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!


Hello?? Any Young People Out There??

My daughter and I took ourselves to another good-sized anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo this past Sunday,

“Hey! Lower your banners! We can’t see the Nobel Prize speaker!”

spending all day on our feet, enjoying the crisp, cold winter air. The day began with craning our necks to see and hear the speakers in Yoyogi Park (Oe Kensaburou-san may very well have been inspirational, but we couldn’t hear a word of the speech or see a thing. What we heard was, “Put down your banners!!  We can’t see!  Heeeeeey! Put down your banners!” And by the time this message had reached the stage area and the colorful anti-nuke banners had been collapsed, the speech had finished. Sigh. ).  The day continued as we followed our new friend Helen from the BBC Radio on her quest to find “good sounds”, and ended as we joined in the anti-nuke parade

BBC’s Helen Grady gets some good sounds at the rally!

( Genpatsu Hantai! ), which meandered at a snail’s pace through the Harajuku shopping district. The time flew by as we picked up friends along the way, met up with old “demo tomo” (friends who you know from past demonstrations), admired the costumes of other participants, and engaged in fleeting conversations with random strangers marching alongside us. By the time we had seen Helen safely to the Tokyo train station and settled ourselves into a restaurant for some solid food ( ramen-burgers and octopus balls at Yoyogi Park hardly count as nourishiment ), we realized we were exhausted. Truly exhausted. The kind of exhaustion that leaves you doubting whether your legs will obey the command to stand up again once you’ve collapsed into an actual chair.  But it had been a splendid and satisfying day.

Splendid and satisfying, except for one thing. “Where were the kids my age?” pouted my daughter (she’s 18). “I kept looking for some of my classmates, but didn’t see a single one. So many old guys, but no teenagers at all!”  Actually, we did bump into exactly one college student, who had come to the rally by himself.  Perhaps feeling forlorn, he latched onto my Ellen during the parade and tested her patience by insisting on practicing English with her as

“You can take our picture, but no interviews in English, please!”

they marched. We also saw a very attractive young couple, but they (unlike the Waseda college student) fled in a panic when Helen from the BBC asked if they spoke English and would they do an interview?  And that was it really.  A rally of 15,000 people, with only a small scattering of high school and college age students.  Well, in all honesty, I didn’t see any high-schoolish looking kids at all.  Pretty pathetic, really, and I wondered how the retirees and middle-aged company workers were enjoying the very loud rock band that kicked off the rally in the park. Probably enduring it and waiting for the speeches to start. Don’t get me wrong: the energy and spirit of the older protesters is admirable and astonishing; it should be balanced, however, by an equal or greater number of young people. The future, after all, is theirs, right??  So where were they?  Where ARE they??

Old Nellie and Japanese students wear blinkers.

Any number of places, is my guess. Third year middle school students and third year high school students are in the final stages of “ojuken”, the testing process that decides their future (or so it seems at the time).  Their life is literally on hold –and their mother’s life as well, in some cases– until the tests have finished, the results are out, and their high school or college has been decided. Those shooting for high level public schools often have only one chance: a written test.  No essays, personal interview, or other method of appeal available.  It’s no wonder they are balls of anxiety, and their mothers go gray overnight. Those kids certainly aren’t going to be marching through Harajuku to protest nuclear power plants–their mothers would disown them!  Most students in this year of their life would see a rally as having no connection whatsoever to their future; they’re like horses with blinkers attached to keep them from bolting at extraneous distractions. Those blinkers are attached by their mothers, their cram school coaches, and the pressure of their peers, and most are unable to imagine life without them.  Nuclear power is a vague worry, but lies well outside the radius of the blinkers and is therefore easily ignored. Their own immediate future is what they’re chasing after, and how current events might relate to their future or to a broader vision of the nation as a whole is not their concern.

Well then, what about the rest of the young people?  Those not preparing for exams have weekends free, right? Why do we not see them at rallys?  Sadly enough, I believe that many Japanese young people are not emotionally strong enough to participate. Until this point, I’ve been rather tongue-in-cheek, but the subject of mental health in Japan is a serious one, and one that’s troubled me since I spent five years teaching English in the Hadano public schools.  Sunday’s Japan Times column “Counterpoint” featured an excellent and moving article by Roger Pulvers on just this subject, calling depression “….the big gorilla on the basketball court, the one that’s stealing the ball but isn’t seen because everyone is willfully looking the other way.”

