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Japanese mayor’s YouTube plea gets big response

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MINAMISOMA, Japan » It was a desperate plea for help, spoken into a small digital camcorder by the mayor of this seemingly forsaken city, and posted on the Internet like a bottle tossed into a digital sea.

In the 11-minute recording, the mayor, Katsunobu Sakurai, described the dire situation facing Minamisoma, whose residents were still reeling from a devastating earthquake and 60-foot tsunami when they were ordered to stay indoors because of radiation leaks from Japan’s crippled nuclear plant, 15 miles away. Those who had not fled now faced starvation, he said, as they were trapped in their homes or refugee shelters by the nuclear alert, which also prevented shipments of food from arriving.

“We are left isolated,” Sakurai said urgently into the camera, his brow furrowed and his voice strained with exhaustion. “I beg you, as the mayor of Minamisoma city, to help us.”

The video, posted on YouTube a day after it was recorded late on the night of March 24, became an instant sensation, and has since drawn more than 200,000 viewers. Almost two weeks later, the city hall is still getting phone calls, most from non-Japanese calling from abroad with offers to help. The city has also received hundreds of boxes of food and other supplies from individuals, and truckloads of relief goods from nonprofit organizations.

“It’s amazing how many of these donors say they saw us on YouTube,” said Noriyoshi Saito, who works in the City Hall economic section and is in charge of handling donated goods.

Sakurai described the online plea as a turning point in Minamisoma’s struggle against the triple disaster, which for a time had transformed this city of 75,000 people into a virtual ghost town. Some 50,000 residents fled in the first two weeks after the earthquake, though a small number have begun trickling back.

Sakurai credited the large-scale response to his video with helping those who remained in the stricken city to carry on.

“Suddenly, the world was extending its hand to us,” said Sakurai, 55, an energetic man who still wears the same beige uniform as in the video, but now smiles and seems more relaxed. “We learned we’re not alone.”

Today, the city is slowly coming back to life. While the order to stay indoors remains in place, many of the remaining residents have begun to ignore it. Gas stations and convenience stores are starting to reopen. Cars are now plentiful on major thoroughfares, but most side streets and shops still remain eerily empty.

“I hope that by just opening my store I can set people’s hearts at ease,” said Yasuko Sanno, the owner of a small grocery store that was one of only a handful of businesses open recently on a shopping street. Sanno, who said she had returned after fleeing to a neighboring prefecture for nearly two weeks, had covered her shop’s windows with sheets proclaiming, “Hang in there, Minamisoma!”

In heavily damaged coastal areas, survivors were coming out to pick through the ruins for belongings, while rescue workers searched for bodies. Of the almost 1,500 people believed killed by the waves, which wiped away entire neighborhoods up to two miles inland, only 358 have been found.

City residents say things are slowly getting closer to normal, though the continuing crisis at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station still keeps the community stuck in limbo, uncertain of its fate.

Sumio Tanaka was able to reopen his sushi restaurant, Satsuki, on Monday for the first time since the earthquake. He said deliveries of food were starting to resume, though he had only a limited amount of fish from the far side of Japan, away from the nuclear plant.

While he did not know of the YouTube video, Tanaka credited the mayor for working hard to get the city back on its still wobbly feet.

“The mayor really put his heart into saving Minamisoma,” said Tanaka, 62.

Indeed, city employees said the video had drawn more attention abroad than in Japan. On a recent morning, a Japanese-American called from California to ask in halting Japanese where to send aid.

Sakurai describes the time when he made the video as the darkest moment in the disaster. Survivors had not even had time to recover the remains of loved ones from the wreckage of the tsunami when parts of the city were evacuated and people in others were ordered to remain indoors because of the plant accident. Food and fuel were running short as delivery trucks refused to enter within 18 miles of the plant, the area covered by the order to stay indoors.

“It was a terrifying time,” said Takamitsu Hoshi, a City Hall employee. “The furniture was constantly shaking from aftershocks, and we were constantly afraid of another explosion at the nuclear plant.”

Sakurai and other city employees described the video as a final call for help by a city that felt abandoned by the rest of Japan. The mayor said the city had even disappeared from news broadcasts because the reporters stationed in the City Hall press club had all run away.

In the video, titled, “SOS from Minamisoma mayor,” Sakurai spoke urgently of how city hall employees were “working under the threat of radiation.” He asked for volunteers to come to the city’s aid.

“Please help us before the contamination spreads further,” he said.

Sakurai said the idea for the video had come from local residents who came to City Hall to complain that so few volunteers were coming to help and urged him to make an appeal directly on the Internet. He admitted that he was skeptical of the idea at first, having never used YouTube. Still, he said he was desperate enough to try anything, so they shot the video in the mayor’s sparsely furnished meeting room.

“Until now, we waited for the mass media to come here and videotape us,” Sakurai recalled. “This time, we reversed the process by taking our own video and broadcasting it.”

While Sakurai spoke in Japanese, the resident who took the video, whom city officials said they did not know and could identify by only his family name, Nakata, later added English subtitles. Inquiries to the YouTube account that posted Sakurai’s video were unanswered on Tuesday, and city officials said Nakata was apparently among those who had fled Minamisoma.

While the video has remained online, Sakurai says the city’s situation has changed for the better since it was made. The city has added text to the video to tell would-be volunteers not to come because of the radiation threat, and asks that aid be sent instead. Food and fuel are flowing into the city again, though some trucking companies still refuse to come too close.

City officials said that more than anything, what the city really needed was for the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. to get the nuclear plant under control. Then the city can get on with the difficult work of cleaning up and rebuilding.

“We could have bounced back much more quickly if it were not for this nuclear accident,” said Hoshi, the City Hall employee. “It’s frustrating that our city’s fate rests in someone else’s hands.”

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