Tag Archives: Miyagi

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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Japan Remembers, 11 March 2012

Fishing boats in Kobuchihama, Oushika penninsular, Miyagi Prefecture

March 2012

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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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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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