Pulvers, citing statistics from the Japan Committee for Prevention and Treatment of Depression, writes about conditions in Japanese schools, where 1 out of every 12 elementary school students suffers from depression; at the middle school level, this jumps to 1 out of 4.  He believes the actual numbers may be higher, due to misdiagnosis and unrecognized cases. In my five year teaching stint in the Hadano City elementary schools, I witnessed many children struggling with both anxiety and depression, feeling within myself an uncomfortable mixture of dismay, helplessness, and relief (that my own children were fairly well-adjusted and happy with their lives).  Many, if not most of these students become “futoukou”, or unable to attend school.  “Futoukou” is spoken of as a sickness in Japan (children suffering from it display physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, and unsteadiness), and children who fall prey to it have very few options.  Home-schooling is not recognized by the National Board of Education, and “alternative schools” are few and far between.

What sort of Japanese children drop out of school at a young age?  Let’s start with… extremely intelligent children who are bored with school (skipping grades not allowed).  Next, there are returnee children from abroad who are unable to re-adjust. And public school children planning to take exams for private schools.  And shy girls who get their growth spurt early on and cannot handle their sudden conspicuous height.  Of course, there are overweight children (a distinct minority here and easy targets for bullying).  And children with tics,  stutterers, and late developers (repeating grades is not allowed either. Children progress to the next grade whether or not they’re ready intellectually).  And children of different nationalities.  I have not seen statistics, but I imagine that since the 3-11 disaster, both children living in Fukushima and those who have evacuated to other prefectures have experienced frequent absences from school due to stress, anxiety, and depression.

And what is done to help these children?  I saw many different approaches used, depending on the school, and on the severity of the child’s distress. One girl at a small rural school in Hadano was able to “attend school” ( avoiding the problem of missed days, which can prevent graduation), but was unable to attend a single class. She ran straight for the school nurse’s office the minute her mother dropped her off and stayed there, literally clinging to the skirt of the extremely patient young nurse, who served as a kindly babysitter. This girl did not want to miss my monthly English lesson, and would creep into the room  after her classmates were seated and the class had begun. I would see her sitting on the floor in the back of the room, trying to be invisible, with the ever-present school nurse at her side.

Another boy I knew was studying to enter a private middle school. His evenings were spent at cram school, where the academic level was much higher than that of the public school he attended during the day. Bored with his studies, he began using his class time to study for his middle school entrance exams. Although he kept up stellar grades, this didn’t sit well with either his teacher or his classmates. Rather than defending his position (which this very intelligent child was capable of doing), he simply dropped out, for the entire last half of his sixth grade year. His mother, in a frantic effort to make sure he graduated properly, was able to drag him to school (Literally. This was a boy who threw up at the front gate, got jelly-legged, and refused to move) the required number of times to obtain his graduation certificate.  He successfully passed the entrance exams for the private middle school, but was so acclimated to “futoukou” life that he then refused to attend the new school as well. His mother, in a last ditch effort, drove him to school each day, where he was met by two stout male teachers. The teachers physically removed him from the car, carried him into the school, and deposited him in his classroom every morning for a full semester until he overcame his fear. In the end, he was able to return to the system and adjust himself to the school’s expectations. Whatever you may think of it (and I attempted to remain neutral in the telling), that’s the bare bones of the story.

There are many more stories, of older children who take “futoukou” one step further and become “hikikoumori”.  This is a condition where young people (and some adults as well) literally lock themselves in their rooms, refusing contact with not only their peers at school, but with parents and siblings as well. The boy I knew who had to be carried into school also went through a period of hikikoumori.  His mother told me calmly (how she could retain her calm demeaner was beyond me) that she would leave food outside his bedroom door and pick up the empty tray each morning. He only showered when there was no-one else in the house, and she’d find his clothes in the hamper every other day. Other than that, no communication at all. Personally, I think I’d borrow an axe and start whacking away at the locked door.

