Stone Mountains, Oyster Shells, and Buried Treasure: Volunteering in Ishinomaki

“Look, Grandpa! All these nice young people have come to help us out! Aren’t we lucky?”  The farmer’s wife attempted to coax a smile

Now that’s a pile of stones. And more to come!

from her stolid husband as eleven young Peaceboat volunteers, armed with pickaxes, shovels, hoes and wheelbarrows, removed stone after stone from the old man’s garden….or what had been his garden before the 3-11 tsunami washed over the area, transforming the land into a literal bed of rocks.

In Miyagi Prefecture’s Ishinomaki City, rubble from buildings and cars was washed inland, while land closer to the seaside was inundated with stones. Removing the stones from a single farmer’s plot of land took the Peaceboat volunteers a day and a half.  My daughter Ellen (who has asked me to write about her week’s volunteer experience) and the rest of the crew were relieved that they were able to take a bath that evening at the local public bath house, or Sento. “No-one drank sake in the evenings or stayed up late partying,” she said. “It was lights out by ten, and we went right to sleep, exhausted.”  This is exactly what every mother wants to hear, and I approved heartily.

Mrs. Oyama gets to work planting potatoes.

Returning to the story of the farmer and his rocky plot, a truck arrived from Ishinomaki City on the  second day, laden with eight tons of fresh soil from the mountainside and fertilizer as well. The Peaceboat Rock Removal Team called it quits at that point, morphing into the Cultivation Team.  The farmer, assisted by the volunteers, tilled the soil that very afternoon, mixing the saline tsunami-ravaged soil, the fresh soil from the mountainside, and the fertilizer (provided by Ishinomaki City for a nominal fee). The result was a relatively-rock-free garden plot, ready for planting.  His wife could not wait to get the first crop of potatoes in the ground, and began the process straightaway.

The finishing touches of  the rock removal,  the soil cultivation, and  the planting were all accomplished in a single day, thanks to the communal efforts of volunteers, city officials, and the farmer himself.  While other Ishinomaki residents are still marking time in temporary housing, this man and his wife did indeed get lucky.  My daughter got a deep tan, some muscles in her slim arms, and an education.

Removing the debris from Ishinomaki has been a long and painful process. Thanks to the

Mountain of rubble, seen from the highway in Ishinomaki.

efforts of Japan’s self-defense forces and international as well as local volunteer efforts, the worst has been dealt with; for the most part, rubble has been cleared from residential areas. It is now piled in neat and tidy mountains, visible from the highway. The images are jaw-dropping, and the problem of disposal of the contents of these mountains is the hottest topic on the nightly news. It is also a separate blog entry altogether, and I do not intend to go there right now.  Instead, I will focus on what my daughter saw and learned during her week in Tohoku (this past April),  exactly as she reported the situation to me.  Though I am known to exaggerate (just a wee bit) in daily conversation, I vow not to stray from the story line or add my own embellishments.  In fact, if I do her stories justice, the embellishments will not be needed or missed.

Now that the worst of the rubble has been cleared, Peaceboat volunteers are focused on the families (mostly elderly couples) who have chosen to stay in the tsunami-ravaged towns, helping them rebuild their lives and regain a measure of independence. In short, helping to restore hope. The soil restoration projects began when a Peaceboat organizer sounded out some residents of a local temporary housing complex: “Any farmers here who want to get back to work?  Need some help getting started?”  “Absolutely!” was an elderly farmer’s response, and the Peaceboat volunteers began the process of recreating workable garden plots, one at a time.

Before reviving Oyama-san’s rocky garden plot, the Peaceboat volunteers also assisted a farmer living farther inland.  This man’s land was a veritable treasure-trove of rubble, and involved another full day of work by fifteen volunteers.  Again, using pickaxes and shovels, here’s a partial list of what the volunteers found buried in the soil: credit cards. Old tires. Remote controls. Washlet toilet knobs and parts. Batteries. Eyeshadow in case, still usable. Bra and panties. Plastic bag stuffed full of ¥100 coins (this is called “heso-kuri”, or money squirrelled away).  And much more, including the all-pervasive rocks.  While the workers dug and sorted, another farmer strolled by to watch the process. “Oi! Come over and do my yard, too!” he called.  After a sizable pile of rubble had been collected, the sorting began: burnable items, non-burnable items, and rocks. Toward the end, my daughter admits, everyone was so tired that they became adept at making split-second decisions, and tossing items swiftly into what they hoped was the appropriate pile.  The Peaceboat crew were not able to stay around to see the farmer and his wife turn their newly-cleared land into an actual garden, but the couple thanked the volunteers profusely before they left, and insisted that they keep the bag of ¥100 coins.

A trio of “Sui”, caught in Shark Bay.

After days of digging, the Peaceboat team relocated to an area known as “Same no Ura”, or Shark Bay. Here a city official in charge of working with volunteers gave a brief history of the area’s post-tsunami recovery efforts.  The tsunami, he told the group, had left fishermen bereft of family members, homes, boats, fishing equipment, and hope. Local officials had urged the remaining residents to persevere (“ganbaru”) and attempt to rebuild their lives, but their words met with little or no enthusiasm. Living amidst the wreckage, fishermen saw no way up and out of the abyss, and no longer cared whether the fishing industry revived or not.  Adding to this, they were bitter about the fact that volunteer efforts had begun inland, in residential areas, while those living in areas along the shoreline received less practical assistance in the first weeks after the disaster. And so, in late May and June of 2011 when Peaceboat volunteers approached the fishermen with offers of help, they were initially rejected. “What can you do to help us anyway? Our problems are too great, and your offer comes too late!” was the basic response.

