Japan Special Operation: together we achieve more

The moment I stepped out from the metro station in central Tokyo on 16 March 2011, I noticed that the Capital was so strangely dark and quiet. The UNU HQ building, where the WFP Tokyo outpost is, was freezing cold as the heating system had been shut down. There was barely any traffic, most of the shops were closed and food items had disappeared from the shelves of stores. I had never seen Tokyo in such a state in my life.

As the first WFP Logistics Officer who arrived in Japan, the first job we had was to move the several thousand blankets that were being airlifted from Canada, India and Thailand. With the help of TNT Express Japan, WFP Japan was able to deliver 68,150 blankets by early May. Within a week of my arrival, we managed to put together a Special Operation (SO), with the assistance of the Regional Bureau of Bangkok, WFP Japan, Japan Platform, and other NGOs that were deployed to the affected area. We normally draw up Special Operations when we need to move food aid as quickly as possible, but typically they also include logistics and infrastructure work.

This SO was three-tiered: 1a) to provide logistics services, on behalf of GoJ, of bilateral relief items received from the airport, or ports in Japan; 1b) to provide logistics services for JAWFP (the Japan Association for WFP) to store and transport 625,000 rations donated by food producers, including UNILEVER; 2) to provide operational support items such as mobile storage tents and prefabricated accommodation; and 3) to provide expertise to Japan Platform by sending 4 WFP Programme Officers to enhance the capacity disaster response, monitoring and evaluation organisations, etc.

The four-month SO came to an end at the end of July 2011, and I have since had time to reflect on the operation. Any logistician would tell you that our humanitarian response varies with each emergency and that no logistics operation is ever the same as another –and this operation was no exception.

One of the special particularities were the ways in which the 45 mobile storage tents (aka Wiikhalls) and 36 pre-fabricated office/living /conference accommodation units were used in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures. The large tents were used in ways that none of our staff ever imagined. One tent was converted into a ‘shopping mall’, where local merchants got a chance to ‘revive’ their business. The most popular shop in the shopping mall was a cake shop, because the affected people had not had the chance to eat dessert for months, as they were living in evacuation centres where only limited dry rations were provided. Other units were used as volunteer/community centres, and as places to display mementos that were found under the mud and rubble. Every single photograph and photo album recovered from debris was washed and cleaned by the volunteers and displayed in the tent, in hopes that they might be returned to their owners; and some actually were.

Looking back, there are many stories to tell but three big things stick out in my mind. Firstly, the coordination between WFP, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), and all levels of local government went so smoothly. It was a coincidence that Japan’s Deputy Director of Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Relief, Ms. Yuriya Teragaki, had visited UNHRD Subang just one week before the disaster. She knew exactly what UNHRD could offer should a disaster occur, and she immediately became a MoFA focal point for this WFP operation.

The second was private sector collaboration. WFP received the maximum amount of cooperation possible from partners such as TNT Express, DHL, UPS Supply Chain Solutions, and A.P. Moller MAERSK Group.

Thirdly, we owe the success of this operation to our fellow WFP colleagues for their tireless efforts, dedication and most importantly, team work. At our peak period, we had 24 WFP staff, out of which 15 were Japanese nationals and many, ex-JPOs. We faced countless challenges and difficulties during the course of our operations, but we managed to move forward. It was not an easy working environment, with harsh weather conditions and frequent aftershocks, which caused heavy stress.

But when we heard the stories of what the affected people had experienced, our concerns and problems seemed like nothing. There were so many municipality officials, for example, who lost their families but worked non-stop for a few months for those affected, and for the sake of the town, without complaining about their situation. All of them had sad experiences but they never abandoned their jobs. It may seem contradictory, but we received the power from them to move on.

— Kazuhiko Yamazaki, Operations Coordinator, Japan Special Operation