” A wonderful thing happened when TEPCO visited us. Some villagers were naturally angry with TEPCO and were calling on them to apologize and generally giving them a hard time. But many others told them [the hecklers] to stop as they were bringing shame on the village. ‘We’ve really made a good village here,’ I thought on seeing this. ”
These words were spoken by Norio Kanno, Mayor of Iitate Village in Fukushima Prefecture.
Iitate village is technically outside of the 30 kilometer evacuation zone, but was heavily contaminated due to a change in wind direction after the hydrogen explosions in March of 2011. As a blanket of radioactive snow fell upon the village, its citizens, believing themselves outside of the danger zone, were providing shelter for evacuees from villages closer to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. When it was officially announced that levels of radiation in Iitate were alarmingly high (much higher than places within the evacuation zone in some cases), the news was met with shock and disbelief, and the damage was already done. One month later, the first government-ordered evacuations began, and as of this month, approximately 90% of all residents have fled to neighboring towns or prefectures. Mayor Kanno told the story of the residents’ meeting with TEPCO officials in May, praising their ability to hold back what could have turned into a raging flood of anger and accusations.
With Mayor Kanno and the Iitate residents in the back of your mind, let’s move on to a series of articles recently published in the Japan Times about (among other things) anti-nuclear activism and the volunteer spirit in post-3-11 Japan. According to the Times, although activism and volunteerism are currently at a record high within the country, things look different from a global standpoint.
A January 4th Japan Times article begins by noting that although change in Japan has traditionally been brought about due to outside factors (i.e. Commandore Perry’s warships in 1853), the country is beginning to change from the inside out, with grassroots activism finally taking a strong hold and young people participating enthusiastically. The movement, given impetus by Internet-savvy mothers who are both emotionally and intellectually engaged, has empowered average citizens to begin “..moving toward a more active kind of democracy in which people realize they are the primary actors, not the government.” Yet, in conclusion, the writer of the article doubts whether the movement is strong enough to impact fundamental change. Quoting sociologist Ken Matsuda, the writer declares that “Japan’s affluence is an obstacle. Most people live comfortably and are reluctant to make too big a fuss, even if they’re unhappy with the political leadership. Culturally, it’s considered better to adjust to one’s surroundings than to try to change them. Most people aren’t hungry or angry.”
On the same day, January 4th, a Japan Times editorial discussed “Kizuna” (translated as “bonds” or “ties”), the official kanji chosen to represent the year 2011. The editor praised ordinary Japanese citizens for reaching out to care for the victims of the Tohoku disaster in an unprecedented–in this country– show of generosity and spirit, while chastising TEPCO and the central government for breaking these same bonds, and betraying the social contract between the people and those (supposedly) in control or power. As an important side note, the editor also regretted that according to an international survey, “….even in 2011 Japan ranked only 105th in giving money, volunteering time and helping strangers. That relatively low worldwide ranking suggests that social bonds in Japan may be more emotionally felt than practically carried out.” Those statistics bothered me terribly.
One can see why those outside of Tohoku might not feel compelled to protest against the government’s energy policies, or even to disrupt their lives with volunteer trips to Tohoku. Most Japanese live relatively comfortable lives, and it’s only too easy for them to disconnect from the events of 3-11 and remain in their cocoon of work, family, and comforting routines. Yet one would think that those directly affected by the drama would be up in arms, protesting the loss of their homes and livlihoods. How can we begin to understand why the mayor of Iitate, speaking in early summer when those living in proximity to the evacuation zone were in a state of constant stress and turmoil, expressed his disapproval of the TEPCO hecklers rather than TEPCO? The Japan Times reporter credits the stoicism and perseverance inherent in Japanese culture (pronouncing these traits to be “liabilities” rather than assets). Well yes, that certainly makes sense, though it’s difficult for those living in more aggressive cultures to fathom. But there’s more to it than “gaman”, or stoicism.
Let’s return to the words of Mayor Kanno, who gave an interview in May with JB Press , which has been translated into excellent English. In the article, he praises the restraint and gentleness of village residents, explaining that they have been raised in the tradition of “Madei”. Here’s an excerpt:
We have been living a madei life. ‘Madei’ is local dialect and a concept that has been with us for years. We have many sayings that use this word: If you don’t bring your child up with madei (to be respectful and considerate), there will be trouble later. If you don’t eat your food with madei (with wholeheartedness or without waste), you’ll be punished by the gods and go blind.
The word consists of two kanji characters, one meaning ‘truth’ and the other ‘hand’. If you look in a Japanese dictionary, it will say it means ‘both hands’. In other words, when giving someone tea, the right way is to use both hands. When catching a ball you can use one hand, but it’s safer and better to use two. ‘Madei’ means respectfully, considerately, modestly, with care, with spirit, without haste and without waste.