Happily, the volunteers refused to take no for an answer, and began working, “katte ni”, or without being asked or welcomed. They began by sorting through a mountain of rubble near the ocean which appeared to contain many pieces of valuable fishing equipment, such as buoys and fish barrels. After the Peaceboat workers had recovered 100 barrels (with a monetary worth of approximately ¥15,000 or $150 apiece), they approached the fishermen again, appealing to their sense of economy and conservation. “Look what we found for you!  And think of how much money it represents!  If you’re not going to use these, we’re throwing them all out!  So, what will it be?” The fishermen grudgingly admitted that they’d hate to see such an awful waste, and began considering the possibility of working again. Sharing the few available boats they had, they returned to the sea and began fishing–on a much smaller scale, but with hope for the future and a return of perseverance and determination to carry on.

As a postscript: September of 2011 brought a nasty typhoon that rampaged across a good part of the country, hitting Tohoku as well. Fishermen from Shark Bay again lost boats, equipment, and even cars. After the typhoon, Peaceboat staff hurried to check on the men

A Sea Squirt ; It’s a delicacy, I promise (Hah! You wouldn’t catch me even considering this knobby little rascal as food).

and offer encouragement…..only to find them in good spirits, even jovial. “Whaaat?!  You think a little storm like that is going to keep us down after we’ve weathered the big one??  Hah!” They were still in good spirits last week, when my daughter and the rest of thevolunteers returned to help them construct underwater  shell “beds” for sea squirts. Oyster shells, it seems, are the perfect home for sea squirt eggs, which attach themselves to the rough surface of the shells, remaining there for a full four years until hatching into strange-looking but reportedly delicious sea creatures.  The Peaceboat team’s job was to finish up sorting the shells, drill holes in them and string them together in bunches, ready to

Peaceboat volunteers, awash in oyster shells.

be tossed into the ocean by the fishermen. “The shell sorting alone had been going on for two months,” said my daughter. “We just did the tail end of the work.”  To put this amount of work into perspective, the 20 or so volunteers sorted approximately 10 tons of shells per day, and the shell pile you see in the photo was more like “a pasture of shells”(said Ellen) to begin with.

With the shell beds finished and ready for use, the fishermen were in a fine mood, showing off their day’s catches for the volunteers, who took photos like crazy. To celebrate, sea urchins were served up as snacks, and eaten raw (“How?” I asked. “We cut them in half, and scooped out the inside with spoons,” said my daughter. “The sea urchin itself is a natural cup!” ) Most considered this a fine reward for the day’s work, and some even indulged in seconds.

Along with volunteer work, the Peaceboat team visited another region along the coast of Ishinomaki, known as Sakana Machi (or “Fish Town”). Here they viewed the surreal sight

The canned whale meat sauce memorial.

of a massive (the size of a small house) metal can with a label reading “Whale Meat Sauce”, upended and left as a memorial in the middle of the once-thriving neighborhood. The can is bordered by highways on either side, and flowers have been planted alongside it. Whatever you may think of whale meat, or of whaling as an industry, there are still tsunami recovery stories to be told, and this is one of them.

The story goes like this: Fish Town, as its name suggests, was built around the fishing industry, and the canned whale meat factory was just one of many fish processing plants (approximately 200 in all) that suffered irreparable damage from the tsunami.  The remains of the structure were covered in foul-smelling sludge, and millions of cans of whale meat–preserved in sauce–were buried in the muck and rubble. The factory shut down, workers were let go, and that seemed to be the end of things……until volunteers stepped in to literally pick up the pieces. The work of salvaging and washing undamaged cans took several months, but volunteers successfully recovered and sold enough cans to rebuild the factory and re-hire its former workers. The new factory is up and running, and the upended giant can remains, as a memorial to what was lost and what has been accomplished. Everything was accomplished bit by bit, with patience and perseverance, which seems to be the lesson to be learned here.

In short, my daughter’s week in Ishinomaki was about long days spent digging stones, sorting rubble into piles and boring holes in oyster shells. Hard work, nothing glamorous, and no beer in the evening as a reward. Volunteers were able to bathe twice that week, and slept on sleeping bags on the floor of an empty factory. Breakfast was a sandwich and coffee from the local convenience store, and fresh vegetables were a luxury.  This is, as Japanese say, “atari-mae” (reasonable to the point of being obvious), as volunteers should not be eating up the resources of the folks they are assisting.  Those who cannot live without daily comforts do not volunteer for Peaceboat, and the volunteers themselves are not all youngsters like my daughter (she’s 18, and a young-looking 18 at that).  At any rate, you’ve got to respect all the volunteers–regardless of age–for their determination and self-discipline.  I imagine that whiners are few and far between in the ranks, or work would not continue to progress and few would remain motivated enough to return after their first trial stint. “I have no idea why I did not do this earlier!” my daughter declared on her return home, a testimony to the satisfaction that comes from the combination of hard work and good camaraderie.

Would you eat these, raw,  fresh from the Pacific Ocean?

