, I personally believe that compassion and acting on compassion doesn’t have to be limited to one area. Anywhere you feel you can help you should.
Those are great points. In fact I read recently about Benji, one of JEARS rescue dogs who was reunited with his overjoyed family who had lost everything else. Have there been any cases like Benji’s that have stood out for you?
Yes. I’ll never forget one of the first people we spoke to when we drove into Sendai city, Miyagi Prefecture on March 14. It was just an unassuming elderly woman we saw who was walking on the sidewalk with her sheltie. We figured since she was a pet owner at least, we could ask her what the pet supply situation in the area was. Well, we were shocked to discover that she lived on the very edge of one of the most affected areas (by the tsunami) called Natori and that her house had been somewhat damaged by the earthquake. She said that neigbors came to tell her to evacuate to a nearby shelter (elementary school), but since she couldn’t bring her dog Yusuke with her, so far she’d been stayed in her shaking house for 3 days, alone, just holding a traumatized Yusuke. She broke down and started crying then, and thanked us over and over for coming to help and asked us to help as many people and their pets as possible.
Benji reunited with his family
Were locals who had lost their homes aware of JEARS and did many ask for help, or was most of the work carried out proactively by volunteers?
I think Japanese people don’t tend to ask for help. They have that sort of grace and diginity. So volunteers definitely have to carry out their work and outreach in a very proactive manner.
Since about two weeks after the tragedy, there has predictably been very little press coverage by [the international media] – if I didn’t have friends in Japan and keep up with sources like The Diplomat, I wouldn’t have much idea about how Japan has been doing since. I gather aftershocks are still frequent and there is still a widespread fear of radiation poisoning, even in Tokyo. As a resident of Japan, journalist and aid worker, what can you tell us about the current situation?
Hmmm that’s a tough one. Actually yesterday there was a magnitude 5.5 as I was sitting on a Starbucks patio in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I think it is going to remain a physical and psychological burden for Japan for a long time still to come. I haven’t actually been up there myself since March so I am not sure but I do have friends that are there every day volunteering – and they say the degree of the damage was so intense that the disaster relief effort has no end in sight – people and communities are struggling with one problem after another and it could take years for them to get back up on their feet.
As for the animal situation – it is dire, to say the least.
The next big issue will be the beef cows abandoned in Fukushima’s 20 km and 30 km evac zones who will die of slow starvation and freezing over the winter. The government refuses to humanely euthanize them (most likely due to funding although they’ve just announced they’re allocating 1.5 billion yen in funds for a campaign to promote the safety of nuclear energy – please check this for facts – not entirely sure exactly what it was). Also there are hundreds of animals that JEARS is bearing the weight of, funding is running dangerously low… It is actually a very serious situation right now for the animals who the international media has forgotten.
So you could say it’s getting worse?
Yes. I can safely say it is getting worse for many animals right now.
Does the situation apply largely to livestock or are “domestic” animals also still in a bad way? And is it so bad that euthanization is the only realistic route for those animals, or are they within saving, if other help can be given?
Domestic animals are also still in a bad way – especially in the Fukushima evacuation zone. Recent stories from volunteers describe horrific horrific scenes… very sad. Carcasses of domestic dogs and cats everywhere on street… animals just roaming around. I would guess euthanization is the only humane solution of course best case would be if the government could transport them out of the abandoned areas to a safer space. But then there are fears of radiation on them – and if they aren’t ‘worth’ something, who would take them in? There aren’t any farm sanctuaries – at least that I know of – here in Japan.
One story I heard from a friend in Japan was that cattle had to be slaughtered because they were given polluted (radioactive) feed.
Urgh – that is so sad. But really, I dont think they are even being slaughtered.
Abandoned cattle in Fukushima
Literally being “put out to pasture”?
I heard from a friend who recently went there – like 2 weeks ago … that she went and saw abandoned chicken and dairy farms and those animals were just left in cages to starve and die slowly, with food within arm’s reach from their faces.
Yes it’s quite unbearable to think. And it is infuriating that the Japanese government won’t do anything and that most people even here don’t know the situation. I think a lot of people want to help but how can they? They won’t let people into the area and they won’t do it themselves so… I think it is a huge failure on the Japanese government and it should be held accountable.
I was just going to ask, What do you think the public response would be if they did know? But as you say, what can they do? It must be a desperately frustrating situation.
Well I do think it would make a difference if the public knew. I think people – whether in Japan or not – always care. But how can they when they don’t have the facts?
Have there been any public attempts to place accountability?
The Japanese media is very tightly controlled and has strong ties to the govt from what I’ve heard.
Have JEARS or any other organizations been able to carry out any PR/awareness campaigns? Presumably that would have heavy implications for funding – but would that help?
I think the problem now is that with so many animals to care for… hundreds – maybe 600 at least if not 700, the three shelters that comprise JEARS have their hands utterly full. But yes, I think if they had more resources to work with, certainly awareness campaigns and PR would have a huge impact. Yes funding is a major major issue for JEARS now.
How can people help?
Anyone who wants to support JEARS can do so via the Info section of their Facebook page where there is information on how to donate to each shelter’s amazon wishlist, or you can directly contact the Animal Friends Niigata and HEART Tokushima shelters, which are housing hundreds of JEARS animals by email to find out how you can help:
HEART Tokushima: Susan@HEART-Tokushima.com
Animal Friends Niigata (AFN): firstname.lastname@example.org
And those interested in keeping up with JEARS’ progress can follow them on their Facebook page, where they regularly post news and updates.