Monthly Archives: March 2012

Letter from Tokyo

Since the earthquake, Tokyo-based urbanist Christian Dimmer has written a number of excellent articles about the options for reconstruction. His latest, for the Australian Design Review, contains the same clear-sighted assessment of the problems and the future facing Northern Japan.

One of the biggest is that some residents would like to see everything restored to how it was before the disaster, while others in Tohoku are concerned that if the opportunity to remodel the region is missed it will only hasten its decline. What is at stake is not just buildings, as the article notes:

Rebuilding should be seen less as an end in itself but instead as a continuous process through which civil society develops more fully, communities can once again grow closer and the entire country can become more resilient and self-reliant.

The consequences of mistakes and mis-steps will be terrible for the famously irrepressible people of Northern Japan, as some news stories have already shown. Get it right and Tohoku can have a future to look forward to, one which offers hope to the rest of the country and beyond its shores.

It is, I believe, far too important a responsibility to leave to politicians. If we want to live in strong communities, we have to be prepared to build and maintain them.

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Tendenko: Surviving the Tsunami

From filmmakers Donald Harding and Ben Harding, made for the Al Jazeera English website, comes this documentary looking at how the tsunami affected the town of Kamaishi in Iwate in Northern Japan.

The town teaches its school-children the doctrine of ‘tendenko’, that it is more important to save yourself than to worry about others or to try to reach family members in different locations. Instead they are told not to wait for instructions from teachers but to go to the nearest high point as quickly as they can. The filmmakers note that giving priority to self-preservation and individual action is not common in Japan, however the practice is credited with saving many lives.

The film is a remarkable portrait of what happened to one family in the town and is really worth watching to hear their stories. Practising tendenko is not without controversy, namely what it actually requires to save yourself and leave others to fend for themselves as a disaster unfolds. The mother of the family, shown in the photograph above, had a particularly harrowing choice to make. This is discussed by commentators in the section below the video (but don’t read before you watch as it contains spoilers.) It is awful to contemplate having to make such terrible decisions.

Japan is probably one of the best prepared countries in the world for earthquakes, with regular drills in schools and offices – in the same manner that we practice fire drills back home – trying to ensure that people know what to do. Most people have a bag in their homes containing the essentials which can be quickly picked up if it is time to evacuate. There was about 30 minutes between the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, yet there are too many stories of people who didn’t evacuate, went back to the house to get things or travelled away from safety to reach home or loved ones and never made it.

What I take from the film is that while it is important for the authorities to do their part, to provide safe shelters, share information and encourage participation in drills, it is up to all of us to make sure we increase our chances of survival by preparing for as many eventualities as we can. Reason enough to watch this powerful and moving film.

Photograph from Ben Harding’s website.

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Seeking for the words

My good friend let off from soaking in the mortal bath long enough to send me an email and, having been moved by its words, I believe it is worth sharing. Taken from the newsletter of Ichiroya Kimono Flea Market in Osaka, it is a heartfelt reflection on the anniversary of two weeks ago.

The words of the owner of the kimono store resonate with emotions that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Japan in the last 12 months, as he contemplates how life has been changed by the events of 11 March. He wonders if positive messages can be of much help to the people of Tohoku in their struggle to continue. He feels sure that he wouldn’t be able to, that it must be too soon to be ‘getting over’ the losses they have suffered.

In a letter full of apposite thoughts, however, these are the words which particularly resonated with me:

There are so many charity concerts and events, but on the other hands, there are also many writers, artists, and singers who became not to write, or play music. One popular woman writer was saying in an interview the other day, she feels very responsible to express in appropriate words about this disaster but she is still seeking for the words.

I have written a lot about Japan in the last 12 months, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t write on 11 March 2012. I didn’t attend any of the formal memorial events, but chose to spend time with a book and a tea in my favourite Tokyo park, hoping that a normal Sunday – kids playing, adults relaxing, sun shining – would stand as its own memorial to the lives destroyed that day.

But the sadness was a weight on my chest that I couldn’t lift and the normality felt shocking, as if the city by continuing with its usual weekend routines had somehow forgotten what had taken place, although there can have been little else on people’s minds as the hands of the clocks moved round to 2:46.