Manga lovers abroad may know “Densha Otoko“, the inspiring story of a train geek who is

“Densha Otoko” feels secure in his own room. Note the anime figurines lining his bookshelves.

borderline “hikikoumori”. Though the hero of the manga is able to leave the house (he goes back and forth to Akihabara, the electronics district), he’s unable to communicate with anyone face-to-face, finding security and solace in the internet.  Through a chance encounter with a kind-hearted attractive girl, he’s able to overcome his fear and rejoin society.  Most of the kids I came in contact with at the local schools were already long-term sufferers as small children, and I do not know how their stories will end.

Many Japanese children, unable to “read the air” (discern how to fit in naturally, without disrupting the status quo),  begin to drop out of society at an early age.  The school system is not kind to those children, who are seen as “meiwaku” (causing a disturbance and inconveniencing others),  and good psychological help is not easily available. A friend in Tokyo whose child is troubled waits a month for an appointment with a professional counselor.  These young people are busy fighting the battle to get up every morning, to leave the house, and to find a place in society where they feel safe and loved. They live from day to day, and anti-nuclear protests are not on their radar screen.

Well, alright then….what about the remainder of the students not battling depression or some form of anxiety?  Why are they standing along the sidewalks of Harajuku (in droves) instead of  marching through the streets carrying placards?  My guess is that although these kids are successfully maneuvering their academic and social lives, they lack the courage and

Proud to be seen marching with the Lego-Headed lady. Who wouldn’t be??

initiative to step outside the boundaries of their familiar social patterns: school, club, part-time job, and shopping or drinking on weekends. I guess it must be rather embarrassing, after all, to be seen in the same company as Lego-headed women, men wearing frog masks (in support of amphibians suffering from the effects of radiation), and gender-neutral folks with flowers sprouting from the tops of their heads…….No, no, wait a minute!  I would have loved putting together my own demo costume at their age!  What’s wrong with them?  Living in Tokyo, they have both the opportunity to participate in rallys and the freedom to express themselves without the fear of potential stigmatization that Fukushima residents experience daily. Okay, so they might lose a friend or two, or be considered a weirdo in some circles, but isn’t it all worth it?

Time after time I take the train into the big city, fight my way through the crowds in Shinjuku, manage the transfer to the government building district of Kasumigaseki, where women from Fukushima still occupy a tent along the sidewalk….and find the cavernous train station deserted. Kasumigaseki boasts over 13 exits, all of them accessed by eerie-dreary quiet concrete tunnels and staircases. Taking exit 12A, I climb the stairs and emerge onto the street where the Fukushima Women’s tent is still standing; it’s been there since September, when the hunger strikers set up camp. Next to the Women’s Tent is the Datsu Genpatsu (Stop Nuclear Power Plants) Tent. When I

Saito Michiko-san, who’s been speaking out for forty years. Puts those youngsters to shame!

last visited three weeks ago, it was a cold, cheerless day, and both tents were closed and sealed for the sake of warmth . Outside, a frail but beautiful elderly woman (“forty years of anti-nuclear protesting”) was speaking into a microphone, urging the few passers-by to visit the tents and learn about the situation in Fukushima. Inside the Women’s Tent, a handful of women and one transvestite, with perfectly applied lipstick and a bejewelled cell phone, were huddled into a heated table, discussing recent events. Inside the Datsu Genpatsu Tent, a steady trickle of visitors engaged in debate with four older “Occupiers”, who have been holding down the fort and sleeping in the tent at night, despite the bitter cold.  I encountered only a single college student that day, whom I promptly friended on facebook and will stay in touch with from here on in.  Making my way home that day, I passed through Shinjuku again, feeling the contrast between the station teeming with young people, and the too-quiet atmosphere of the Occupiers’ tents at Kasumigaseki.

All I can say is that the non-involvement of young people in the Tokyo/Kanagawa area is truly a shame. It’s a loss for the anti-nuclear movement, and young people themselves are missing out on history. My daughter attended a global conference on alternative energy in Yokohama last month….and again, was surprised to find no-one her own age attending the workshops.  Literally, noone.  Hello?  A global conference on how to change the entire way the country’s infrastructure functions?  Open to anyone able to register on the internet and pay the $30.oo entrance fee?  This is exciting stuff.  Why would young people NOT be there?  Because their friends aren’t going.  Because they will know no-one there. Because it’s something they know nothing about and feel no connection to. Because they’re not used to taking the initiative and doing something outside of their familiar routine.  Probably a combination of all these things.

