Tag Archives: Iwate

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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Six months

Today is a day of anniversaries, perhaps rightly, the 10-year one garnering more attention worldwide, while the six-month one occupies minds closer to home.

As central and local governments in Japan set a 10 year goal to restore the ruined areas in the north-east of the country, it is difficult to see how that task could be any tougher.  The Japan Times cites the huge costs involved, the need to rethink communities to ensure residents are protected from future disasters and the ongoing catastrophe of Fukushima nuclear power plant as areas of concern:

… the massive piles of debris kept in temporary storage sites along the coast are just one indicator that a huge amount of work remains to be done.

Creating new jobs is a priority, as many people who worked for businesses that were wrecked in March remain unemployed. A recent labor ministry survey showed that at least 70,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures lost their jobs because of the quake-tsunami catastrophe.

It all makes for a full in-tray for Japan’s brand new Prime Minister, not helped by yesterday’s resignation of industry minister Yoshio Hachiro over ‘controversial’ comments that the radiation-riddled areas close to the crippled Fukushima plant were now like ghost towns.  Perhaps his also-reported jest about wiping radiation from his clothes onto those of journalists was a little weak and poorly timed, but criticism and his resignation serves to avoid the obvious truth in the words.

In the days after the disaster, as Japan collectively held its breath and accurate information trickled out from TEPCO while contaminated water gushed from its plant, the response was characterised by mishap and unpreparedness, according to the Mainichi Daily News:

The government hoped that if the plan was successful, it could lift emergency evacuation preparation orders for areas lying between 20 and 30 kilometers from the plant. However, a series of minor accidents, including temporary malfunctions and leaks from the 4-kilometer-long hose used to carry the water, slowed down the operation, and the operations of the system has not yet been stabilized. According to official data, 32 mishaps with the water purification system had occurred by mid-August.

As the old Irish joke goes, if you were going to restore the ravaged areas of the country, you wouldn’t start from here.  In the face of such official dereliction of duty, it does offer some comfort to read of people finding hope and strength, from the Otsuchi convenience store owner in the Japan Times story above, to the family of young Nozomi Sato, born on March 12.  In the words of her father, Shigeru:

When I go back home everyday my wife and children are there. It may sound so trivial, but to me it is an everyday relief.

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Where everybody knows your name

The lure of the perfect bar, like that of the perfect writing cafe, keeps me searching through the city streets.  A place for rowdy celebrations with friends, knocking back drinks while sharing gossip and laughter, or for sitting not saying much at all, with book, glass and lover close at hand.  A space that is good for reading yet never too bright, both cool in summer and soothing in winter, when dogs stretch lazily by the fire and the humans sleep off their Sunday lunches.

My dream is to find the bar where I will be so well-loved that when I go, this happens:

I know their favourite songs. I want to reopen and play each of the songs in their honour.

Maybe one day I will find it – like those who have left behind memories of their songs in Iwate – or maybe I won’t ever be so fortunate.  It is possible that my perfect bar only exists in my head.  Perhaps the answer will be to open one myself, to stand behind the counter playing my favourite songs and hope that others enjoy the atmosphere enough to share it with me briefly.

Until the day I get there, at least I can enjoy the search.

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The ‘miracle villages’

When addressing the questions asked last week about rebuilding Japan’s destroyed communities, some villages are clearly ahead of the curve.

As Japan Times writer Edan Corkill reports, the village of Yoshihama was spared the most terrible effects of the 11 March tsunami because of decisions made generations ago, after previous big disasters in 1896 and 1933, to relocate to higher ground.  It is an incredible story of warnings from the past, left on stone markers built at the point where earlier giant waves reached:

High dwellings mean peace for descendants. Remember the disaster of the great tsunami. Do not build houses below here

In case after heartbreaking case, those who heeded the warnings not to return to the shoreline to build houses were saved, while those who didn’t were washed away.  Perhaps this third tragedy will be enough to see the lessons of the markers learned once and for all.

Next time I hope that they can all be miracle villages.

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Stories from Japan

Stories from Japan that caught my eye this week.

First, a lovely report, in which Tokyo-based Italian chefs got together to help the people of Iwate in the best way possible: by providing some yummy pasta:

People enjoyed the food and some even asked whether they could take the leftovers home

commented Marco Staccioli, founder of the charity project.  I am sure it was very much appreciated, Italian food is well-loved in Japan and I bet there wasn’t much left over at all!

Next, survivors of the tsunami in Miyagi have been helping each other but are still living in desperate circumstances, more than two months after the disaster.  Over three hundred people are crowded into the 20 remaining buildings in one village, with ongoing concerns about their livelihoods:

People are worried and frustrated after losing their homes and jobs. We don’t see much hope in getting our lives back together

 – Keiichi Abe, head of the Omotehama branch of the Miyagi prefectural fisheries cooperative

Last, via Jake Adelstein on Twitter, a dilemma many of us will hopefully never have to face, to save yourself or help others, knowing that you will lose your life if you do?

These and other stories show that, while much good is being done, there is more still to do to attend to people’s ongoing physical needs, as well as the mental stresses from the events witnessed and the uncertainty that has followed.  If you are looking for more Sunday reading and keen to do your bit to help, then please grab a copy of Quakebook!

And here are some absolutely gorgeous hand-coloured images of Japan in the 1920s to feast your eyes on.  Given that I am spending this weekend glued to the katakana, I think this one may be my favourite:

I know how he feels.

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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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