Tag Archives: Tohoku

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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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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The Teas That Bind

My new book is available for download!

Surviving earthquakes, one brew at a time.

The book comprises posts written for ten minutes hate since the Great East Japan earthquake struck on 11 March 2011, along with emails, tweets and status updates sent over the last year. There are photographs – some you may have seen before and some exclusive to this book – along with plenty of new material about what happened on the day, how fundraising efforts came together for #quakebook and how I became a volunteer with It’s Not Just Mud in Tohoku.It is my attempt at answering the question ‘what was it like?’

Copies of the e-book are available from Amazon and Smashwords.

Please don’t worry if you don’t have an e-book reader – you can download a free application from Amazon to read it on any computer, or Smashwords can make it available for you as a PDF. If you really can’t do without pages to turn, then – never fear! – a print version is on its way.

My thanks to all the talented people who have helped me make The Teas That Bind look and read as well as it does. I hope you enjoy the book!

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Japan Remembers, 11 March 2012

Fishing boats in Kobuchihama, Oushika penninsular, Miyagi Prefecture

March 2012

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Cover art

image

The cover of my new book, with thanks to the amazing Barney Meeks:

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Ishinomaki – Then and Now

Recently arrived back in Tokyo from another trip North and still attempting to unravel my answers to the natural question of ‘how was it?’  Perhaps this will help.  The following is a documentary from Paul Johannessen, which interviews tsunami survivors about their lives, as well as featuring footage of Ishinomaki taken in April and November 2011.

The film is as moving as you would expect, but it is also a really accurate reflection of life in the ruined areas now that priorities are moving from short-term to long-term survival.  Big questions about the future – some connected to issues which existed before 11 March – can no longer be avoided.  Key amongst them is: where will the jobs come from?  With high unemployment causing despair and an increase in suicides, it is as critical to rebuild the economy of Tohoku as it is to repair homes and roads.

Perhaps that can happen little by little, as with the physical rebuilding, or perhaps it requires a bigger effort towards a grander vision, one which it won’t shock seasoned watchers of the Japanese government to learn does not appear to be coming from Tokyo.  Instead, groups like TEDxTohoku and Ishinomaki 2.0 are trying to bring people together to shape what needs to happen next for places like Ishinomaki to get past clinging on and start thriving again.

It won’t be an easy task, but if – as noted in the video – more people are inspired to begin ‘shaping our own place to live’, then it should not take too long for hope to return to the devastated areas of North East Japan.

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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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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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Christmas in Tohoku Part 1

Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Christmas would be like.  It is not a Christian country and New Year is a much more important festival in the Japanese calendar.  So I wasn’t expecting to see many Christmas trees.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The shopping centres and public areas around Tokyo have their decorations up even earlier than many do in the UK and – kids being kids – everyone is excited about Santa’s arrival, presents and cake.  In school we play games, make Christmas decorations and sing songs, much the same as you do.  In one class, a student got the words to ‘Jingle Bells’ slightly muddled and all his classmates jumped in to tell him the right ones.  You’ve got to get it right for Santa!

Despite – or perhaps because of – everything they have been through, the small people of Ishinomaki are no strangers to the Christmas anticipation.  I could imagine kids in temporary housing asking their mums if Santa would be able to find them, just as my brother and I did after our family moved house late one year.  The charity Free Tohoku was determined to give them a reason to smile this Christmas and so ‘let them eat cake!’ was born.

The idea was to give each family some treats – Christmas cake and cookies – as well as shopping tokens for other things they needed.  Thanks to the generosity of so many, fundraising efforts were a great success.  23 December saw an assortment of friends, colleagues and Twitter acquaintances meet on a cold winter’s night at a remote station in Chiba (about 20 miles from central Tokyo).  We loaded a brightly painted rainbow bus with all the essentials, including but not limited to: helium for balloons; a Santa costume; a hot water heater and – of course! – a Christmas tree.  There was so much stuff I wasn’t sure there would be room for all of us, but somehow everything squeezed in and then our journey could start.

(For the fact fans, it is around 250 miles)

This was my first trip so far to the north of Japan and I would love to tell you all about everything we passed.  But it was after midnight and motorways being more or less the same the world over, there wasn’t much scenery to speak of.  Instead, it was time to try to snatch some shut-eye.  We had lots of kids to entertain soon!

We woke to a gorgeous morning breaking over a much more snowy and hilly landscape than the one we had left behind.  As always when I am awake at the crack of dawn, I was surprised to see how many other cars and trucks were on the road, the days in Japan start early!  We had a quick wash and brush up in the service station toilets before heading into the centre of Ishinomaki, via a slightly circuitous route to the primary school hall, where we met the volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud to get everything unloaded and ready for Santa’s visit.  It seemed like there was so much to do – however would we finish in time?

Many hands made light work of it all and soon the helium balloons and the cafe were up and running:

The bouncy castle was waiting for the crowds:

The Christmas tree was beautifully decorated:

And we had hung up the handmade or decorated Christmas cards sent to Ishinomaki by children in Ireland, Japan and the UK:

I had thought this way of hanging up cards was quite usual but it seems to just be a British thing as many visitors and volunteers asked about it… maybe this will start a trend next year!  Much nicer than putting them away and they helped to cheer up the chilly school hall.

Then suddenly everything was ready, the doors opened and the kids arrived.  The first part of the day flashed by in a blur, but there were huge queues for the bouncy castle and trampolines, as well as a craft area to make decorations, while the parents stopped for a chat and a coffee.  We also had a visit from a clown who made balloon animals and swords, which came in very handy for clobbering friends:

Delicious onigiri was served for lunch and then came the moment everyone had been waiting for…

Excitement was running very high as the kids got their gifts and treats and it was lovely to hear the hall ring with their shrieks and laughter.  We sang Christmas songs, while some made beautiful thank you notes and pictures:

You can see some of the results by clicking on the link in this tweet:

All too soon it was time to load up the bus and head back to the city, feeling  exhausted but happy – as I hope all the partygoers did.  To those who donated either cash or time, a huge thank you!  To the wonderful team of Our Man and Our Woman in Abiko – who asked if I would like to come along – thank you so much, it was a pleasure!  And to all the It’s Not Just Mud team, thanks for everything, I’ll be back before long.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Before leaving Miyagi, the Free Tohoku bus made another stop.  Christmas in Tohoku Part 2 is here.

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