Monthly Archives: April 2011

Colder than water

I arrived in Japan with so little experience of teaching children that I sometimes wonder if they can tell that I am learning almost as much in class as they are.  Many of my students are 11 and 12 years old and, while it may be a cliché, I have found them to be by turns funny, rude, cheeky and occasionally aggravating.  They are never dull.  Full of curiosity, each with their own obsessions – from collecting animation cards to drawing comics, as well as the ubiquitous baseball and football – it is mostly a pleasure to be around them.

In recent weeks, our experience of aftershocks in class has made me realise how well they are coping with everything.  It must be especially difficult to be in that ‘tween’ age group, expected to be a little bit braver than younger siblings, but still enough of a kid to worry about the concern shown on the faces of previously dependable parents and teachers.  If they are, they seem to be containing it well.  The games are just as boisterous, the groans for homework still loud and the laughter at sensei when she does some clowning around remains genuine enough to be one of the perks of my day.

This, however, is the reaction of kids safely away from the centres of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami.  In Miyagi, one school gathered together to mourn the deaths of 70 percent of their classmates on the forty-ninth day since the disaster, a day when Buddhists believe the soul leaves this world.  Cleaning and rebuilding the school in the coming months may be achievable, but comfort for the survivors when the empty desks and chairs can never be filled will be more elusive.

14,564 is the number of recorded deaths to date from the Tohoku earthquake, with another 11,356 missing and perhaps never to be found, despite huge efforts.  As numbers they are difficult to process, it is a struggle to imagine what so many people would look like if they were standing all in one place, then suddenly gone.  Such numbers daze us, causing a numbness that can protect from the pain of a tragedy, but also leave us inured to the suffering of individuals.

So to break through that numb feeling, read an account by 12 year-old Yuta Hakoishi from Iwate of his feelings following the death of his father.  In writing it, he displays maturity and courage that I might assume were beyond his years, had it not been for the members of his peer group that I have encountered recently:

When I touched my father’s face it was colder than water. In my mind I kept thinking, ‘Why did you go back?’ Then I kept telling myself, ‘What good is it for me to worry?’ but the more I said it, the more tears welled up in my eyes.

I saw the titanium accessory that my father had worn, a good-luck ankle charm that he bought in Tokyo, and his wedding ring and mobile phone. What surprised me was that his watch was still working. When my father died and even when he was swallowed by the tsunami, it kept ticking. My dad’s watch is now mine. I don’t think I’ll ever lose it my whole life.

Yuta Hakoishi promised his father as he prayed at his funeral that the family would do their best to carry on.  I believe that we must do everything within our power to help him keep that promise.  That may be by making a donation to one of the appeals or by donating time as a volunteer.  Please do all that you can.  Let’s show Yuta and all the bereaved children of Tohoku that they do not have to bear their grief alone.  Let’s help them to recover, so that they can return to the same captivations that they shared with other young people before the waves came.

Photo from Kyodo, via The Mainichi Daily News

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Remember Japan

A visitor arrives from home and tells me that Japan is slipping off the front pages.  A brief flick through yesterday’s Times confirms it, full as it is of goings-on elsewhere and plenty of blather to do with a wedding you might have heard of.  I suppose that, given some of the excesses of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, we should be grateful that the media circus has unfurled its tents on someone else’s lawn.

Maybe the story has become too ‘unsexy’ for 24-hour rolling news bulletins but, speaking as someone who tried to avoid them at first, preferring instead to be able to sleep at night, pictures such as these compiled by The Tokyo Times give much pause for thought.  I am completely taken aback by how in less than 10 minutes the videos go from ‘can’t see anything happening’ to ‘bloody hell, where has the town gone?’

Technology being so accessible, images such as these were being shown around the world before the waters had even subsided.  It is my hope that now the initial shock has also begun to dissipate we can use them to ensure that more people survive the next terrible event of this kind.

Picture from National Geographic


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The end of the beginning

It feels as if it has been a long time coming, following the many steps that have brought me from there to here.  Finally, barring a few administrative hurdles still to be negotiated, I will be a Tokyo resident.

The lure of the big, bad city on my doorstep has been a siren call since my plane landed.  Like London Heathrow, they call it Tokyo Narita even though it is a couple of hours outside the city centre.  Fitting in weekend trips to the clubs, parks and shops around work, planning sightseeing adventures and taking time for people-watching from the cafes.  All enjoyable escapades ruined too soon by the intrusion of the long train ride back to the ‘burbs.

