Tag Archives: Japan Times

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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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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Are you ok?

So how are you?  Are you doing ok?  How is everything there?  What’s happening?  You alright?

These and other variations on the same theme have been pinging around the world into the inboxes and ears of many residents of Japan since the earthquake of 11 March.  There is no easy way to answer such questions, it seems, because every time I try I come up with something different.

Just as I wrote those words, the earthquake alarms that many people have on their mobile phones sounded, before my table in the cafe shook lazily, almost soothingly, as if a giant foot was somewhere trying to rock a cradle holding Japan to send us all to sleep.  It only went on for a couple of seconds, so can’t have been very big or must have been located far away.  Once I was sure that my cup of tea wasn’t going to spill I returned to my writing.

Such complacency must seem incredible to Westerners, faced with images of the devastation in the North and worrying about us here in Tokyo.  If I stop to think I am also incredulous at how quickly I have become used to aftershocks and alarms, how swiftly I can now calculate levels of immediate danger and decide if they are worth getting out of my chair for.  Similarly, it feels as if we have all become armchair experts on all things nuclear, discussing levels of radiation exposure,  possible side-effects of iodine tablets and the relative impacts of micro- and milli-sieverts in the same way that we once engaged in more idle chatter.

Yet, in spite of the essential rescue efforts still going on in the stricken areas, continuing attempts to save the power plant from meltdown and the reintroduced programme of rolling blackouts, life is returning to a semblance of normality in the capital.  People are commuting and shopping and eating and drinking, as they were before.  I will be back at work later on today and the return to the familiar routine is soothing to the nerves, if likely to prove detrimental to the writing schedule.

The decision to stay in Japan and in Tokyo was the right one for me, I feel sure.  However, that should not be taken as criticism of anyone who made an alternative choice.  We all had to make a decision we were comfortable with, in the face of rapidly altering facts and opinions from an array of experts located around the globe.  We all had different factors to consider and it would have tested the judgment of Solomon at times to know which were the deciders.  Only someone who was here would know the agony of that choice, which is why I am saddened this morning to read this from the Japan Times:

I have seen some nasty stuff written by some (foreigners) who stayed about those (foreigners) who have left

Shame on anyone engaging in such nastiness.  Was it worth it to move a family out of possible harm’s way, to head home to give loved ones a hug or simply to sleep one night in a bed that was unlikely to be rocked by that giant’s foot?  Of course, I recognise the pull of such concerns as I was almost swayed by them myself.  Although in the end other factors won out for me, I don’t have it in me to condemn anyone who chose to answer the question ‘are you ok?’ in person instead of via email, Skype or status update.

But many people in this fantastic country that I am lucky enough to call home are unable to answer that question positively and will not be in a position to do so for a very long time.  Please send as much help as you can, the British Red Cross appeal or Second Harvest Japan are both doing sterling work.  My answer to your question?  Yes, yes I am and thank you so much for asking.

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