TOKYO — Somewhere behind the boxes of instant noodles, bottled water and propane stoves at the Phantom Gate motorcycle shop is a row of custom-made bikes. But for now, a few copies of “Hardcore Chopper” magazine and a sign that reads: “Harley Davidson Motorcycle Parking Only” are the only visible signs of an operating business.
Ever since store owner Tomohiro Narita’s home town of Sendai was ravaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, his Tokyo motorcycle business has taken a back seat to full-time relief work for the devastated communities 200 miles north.
The unprecedented disaster that left nearly 28,000 dead or missing and 154,000 homeless has inspired an unprecedented relief response. The Japanese Red Cross Society raised $1.3 billion in four weeks, exceeding the total amount of donations after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The government deployed more than 100,000 military troops and is fielding offers of help from 130 nations and 1,500 relief organizations worldwide. And throughout Japan, citizens are setting up clothing drives and distributing food at the 2,000 remaining evacuation shelters.
But Narita’s relief effort, dubbed “The Underground,” fills an unusual niche. Organized through motorcycle clubs, tattoo parlors and biker bars, it appeals to anarchists, outcasts, people who don’t trust the government’s efforts and who don’t donate to the Red Cross. In the past month, the group has sent $250,000 worth of food, supplies and gasoline to disaster-stricken areas.
The effort’s key organizers are men who built reputations as tough street fighters, drug addicts or motorcycle gang members, then outgrew them as they got sober or became fathers. They say their first foray into philanthropy has been rewarding, a way to meet new people and to give something back.
“I am filled with gratitude” Narita said quietly, smoking a cigarette outside his shop on a Sunday afternoon in early April. So many former rivals and complete strangers rushed to his community’s aid in recent weeks, he said. “I need a lifetime to pay this back.”
The softer side of Narita, whose nickname is Needle, is close to the surface these days. He blinks back tears as he recounts his trips to the flooded region, the stench of corpses, and the now-rubble-filled beaches he remembers from childhood.
The Sendai native was once a member of the feared bosozoku — roughly translated “violently speeding tribes” — Japanese biker gangs that attract teens and young adults. Some of his friends were recruited into the Japanese mafia.
He pursued rock music, motorcycles and drugs and lived what he described as a “day-to-day existence” until the new millennium. When the world did not end as he had always believed it would, he decided to get a job.
Now 44, Narita owns Phantom Gate, has his own motorcycle club of old-timers and a rock band called “Hash Ball.” Chain-smoking and coffee have replaced the illegal drugs.
He still rides fast, but he’s stopped wearing biker leather. “These days it’s more nylon and Patagonia,” he said. “Whatever keeps me warm.”
As soon as he heard about the earthquake and tsunami, he decided to head north to help.
He didn’t want to go empty-handed, so he called a few friends to see whether they could help him gather relief supplies from outside of Tokyo, which was struggling with its own food and water shortages. He asked only those friends who were his senior — or senpai — so they would not feel obligated to say yes, per Japan’s strict social structure.
Narita called Masahiro Kishi, a 48-year-old tattoo artist who has a motorcycle club in Tokyo, and an elite tattoo club whose members get together for a boat party on Tokyo Bay every year.
Kishi immediately called five more people, each in a different part of Japan. Among his friends were a tattoo supplier in Nagoya, a friend in Osaka with motorcycle club and a tattoo artist in Takamatsu with connections in the music scene.
By the end of the day, Narita’s shop was filled clothing, food and water.
As word spread, Hideyuki Usui, a 36-year-old bike messenger with three kids and a member of Kishi’s tattoo club, got involved. “If the senpais are doing it, the kohais should do it too,” he said, referring to the Japanese honorific denoting someone who is a junior member of a group.
Usui alerted his own 13-member motorcycle club, No Future Krew, and posted a letter on his blog announcing, “Brothers are in distress!” More donations poured in, and Usui took over the fundraising and public relations for the effort.
The men made their first trip north a week after the March 11 disaster, driving into Sendai with 18 trucks and vans full of food, water, milk, clothing, mattresses and furniture. They dropped off supplies there then headed north along Route 45 toward Kesennuma. What started as an effort to help Narita’s friends and family grew exponentially.
Over several successive visits, they concentrated help along the country’s demolished coastline, hiking into villages that were inaccessible by car, knocking on doors to find people who were too infirm to go to shelters and handing out water and energy bars.
Usui took pictures of the demolished towns, the massive ships pushed onto land and the people they met, and he posted them on his blog so supporters could follow along.
“So many people we talked to lost their homes or everything they had, but they always said they were lucky, because they knew people who had lost more,” Usui said.
The men took notes of what people needed most and on return trips came stocked with more medicine or propane stoves. In early April, they returned to Kesennuma again, this time with a 4,000-liter gasoline tanker bearing their new Support the Underground sticker. They distributed the gas at shelters, to other relief providers and to people living in their cars.
In the weeks since the tragedy, they have seen road conditions improve, gas stations reopen, and food and supplies reach communities that appeared abandoned a few weeks earlier.
The group’s leaders said they plan to keep their relief effort going — whether it takes years or decades to restore the towns completely. They are talking about outfitting schools as they reopen or helping to clean the ocean, so the area’s fishermen can return to work. To keep the fundraising up, Kishi might put his tattoo skills to use on a new Support the Underground T-shirt design, and Hash Ball has already scheduled its first relief concert.
Narita said he has been inspired by the strides people in the disaster-stricken areas have made. “We are living looking sideways,” he said. “They are living looking straight ahead.”
Special correspondent Tetsuya Kato contributed to this report..