Readers of this blog may wonder about the “issues”: What about the level of radioactivity in the ocean? Were those raw sea urchins really safe to eat?  And should Sakana no Machi be rebuilt at all–shouldn’t the whole area be relocated to higher ground?  Why doesn’t the whaling industry take a big hint from the tsunami devastation and attempt to re-invent itself in a timely fashion (actually, one town is already considering this, in the form of a Whale Zoo, where tourists can swim with small whales and dolphins)?  Why don’t folks still living in those dangerous coastal areas run for their lives already? And what about those mountains of rubble seen along the highways that are scheduled to be distributed to various prefectures country-wide for incineration?  Aren’t families as far away as the US coastal state of Oregon concerned about the potential health effects of this already-done-deal??

Well, that’s exactly what I don’t want to plunge headlong into. Read the blog of EX- SKF, who makes it his business to stay on top of each and every issue, translating from Japanese to English with competence and coolness. Scrolling down the comments section of each post, you’ll get a sampling of the way his readers feel about the state of affairs in post-3-11 Japan. Let’s just say that it’s emotionally charged.

This post, on the other hand, is meant as something simpler. It’s a testimony from someone

Ishinomaki ladies, hard at work.

who went to Tohoku (with few preconceived notions or opinions ), worked hard, and listened intently to those around her.  What impressed her was the vastness of the area compared to the dearth of people, especially young people. “I didn’t see any residents under the age of forty all week!” my daughter proclaimed sadly on her return. However, the vigor and cheerfulness of the Ishinomaki ladies (hard at work making accessories from the stones and shells brought by the tsunami) and the determination of the older farmers and fishermen she met made an equally strong impression. It is much easier to be vigorous, cheerful, and determined when you’ve achieved a measure of independence and (therefore) dignity;  this is exactly what stable and well-organized NPOs like Peaceboat are able to provide for the remaining residents of this coastal city.

Long-term Peaceboat volunteers stay in touch with those who continue to live in their partially-damaged houses or in temporary housing, assessing their needs and concerns, and organizing projects to address specific challenges. Unlike government assistance, which often requires those in need to be proactive (come to the capital city of Sendai and fill out this 40 page claim form and we’ll consider your request), NPO assistance is based on the assessments of a mobile team, who go from place to place with eyes and ears open, ready to scope out the next potential project. Peaceboat is also bilingual, accepting volunteers from other cultures, and working with translators to make sure that work goes smoothly. (Technically, my daughter could have done this job, but she admitted to being greatly relieved that an older, more confident and outgoing woman took care of all translation jobs within her team. )

In short, Prime Minister Noda and his cohorts in Tokyo could learn a lot from the organization and spirit of Japan’s NPOs.  Fewer words, more action. Less waste, more conservation. Direct assessment of needs, smooth communication, and  healthy doses of self-denial, hard work, and sweat.  Nice going, Peaceboat.  A bunch of old folks in Ishinomaki know they’re not forgotten and have regained a measure of joy and dignity. And a mother in Hadano can feel good about sending her daughter off on the night bus to dig for stones along a desolate shoreline. It’s a given that her week’s work was just a drop in the bucket, but surely even the crankiest old geezer or the most cynical critic cannot doubt that every drop counts.  Find out more about the good work of Peaceboat here, and do consider a generous donation, or even joining their ranks.  Thank you again for reading, and for your continued interest in Japan.

Nice job, and thanks!


Tsunami damage: living with ghosts and spirits

I did not want to title this post “Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of The Tohoku Triple Disaster”, but that’s essentially what it is.  Letting the March 11th date pass without forcing myself to pull my thoughts together would be “mottainai” (a wasted opportunity), says my new disciplined self, and I vow to wade into murky-looking, foul-smelling water, peering into the depths, waiting for the muck to settle a bit and things to become clearer.  Not transparent, but at least a bit clearer.  Stand back, then–I’m going in!

Okay, I’m in.

Lanterns welcome the spirits of the ancestors during the Obon festival

Once in the murky water, there’s no avoiding the images of those who died in the tsunami and have yet to be found; they’re floating just beneath the surface, in constant movement, anxious and restless. Buddhists believe that these souls are trapped, still bound to the physical world and unable to begin the journey to Paradise. They remain in this state until their bodies are discovered, their bones are cremated, and the ashes laid to rest in an urn in the family grave, which is the gateway into the spirit world. The gateway also allows them to return to their families during the month of August, for the Obon festival, when gravesites are cleaned and scrubbed and food and lanterns are set out to welcome the spirits of dead family members who have been watching over them throughout the year. The ancestors are called “Hotokesama”.

JIJI Press reports that the bodies of more than 3,000 tsunami victims have yet to be found, and around 500 bodies have yet to be identified.  Most of the bodies have been cremated, and their ashes stored in various repositories until claimed by family members. Read about a Buddhist monk, who made it his mission to watch over the ashes of these unknown men, women, and children, holding vigils and praying for them to be reunited with loving families.

And consider the story of Okawa Elementary School, in Ishinomaki.  It’s a story so painful that I cannot dwell on it for a long period of time. Here’s the gist of the story, which was recently highlighted in a BBC documentary film entitled “Japan’s Children of the Wave“.  The school was considered a safe haven for emergencies, both quakes and tsunamis, and after the quake teachers safely evacuated students onto the playground.  Some parents had sped to the school by car immediately after the quake, and were able to pick their children up on the school grounds and flee to safety. Those children whose parents did not arrive by car waited obediently outside as the tsunami, still unseen, began encroaching. While a teacher went in to make sure the school was empty of students, the wave hit, and students, teachers, and staff fled up an embankment behind the school.

