Monday, March 11, 2013

Remembering 3.11: Rinkya's CEO Tells Her Story from the Japan March 3rd, 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

When I was five years old, my parents sat me in front of the TV and showed me a movie about a giant flying turtle who shot fire out of his legs and head while spinning through the air.  They also showed me a huge dragon, the result of a nuclear detonation, who also breathed fire.  I fell in love with these two creatures, Gamera and Godzilla.  I also fell deeply in love with the country they seemed to either save or destroy in each movie.

I resolved to move there one day and be able to understand what was going on in these movies.  Studying Japanese in college, I decided it was now or never.

Being a foreigner in Tokyo wasn't easy.  But I was so high from living the dream that even everyday, mundane tasks became adventures.  I looked around in wonder the smallest things.  Nothing was a chore, because I was so intoxicated by this beautiful country and the amazing people in it.  I had found a utopia that the rest of the word had no clue existed.  I had to share it; the world needed to know.  That's when I started my company, Rinkya.  Rinkya shares my dream of Japan with the world.

Fast-forward eleven years.  My husband and I are vacationing on the very same beach that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami afflicted.  One of my staff instant messages me, "Heather, we just had a huge earthquake".  I respond, "Get out of the warehouse, NOW".  They later told me they had all calmly followed the procedures we had drilled into the staff in case of this moment.  (We'd always had earthquakes, so I wasn't worried.)  We'd wait it out, and they would return to work shortly.  I walked back to the hotel, not expecting that day my life would change so much.

In the hotel lobby, crowded around a TV, people were crying and whimpering.  We saw the tsunami roll through Iwate prefecture.  Mud, ocean, fire and destruction consumed this tiny town like Godzilla stomping through Tokyo, not waiting for people to get out of the way.  At that moment, I panicked.  I hadn't realised the gravity of the situation. I called again to make sure my people were OK, to make sure my brother and my friends were OK.  I felt a wave of guilt that I hadn't been there to protect them and help them and show them what to do.

No one answered the phone: the lines were busy.  I broke down.  Here I was, vacationing, while my poor staff, my poor brother, were going through this horror.  What if there were aftershocks?  What if there were broken gas lines and fires?  What if...?  I saw the towns of Iwate get demolished.  I imagined all those poor people, their homes, their lives, their everything.

Staring in disbelief that nature was capable of such destruction and horror, my husband and I returned to our room to monitor the situation and wait for my loved ones to get a hold of me.

To my relief, it wasn't long after that my brother finally did.  They were OK; everything was fine.  They were just scared, like me.  They felt powerless.  The same sick looping images of the destruction in Iwate appeared over and over again.  If you listened carefully enough, you could hear people screaming in terror before their voices were abruptly extinguished, like a match flame.  All that was left was the roar of the swirling, muddy ocean, knocking down stone buildings like they were toy sets in Toho studios after a guy in a rubber Godzilla suit had stomped on them.

The staff were terrified.  I told them to go home and stay home till we knew what was going on.  Rinkya was on hold.  But what happened next was something none of us could predict: while we all were in a state of mourning and apprehension, unbeknownst to us, Fukushima was preparing fresh terrors.

For the next few weeks, we couldn't get back to Japan. Every day I watched the news, praying and hoping for Fukushima to heal, scared for another earthquake.  Screaming at my staff to get out of Japan if they could.  I was naive to think the Japanese would leave: they all wanted to stay.  They were proud to be Japanese and proud to be in Japan during difficult times.

Sick with worry and the burden of guilt that I wasn't there, I waited.  My husband, Jesse, and I decided if we couldn't get home we might as well go back to the US to be with our own family.  I went home and ran the company from there.   The warehouse ran like clockwork.  They made sure that they had something to hold on to and believe in while a situation you only hear about in disaster movies developed outside.  We watched Fukushima everyday with hope that it would get better.  The rest of the world forgot, but it was still very much going on in our world.

Two weeks turned into two months. Every day, we watched the nightmare get worse.  My beautiful country, my life, everything I had worked for disappeared, but I wasn't there to grasp them or hold them or kiss them good-bye.  I wanted to go down with the ship, I thought.