In contrast, Japan’s seniors are outspoken and active. They regularly plunge into rivers (twice a year in my neighborhood) to dredge up trash and debris, wake up at four-thirty on hiking trips to reach the the top of the mountain before noon, patrol the streets with armbands and flashlights looking for loiterers or gangs of potential troublemakers, form committees to teach traditional skills to their neighborhood children, pack themselves onto busses to attend anti-nuclear rallies, attend alternative energy forums, take a mind-boggling variety of courses, classes, and lessons, and are not afraid to be interviewed, either in English or Japanese.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that many do all this while juggling the care of their grandchildren.  Who will carry the torch when they’re unable to?

My guess is that the leaders will be people like the Hunger Strikers for the Future: four

Hunger Strikers for the Future: They’ll be doing good things, and maybe even big things.

college-age students who spent 10 days sitting along the sidewalk outside the Kasumigaseki buildings  in peaceful protest to draw attention to their cause: the closing down of all of Japan’s on-line nuclear power plants, and a halt to the construction of any new ones.  They took in nothing but water and salt during the long hot days in early September .  I visited them twice during the ten day stretch, expecting to find signs of listlessness and fatigue, or at least crankiness, but they remained almost miraculously cheerful and patient up through the final day when they broke their fast and held a news conference. I found the hunger strikers themselves (and their entourage of faithful friends) to be well-informed, well-educated, cool and collected, and in possession of impressive reserves of inner strength. Responding with respect and thoughtfulness to questions posed by passers by and reporters alike, no-one could possibly accuse them of being subversive.  Watch their leader, Okamoto Naoya, explaining exactly why they are protesting, and sharing his vision of a nuclear-free future.

The hunger strikers are Japanese, but there are foreigners in Japan doing amazing

Jamie El-Banna, hard at work in Ishinomaki

things out of love for their adopted country as well.  I recently heard of Jamie El-Banna, a 26 year old from the UK who has lived and worked in Japan since 2008. You can read in detail about Jamie and his organization (“It’s Not Just Mud”) in this blog spotlighting  foreign volunteers in Japan.. To give a brief summary, El- Banna was living in Osaka at the time of the quake and travelled to Tohoku as a volunteer in May; camping on the grounds of a University in Ishinomaki known as “Tent City” and finding each and every day fulfilling, he realized he was in no hurry to return to his former life.  In a move that would unsettle most Japanese young person of the same age, he swiftly decided to leave his regular job and apartment in Osaka and installed himself in Ishinomaki permanently.  In the Tent City, he networked, and eventually formed his own volunteer organization made up of like-minded young people.  Their energy, skill, and good humor so impressed the locals that they were given two partially-damaged houses to use as their own base camp.  Undaunted by the “festering sludge under the floors”, rotting insulation, and shattered windows, El-Banna and his friends restored the houses in addition to their other community projects. These include gutting tsunami-damaged houses (done by those with strength, experience, and expertise), restoring and cleaning photographs damaged by the tsunami (done by those who cannot dig, haul, or do carpentry work), and delivering fresh fruits and veggies, winter coats, kerosene heaters, and fuel to those in temporary shelters who are carless.  Jamie, who admits to having no previous experience in volunteer work, now has his own soon-to-be-official NPO and a very professional blog site. He also keeps a personal blog, in which he  professes his desire to “become a super handsome force for good.”  Now that’s my kind of positive role model!  Japanese children, take note!