Altar outside Okawa Elementary School

Seventy-five out of the one hundred and eight students perished, as did ten of the thirteen staff members, one of whom later committed suicide. Few adults were left to bear witness, and the one teacher who survived bore the brunt of the bereaved parents’ grief and anger.  The BBC documentary contains a film clip from a meeting called by parents , who demanded to know why the school staff had been unable to save their children. I forced myself to watch as the surviving teacher entered the room, head down, and attempted to reply to the barrage of questions and attacks from parents, some weeping audibly.

The film continues, following the attempts of one Okawa School mother to locate the remains of her daughter. The search for students’ bodies continued for months, but her daughter’s body did not turn up. When the official search was called off, she obtained a license to drive heavy machinery, rented a backhoe, and continued the search herself.  In the end, her daughter was found.  The mother faces the camera and reports, in an emotionless tone, how her daughter was discovered: afloat in the ocean, headless and limbless, a lump of flesh being pecked by gulls. Again, I could not watch that particular scene twice, and yet parents relive similar scenes night after night in their tortured dream-life. Those outside of Tohoku have the luxury of turning off the news or changing the channel, but the nightmare is continually replayed in the minds of those who lived through it and survived.  It’s no wonder that people see ghosts in Ishinomaki, and some taxi drivers refuse to even enter tsunami-devastated neighborhoods for fear that their passenger may be a spirit.

Other schools fared far differently than Okawa, and similar potential tragedies were averted by well-prepared staff and students, who began evacuating immediately and swiftly in the absence of official orders or organized direction. In June of 2011, I wrote about students from Kamaishi East Jr. High, whose school curriculum had included emergency preparation and drills. The quake immediately knocked out the school’s power system, so there were no PA announcements to follow; without hesitation, the students began evacuating themselves to higher ground, even before the teachers had time to step in and direct the exodus. The students fled in the lead, the teachers caught up and followed them, and 350 students from a neighboring elementary school also followed along.  All who joined in the evacuation were saved. The story was reported in the Japan Times last June, and today’s paper featured a follow-up story on the students and how their lives have changed in the past year.

After re-locating to a neighboring junior high school, most spent the year scrambling to

One year later: Kamaishi East teacher Shin Saito and three of his third-year students (photo by Setsuko Kamiya)

keep up with their studies in classrooms packed with between thirty-five to fifty students.  Many students live with their parents in cramped temporary housing units, adjusting themselves to a new way of life and the barren landscape that was their hometown. “As the debris is cleared away and the remaining houses are torn down, I’m starting to forget what our town used to look like,” said third-year student Aki Kawasaki, “And I hate that I’m starting to get used to the destroyed town.”  Still, she and her classmates are determined to move forward, and to share their experience with as many people as possible; Kawasaki herself has travelled to both Tokyo and Nagoya to speak out on behalf of tsunami victims and to share the hope and positivity inspired by her own story. How can fifteen-year olds outside of Tohoku relate to her story?  Can they even begin to imagine the fears and hardships she and her classmates have learned to deal with on a daily basis?  For this is how many survivors view the situation:  It’s not about “overcoming”, which implies a victory, but about dealing with hardship, which implies a refusal to accept defeat.

Multi-story container housing unit, November 2011 grand opening.

Families and individuals who lost their homes in the tsunami are now living in artificially-created communities known as “kasetsu jyutaku”, or temporary housing facilities.  Each apartment is small and tidy, and equipped with everyday basic appliances, right down to the rice cooker. No luxuries, but no-one expects things like dishwashers in the first place, so it seems almost miraculous to get the rice cooker, really.  The apartments are not well-insulated and many have been plagued by condensation build-up inside on freezing cold days.  One NHK news program that sticks in my memory featured an elderly woman, standing on a chair and vigorously mopping the ceiling of her tiny kitchen….”I do this every two hours!” she declared.  Volunteers have done their best to look out for the needs of those living in temporary housing, bringing fuel for kerosene heaters and fresh food and vegetables for the house-bound, shovelling snow and clearing paths, and arranging get-togethers for elderly people missing their daily routine of lessons and social gatherings. Some cities get more volunteers than others, and many residents in lesser-known temporary complexes remain anxious, afraid of behind left behind and forgotten in an alien landscape. They’ve lost the world as they knew it, and their place in that world as well.

……So what’s stopping them from forming new connections and beginning to create a new world for themselves??  Again, let me quote interviews with ordinary residents, broadcast on the NHK nightly news.  According to one resident who does not consider his temporary residence “home”,  a combination of grief and guilt gets in the way. In areas hit hardest by the tsunami, he said, many folks tread on pins and needles in an effort not to re-open freshly-healed and still painful wounds. He himself lives close to an old friend; the friend lost his son, while his own family survived intact. “I cannot look at my friend without feeling guilt that my own son survived while his did not. We used to talk about our children all the time, and now I have no idea what to say…”

Grief is a very private thing in this country.  I’ve only actually seen my own husband cry once, when a friend from college committed suicide.  Never seen my father-in-law tear up, either.  My mother-in-law will cry buckets over some ridiculous soap opera, but faces any sort of family crisis dry-eyed.  My co-worker hides in the bathroom to shed her tears. My next-door-neighbor shut herself away in a back room of the ceremonial hall during her father’s funeral so as not to face friends with a tear-stained face.  It breaks my heart that people cannot throw their arms around each other and speak about their loss, but having lived in this country as long as I have, I understand that many simply cannot.  Those who have lost family and friends still struggle to come to terms with their own pain, while those whose families survived feel overwhelmed by guilt and their own inability to communicate.

