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.

Courage, Troublemakers, Whistle-Blowers, and a Taxi

Shelter Life: neat and tidy...but still dreary. (photo from Asahi Shinbun)

Fight or flight?  Stay or leave?  An English teacher and former journalist living in Chiba prefecture who goes by the pseudonym of  “Our Man in Abiko” gives some insight into the “fighters”: those who are still, three months down the road, living in the shelters of Ishinomaki and other cities in Northern Japan devastated by the quake and tsunami. In a visit to Ishinomaki to distribute goods to shelter victims, “Our Man” and his co-volunteers were saddened by the fact that people continued to remain in shelters or dilapidated houses.  In his “Free Tohoku” blog entry on June 22, he posted photos, described the relief efforts, and admitted, “All the volunteers from different prefectures all think the same thing: Why are these people still here?”

Why indeed? The question must have weighed on him, as exactly a week later, an article appeared in the web publication “Japan Echo”, entitled “Fight or Flight: The Tests We Face”, written by the same “Our Man”, and containing some words of wisdom from a local Buddhist priest. “You might think the strong fight and the weak fly, but if any generalization fits it is the opposite,” writes Our Man, in his eye-opening look at the reality of shelter life. Our Man argues that though many of those still living in schools and gymnasiums are there for practical reasons (no money, no home, still looking for lost family members, waiting for disaster relief money, etc.), a good many are there simply because they lack the courage to move on and strike out on their own.  Higuchi Nobuo, a Buddhist priest who spoke with their group, reinforced this theory, stating point-blank, “They’re (the shelter residents) not strong-they have no courage to leave. Lots of newspapers have said that Japanese people are patient so they’re here, but that’s wrong. They simply don’t have the courage to leave. There’s an element of patience in people here, but they’re not waiting for anything.” Of course, this was not meant to be a blanket statement indicting people who suffered more physical and emotional loss in one day than most people experience in a lifetime; many of those still in shelters, for instance, are elderly and lack physical strength as well as resources.  Still, the words of the Buddhist priest and the English teacher rang true to me. I came away from the article greatly saddened myself.

Lack of courage (which has often, as Our Man and the Buddhist priest both note, been mistakenly portrayed by the media as humility or patience) is a topic that, once introduced, deserves a thorough and unbiased examination.  I cannot do it justice. Folks in Japan do have opinions, both about politics, about nuclear energy, but they have been silent for decades.  Apathy, or lack of courage?  Perhaps both.  Martin  Fackler, writing for the International Herald Tribune, published an article in this weekend’s paper, speculating that, “…a deep apathy as well as a fear of being ostracized prevents many here who are concerned about nuclear power from taking action.”  In light of this, let’s take a look at a few of the courageous and opinionated  folks making news in Japan right now. They’re meeting with mixed success, but at least they’re trying…..and making a splash.

SPLASH! An unidentified (at least to the public) stockholder faces the Tokyo Electic Power

TEPCO stockholders lined up for the annual meeting(photo by Toshiyuki Hayashi)

Company officials and suggests they “Jump into the reactors and die!”  Emboldened by this, another stockholder suggests “hara-kiri” (ritual disembowelment) might be more fitting.  Well, why don’t they sell their stock and break their connection with the disgraced TEPCO (you might wonder)?  The answer is a good one: because they belong to a block of 402 shareholders who bought their shares a decade (or two) ago, with the sole purpose of causing trouble for TEPCO.  Yes, they are anti-nuclear protesters, who have showed up at the annual stockholders’ meeting faithfully for twenty years, each year submitting a proposal to abolish nuclear power, and each year returning home in defeat. This year, however, they were especially hopeful, and local authorities were especially fearful, arranging for 250 riot police (outnumbering the members of the anti-nuclear block!) to provide extra security during the six hour meeting.