Rather than waiting around for central and local governments to find and implement solutions for them, young people like the hunger strikers and Jamie El-Banna are unafraid to buck the system and take risks in an attempt to affect change. They are already in the vanguard of the anti-nuclear movement and reconstruction projects. In addition, the high school students, college students, and young office workers who spend their weekends in Tohoku volunteering with Peaceboat (whose weekend trips to clean up Ishinomaki are booked solid, my daughter says) or Jamie’s “It’s Not Just Mud” group, are providing the people-power and experience needed to continue the fight for years to come.  Mothers who have learned to educate themselves and be pro-active for the sake of their children are creating wider networks and helping to foster ties between Fukushima and the rest of the country.  Renegade academics, scientists, and whistle-blowing experts are making sure that accurate assessment trumps propaganda; bloggers are recording all this, and making sure that those who speak truthfully become heros in the end.  Skilled translators are then making sure that everything gets passed around in as many languages as possible.  Artists, actors, writers, and musicians are providing the inspiration and energy to keep the movement flourishing.  I wish there were more leaders, more willing volunteers, more brave mothers, more renegade academics and whistle-blowers, more skilled bloggers and translators, many more artists, writers, and musicians, and at least twice as many young people involved.  In the end, that may happen, as the chain linking together those devoted to re-inventing Japan’s future becomes steadily longer and steadily stronger.

It will take years and years from here on in.  I still go through phases of impatience and

“Let’s live the slow life, not the life ruled by nuclear power”

frustration, wanting wrongs to be righted in a more timely fashion, but these days I try to return to the “Spirit of Madei” way of thinking. In fact, during my last visit to the Fukushima Tent in Tokyo, I found myself face to face with the words of the Iitate Village Mayor. “Let’s live the slow life, not the life based on nuclear power!” read the sign taped inside the tent. “Do you really believe this?” I asked the folks gathered around the tiny gas heater, warming their hands and snacking on Taiyaki cakes.  “Do you really believe that living gently and thoughtfully will instigate change in the end?”  “Absolutely,” replied Obitani Reiko, a 63 year old woman from Yokohama.  Obitani and several other friends live in the tent, spreading their bedrolls in a curtained-off part of the tent each night. Reiko-san sends me weekly updates in Japanese each week on the happenings in Kasumigaseki, and seems impervious to the frustrations I fall prey to. She is confident that, to quote the old Aesop’s Fable, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Let us hope that’s the case. It’s very late, so good night, and thank you so much for reading.

“Save the Amphibians”!

A Weekend in Miyagi: Batty Bingo, Big Pumpkin, and Broken Promises

From the time of the quake, it has taken me six months to get to Tohoku as a volunteer, and nearly another month to write about the experience. I will not go into great detail as to why , except to say that not everyone is cut out to shovel sludge or clear debris for hours on end.  I have nothing but respect for those who can do the heavy manual labor that has been required in cities like Ishinomaki and Kessenuma, and even greater respect for those who have volunteered their time in Fukushima, where the risk to one’s own health is significantly greater. Though I don’t qualify as a Geezer (yet), I am prone to both “gikkuri-

Clearing gutters in Ishinomaki. Volunteering is hard and nasty work.

goshi” (throwing one’s back out) and water-on-the-knee.  Knowing that a recurrence of either would render me not only useless but a burden to any volunteer team, I’ve laid low and waited for a chance to do something in Tohoku that did not involve brute strength, and that would not conflict with my full-time teaching job here in Hadano City.  If you count fund-raising (I’m darn good at it!) , waving signs at demonstrations, blogging, and keeping the conversation going around me, I suppose I have been contributing all along, but it certainly is a strange feeling to be blogging about a place you’ve never actually been to. Mind you, this has not stopped any number of bloggers, but it was disturbing to me.  So when the opportunity came, I seized it with enthusiasm.

It was Linda who gave me the opportunity; she and her yoga group were headed to Miyagi Prefecture to put together a Halloween event for children, with the assistance of an NPO from Sendai. The storyteller, Jocelyn, had suffered a bad fall and was unable to go, so would I take her place?  Oh, would I!  Children?  Stories?  Just let me loose, I thought.  Stifling a pang of self-consciousness ( I would be the only group member not in the yoga school, looking and feeling significantly plumper than the other women), I signed on almost immediately: a commitment of two days and twenty thousand yen ( the equivalent of two hundred dollars) to cover the cost of the hotel, mini-van, and a faithful driver who would stick with us throughout the trip. There was really no reason NOT to go, and I looked forward to the weekend, choosing my costume and storytelling accessories well in advance.