After 11 March, we all had our own decisions to make.  You might have thought that 24 hours stranded in Tokyo would have soured me on it somewhat.  Instead, even as I was traipsing through the freezing, crowded streets, I was reasoning that if I lived in a more central location I would have been safely home.  That night I resolved, before falling into a hazy, aftershock-interrupted sleep, to make sure I did something about it.

Before I could, there was a sea of goodbyes to navigate.  I believe I understand the thoughts of those who have chosen to bring their Japanese adventures to an end, even as I know there is nowhere else I would rather be at present.  I am lucky to have met some incredible people before they departed and fortunate enough to have been shown their favourite corners of the city so that I can now adopt them as my own.

I have other plans for this new start.  Including the locating of the perfect writing cafe, maybe to get a bike or to walk around more, not because the trains are stopped this time, but for the fun of it.  There are bars to find, friends to meet and streets to explore.  I can’t wait to see what Tokyo has to show me once I am a resident and no longer a visitor.

So this isn’t an end, or the beginning of the end.  It is perhaps the end of the beginning.

Sayonara Kashiwa.  Konnichiwa Tokyo.

And remember…


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Shock absorber

All manner of outlandish vocabulary has come up in lessons over the last couple of weeks, at times straining the interpretive skills of a new teacher.  We were talking about buildings and the technology that saves them from quakes.  There was an awful lot of hand movement going on as the student attempted to demonstrate and I wracked my tired brain for the right word.

Eventually we managed to make it to ‘shock absorbers’.  I mentioned my belief that Japanese innovation in this area and strict adherence to building codes must have saved a lot of lives, as well as the buildings themselves.  It seems I am not the only one who thinks so.  You only have to witness these Tokyo skyscrapers swaying like tall grass in a breeze to realise how lucky we were:

(Although I did hear from students with offices located on high that the resulting queasiness lasted for ages!)

Attempting to further clarify ‘shock absorbers’ I mentioned cars.  They have the same thing, I told him, it is the same word that stops you feeling all the bumps in the road.  He looked back at me, with a thoughtful expression and I wondered if he had understood, maybe I hadn’t explained it well enough.  As I was trying to think of other ways, he spoke.

It’s like you.  Your personality is a shock absorber

Is it, I wondered?  I am not so sure.  Whenever a student tells me I am brave for staying, or gives me a gift to say thank you, I question the bravery of drinking tea and eating cake, the twin exploits of most of my post-quake days.  I certainly don’t feel brave, especially not in comparison with this, a Japanese medical aid worker’s diary from Iwate.

I especially don’t feel brave when I reflect that her story had me in tears, the piece titled ‘Beautiful’ in Quakebook also made me cry and saying goodbye to friends has moistened my eyes more than once, until I am beginning to realise that when I look back on my first year in Japan it is going to be at the greater part of 12 months spent sobbing.  It feels as if my nerves have migrated closer to the surface of my skin since I have been here.

Then I stumble across mention of a new type of shock absorber, one being developed with the intelligence to sense the kind of shock it is facing and react in the best way to avoid damage.  And although the article is concerned with buildings technology, I realise that it is as neat a description of the kind of person I want to be as I could ever write.  So that when future shocks happen, as they inevitably must, I can – in the immortal words of Run DMC – wobble but not fall down:

Words to live by, even if you aren’t in an earthquake zone.

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When it’s perfect, it falls

The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time. . . I think that only we Japanese understand that, don’t you?

– David Mitchell, Ghostwritten

Thanks are due to Sam for reminding me of the David Mitchell quote.  One day I hope to get closer to understanding the fleeting beauty of the sakura.  These pictures were taken a week ago and already it has gone, mushed underfoot as the trees blaze green and the hayfever has Tokyoites sneezing into their face masks.  This year more than others, understandably, we have longed for the release of the hanami, the joy that the sakura brings, the feeling that, like the trees, we can begin again.

And even as we begin, know that it must come to an end.  We are, after all, like petals on the wind.

Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive

– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Be sure to enjoy as many perfect moments as you can before the fall.


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Hillsborough: another year passes

I was a little kid in 1989.  Smaller than some of the ones I now teach, a bit of a geek, perhaps too fond of my Kate Bush cassettes, spending school holidays watching Star Wars on video over and over again with my brother until we could recite whole chunks off by heart and knowing that Liverpool Football Club would always be the best in the world.

I hadn’t been to Anfield yet but thrillingly, my Dad had taken my brother to Wembley the year before.  And although that trip had literally ended in tears, I was promised that this year if we got into the FA Cup Final, it would be my turn.  I couldn’t wait.

Of course, it wasn’t to be.

