Closer to Home: Wizards Extend Helping Hand to Japanese Earthquake Victims

On March 11th at 4:46 a.m. EST, while members of the Washington Wizards organization slept peacefully and undisturbed, an estimated 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan; creating a tsunami that engulfed communities and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

It was determined to be the world’s fifth most powerful earthquake, the country’s worst since the turn of the 20th century. The aftershocks were said to have been felt months later.

Though more than 6,000 miles away from the epicenter, the devastation hit close to home for one of the Wizards’ staff—Koichi Sato, a rehabilitation coordinator and assistant athletic trainer in his fourth season.

Born and raised in Japan, Sato moved to the United States in 1993 after graduating from Tokyo International University. His hometown of Koriyama, Fukushima was about 40 miles west of the damaged nuclear power plant and his family lived in the area affected by the nuclear radiation. While no one in his family was injured, it was a close call.

Sato’s sister told him she was lucky that the earthquake did not occur at night because a big bookshelf fell on top of her bed.

“If I was there I would’ve been underneath it – dead,” Sato said as he shook his head and paused.

Sato's bed after earthquake

As of October, approximately 3,800 people were still missing.

Sato flew home after the 2010-2011 NBA season and checked out his neighborhood where he saw toppled buildings and flattened cars.

Yet, according to Sato, the nuclear radiation escaping from the power plant was the major problem that has disrupted Japan’s agricultural and recreational lifestyle.

About 90% of fishing boats were damaged along with ports and facilities by the earthquake and tsunami. Farmers were ordered or decided to give up livestock and farmland due to contaminated products of radiation and salt water from the tsunami’s aftermath. This resulted in precautionary measures such as crop testing for certain levels of radiation in order to be sent to markets. However, even though prices were lowered and food deemed safe, people avoided buying food.

“It’s not worth it for them to grow crops anymore,” Sato said about the ailing industry.

The tourism sector took a blow as well.

Bandai Atami Onsen, a hotel in a nearby neighborhood known for hot springs once attracted tourists instead saw increases in evacuee accommodations.

“It is hard to see what’s happening in Fukushima,” said Sato. “I am proud of Fukushima because of its nature. It’s a beautiful place and I always recommend people to visit there even when it’s not a major tourist spot in Japan right now. I’ll continue to recommend it but it’s a hard sell now after the disasters.”

Although the government provided financial support to have the plant stabilized by executing the process of decommissioning, the damage has already been done to Fukushima where people are continually affected.

“No one wants to marry me because I live here,” said Sato’s sister, adding a comedic element to the matter.

Over 20,000 people moved out of Fukushima since the earthquake, driving the population of Fukushima below 2 million for the first time in 33 years. The increased radiation level is of paramount concern for expectant mothers and families with children. Some of Sato’s friends have relocated their families.

The remaining children who stayed were limited to staying outside for no more than an hour to avoid overexposure.

“My niece’s elementary school and my former school, also was damaged, so they couldn’t use the gym, and obviously they couldn’t play outside even though a couple inches of top soil was removed to reduce the radiation,” Sato said, somberly. “It’s just hard for kids.”

Sato felt a sense of guilt, knowing how much sports meant to them from an outsider’s perspective.

"I am from there and I am a victim from people’s point of view in the US, he attested. Yes, my hometown and my family and friends are going through hardship, but I am not really in it.”

Sato added that his Japanese friends living abroad share mutual understanding of the circumstances and eventually realized they have to keep doing what they can to support their respective hometowns.

“I’d like to give back,” Sato exclaimed.

Something furthered that notion.

One April morning in Cleveland when Sato was preparing in the visitor’s team locker room for an upcoming game, following a shoot-around practice, someone told him head coach Flip Saunders asked everyone to return to the court.

Sato was perplexed why the coach would call a meeting at that time. Perhaps he wanted to give one last pep talk?

So he thought.

As soon as Sato arrived, Saunders broke the news.

“We [coaches and players] are putting together money for you to support your people in Japan,” Sato recalled Saunders said as he reenacted how his puzzled expression was replaced with a big smile, eyes wide open.

Sato explained that he could say nothing less than “thank you, thank you” as each member gave him a pat on the shoulder and their condolences.

“I’m privileged and proud to be a part of an organization that cares about and pays attention to who I am and where I am from,” he said.

Saunders told him he could decide how the proceeds (totaling to 1.5 million yen, the equivalent to $19,800 USD) should be used. In addition, Wizard’s president Ernie Grunfeld also donated funds straight to the Japanese Embassy.

“He left it up to me so some guys were joking like ‘Hey Koichi, don’t just show up with a new car or something like that the next day,’” Sato said, between bouts of laughter.

So Sato did.

That is, he donated the money to his town’s relief, which was raising funds for the Minpo Foundation. The proceeds went directly to evacuees, helping them as they were forced to live in a shelter until they could return home.

Fukushima Newspaper Company published an article about the act with a picture of Sato and his father which generated substantial attention from neighbors.

“Everybody is very happy. My dad is proud,” Sato gushed.

These unfortunate events have awoken Sato’s awareness worldwide.

“Many disasters have happened before and since, and it certainly made me aware of the other things, not just in Japan but, Haiti a year ago and the tornadoes, hurricanes and even the recent earthquake in this country.”

Still hopeful, Sato wished there was more he could do.

“I believe Fukushima will recover. It might take a while, but people from Fukushima are known for their perseverance.”