Watching the Line in Northern Japan, a Difficult Task


One of the most difficult tasks I had to do was watching the line. Setting up the stations and unpacking the trucks filled with life’s necessities was the easy part. The heavy lifting, the moving and staging requires little thinking and concerns. The boxes ranged in size and weight and as long as more was still coming out of the trucks, there was more to give.

People appeared from nowhere at times. While setting up,  I’d look back from the distribution station and would notice the line getting longer and longer. The organizers made sure that the group waiting was set farther away from the distributed items in order to allow us to bring more things and make sure that the people selecting goods had enough space and time.

For me, managing and watching the line was difficult. It was hard as I sent groups 5 at a time ahead to the station. It was not that the crowd was unruly. Quite the contrary. They were extremely quiet and calm. During the waiting I was able to interact with each one of them. When I sent 5 and the 6th person remained with me. I felt obligated to reassure them. ” Don’t worry, don’t worry, there’s a lot of things for all of you…” I’d say. As long as the person near the aid station waived to me to send another group, I was temporarily relieved. My greatest concern was that we’d run out and I would have to send many of them away empty handed.

Many waiting had waited earlier in the day in the soup line and then they came to the line to get life essentials such as clothing, toiletries, and such. Now they were in this new line for groceries. It was a day of lines, a day of waiting, and a day of not knowing what to expect. Already worn and weary, many told me that they finally got electricity back in their homes. No gas, no water, but now at least they have electricity. Some opted to break the awkward silence by trying to talk to me in English. One man said out of the blue “American and Japan truly best friends, that I now know…”  I responded to him in Japanese “That’s true, that’s most certainly true…” It was nice to get a few that made the best of the situation.

What I was noticing was that many in line had no idea what was ahead. I assumed that the routine was already set. But I was wrong. When a man asked me what was there, “I said vegetables, rice, cooking oils, and meat…” the man was taken back? “Meat” he said. “Yes meat” I replied. He was so happy that he spread both arms out and waived them as he was talking aloud. “Beef, or chicken, beef or chicken, what will I have…” he jubilantly said. “Both, go for both, there’s enough I think for you to get both..” I responded. I looked back, got the signal. “Mr. you can go now…” Then he bowed and scurried ahead. For a moment, I just thought he was odd.

Then as the ques of 5 repeated their forwarding, I mentioned it again to a lady who found herself 6th in a group and was held back. I bowed slightly towards her and told her that she was in a good place. I told her that the wait is not much longer. She softly asked me what was there. I again mentioned the list of things. When I said meat, she sank back. Then she tilted her head and told me that she’s not had meat or full meals in one month. I was taken back.
I nodded and could not find what to say. I just bowed again and when it was her turn to go, I signaled politely for her to go. I looked back at the line. If ever there was an iteration that was a revelation that was it. Most of the people there had not had meat and or regular meals in days. This line would sustain them for a few more days. Staring at the line in a different light, I was fearful that we’d run out. I had no idea what was left, but I was hoping. As the ques moved on and the line slowly thinned out, I could see that everyone was leaving full of things. When the last two people moved forward I stepped away and had to buckle over slightly resting my hands on my knees. I felt like I just ran the race of my life.
I worked my way back up and saw that here were still things left. The people had taken what they needed and made sure there was enough for everyone else. I was elated that we had run out of people before we ran out of things to give. The persons in line waiting the longest and were last, left with more than enough. Watching the line, watching this type of line was one of the most difficult things to do. The final two people were older women that came on bikes and one had a tiny dog in a basket. Both or them were ecstatic when they received their things. Even within these circumstances there’s always a way a smile can find its way.

That day was bright and brilliant. Clear skies, good weather, and we did something that made a difference. I felt that things were slowly moving on the very long road ahead towards rebuilding. Then that night, a 7.1 quake stuck. Shook the building where I was staying and kept shaking all of us for a long time. My first thoughts after regaining my things and composure was of the people we had just helped. They had one of their better days, but  it ended like this. Now, their electricity which had just came back was gone. Back in the dark, back in the cold. It was more reality than necessary. My next thought was that the line was worth it. For it helped them carry on.

Linh Vien Thai
Linh Vien Thai is Amerasian, born in Dalat, South Vietnam, where he continued to lived during the war. He left for the U.S. and is now an American living in Tokyo. He enjoys adventure traveling and doing what's right to make the world a better place.
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