Monthly Archives: January 2012

You never forget your first time

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Me, holding a copy of the first short story I have had published
Tokyo – 30 January 2012

It feels every bit as good as everything that led me to start writing promised it would.  Thanks to everyone who has read and offered advice on one of my stories, it means more than you will likely ever know.

If you would like a copy of your own, it is available here

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Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

There are books that you long to read, waiting for the publishing date and shelling out for the hardback edition, putting them on real or virtual wish lists and champing at the bit until payday or a birthday comes around.  Then there are the ones that find you and remain no less loved for the accidental nature of their discovery.  Reading in the Dark is one of the second category, making its way to me via a Christmas parcel from a very dear friend.

It is a book of secrets and hauntings, set in Derry and capturing one Catholic family’s attempts to live in the long shadows of their actions in the years around the Republic of Ireland’s traumatic birth.  Politics provides a brutal backdrop to the everyday dissembling, lies and betrayals of family life as the author attempts to piece together exactly who knew what and when.

His path towards the truth mirrors his journey to maturity as he develops into a more thoughtful or poetic child than most his age, growing into greater awareness of the world around him.

…just above the stream, there was a clump of thorn bushes where wrens turned and twisted endlessly, hooking and unhooking their tiny bodies between the close branches in dapper knitting motions.

Trusted to sit beside his dying grandfather, he hears the final confession the old man is determined to keep away from the ears of the local priests, only to be left with more questions than he can answer.  Instead he has to make sense of the clues as they are doled out to him, as he attempts to decipher the more usual adolescent mysteries surrounding the opposite sex.

The family secret and his knowledge of it skews his relationships with his parents as he moves from childishness and innocence to having to protect his elders from the messes they have created, as well as his awareness of them.

… my heart went out to her even as I wished I could love her in the old way again.  But I could only grieve for not being able to; and grieve the more that she could not love me like that any more either.

It makes for an intriguing and mesmerising read, one that definitely shouldn’t be left to chance.  Resolve to get hold of a copy now!

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Ishinomaki, December 2011

There is too much to tell you and not enough words.

Everyone who was here on 11 March must have a story to make the hair stand on end, about where they were and what they saw, who they lost and where they found the strength to continue.  Every empty plot of land, ruined shop and smashed car has its own story, of the people who lived or worked there, the journeys they took together and their hopes and fears for the future that never came, washed away on a tide of mud and debris that overwhelmed manmade defences too easily.  The lines on the buildings tell their own tale of how high the waters rose.

I wasn’t even sure I should go.  I’m not strong, not good at digging, not a builder or a carpenter and worried I would get in the way of those that are.  My Japanese is so lacking that I can’t even read enough to book the bus tickets.  More than once I convinced myself I should leave it to others.  Then I read the Frequently Used Excuses page on the It’s Not Just Mud website, send some emails and almost before I know how, am getting off a bus into the crisp, cold air of the most gorgeous morning I have seen since I arrived in Japan. Taking a deep breath because here I am in Ishinomaki, the city we have all seen countless times on the news, yet everything looks – well, kind of ok.

Parts of the city are relatively and reassuringly normal.  The pachinko parlour, konbinis and petrol station are open, while the streets are full of gleaming new cars.  I come from another northern port, so when I see a broken window high on a warehouse, I don’t automatically think of quake damage.  I know the wear and tear is harder here than in the pampered capital.  As you would expect, the busy streets around the central station have been repaired first, so the first-time visitor is spared an immediate surprise.  That’s reserved for the drive out to INJM’s HQ, located in the suburb of Watanoha, where the scale of the destruction begins to make itself known with every empty tract of land.  The really dramatic damage you remember from the press –boats left in the middle of the street and broken timber strewn storeys high – has largely been cleared.  What is left is somehow worse, houses standing alone where once they would have brushed up against their neighbours, and plenty of new car parks.

But there isn’t much time to dwell on such thoughts.  The INJM day starts with the more experienced hands welcoming that day’s arrivals over breakfast.  British volunteers will be happy to note there is a plentiful supply of Yorkshire Tea and no shortage of toast and jam either.  Suitably refreshed and following a quick update on the work schedule, it is time to begin the sometimes mammoth task of getting people and equipment into one of the pool of cars the group has commandeered.   INJM works with other organisations such as Samaritan’s Purse, and has a variety of projects on at any one time, so it is only possible to give a general idea of what you will be doing if you join them.   While I was there, volunteers were cleaning a damaged community centre ready for a forthcoming concert, removing mud from documents and photographs belonging to local people and ripping out damaged parts of houses ready for rebuilding.