Perhaps attending one of the memorial events in Miyagi would have helped, but I know from reading the accounts of those who did that there were other troubling thoughts to contend with. This excellent account by Kimberly Hughes and Sheila Souza, volunteers with Foreign Volunteers Japan, talks about how hard it was to avoid feeling like a voyeur, especially while surrounded by news crews. They also write of how, in the face of such destruction, encouraging people with the word ‘Gambatte!’ (do your best/hang in there) is not enough.

Perhaps a better choice of words – closer to those appropriate ones that we are seeking – is simply to say to everyone who suffers: ‘we are here’. Whether that means physically assisting with the rebuilding effort, donating cash or supplies or standing by to provide what Ruthie Iida so astutely notes as essential in her illuminating essay:

listening ears, understanding hearts, kind words, and shared grief.

Twelve months is too soon for many people, I am sure, and the anniversary for some is a beginning not an ending. There will be many more days of sadness before the pain can heal. Although words now seem weak in the face of such anguish, my hope is that we won’t be discouraged from the search for those that may eventually provide some small comfort to all those who mourn.

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After the Wave

After the Wave is a great film, a poignant, must-watch personal account of a visit to his hometown in Miyagi by Tokyo-based audio engineer Soshi Yamaguchi. In the film, Soshi’s father Ikuo says:

There’s no quick fix, that’s not the nature of this disaster. 10 years, 20 years, we need to think long term.

Offering a useful perspective on the disaster and its implications – as people featured in the film talk about returning to their destroyed hometowns, driving down roads which used to be familiar but which have become part of the sea – this is powerful yet intimate film-making and well worth watching.

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Look Mam, I’m in the Asahi!

Here I am in the newspaper and for a good reason! Not like knocking off a bank or anything…

I was lucky enough to meet up with Asahi Shimbun journalist Sophie Knight last time I was in Miyagi. It was fascinating to watch her work, interviewing various people involved in the projects the volunteers were assisting with, so I was keen to see the finished article.

This profile of some of the key people involved in It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) and International Disaster Relief Organization Japan (IDRO) is both interesting and illuminating. I think it has perfectly captured the motivations of the long-term volunteers in the North of Japan – not to go for sainthood or earn points – but to become part of the communities they are assisting. To work with the people affected by the disaster to restore their homes, jobs and lives in ways that are best for them.

It is an excellent read, one I can’t recommend highly enough. If you feel suitably inspired, be sure to join IDRO or INJM on a future project!

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No Kindle required

Recently, I have been plugging the heck out of three great ebooks:

  1. Quakebook
  2. Reconstructing 3/11
  3. The Teas that Bind

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Since the launch of my own ebook last weekend, it seems that the question that has been on everyone’s lips is ‘when’s the print version coming out?’ It may be that the love of having pages to turn will win out over the new technology. If that is the case – well, I can understand. A little piece of my heart will always prefer the scratch of nib and smell of ink to tapping things out on a keyboard or smartphone.

But if you think you might like this whole ebook thing, you’re just not sure as you don’t own a Kindle, rest assured, there is no need to buy one. Amazon has a free app that you can download for PC or Mac, which will allow you to read ebooks on any computer. The type is large, there is no need to scroll down the page and it looks rather lovely. Although initially resistant to the idea of anything not involving actual paper, I downloaded mine to view Quakebook and have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed using it since.There are some useful functions, especially for non-fiction books like these three – such as highlighting text and using hyperlinks – that make life a little easier than pencil margin notes.

So, as it’s a rainy weekend, I can recommend downloading the application and charging it up with these three cracking reads.

Don’t delay!

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Reconstructing 3/11

Reconstructing 3/11 is live.

But what is Reconstructing 3/11 all about, you might ask?

The team that brought you #quakebook has come together to launch a new type of journalism. Nine contributors with special insight into areas of Japanese life crucial to the reconstruction efforts following the triple disasters of 11 March – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident – have written in-depth articles sharing their knowledge.

This is not a charity effort. This is not about fundraising. This is not #quakebook 2.0.

Yet it is a great read, available for download here, an essential purchase for anyone curious about the challenges Japan is facing and keen to support quality writing. If #quakebook is the future of fundraising, could this be the future of publishing? Buy a copy today and find out…

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