New energy and the like are also important, but the true starting point of the recovery should be making use of people with such feelings-or in other words, people with spirit of madei.
I had not been familiar with the term ‘Madei’, but I could certainly understand the analogy of
the tea bowl. With no “handle”, a Japanese chawan is cradled gently in both hands, very naturally and yet very carefully. The last dregs of matcha should not be left to sit, even if drinking them requires a slightly embarrassing (to a westerner) slurp. When those last dregs have disappeared, some drinkers admire the bowl itself, turning it and even tipping it upside down to view the craftsman’s seal on the bottom. The whole process is done calmly and without haste, with appreciation for all involved: the tea master (who whisks the powder into frothy tea), the server (who delivers the bowls with grace, modesty, perfect timing, and perfect placement), the tea itself (to be savored), the bowl it is served in, and finally the view from the tatami room or the floral arrangement and scroll displayed in the Tokonoma. No haste, no waste and no inappropriate chatter, any of which would break the air of serenity and respect. That same spirit of respect and consideration must be shown, implied Konno-san, even to the representatives of TEPCO, the company that had caused the displacement of an entire community and the contamination of an environment that had sustained them for generations. There is more dignity in silence than in protest.
The Mayor of Iitate Village’s words were well-chosen and beautifully expressed; I found them shared and re-printed in countless blogs and newspaper articles as an example of the spirit of Tohoku. Soon after the article about Madei was published, the village of Iitate was evacuated, and a photo of Kanno-san, continuing to work at his desk on the last day of official business, appeared in the Mainichi Shinbun. “Even with preparations continuing apace around him, Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno continued his official duties,” read the article. “These are not happy days for his village, and though he appears calm in his work, there is no mistaking his frustration. ‘Where can I put my anger?’ he said. ‘I have to transform it, turn it into a different kind of energy that I can direct to try to get us all back home even one day sooner.’ ” The Mayor was sounding stressed, but not yet broken or bitter. I followed up on my search, to see what he had to say after the evacuation process had been completed and the de-contamination process had begun.
What I found was not encouraging. Despite findings of plutonium in the ground soil and
continued re-contamination of residential areas due to the village’s proximity to a cesium-laden forest, Iitate is scheduled to be fully “disinfected”, spruced up, and re-populated within the next two years. At least that’s the plan of the Central Government. The village is now a ghost town (though one central government official lost his job for saying as much), families with small children have declared their intention not to return, and Mayor Kanno is bluntly critical of TEPCO’s declaration–and the government’s acceptance – of a state of cold shutdown at the Daiichi power plant. In the December 17 issue of AJW Asahi Shinbun , the Mayor is quoted as saying, “It’s out of the question to call it [the Daiichi Power Plant] under control. They know nothing about the reality here.” I found this in sad contrast to the serenity of his “Madei” speech, yet perhaps this transformation from sage to short-tempered local official was inevitable. Though the Mayor has lost his serenity (and has become an insomniac, staying awake worrying about the future), he retains his dignity, continues to work hard, and remains devoted to the people of his village, though Iitate’s shops are closed, and its people scattered far and wide.
After reading up on the recent history of Iitate Village, I came away feeling overwhelmed at the complexity of the situation and nothing but sympathetic toward those involved. Residents and local officials of Fukushima are what we call “sei ippai”, or pushed beyond their limits. Families are forced to leave their homes behind, yet still making mortgage payments. Fathers are living alone in Fukushima while mothers and children make new lives for themselves in Tokyo, learning to get along just fine without Papa (this was confirmed to me by several mothers I met at an event for evacuees. “We know we should be depressed,” they said. “but the children are happy here in Tokyo, and they keep our spirits up. It’s our husbands who are suffering.” ) Families are being shuffled from one temporary housing complex to another without being able to put down roots anywhere. Saddest of all are the men who have lost their livelihoods; many have worked at a single profession for twenty or thirty years, and lack the flexibility and skills to start again in a new line of work. Not that there are openings outside of clearing rubble, patrolling areas inside the evacuation zone, or taking a turn at cleaning up the mess at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
When the central government first acknowledged that Iitate had suffered heavy contamination through a fluke of weather, the Mayor set about trying to protect the residents’ safety (he evacuated mothers, babies, and small children immediately, along with those who expressed worry or anxiety) while at the same time attempting to keep the infrastructure of the village functioning. Kanno-san did his best to keep businesses up and running in Iitate until the very last factory was forced to shut down, and established a task force of local residents to patrol deserted streets, protecting the homes that still held their inhabitants’ possessions. He also fought to let elderly nursing home residents stay within the evacuation zone, arguing that the stress of moving could be more injurious to their condition that the threat of radiation. His own mother-in-law died en route to an evacuation center, as did many other elderly patients. One horrific news report that sticks in my memory is of a busload of bedridden elderly folks, unused to sitting, caught in traffic trying to reach the “safety” of a neighboring city. By the time they reached their destination, many of them had become critically ill, and one old woman was dead in her seat.