Cleaning mud from documents and photographs is perhaps the perfect job for a writer.  I found myself alternatively marvelling that they were intact and speculating whether a computer’s hard drive would have survived so well.  It was also impossible not to wonder what had become of all the celebrating people in the photographs, enjoying sports days and cultural events.  Or while working through a file of financial records, to keep from thinking about where the hand which had idly scribbled notes across a page was now.  In the ‘to be cleaned’ pile was a schoolbag, identical to the one that all my young students have, still with mud-encrusted toy attached to the zip.  I found myself hoping that its owner was somewhere missing it, in spite of knowing that the death toll from schools in the city must make that impossible.

There are two Japanese words quoted in Jake Adelstein’s book, Tokyo Vice: setsunai and yarusenai, which are translated as ‘a physical feeling of sadness’ and ‘a sadness that you can’t clear away’ respectively.  When working in a city which is still a disaster zone, feelings like these are never very far from you, however, I believe the most practical way to deal with them is to get on with helping the survivors.  Each person does as much as they can and tasks tend to get assigned via a process of ‘can you do…’  ‘Yes, fine!’  ‘OK then, do it!’  It works well.  Breaks crop up exactly when you feel most in need of them, teas and coffees are produced, a bag of Kit Kats handed around and there is time for a chat before getting back to it.  In a Tohoku winter, there is a lot of incentive to throw yourself into work until your muscles hum and you don’t notice the cold or that the clock has ticked around to midday.  The lunches at INJM were some of the best I’ve eaten in Japan, which should give you a measure of exactly how good they were.  Warm, nourishing and served up with good humour by Hashimoto san, whose house has become an unofficial second home to the city’s volunteers.  Her kotatsu heated table was also a joy to the toes.

Donating your time and energy to help Ishinomaki via INJM in no way means living a Spartan existence.  After the afternoon’s work, brought to an end around the time the light starts to fade, everyone heads towards the onsen.  There is running water at the INJM house, but the queues and rage that would no doubt ensue from 20 people trying to get a shower mean that it’s much easier and far more pleasant to use the public baths for a scrub and a soak.  The evening draws to a close with more eating and chatting, maybe a couple of drinks to soothe us off to sleep, without causing too much of a headache in the morning!  Then the only job that remains is to find a space to set up your own array of futons, blankets and quilts – saying a quick prayer to make sure you don’t snore please – before the lights go out ready for another early start on the following day.

If you are wavering about going, don’t.  Yes, if you are strong, speak good Japanese, can drive or dig, or have any experience of building, you should definitely go!  But even if not, go anyway.  You are needed, people will be happy to see you and you will leave feeling that you have done something, even if it is only a fraction of what needs to be done.  By everyone who can taking on a little part of it, what could appear to be an overwhelming task becomes that much easier.  A lot has already been done, but there is more still to take care of.  Maybe it will happen without you, but maybe it will take even longer.

And if you need any further incentive, did I mention how good the food was?

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Sayonara

The shot pools clouds of confusion behind my eyes.  Somewhere overhead, the pub stereo plays songs by bands from the distant towns I grew up in.  It’s getting closer to the time to say goodbye.  As the alcohol mists over everything, I try to hold onto a stray thought, knowing otherwise it will be lost for good.

There are some people you want to stay friends with forever.

But the expat life is one of hellos and goodbyes, neatly slicing lines between those that are staying and those moving on.  Natural and man-made disasters abruptly speed up the churn until it seems like a constant round of farewells and greetings.  In the midst of this whirl, some you meet will matter more than the length of time spent together would usually warrant, not because you agree with them on everything, but because the manner of the disagreement feels too enjoyable to do without.  Each of you sure of the rightness of the point, yelling across the pub’s background noise, yet hardly able to remember a day later what it was or why it seemed so important.