Even before the quake, there were relatively few trained counselors and psychiatrists in Japan, and those few qualified professionals are now stretched to their limits. Countless residents fall prey to depression and alcoholism, yet do not seek treatment. In Japan, any hint of psychological instability is considered a private and shameful matter, and families often choose to conceal the problem rather than seek a solution.

Friday’s Japan Times featured an editorial essay by Davinder Kumar, a global press officer for child rights and community development. After visiting the tsunami-stricken communities in Northern Japan, he writes of the downside of Japanese stoicism:

The perceived social duty to be resilient and the tendancy in Japan to confuse psycho-social care with mental illness means that those in real need may never seek help. Plan Japan [Kumar’s organization] had to adapt and evolve ways to reach very private people. Tea parties were used as an excuse to bring people together so they can talk and share their feelings. Psycho-social care had to be rebranded as child support.

Emotional support or psycho-social care is often neglected in disaster response, yet it is among the most basic needs of disaster survivors……expressing emotions and sharing feelings can prevent high-risk people from advancing to stages where they require specialized mental health care involving psychiatrists and clinical psychologists.

The events of 3/11…. have exposed a worrying neglect of emotional well-being in Japanese society, a sentiment echoed by mental health experts who fear that things could get worse. For prided stoicism and economic realities, the pressure on Japan is intense on Japan and its tsunami survivors to resume business as normal. As the world’s third largest economy races for rapid rebuilding and reconstruction, it must not lose sight of survivors’ emotional well-being. It is a challenge and a humanitarian need that must be met. For Japan’s recovery to be successful, it must be matched in mind.

Jeffrey Jousan, making the ladies of Tohoku very happy with his warm hugs. (Photo by Jacinta Hin)

So you see the fragility and some of the complexities associated with life in artificially- created communities in Japan, especially for the elderly and for children.  And how urgent the need is for listening ears, understanding hearts, kind words, and shared grief.  This is one reason that foreign volunteers have been wildly popular in Tohoku. They laugh, they cry, they have no trouble with big bear hugs (and speaking from experience, Japanese folks who would cringe at being touched by one of their own kind often find it a tolerable novelty to be hugged by a foreigner), and they bring the outside world into closed communities.

Much is being done, but the need is nearly overwhelming.  Take the time to click on the link to “Children of the Wave”, and steel yourself to see it through till the end.  It will bring home the depths of the tragedy experienced by families along the coast of Northern Japan, and the gravity of the challenges yet to be faced.  As the government bungles along attempting to reconstruct the country, we pray for the recovery of the minds and hearts of the tsunami victims and for the future of the children who lost homes, families, and emotional security at an early age. Pray that the remaining bodies of the tsunami victims will be found, their ashes be returned to loving families, and that their spirits will find the gateway to begin their journey to the next life.  And for those whose bodies will not be recovered, we must pray that their families can find some closure, and an outlet for their grief and pain.  Cities like Ishinomaki will continue to be haunted by ghosts and spirits for a long time to come. Thank you for reading, and continue to keep the people of Northern Japan in your thoughts and in your hearts. My next post will focus on the nuclear disaster; the water will be much murkier, but I’ll wade in and brave the stench. Good night.

Rubble: on the ground, and in our hearts

  • What the rubble was like last spring…

    Yesterday, a friend posted before and after photos of tsunami-affected areas in Tohoku on my facebook page. Picture after picture contrasted areas engulfed by water and rubble with the new rubble-free, grey, barren landscape. I viewed them with mixed emotions of marvel (at the transformation) and sometimes distress (at the dreariness of the vision. Some areas have been reduced to bare earth, devoid of houses, shops, trees, or any sign of life).  I recalled how enormous the task of clearing the rubble seemed last March and April, and also the spirit of humility and generosity that blew across the country as a whole. There was very little whining about the inconveniences of daily life last spring (and there are plenty such inconveniences in a country where even the rich do not live in large spacious houses), and people felt good about sacrifice.

    It was then that I wrote my first blog entries, trying desperately to record the changes in attitude of those around me, and to make sense of the complexities of the 3-11 disaster and the nation’s response.  My first entries were simply “Notes” on facebook, designed to keep family and friends in the US informed, and to assure them that I had not taken to my bed, wasting away with radiation sickness. Gradually, the writing became a necessary discipline for me, and I now blog for myself as well as others. Each post requires time, concentration, research, and a good deal of thought; by the time I’ve officially pressed the “Publish” button, I’ve stretched myself a bit further than before (hoping fervently that the elastic will continue to expand and not snap abruptly) and often convinced myself of something I had not believed at the onset of writing.