In some areas, families near the Daiichi plant evacuated hastily, leaving pets outside to fend for themselves and livestock trapped in their stalls to die of hunger. Mayor Kanno wanted to make sure that the evacuation of Iitate was done slowly, carefully, and with consideration for
the needs of everyone in the community. Whether or not he was right to take things slow– in the spirit of madei– one cannot argue that he has not been devoted to his community. That community has already broken apart, but before the evacuation they were able to publish a book they had been putting together called “The Power of Madei”, adding a photo of their scenic village (as it was before the quake) to the back cover.
I was saddened (but not surprised) to hear that Mayor Kanno received severe criticism and even hate mail regarding his reluctance to evacuate each and every citizen immediately. This was tragically misdirected anger that should have been directed at both TEPCO and the central government. While Kanno-san spent sleepless nights fretting over the moral implications and practical issues involved with evacuation, TEPCO was callously re-locating tsunami survivors in bayside apartments in Yokohama (true: I read it–again, in the Japan Times– just this morning. A sixty-year old woman has spoken out about re-living the trauma of the tsunami from her window each and every day)! And then there are the 60 page forms that must be filed to receive monetary compensation from TEPCO; the company has actually paid out very little money so far, as so few of the complicated forms have been successfully completed and filed. I could list more examples, but you get the picture.
Since it also does not seem likely that the average Japanese middle-aged woman will be spending her evenings surfing the internet (she is busy serving dinner on a staggered time-scale, as her children and husbands all arrive home at different times from their various cram schools and work. She also drives back and forth to the station to pick them up, cleans their dishes afterwards, and does the preparations for making the next day’s box lunches. She then is the last one into the family bath, and the last one to bed.) The average middle-aged man will not be checking out underground blogs, either. He’s too exhausted from work, and a beer and a good TV game show are more tempting. Those of us who do dig for facts and stories (and find them!) would probably do best to wait for the opportunity to poke and prod, rather than trumpeting our findings. Beating our friends over the head with “the truth” will only cause greater damage in this country where “speaking out” means “causing someone to worry”, and ensures our alienation from the audience we so hope to reach.
Multiple polls have shown that the majority of Japanese citizens are in favor of closing down the remainder of the country’s nuclear power plants and investing in alternative energy sources…..yet those who cast their vote with the reassurance of anonymity are “not comfortable” marching in demonstrations (“What if someone sees my face on the nightly news?!”), signing petitions (“They might get my name and send me things!”), volunteering on weekends ( “Who would take care of my husband?”), or even donating a significant amount of money (“You never know if it’s going to be used appropriately!”). I’ve heard all of these reasons/excuses, and think very little of them. It seems that the Japan Times is right on target: people feel sympathy for victims of the Tohoku triple disaster and are truly worried for the future of their country; however, this does not translate into action, and it is a shame.
So how can those who are emotionally involved begin to poke and prod? Among like-minded friends in the blogging world this is a constant dilemma, as we read each other’s articles and encourage each other, while realizing that the people we would most love to connect with are not reading our words. We continue writing, however, and I believe this is crucial. We write to formulate our own arguments, define our own ideas, and then throw them out to sea…perhaps we might get a bite, and a complete stranger will find them. The stranger reads them, learns something, is motivated to act, and our efforts have been worthwhile.
Writing is hardly a social endeavor, though, and I am a social creature. I therefore poke and prod in my workplace as well, by bringing up various human interest stories shown on the NHK nightly news; it’s the national TV channel, and I know my women friends are watching, so it’s a natural topic of conversation. I do my best to keep Tohoku on the radar, and to find out where friends and relatives stand on various issues, as well as inserting my own thoughts and challenges whenever possible. I poke carefully, rather than insistently, with results that are probably dubious at best. I feel an affinity with Mayor Kanno, I suppose, wanting to prevent potential harm by moving too swiftly or without proper care and consideration.
In the end, I’ve been touched by the story of Iitate Village. I relate to the
story of Mayor Kanno, struggling to preserve the dignity, as well as the safety, of his community. I’m saddened to think of the community that no longer exists in a physical sense, yet its members have managed to preserve the spirit of their tradition in a book, and in the words of their mayor, which have been so widely shared. Good for them, and shame on the government and on TEPCO for breaking the bonds of trust by not protecting those dependent on them. Let us hope and pray that the villagers who have left Iitate will become vital members of new communities and create new bonds, while continuing to honor those who lost their lives on 3-11 through a mixture of natural tragedy and human folly. Thank you for reading, and good night.