Then there are the other creatives, so sure of their demands and so uncompromising in their execution that watching them work provides more than the obvious ‘inspiration’.  Instead, it feels closer to having a fire lit under you, being spurred to only produce what will deliver equivalent highs.  Learn as you go, but work without fear and without compromise.  Keep to your own standards and ignore the chatter.  Set out a list of rules then disregard them anyway.  Don’t pick fights with the Metropolitan Police Department.  That’s what I’ve picked up from only one month of knowing probably the mouthiest guy to take on Tokyo with a camera.  It’s been ace and I hope it’s not the last time our paths cross.  Safe travels to him and to the two cute dogs and watch yourself, England – he’ll be landing soon.

Sayonara, Charlie!

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Christmas in Tohoku Part 2

We got talking at the Free Tohoku and It’s Not Just Mud Christmas party, despite not sharing much language, our ‘conversation’ drifting over the head of her small boy, who wriggled in her arms in that way that children do the world over when they decide that Mum has been talking long enough.  He was too shy to look my way at first, burying his face in her shoulder as we tried to get him to wave ‘hello’ or ‘konnichiwa’.  We chuckled over his antics until eventually he looked to see what was happening and we were rewarded with a big smile.

I asked his age and she said he was only four months old, so she would have been pregnant during March.  I thought back to that time, things like how difficult it was to sleep, the huge number of aftershocks, constantly watching the news coming from Fukushima and how the strain affected everyone.  How much harder it must have been in the North, where shocks were stronger and more frequent, family members disappeared or dead and the buildings more damaged.  Then having to face that while pregnant.  I couldn’t believe how strong she was.

Surrounded by the children enjoying the party, running around, chasing each other, jumping like crazy on the bouncy castle, it was great to be able to give them this chance to be kids again.  Imagining the loss and fear that they must have experienced, coupled with seeing their parents – the ones to run to when something scary happens – also looking afraid.  Having to be strong for each other in the face of so much uncertainty and loss must take its toll and I hope the party was able to provide a brief comfort.

After the event finished we had another visit to make.  Our bus headed to Okawa Elementary School, the scene of incredibly tragic events on 11 March.  As the Asahi Shimbun reported:

Of the 108 students at the elementary school, 64 were found dead and 10 were still missing as of April 9. That means that about 70 percent of the students became victims of the tsunami.

(Elementary school in Japan runs from the age of six until 12, when students graduate to junior high.)

By a cruel twist of fate, because of the school’s location at the edge of the city and disrupted communications, rumours had spread that everyone at Okawa school had been saved.  Parents spent an anxious night wondering if their children were scared or cold, before learning that few had survived.  There were reports of a line of children and teachers walking towards the nearby river, because the hill at the back of the school was too steep to climb, when they were engulfed by the tsunami.  The waves had risen above the roof of the school, a two-storey building.

As we arrived there on Christmas Eve, I saw that the school buildings were in a terrible state.  No glass remained and it was possible to look right through the ruins.  The area around the school has been cleared and lorries hurtled past, one after the other, carrying debris from further along the road.  The paper decorations on a Christmas tree standing in the school’s entrance hall fluttered in the biting cold wind and the evening began to draw in.

Waiting to meet members of our group were some of the bereaved mothers of pupils at the Okawa school.  It didn’t feel appropriate to take pictures, but this from Wikipedia shows what remains:

Close to the entrance to the school there is a shrine, with a statue of a mother and child, created by local sculptor Shozo Hamada:

At the unveiling of the statue, he spoke of his hope that it would help the survivors achieve peace of mind.  I hope so too, however difficult that is while the bereaved parents still have questions about what happened immediately after the earthquake on 11 March and wonder if events could have been turned out differently.

If the tsunami came one hour later, if I went to pick them up by car, if the earthquake had hit on Sunday… they wouldn’t have lost their lives, I cannot regret enough.

- Sueko Saito, mother of Miku and Takumi

Survivors across Tohoku will be dealing with such mental anguish for many years to come, long after the rebuilding draws to a close.  It is perhaps a cliché, but sharing Christmas with them, though so far away from my own loved ones, showed me how much I have to be thankful for.  No one who was in Japan during March 2011 will ever forget these events, now it is for us to make sure that those directly affected aren’t forgotten as they attempt to rebuild their cities, homes and lives.

If you are in Japan, there are many excellent organisations to get involved with, from It’s Not Just Mud to Free Tohoku and Smile Kids Japan.  If you are in another country – why not visit and volunteer? – or make a donation!

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