On the morning of October 1st, most of us were up at four a.m., and everyone was assembled outside of Linda’s house right on schedule, by five forty-five. By six o’ clock, our mini-van had arrived and we had loaded up and were on the road, the van packed to the gills with candy, presents, games to be assembled at the event, costumes, and our overnight bags. It was approximately a six-hour drive, with two rest stops, and there was no dozing. We were eight women, wide awake and excited to be starting an adventure, and one silent but capable Ojisan (i.e. regular middle-aged guy) driver.  We were, in fact, so loquacious that the driver remarked in Japanese, “Man, it’s quite an experience to drive a van full of women. Whenever I drive a group of men, they’re asleep within minutes. The only time they talk is when someone’s cell phone rings; then they put on their so-called working face and talk to their boss or colleagues back at the company.  You ladies are powerful!”  We were pleased by that assessment at the time, but still unaware of how far the limits of our “power” would be tested in the next few days.

After the second rest stop, we approached Fukushima Prefecture, and continued smoothly along the highway into Miyagi. Of course, I had heard of the natural beauty of Northern Japan, but still it was an unexpected pleasure to find that it wasn’t just an advertising campaign; the mountains were gorgeous, the sky was a clear, piercing blue, and all along

Miyagi Prefecture: Mt. Zao on a sunny day.

the roads, rice stalks were tied neatly into triangular bundles. The National Park where our event would be held was near Mt. Zao, an area famous for both skiing and hot springs….and traditional wooden Japanese dolls called “Kokeshi”, as we surmised when we passed over a  bridge guarded by four large doll statues.  This was the countryside, with not a single high rise or shopping plaza in sight. As we were inland, there was no tsunami damage, and no visible damage from the quake. Was the lush greenery hiding radioactive particles??  There was no knowing , but daikon radishes were being sold at road stands for as little as ten yen apiece (ten cents!)….a bumper crop, or was no-one buying the produce?  I was not about to ask.

Arriving at the park around noontime, the parking lot was only half-full. The NPO had promised to arrange for a bus to drive a group of children from Minami-Soma City in Fukushima to the park to enjoy our program (Halloween games, stories, and presents donated from an organization in Lithuania); the idea was to give children close to the evacuation area a chance to experience the festivities of another culture in a beautiful natural setting. Many Minami-Soma children have not been outside for extended periods of time since March, and this was to be a one-day excursion for their benefit. We unloaded the van, met up with the director from the NPO, and learned that in fact the busload of children would not be coming. We did not fully understand why, but (being powerful women, and cool-headed as well) decided to roll with the punches. It was understood that we would go ahead and do our program anyway, as the park would be full of other families.

“This first day will be our practice before the big event,” we told each other (the next day,

A riot of Cosmos blooming in front of the Visitor’s Center

more children were expected to be bussed in from Sendai–a couple hundred, we were informed), and cheerily began to set up. The park was a thing of beauty, with acres of lush green grass, shady wooded areas, well-groomed flower beds, and several well-cared-for traditional Japanese houses, complete with thatched roofs and verandas opening out into small garden spaces (this type of house design, I learned, is called an “Engawa”). All of us could have easily spent the rest of the day there soaking up the scenery and peeking into the houses, but our event was due to start within an hour.

Not knowing exactly what to expect or how many children would actually show up, we began choosing our spots and setting up for….Batty Bingo (Linda’s catchy name for Halloween Twister), Hunt the Pumpkin (orange ping-pong balls with intricately drawn Jack-O-Lantern faces, scattered about the wooded area for children to find and gather), Ghost Bowling,  a Trick or Treat corner, and my Storytelling.  From this point on, things became seriously busy, and I cannot report on what actually happened where, as I was immersed my own preparations, with barely enough time to throw on my many-pocketed Halloween

Here’s where I set up my story corner….

storyteller’s dress and clip on my fake orange braids. The lovely traditional house where I had hoped to do my storytelling was unavailable (again, no explanation), so I ended up on a bench in the woods, with a small leafy patch of ground for my audience to sit. The first group of children arrived (fresh from playing Batty Bingo), and plopped themselves down on the leaves in front of me; neither they nor I  knew what to expect, but I started right in, hoping for inspiration.

