Digging Out Japan
March 17, 2023Mar 17, 2023By Joe Colistro
8 MIN READ doing good for people
KEEN's commitment to disaster relief around the world is nothing new to me; the company's response to the Thailand tsunami of 2004 was one of the things that first attracted me to the brand. Until recently, however, I hadn't had the chance to personally contribute.
I spent several years living and working in Japan when I was younger, and just barely missed being there for the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I donated to the Red Cross and watched the news religiously, but seeing the region I had lived in be so devastated from afar, and not being able to contribute in a more direct way, left a profound mark on me. So when KEEN offered me the chance to head to Nagano, Japan, and do some boots-on-the-ground relief work following the devastating typhoons there, I jumped on it immediately.
The first thing that struck me upon reaching the volunteer staging area was how precise the devastation was. Due to Nagano's positioning in a valley amongst the mountains, it was relatively safe from the gale-force winds that usually do much of the damage to the environment during a powerful typhoon. In Nagano's case what did most of the damage was the river that runs through the city. The intense rains caused the river to swell and burst through its retaining wall just north of the city's apple orchards. The resulting torrent rushed through the orchards with waters up to 7 feet high, demolishing buildings, tossing around farming vehicles and equipment, and in one instance lifting a house off of its foundation and moving it 200 yards to the south.
The first floors of pretty much every house in the area were flooded by tons of water and mud from the riverbed and rendered completely unlivable. Walking through the area felt like a ghost town, and as you moved from house to house you could visibly make out the high water marks on the side of every building, starting over 7 feet up and slowly shrinking as you walked southward.
"The muddy river water, contaminated with who knows what, was high enough that it made contact with almost every apple on the trees."
The most lasting effect, though, is likely to be the damage done to the orchards themselves. The flooding created several long-term problems for the farmers and their produce. The current harvest of apples, which was just ripening, has potentially been rendered unsellable because the muddy river water, contaminated with who knows what, was high enough that it made contact with almost every apple on the trees. The farmers, and myself, tasted several of the apples after cleaning them and found no problems, but the risk of selling them on the open market and having a consumer get sick has them worried. This problem is compounded by the fact that the flooding left a layer of mud over a foot deep across the entire area. With this much mud covering their bases and the topsoil, the apple trees are not able to get enough water and air to sustain themselves, meaning future harvests are also in jeopardy.
Our first day spent in Nagano was occupied with orientation, surveying the extent of the damage, and then we moved right into the heavy lifting. Literally. A series of houses had collapsed and the rubble had been collected in a pile in the center of an abandoned neighborhood. Due to the tight spacing there wasn't room to bring in larger equipment for lifting the long pieces of wooden beams or other assorted detritus, so the KEEN team set about dismantling the mountain of debris and loading into a series of trucks that would come to take it away. This was made more complicated by the fact that much of the rubble was connected by nails, bolts, etc, and in turn interconnected with other pieces of rubble within the pile. Taking it all apart was like playing a giant game of Jenga where you stand on top of the tower and hope that the piece you are pulling doesn't make the whole thing cave in.
To finish off the day, we set up a tent in the neighborhood where the local farmers had created a command center of sorts, and gave out free shoes for most of the evening. I wasn't able to keep a perfect count, but at the end of the night we had given away probably 200 pairs of shoes and a few dozen windbreakers. As word spread of what we were doing, more and more people showed up looking to replace shoes that had been lost in the flood. One woman left on her tiny bicycle carrying a sack full of 6 pairs, one for each family member currently living in their cousins' house down the road.
"This rubble was not just beams and washed-away tatami mats, but the remains of people's lives and memories."
After our first day we spent the night in downtown Nagano city. What I found the most shocking here was that there were really no long-term signs of typhoon damage in the heart of the city. While this may seem like a good thing, it apparently has had the unfortunate side-effect of reducing visibility to the desperate situation of the few who were in fact dramatically affected. Seeing this gave me a stronger sense of commitment to helping out the following day.
On day two we split up our efforts into two teams. One team focused on picking, cleaning, and sorting potentially salvageable apples. They then moved on to assist in digging out "breathing holes" for the affected trees. Since the entire area had over a foot of mud covering it, this team would move from tree to tree and dig out holes roughly two meters in diameter around the base of each tree, all the way down to the soil. They were assisted in this by a large group of locals who had been doing similar work for over a month, and still had a long way to go. Team two was sent to a part of the orchards that, due to geographical conditions, had turned into a sort of natural "dumping ground" for debris carried across land by the river. The river had deposited tons of debris just adjacent to what had once been a farmhouse, but was now the middle of a mud field. The mud was too deep and unstable for trucks to make it in to haul out the debris, so our task was to use the debris itself to construct a "road" to the edge of the orchard, and then carry as much of the remaining debris as we could in the remaining time to specified pick-up spots. In my haste to tackle the lifting I neglected to take a before picture, but at first glance I would estimate it at at least 2 or 3 houses worth of random stuff.
After completing the "road" we began to clear out the debris. For most of us, this was when the extent of the damage started to hit home. This rubble was not just beams and washed-away tatami mats, but the remains of people's lives and memories. There were family photos, dressers that still contained clothing or accessories, children's toys, remains of household shrines (a Shinto tradition in Japan), and many more items that radiated the personalities of their former owners. Anything that struck us as especially valuable and still intact we stored near our break site and left there, hopefully to find their ways home at some point.
By the time the sun went down, we had somehow managed to move roughly 80% of the debris, with the exception of some larger pieces like water heaters, oil drums, and a completely mangled tractor. We were told by Kuro-san that his team would finish up the next day and that our road would likely stay in use for the coming weeks. Indeed, even as we were leaving, several local women had come out and begun to continue our work by carrying whatever they could down our road and to the drop-off sites.
Before heading back to Tokyo we had several conversations with a group of apple farmers about their future plans. A recurring theme was that they were just too worried about causing consumers to get sick by eating contaminated apples and thus were considering just selling their farms. We discussed possible solutions, including having KEEN Japan reach out to some NGOs and universities we have connections with to test the produce for them. If the apples are certified safe, we offered to help them with branding and circulating the news that not only are their apples safe and delicious, but each purchase would now go toward helping a disaster-stricken community. By far the biggest win of the trip was seeing the farmers' newfound optimism, as many were now tabling the thought of selling their farms and giving up their way of life for good.
About two months have passed since my visit to Japan, and I recently had the opportunity to visit again. I was not able to go to Nagano, but I spoke with members of Open Japan, the NGO that we worked with, who tell me that although volunteers are still sparse, the relief work is going well. I spoke with these folks at a KEEN event where we had made apple-turnovers with apples brought in from Nagano, and industry guests were greeted with a table telling the story of Nagano, the typhoon, and the journey this fruit had taken to get to their table. While I was unable to confirm that the affected farmers had all decided to continue on with their farming, I was told that more trees survived than originally expected and that the locals are getting more optimistic by the day. Japan is a disaster-prone country. But, in my experience, their constant contact with natural disasters has given the people a stronger ability to rebound. I say this in no way to mitigate what these people have gone through, but rather to convey my own hope and belief that these farmers and locals will not give up and within a year we will start to see a return to the apple harvests that have kept the region famous for so long.
Since 2003, we’ve donated more than $19 million to nonprofit organizations and causes around the world through disaster relief, shoe donations, and grants. Learn more about our history of taking action and how we put our values in motion.