In that two months, my husband and I decided something that would have been unthinkable a few short months before.  Something that broke my heart.  We decided that when it was all over, we would go back, clean up and leave Japan.

At the time, I wasn't sure I'd have to go through with it: I placated Jesse because I thought, for sure, it would be fine. I would think of a way to stay to keep us there.  After all, my company was there.  Who would run the company?

He knew though.  I was doing what they call "business development"; I hadn't been needed at the warehouse for years.  I stayed in Japan because I loved it, no other reason.  My company needed me to do what I was doing, not what I wanted to do.  Staying in Japan was an excuse for Heather to continue to love her country.  It was selfish.  It wasn't what Rinkya needed.

I vacillated between staying and leaving even though we had, in theory, decided to leave.  I tried to think of excuses, to create situations... I even thought about having Jesse move back and staying on in Japan myself.  It made me feel sick to my stomach.

In the back of my mind, though, I knew it was over.  I didn't give a shit about all the flyjin reports or anything like that.  I didn't care what people thought.  I cared about my beloved country, the life I had built, the beautiful dream I had assembled on my own, my friends, my family, my Japan.  Destroyed by a merciless, inscrutable force no one could resist or reason with.

So we went back to Japan to pick up the pieces.  At that point, things were apparently back to normal in Tokyo, making it somehow feel worse as I packed up the pieces of eleven years of my adult life.  Jesse left ahead of me to survey the new place we would move to.  I stayed behind; to throw away, to mourn, to say my good-byes.

For a year and a half, I have been living in London.  I run Rinkya from here and look for new business opportunities and partnerships.  I still go back to Japan for work.  At first I was a mess: I could barely eat, sleep, get up in the morning. I couldn't breathe. In Japan, earthquakes would jolt you out of bed at night and you would just roll over and go back to sleep.  Those nightly tremors were a strange source of comfort. Now I lay in bed, stiff like a corpse, dreaming of the home and people I so dearly loved.

Sometimes, at night, I retrace every nook and cranny of my house in Tokyo.  I retrace the steps from the genkan out to my balcony.  I walk slowly through my hallway, running my fingers over the paper walls.  I smell the sakura tree.  I listen to the subtle hum of the electricity running through the washlet in the bathroom.  I walk down to the conbini, offering a loud, strong, "Ohayo Gozaimasu!" to every person I pass, smiling, happy to be alive. Still, after eleven years, I am high on the fact I got to live in Japan.  Happy to be alive and just breathe the Japanese air in.

Then I wake up.  I'm not there anymore.  I probably never will be again.  And my heart grows heavy, for my loss and for everyone's loss in Japan.

Today I am learning to be happy and to realise why leaving was a smart move.  Today my job is to bring you the beauty of Japan, to show the entire world what an amazing little country it is, filled to the brim of beautiful people, wondrous places and things you will marvel at.  I can now go back to Japan and hug her, like an old friend.  "Hi, I'm back! Did you miss me?  I missed you!"  I feel happy and satisfied when I get on that plane to go back to London that I'll miss her, I love her, but I'll be back again.  It's a precious luxury.

I want to thank everyone at Rinkya, all our customers and staff who helped us through these difficult times.  Rinkya could not have survived without our amazing customers who called, emailed, patiently waited through delays, sent us packages and continued to buy from us.  We thank you for your help and support.  You helped us rebuild.

Today, I mourn, not for the life I once knew and loved so dearly, but for the country and the people who gave it to me.  Sure, we're a rich country and we can rebuild, but nothing will rebuild the hearts of the people who lost so much more.  I pray for them to be healed.  I pray for my beloved Japan.

"The dark, cold waters swirled around them as they tried to hold on to each other. Almost fifty years together, they stared into each others' eyes.  She couldn't hold on any more and the wife went under with her last words to him being 'dai suki'.

"I love you…"

Japan: watashi mo dai suki. (I love you too.)

Never forget.

March 11th, 2013
Heather Russell
CEO, Rinkya


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