And really, children are children. If you can make eye contact and hold them in the spell of your words and smile, it does not matter where they are sitting, whether they know you or not, how old they are, or where they’re from. I used a book called “Big Pumpkin”, but only nominally, holding it up to show the hysterically funny illustrations while I improvised the story, mixing English and Japanese. Once the children began participating in the story, I began enjoying myself as well, egging them on with questions (“Who do you think is stronger: the Mummy, or the Vampire?” “What would you do next?”) and letting the plot line stray a bit. And so our two hours flew by, with group after group of small children running back and forth between the events, and an air of happy pandemonium. Occasionally, there was time in between groups to chat with parents and find out where

Not too old to enjoy dressing up. What a sweetie!

they had come from. The girl in this photo was from Ishinomaki; she was sweet, gentle, and uninhibited, sitting  with the smaller children to hear the story and eager to have her picture taken holding our Jack-O-Lantern.  A tsunami victim?  Possibly so, especially since she was with her grandmother rather than her parents; it was not our place to ask, however, and we did not.

By the end of the day, our group was exhausted (at least I was). Our faithful driver appeared at the appointed time to drive us to our Pension, and we sat back in the min-van to relax after a looong day. To my consternation, we did not seem to arrive at a Pension, but kept going farther and farther into the deep woods, up and up a twisting road ( Mt. Zao itself?) that was devoid of human habitation. Not to mention it was pitch dark. The driver cheerfully admitted that the Pension was “off the GPS” and he had no actual idea of where we were. If anyone else was troubled by this they did not say so, and I sputtered and fussed to Linda to calm my own tired nerves.

We did arrive at the Pension, of course, though it was–by anyone’s standards–way off the beaten track.  And dinner was abundant, and the company delightful!  We all indulged in something alcoholic as a reward for our day’s work, and I was particularly taken with the local wine. Forgetting my exhaustion, I downed a glass or two (did not guzzle, of course), and attacked my deep-fried river trout with gusto. Our mini-van driver, enjoying a tall bottle of beer, suddenly became talkative and animated, launching into a diatribe against–oh, dear–Americans.  Since he was directing his verbal tirade at me, I listened politely (matter of habit), not letting on that after the second glass of wine I had only a very general idea of what he was actually talking about. It must have been quite unpleasant, since several of the women in the group approached me afterwards with great concern, but truly, I was oblivious. I have a talent for letting the rudeness of strangers roll off my back, and this, combined with a pleasant inebriation, stood me in good stead that night.

Dinner was followed by a brief plunge into the Japanese bath–a true hot-spring-fed “ofuro”–which turned out to be hellishly hot!  Keiko-san, who took the plunge before me, was out in a flash, exclaiming, “I’m a boiled egg!”  Then into my blue flannel nightgown (Linda was surprised by this, but what can I say? I’m from New England), on with my eye mask, and I was out like a light till six a.m. the next morning.

The next day was…..phrasing things as gently as possible….not what we expected. This was the day that up to two hundred children were to be bussed into the park for our event. We had been told that not only was the park staff expecting us, but that we would have an entire large area to set up in and utilize for the day. Upon our arrival, we were again told that the children from the disaster area would not be coming. Not a single bus. Again, there was no explanation from the NPO director, who looked stressed- out herself and was not extremely communicative. Worse yet, upon entering the park, we were blasted off our feet

These two sisters stole my heart.

by loudspeakers playing cheery children’s songs at top volume. And what was this?  A giant stage set up in the middle of the park? And giant characters running about in costumes? Police cars and fire trucks parked on the lawn with “Dress-Like-a-Police Officer” photo ops for kids?  And no space set aside for our activities?  We were told that we could have “whatever space we could find”, and immediately broke up into groups to search for appropriate areas, preferably far and away from the giant costumed characters, with whom it would be difficult to compete.