    This evening, I went scrolling back through old facebook posts looking for a particular entry I remembered writing about the rubble in Tohoku, and the spirit of sacrifice that impelled people to conserve energy and begin simplifying their lives in response to the suffering of their neighbors in the north. The post dates from April 16th, before the announcement that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had suffered a meltdown, and focuses on tsunami damage rather than radiation. Here’s the post, exactly as I recorded it at the time:

    ……When I left the house today, cherry blossom petals were blowing through the 

    Sakura blooming in Tohoku, 2011

    air, lining the dirt road and sometimes settling on the heads of pedestrians. Very pleasant, no clean-up involved, and completely biodegradable. In contrast, of course, to the challenge of Tohoku, where the clean-up will take years. The clearing of rubble and debris has officially begun, but it’s a slow and delicate process. The clean-up of Kobe after the Hanshin Quake took a full three years, and experts predict that  Northern Japan will take even longer. In addition to the clean-up, the restoration of the environment in the Fukushima area could take between ten (according to Toshiba Corp.)  and thirty (according to Hitachi) years. That’s at least one childhood, and potentially one-third of a lifetime.

    The work is delicate because of the bodies which still lay buried underneath the rubble of cities such as Minami Sanriku, where eighty percent of the buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Soldiers (both US and Japanese, working together) go on foot with picks and poles, prying and prodding. Any personal mementos such as albums or photographs are recovered and put aside.  If no bodies appear to be trapped underneath the remains of a house,  heavy machinery will move in to break down the structure, and eventually cart off the broken bits to……where???  That is often the problem. The city of Fukushima is using their  former  park as a dumping ground, but it is fast filling up, and the city lacks open flat land. Currently, it takes approximately one day to break down and dispose of a single house. Work proceeds at a frustratingly slow pace, but it is proceeding, and it’s being done carefully as well, with respect to the dead and to the survivors who once lived in the flattened residences.

    Cities such as Minami Sanriku, Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, and parts of Fukushima have literally been reduced to rubble, which is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a loose mass of angular fragments of rock or masonry crumbled by natural or human forces”. In addition to the rubble, the ground is littered with random fragments of family life. Look up “Kesennuma” on YouTube, and you will see videos of a strange landscape: a bizarre goulash of piano keyboards, tile roofs, baby strollers, planks, poles, concrete blocks, window glass and front doors, all torn from the houses which are no longer recognizable as houses….except for those

    Makeshift hot bath for shelter evacuees

    houses whose second stories survived intact, and stand proudly amid the disarray. The clean-up of the fragments of houses and buildings is known as “Gareki Sagyou”, or “Rubble-Clearing”,  and it is nasty business….yet today’s International Herald Tribune posted a photo of two middle-aged men enjoying a hot bath outside, amid the wreckage, and looking quite jolly. They had rigged a fire under a large tank full of water, and were lounging Japanese-style, with white bath towels on their heads. So  the nastiest of work does have its rewards, and a measure of normality is beginning to return to even the hardest-hit areas.

    “Gareki Sagyou” refers to actual wreckage–the clearing away of things that cannot be salvaged. But what about those things best defined as “obstacles”??  I refer now to large objects which are in themselves intact, but have come to rest in bizarre and problematic places. In the days following the tsunami, the world saw photos of ships of all shapes and sizes, wedged into store windows or resting on top of buildings!  And the cars!!  Cars everywhere: overturned, sideways, in houses, on houses, cars on cars!  Often, the ships and cars survived their journey quite well,

    Post-tsunami morning commute

    and were in excellent condition when they landed. Thursday evening’s news featured a grim-faced man, the owner of a humungous trawler: a tuna boat, which had  washed ashore and  been deposited smack in the middle of a major highway, effectively blocking traffic in both directions. Since the boat was completely intact (aside from being in the wrong place), his insurance refused to cover for “damages”, and he was at a loss at how on earth to remove the monstrous nuisance. “Of course, I have a guilty conscience,” he said sadly. “My ship is inconveniencing the entire city, and I don’t have the means to move it!”  Hopefully, since the sad-faced man was seen by the entire nation on NHK TV, some wealthy celebrity or individual will be moved to help out, and I wonder if there will be a follow-up.

    Getting cars off the runway: Sendai airport

    The airport in Sendai was also beset with a similar “obstacle”: five THOUSAND cars piled up on the runway!  If that’s not deserving of an exclamation point, I don’t know what is. Flights were immediately cancelled, and the airport authorities despaired of opening again any time in the near future. Enter the US military, who volunteered the services of a unit who specialized in turning ruined landing strips into forward supply bases for US aircraft. Within four weeks, this US unit, working together with the Japanese military forces, had not only cleared the runway, but left the cars stacked in neat rows along the airport edge. I especially like the detail about the “neat rows”, though the problem of disposing of the cars has not yet been solved. In Wednesday’s international paper, a Colonel Toth was quoted as saying, “We are using skills developed in combat operations for humanitarian purposes…..This is the most rewarding thing we’ve done.”  Any arguments with that line of thinking??  No, I didn’t think so. The newspaper article  praised the US team for their tact and low-key profile, and the Japanese government for throwing pride to the wind and graciously accepting the help. Both sides worked together admirably.