I never imagined that 22 years later we would still need to be writing about what happened on 15 April 1989 in any other terms than as a memorial to those who died and to mark the date’s passing.  I couldn’t have known that the families of the 96 victims killed in the Hillsborough Disaster would still be searching for answers to crucial questions about what happened to their relatives, without which I am sure they can have no hope of finding peace.

I don’t like to use the word justice. I prefer to say that we want the full truth, and accountability. Even now, it would make a difference, alleviate some of the hurt and betrayal we have suffered for 20 years

Margaret Aspinall, Hillsborough Family Support Group, quoted in the Guardian in 2009.  Her 18 year-old son James died in the disaster

The scars caused by the events of 22 years ago are still raw and need attention if they are ever to heal.  Liverpool fan Mike Bracken wrote of his feelings of guilt and remorse at what he witnessed, in the Guardian’s extensive reports to mark the twentieth anniversary:

The terrible images of dying fans being lifted over the fences on to the pitch are now well known – but at the back of those crowded pens, away from the cameras, I witnessed more horrors. Behind the West Stand, bodies were laid out behind and to the right of the tunnel. The injured lay with the dead. Unable to administer help or determine the extent of injuries, I panicked and vainly tried to attract help

He writes of the difficulties of coming to terms with the guilt of surviving when so many others didn’t, a common factor in post-traumatic stress disorder.  A number of suicides have been reported among those who witnessed the disaster, including one of a Nottingham Forest fan watching from the opposite end of the ground.  Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign notes:

Any feelings of relief at escaping the carnage of Hillsborough were very quickly replaced by feelings of guilt. In many cases, this guilt led to people suppressing the feelings they were experiencing – almost as if they had no right to label themselves victims

22 years later I still hear from fans of other clubs and people who should know better, that these fans indeed have little right to use that word.  They tell me that it was our fault, that we were hooligans, that we were drunk and fighting, and they refuse to listen to the facts.  The newspapers reported it that way, they tell me, so there must be some truth to the stories, there’s no smoke without fire.

And that is why Hillsborough still matters, as Liverpool musician Pete Wylie said in an interview with the NME.  Read the interview and then take a look at the comments below, where these same old accusations get thrown at us again.  That is why we can’t rest until we have Justice for the 96, until their names are completely cleared.  Until any taint of suspicion is removed from them, until it is acknowledged that the only ‘crime’ committed was one we have all been guilty of, that of attending a sporting event and putting our trust in the authorities to keep us safe and bring us home again.

Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool manager then and now, says that the release of new evidence may finally give the families justice.  I hope that he is right and that their campaign doesn’t have to mark too many more anniversaries.

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Buy Quakebook early, buy Quakebook often!

Get your Quakebook NOW, full details are here.

Quakebook is available now as an e-book for your Kindle, or you can download a free application to read it on your PC, Mac or iPad.

If you are more of a ‘real book’ fan, rest assured that one is in the pipeline, but will take a little longer to arrange.  I would suggest buying the e-book anyway and getting the real one when it becomes available.

Absolutely 100% of the purchase price is going to the Japan Red Cross.  Nothing to Amazon, nothing to Quakebook.  (You may see a message saying there is a $2 fee for international purchase but Amazon have promised to refund this if it happens.)

So, get buying!  Then tell your friends, loved ones and followers to make sure they buy one too.  It is a beautifully crafted, moving account of the events of 11 March 2011, told from the perspective of people from around the world who experienced it, including many voices not often heard in the mainstream media.

Like me, you may have been left feeling useless by this tragedy, wondering what effect words can have when people have lost so much.  It is perhaps a truism, but this tragedy has taught me that you can only do what you can.  I cannot rebuild a house, drive a truck to Sendai or speak any words of comfort in Japanese to help heal the wounds, but the money that this book will raise will do all of those things.

So, why are you still reading? Get your copy of Quakebook now!

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Hanami season has arrived, stirring feelings of joy at the onset of spring and the start of a new financial and academic year, tempered with melancholy at the knowledge that, as with the sakura, all beauty is mortal.  A finality which doesn’t need to be underscored too heavily at a time when there are still many thousands dead and missing in the North, most recently the three killed by last night’s large aftershock.

Last week Tokyo’s government asked for restraint at this time of national mourning, while an association of Tohoku sake brewers countered by trying to encourage Tokyo’s drinkers to indulge, enjoy life and by doing so, support the remains of their industry.  It is understandable that people feel torn.  There is perhaps a reluctance to hold the raucous parties for which the season is renowned while their compatriots are struggling with everyday living.  Set against that, is of course, the near-impossible-to-resist joy that sakura season brings:

As I wrote in autumn, the Japanese love their trees and this regard was very much in evidence today in Ueno Park.  Everyone from teetering and bundled-up toddlers to almost bent-double grandparents walked beneath the boughs, loaded and heavy with blossoms close to their mankai, or full bloom, best.  The trees were truly gorgeous.  A heartbreakingly beautiful sight, the gentle pink at times hardly showing against the grey sky, but still strong enough to give the soul a lift and herald the end of winter.