The music was deafening, with speakers set up all along the central area of the park. I began setting up for storytelling (this day, I was able to use the porch of one of the old houses), but knew instinctively that any efforts to be heard over the aggressively-cheery music would be futile. In my pro-active American fashion, I went straight to the visitors center and pleaded my case in Japanese with an important-looking lady from the park. This had the opposite effect of upsetting the NPO woman (I should have made my case to her instead, it seemed) , who scolded me for “not having requested a perfectly quiet spot in the first place”.  The injustice of THAT remark caused me to bite my lip (when I wanted to howl) and say, “We don’t need PERFECT quiet. We need a REASONABLY quiet setting.” I returned to my area in a state of disgust, but–to my relief–the music was turned off in a matter of minutes, so I forced myself to simmer down and get mentally ready for the first group of Tohoku tots.  I could see them across the way, going back and forth between the Batty Bingo and the large costumed characters (I am truly sorry I do not have a photo of the characters, but I did not have that kind of free time), and knew they’d be headed my way soon.

The children at the park were excellent listeners…no troublemakers or smart-alecks in the lot.

And in a matter of minutes, they began streaming in: kids of all ages. Babies in strollers, whole families with grandparents in tow, toothless toddlers grinning up at me, and shy older kids sitting off in the back. They were excellent listeners, with no ill-mannered interruptions, rude comments, or pushing and jostling for space. Their parents took the time to speak with me afterwards, and I made a point of asking, “Where did you come from today?” The answers were varied, but all were from Tohoku. Yamagata, Aomori, Ibaragi, and Fukushima Prefectures were represented, as well as a family from the town of Natori (in Miyagi), which was devastated by the tsunami. I was taken off guard by the woman from Natori, seeing in my mind images of the monstrous wave rolling over the highway, but before I could say a word, my partner Keiko-san quietly responded, “Otsukaresama deshita”.  This can mean anything from the literal, “You must be tired” to a deeper meaning of,  “You must have endured a very hard thing.”  I now know what to say to someone who has suffered a great loss, and I was glad to have Keiko-san  there to teach me by her example. After our own events were officially finished (we kept going through the afternoon), I strolled through the park, taking photos of some of the kids who I’d met at my story corner. They were happy to see me again, posed for pictures, and ran off again to join their parents.

And that was it. We packed up our things again, stuffed ourselves into the mini-van (it was easier this time, as we returned home minus several large bags of candy, and several boxes of coloring books and crayons), and started the long drive home to Hadano. Of course, the

These smiles made the trip worthwhile.

minute we were on the road, we had a “hansei-kai” or “summing-up” of the weekend. It was not what we had expected. We had not been met with graciousness and appreciation (except by the children themselves and their parents). There had been broken promises and poor communication. We had to ask ourselves if the trip had been worth the trouble and expense.  And of course, we agreed that it had. We had put together a fabulous event (it really was well-organized, with crafty and eye-catching hand-made games, energetic and experienced women running the show, and lovely prizes for the kids to take home), adapted to constantly-changing circumstances and setbacks, and fulfilled our end of the bargain with the NPO. While it was frustrating to not know why the promised busloads of children from the hardest-hit areas never arrived,  we accepted that the situation was out of our control, and knocked ourselves out providing a good time for the children that happened to be in the park that day.

I’m sure that there were a number of disaster victims among the people we met, but we’ll never know any more than that. That had to be okay, and it really was.  As one of the leaders, Setsuko-san, said, things in Tohoku are not running as smoothly as they are in Tokyo.  Our NPO was a small organization, and literally unable to keep its promises ( one of the directors, another woman mentioned, is himself a disaster victim, and suffers from insomnia and recurring nightmares); this was deeply disappointing, and I will always wonder what the story-behind-the-story really was, but we carried on and found ourselves energized and engaged by the children who WERE there. In the end, they were Tohoku children.  While they may not have lost homes or family members (though some assuredly did), they all lived through the quake. And  if that quake was a terrifying thing for children hours away in Kanagawa Prefecture, I can well imagine what it was like for children farther North.  I’m glad I was able to give them a story that made them laugh out loud and clamber to touch my Beanie Baby dolls (I brought the Witch, the Ghost, and the Black Cat).  Some children will soon forget, but others will retain happy memories of the crazy ladies dressed in witch costumes handing out coloring books and Hershey’s chocolates, and that’s enough for me. We counted over two hundred kids that experienced a mini-Halloween in the middle of Tohoku on a sunny weekend in October, and eight very powerful women who came away from the experience exhausted, but satisfied.

The Riverside Yoga members…and me. Awesome women, all.