    Meanwhile, back in the Tokyo area……the trains are still running less

    Tokyo’s bright lights were dim last spring.

    frequently,and mostly in the dark. This does not seem to bother folks; today  I watched one older man cheerfully practicing his golf swing in the pitch dark of a tunnel on the Odakyu Line. After a few minutes of this, he began passing the time by practicing his kanji strokes, writing invisible and complicated Chinese characters in the air. It was quite warm in the train, but no air conditioning, so the passengers sweat silently. In the stations, drink machines are still up and running, but not for long. The Tokyo prefecture has vowed to shut down the drink machines for the summer months to save energy–good heavens!!  Japan without vending machines! Escalators are sometimes on and sometimes off now ( depending on the time of day) and stations are either dark, or dimly lighted, even at night. Outside the stations, high school students across the country are lined up with wooden boxes around their necks, crying, “Give to the people of Tohoku!!” …..and everyone is doing just that.

    Because of the continuing aftershocks, we think of our neighbors in the North every day,  checking our cell phones to see what the magnitude of the latest quake was in Fukushima or Sendai. Those of us who are not organizing, fundraising, or sending goods to the affected areas are at least donating money. Elementary school children across the country are writing letters to the children in Tohoku and dropping coins in the jars on the counter at the 7-11 stores. Kumiko Makihara, a writer and translator living in Tokyo believes that the severity of the March 11th disaster has been a cleansing experience for the rest of the country, “…making us more tolerant, and softening our rigid adherence to social norms.” Certainly, it has brought the pursuit of luxury  and rampant consumption to a screeching halt. Although Disneyland has re-opened this week (with great fanfare!), it is certain that the upcoming Golden Week holiday will be subdued this year, and folks will be sticking close to home. It feels good to be clearing away some of the rubble in and around our hearts; we are living a bit more simply, with fewer complaints and more generosity. Most of us still have a long way to go before all the rubble is gone, but at least we’ve made a start.

    …..and that’s how things stood last April. The one year anniversary is just around the corner, and my next few entries will be an attempt to assess some of the challenges that have emerged since then, particularly those associated with the spread of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the consequent evacuation of 62,610 residents of Fukushima Prefecture (the figure given by the prefectoral government as of this February).  It’s been a major upheaval.  Outside of Tohoku the changes are harder to discern,  yet change has arrived and the country is not the same.  More on that in my next post…..which may take a while, but I’ll be back. Until then,  goodnight and thank you for reading.

I Hereby Resolve….

It’s the eve of the New Year, Heisei 24, Year of the Dragon, and I hereby resolve to leave behind my complacency.  I began the process during the Spring and Summer of this past year, and have been prodded by friends Angela and Jacinta to put my resolve in words.  And now that I’ve booted up my laptop and begun, I might as well expand on my list of resolves. Here goes.

In the weeks immediately following the 3-11 disaster, I was relatively complacent about the hydrogen explosions occurring at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the ensuing release of radioactivity into the environment. Despite the flood of concerned e-mails that poured in from family and friends abroad, some of whom I had not heard from in years, I felt no sense of panic, and never even remotely considered leaving the country.  As the Tokyo Electric Power Co. claimed that the tsunami was “beyond imagination and expectations”, the fact that a meltdown might possibly have occurred and the Japanese people were purposely kept uninformed was a possibility that some part of my mind could not accept. While friends in the US were mailing me their thoughts about the “meltdown”, I continued to assure them that, in fact, a meltdown had not occurred and the situation was under control. We had been assured of it, and had no reason to think otherwise.

Needless to say, when NHK eventually announced that at least one meltdown had occurred

TEPCO officials apologize…but “sorry” didn’t quite cover the damage done.

(an official announcement was made at a press conference on May 16, over two months after the fact ), the news felt like a cold slap in the face. Or so I assume. I have never, thankfully, been on the receiving end of such a slap, but I imagine it feels as jarring and piercing as Hosono Goshi’s announcement. The official explanation was that TEPCO officials had actually been unaware that the meltdown had occurred, but no experts were buying that, and ordinary citizens were outraged that even the possibility of meltdown had not been broached by the media.  From that point on, I could no longer be complacent; I continued to watch the nightly news, but began searching the internet as well, for videos, blogs, and articles from newspapers and magazines around the world.  Facebook proved to be a treasure trove of resources, as groups focused on volunteerism and information exchange began springing up and strangers banded together in an effort to translate information into as many languages as possible.  Once I realized that truth was something that must be thought over, fought over,  sought after and finally caught (after some effort, rather than received as a natural occurrence), I set about playing by the new rules. The truth that was gradually revealed was, again, uglier than I had imagined: beyond expectations. There were more lies, more cover-ups, more betrayals,  and all supported by a system corrupted by greed and cowardice.  A glimpse into that world has been more than enough to destroy my complacency (though I still have faith–that is another issue altogether), and I hereby resolve to make sure that complacency does not come creeping back up on me in the New Year. I will stay vigilant.