The view was made all the more beautiful by its fleeting nature, the delicate blossom taking a battering from the wind, falling across the paths and walkers below the trees, as well as into my palm as I took these pictures.

So hard to believe that by next week they will be gone.

All pictures by me, happy for them to be used if you like them, a credit would be lovely.


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Cause: earthquake

Teacher, where were you… when big earthquake…?

In case I’m not sure what they mean, the student helpfully makes a motion to demonstrate the shaking with their hands at this point in the question.  I was only halfway through my first week back at work when I began to run out of new ways to tell the same stories.  Friday 11 March was like a terrible film on almost constant loop in my head.

The students are lucky, in a way, because they only have to tell theirs once.  Japanese stoicism being what it is, I suppose this might be their only opportunity to speak out loud and I don’t begrudge them taking it at all.  I reflect that I am also in quite a privileged position, being able to listen to voices that aren’t often heard by gaijin.  Students have voiced criticisms to me that I doubt they would tell a spouse or a parent if the normal rules hadn’t been suspended for a short time by the crisis.

They tell me of having to sleep in the office, on a piece of cardboard or in a family restaurant because of suspended trains.  Of taking in family members from the North who have left everything behind.  Of their disbelief at US news outlets thinking Sendai is located in Kyushu in the West.  Or they speak of how business is being disrupted, the usual routine thrown into disarray by colleagues relocating, shipments being delayed and a thousand other factors.  Everyone is busy, working hard, worrying about the future and where it might lead.

Japan feels alone…

…one student tells me, fearful that tourists – rare even in better times due to the yen’s strength – will no longer want to come because of the radiation.  So I mention that I have family about to arrive and they are so happy to hear the news, we talk of places my relatives should visit while they are here and it is a relief to turn to a less fraught topic of conversation for a short while.  It seems such a small crumb of comfort to be able to offer when what is needed is a feast.

Picture from the Yamanote line, Saturday 12 March


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You have to read this

You have to read this.  I know, you are probably all news-ed out.  There has been quite a lot of it recently and the hysteria and misinformation is already too much.  You don’t want to know any more.

But still, all that considered, you have to read this.  It is a first-hand account of what happened when the tsunami hit Onagawa, told by a Canadian teacher and his girlfriend.  I promise, it will be worth the time taken to read it.

In amongst the details of the cold and hunger suffered by the survivors in the initial aftermath of the disaster, I found this recollection to be the most disturbing:

The town’s PA system announced a tsunami warning. The older people in the playground said to not worry, that a tsunami had never come this far inland during their lives. So everyone relaxed, and waited until it was safe to go back inside.

After about 15 minutes, they saw water coming down the streets, and it was rising rapidly. Not a huge wave like in the movies, but rather like a bathtub filling up. Many of the older people ran back to their houses, maybe to gather precious belongings.

This may sound incredible, but it resonates with something I read in a section of Quakebook when I was editing it.  The writer spoke of older, perhaps more experienced people, who told her not to worry and that there was no need to head to higher ground as that part of the coast had never been hit before.  She ignored them, although it turned out that they were right, as a much smaller wave than expected came ashore and the town’s defences were able to cope.  However, she marvelled at their complacency and wondered why people had listened to them.

Something that I thought about a great deal after 11 September and the London tube bombings was the accidental randomness of modern life and how that could save your life or destroy it.  This came from reading of a woman who should have been at work on one of the higher floors of the Twin Towers, but who had a dentist’s appointment that morning.  She was the only one of her colleagues to survive.

Simple decisions of whether to get to the office early that morning, or to run a little late, buying a newspaper or breakfast causing a delay.  These are the thousand incidental occurences of life which never command much significance until the day that something completely out of the ordinary happens.  And suddenly you are standing in the next carriage to the bomb in the rucksack, or sitting at a desk as the plane soars in below.

Yet that randomness taking effect is a world away from hearing a tsunami warning and deciding that you will be safe at sea level.  So much happened on 11 March that was unprecedented, unplanned for and unforecast.  Educated guesses of what might ensue turned out to be not very well-informed at all. Yet all those who thought they would be safe, despite the warnings because of what had happened previously, perished.

So for that reason, if for no other, be sure to read the article.

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