Toothbrushes to Tsunami Victims

North Korean defector donated 20,000 toothbrushes to tsunami victims

A North Korean defector couple have donated 20,000 toothbrushes to victims of the recent tsunami. When the Great Earthquake struck Eastern Japan on March 11, I was in an office in Osaka City. An office worker at a nearby desk suddenly cried, “Earthquake!” Another man who was there went outside to listen to his car radio. He shouted, “There’s a 6-meter tsunami warning!”

Nonstop television broadcasts showed unimaginable misery. The people who lived in the affected area must have grown up hearing about the dangers of tsunamis from the elderly… but I could not put those thoughts into words. Then, even after the tsunami seemed to be over, it struck a second time, and a third.

As the number of victims soared, my heart ached for those who had thought they were high enough to escape the water, and those who had died waiting futilely for rescue.

Distressed without toothbrushes

Back in 2000, Mr. Kawai fled North Korea. He narrowly escaped death as he made his way to Japan via Russia. He received help from many different people before he finally reached this country, but settling down here was not a smooth road.In the middle of all this, I was contacted by my old friend Mr. Kawai, a North Korean defector. He had a request. “I want to send 20,000 toothbrushes to the disaster area. It seems that many people are without toothbrushes. Would you come with me to the site where they collect relief supplies?”

His first job was as a construction worker, then he served as a dispatched traffic control worker, and next as a household handyman. His life was so unstable that he sometimes felt like giving up, but now he and his wife run an inn that caters to Korean tourists. His work is finally stable.

“Being able to return to Japan and receiving help from Japanese people made it possible for me to achieve so much. At this point, I have no excuse for refusing to return the favor. My wife and I discussed what we could do, and we decided to donate all the toothbrushes we had purchased for the opening of our inn.”

Toothbrushes sent to the disaster area

In Korea, hotels typically do not provide toothbrushes. Remembering this, Mr. Kawai appealed to his Korean guests to understand that people in the disaster area are being forced by circumstances to do without many necessities, including toothbrushes. That is why he and his wife decided that they would not provide toothbrushes for guests until the earthquake disaster was settled.

His wife immediately sent an email to the Korean travel agency to ask for their understanding, saying that all the toothbrushes at their inn would be sent to the disaster area instead, and that guests visiting the inn should bring their own toothbrushes. With this, the aid supplies were secured.

Now all that was left was to deliver them. Nevertheless, this was our organization’s first time to do something like this, so we had no idea how or where to deliver all those toothbrushes.

It took a lot of phone work

Calling here and there, Mr. Kawai learned that the place for donating supplies was not in Osaka City but out in the suburb of Settsushi. I know the traffic routes and roads of Osaka city where I live, but how would we get to the aid collection site? However, he had asked me to accompany him, so, grabbing a roadmap, I rushed over.

Oh, and one other problem – no relief supplies were being accepted from individuals. We would have to do this under the LFNKR name. On 50 cardboard boxes, each containing 400 toothbrushes (total value 100,000 yen) we pasted an A4 (letter sized) label saying “certified NPO (specified non-profit corporation) Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.” In the end, since he had asked me to accompany him, and because we had to use the foundation’s name, the donation of 20,000 toothbrushes was officially accepted as coming from LFNKR.

A great weight lifted from his shoulders

Luckily, the traffic was light and we easily reached the warehouse where they were accepting relief supplies. We handed the person in charge one of my LFNKR business cards, and they agreed to let us leave the boxes.

On the way home, my friend said something that impressed me deeply: “Being able to send these aid supplies lifted a great weight from my shoulders.” To this point, he had never felt able to repay the many Japanese people and Japanese society that had helped him in his own time of need. This act had helped him feel a little more like he had become a real part of Japanese society.

There is no place that I am more grateful for

When he was a child of about 7, his parents, ethnic Koreans living in Japan, had moved with him to North Korea. His experience in that country is something that cannot possibly be imagined by those of us who have always lived in freedom. I have heard him tell stories that are beyond belief – things that go beyond ordinary words. In the late 1990s, for example, he was starving, and in order to survive he ate enough grass, he says, to fill 10 dump trucks. The inside of his mouth even became grass colored! My jaw drops anytime he tells his incredible but true stories.

It was really good to get back to Japan

“It was incredibly good to return to Japan. In this place, you get what you work for, as long as you fulfill your obligations and obey the law. There is no place that I am more grateful for,” What he said left a deep impression on me. After hearing his many stories about North Korea, where irrational acts go unchallenged and innocent people are routinely put to death, I think his attitude is entirely natural.

The freedom that we take for granted in Japan is so precious to him that his feelings of gratitude are almost beyond words. In this land, where we should all be grateful, people who suffer from a natural disaster should never be ignored.

Since donating those toothbrushes to the disaster victims, my friend seems renewed.