I also resolve to leave behind my sense of the impossible.  Living in a very conservative neighborhood of a city that is considered “the country”,  it is easy to fall into patterns.   Folks in my neighborhood are early risers, hard workers, and keep fairly predictable schedules. This is especially true of my own family, where the influence of my risk-averse and extremely

Grampa Iida runs a tight ship. No unnecessary risks and never late for dinner.

health-conscious father-in-law rules the household. Visiting relatives are briskly shooed of the house at an early hour so that bath-time can proceed on schedule and everyone can get to bed “on time”.  My husband also becomes anxious around late afternoon when we’re travelling, fretting that we need to find a restaurant as soon as possible so we can get home “on time”. Heaven forbid we might either skip dinner or get home after bath time!  Drinking alcohol at home is done only in moderation, and red wine is preferred over white as “healthier”.  Anything stronger would be frowned upon. The concept of throwing caution to the winds and dispensing with schedules and traditions is decidedly unpopular both in my home and in my neighborhood, as proven by the level of alarm and curiosity shown by my next-door-neighbor, Tamura-san whenever I leave the house at an “unexpected” (i.e. a time that she herself is not used to seeing me leave) hour. “Oooooh, where are you going??”  she will fuss. “And what are you going to do??”  She will not rest until she has the details, and I have become quite adept at providing facts just specific enough to satisfy her curiosity but just vague enough to preserve my own privacy. I provide all this information as an explanation of my own gradual slide into the world of healthy living, predictable schedules, and lack of adventure. Which is what I now wish to leave behind, if I can do so without risking the support and respect of my extended family.

I began leaving behind my “sense of the impossible” this fall, when faced with opportunities that forced me to choose between my potential health and stability and…..the lure of contributing to a good cause with the added bonus of adventure.  It pains me to admit that there would have been no conflict of interest at all twenty years ago; I could’ve worked full-time and had energy to spare for racing about and having adventures. But I’m now fifty years old, and hesitate to push my body beyond a certain point. Racing about on weekends means a backlog of tiredness going into the workweek.  I work between forty to sixty hours a week, and the sensible thing to do is to recuperate and conserve my energy when not working.  Trips to Tokyo from Hadano involve long and tiring train rides, battles with crowds, and treks up and down steep concrete staircases…… But how (I reasoned) could I miss the September Sayonara Genpatsu anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo, when tens of thousands of people were expected??  And how could I not pay a visit in support of the Hunger Strikers for the Future, when these four intelligent and courageous young people had

Hunger strikers for a better world…and nice kids, too. Proud to know them.

given so much of themselves to support their vision of the future? I did both, on the same day, and came home energized.  Bounced right back into work the next day and got through my week just fine. When my friend Linda called in October and asked if I’d be interested in a volunteer trip to Miyagi (involving a weekend of very early mornings and late nights) , I surprised myself by agreeing on the spot. I also surprised myself by doing it, enjoying myself immensely, and–best of all–not getting sick afterwards. Well, if I could do that, then I could certainly swing another day in Tokyo to support  mothers from Fukushima who were sitting outside government offices for ten days to plead their case for government-funded evacuee status. I went, met a group of strong intelligent women, and learned still more about the complications of life in Fukushima Prefecture.  On a roll, I then ventured back to Tokyo to participate in another event for Fukushima evacuees living in the

Check out Geoff Read’s portraits of Fukushima children…

city, helping UK artist Geoff Read as he drew portraits of children; my contribution was listening to and recording their stories in words. In between all these events that involved commuting on the weekends, I interviewed the people around me to get a feel for their viewpoints, fund-raised like crazy, sent boxes of shoes to an orphanage in Aomori, and organized the staff of my school to donate money to send Christmas trees and presents to folks living in temporary housing in Miyagi (another project spearheaded by my friend Linda, whose energy is truly boundless).  And by golly, I did it all and never got sick!  True, it is now the end of the year and I am fighting an exhaustion unlike that of years past…..yet here I am, still able to type out another blog entry, and only slightly more short-tempered than usual.  Must be that my definition of  “impossible” was far too cautious to begin with. From here on in, I will toss it in the trash bin!  Or better yet, burn it in the January ritual burning ceremony that takes place by the river every year.  Along with amulets and charms from the Year of the Rabbit, my over-cautious nature will go up in flames, with a great whoosh!  And if I do pay the price in the form of a nasty cold brought on by over-exertion, I must grit my teeth, drink hot tea, and forbear any excess whining.

Lastly, I hereby resolve to continue blogging, as long as I have something to say. I also resolve

Sayonara, over-cautious nature! You’re going up in flames, along with self-indulgence and other nasty things…

to blog for the right reasons (attempting to either move, edify, provoke, or challenge my readers) rather than as self-indulgence or as a bid for either pity or praise. I resolve to resist the temptation to become obsessed with my ratings rather than my writing, or to draw attention to my own volunteer efforts and away from the folks on the receiving end, who still  need  publicity, sympathy, and practical assistance. As I say this, I realize that this entire entry is full of me; New Year’s resolutions are necessarily so, and I ask your forgiveness. Please do click on any or all of the links in this entry that lead to the people of Tohoku and their stories, as well as the people who are fighting to preserve and restore the fragile ecosystem and to keep Japan’s future free of nuclear power.  In the end, this blog will continue to be about post-disaster Japan: a country that has barely begun to heal, and whose open wounds will continue to bleed for years to come.

I want to close, however, on a hopeful note. Healing has begun and volunteers from around the world have been a vital part of the process. Here’s a video that I’ve watched many times over, showing the joy of a group of Japanese children involved in an intercultural art project organized by a team of French film makers, and featuring narration by a granny that will make you grin through your tears.  The film makers’ love of children shines through, and their talent for capturing  expressions makes every second a delight. Fine music, too.  Take a look at the video of a  French art project in Tohoku.  Enjoy it, and remember the children of Northern Japan in this New Year.  Thank you for reading, and I wish you love and light in the Year of the Dragon.