It was, as you might expect, an action-packed, drama-filled six hours, described  by Washington Post World reporter Chico Harlan as, “…a go-round of apologies and jeers” between TEPCO officials and the “raucous audience”.  TEPCO’s chairman apologized profusely, only to face a motion for dismissal brought forth by a nameless stockholder (teary-eyed, says the article) declaring, “If you are really feeling responsible, how dare you serve as chairman!”  Yet the upshot was…….defeat on all counts, yet again, for the anti-nuclear block. The sleazy chairman retained his post, and the motion to abandon nuclear energy in Japan was again defeated, as the majority of the shareholders submitted votes via the internet to defeat the anti-nuclear block. Well hey, this time those guys made the news, big time—and as heros, rather than troublemakers. That’s progress, right?  I’ll bet they slept well that night, knowing they’d fought the good fight and given their cause some excellent PR.

Kei Sugaoka (photo by Jim Wilson, NY Times)

And let me just mention how valid that cause is, as I move on to more courageous troublemakers. Though every blog entry I’ve written has mentioned TEPCO and how their criminal negligence and dishonesty has “ruined Japan” (admitted by an anonymous TEPCO executive who was recently interviewed by reporters Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima in the Atlantic Monthly Wire), there are still more revelations to come. The article by Adelstein and Nakajima (“TEPCO: Will Someone Turn off the Lights?”), further describes the turn of events at the annual stockholders’ meeting, and features an interview with Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American engineer who had worked at the Fukushima Number One reactor….until asked to falsify data.  Sugaoka became a whistle-blower eleven years ago in June, relating the series of events that led to his departure from TEPCO, and his disillusionment with Japan’s nuclear industry as a whole.  According to Sugaoka, in the year 2000, he found cracks in a vital piece of equipment called the “steam dryer”.  Upon reporting his findings, he was ordered to edit a video of the reactor so that the cracks were not visible. He refused, but the edited video was made by another worker and used as evidence of the plant’s compliance with safety levels.  In 2002,  an investigation revealed that TEPCO had been falsifying data for over two decades. The plant was shut down for inspection, and the cracks fixed, but no criminal charges were filed.

Sugaoka speaks out yet again in the Atlantic Monthly article, in reaction to TEPCO’s claim that the the tsunami was an “unprecedented” disaster (attempting to absolve themselves from a good deal of responsibility and blame) .  In his words, “TEPCO knowingly used a defective, misaligned piece of equipment for over a decade and doctored video footage showing massive problems. Is it any surprise that the reactor would eventually break down? The containment vessel was never designed to withstand an earthquake. Reactor One is 40 years old, it should have been shut down ten years ago. What was the Japanese government thinking when they gave them firm permission to extend the reactor life for another ten years? And that TEPCO had the audacity to ask, should tell you how close their ties are to the Japanese government.” Words from an experienced professional and an insider that came too late to prevent disaster, but still need to be heard and remembered as the Japanese government and local prefectures struggle to decide the nation’s future energy policy.

Next, let’s talk about the ladies. On Friday, Bloomberg news did a fascinating piece on a

woman named Atsuko Ogasawara, who is carrying out her late mother’s wishes by refusing to sell the family’s log bungalow to the J-Power Electric Company. She has refused to sell for some twenty years now, forcing J-Power to move it’s still-under-construction nuclear reactor back 250 meters, and causing them no end of frustration.  Though her neighbors have, without exception, taken generous payments from J-Power and abandoned their houses in favor of the facility (which is set to open in 2014), Ogasawara is standing firm. She lives in the rural village of Oma, on the very northern tip of Honshu, “where Pacific bluefin

A choice piece of maguro, courtesy of bluefin tuna shipped straight from the port of Oma. (Photo from advertisement for Yoshino-Zusshi)

tuna weighing as much as 555 kilograms are still caught using a rod and line.”  These same fishermen, however, have chosen to support the nuclear power plant, in an effort to revitalize the town’s economy and ensure that young people stay around.

Though J-Power insists that they have only “encouraged” Ogasawara to sell her land,  she sees things differently. She describes the harassment faced by her mother which led to her reluctance to even answer the phone, and has saved letters and notes sent from J-Power over a period of years as evidence. She has been followed by unidentified men, and plagued by callers threatening to sabotage the family fishing boat.  Her small house lies just a stone’s throw away from the nuclear plant construction site, and she is not budging, refusing to be intimidated by threats or won over by the promise of easy money (she has rejected an offer of more than 160 million yen for her rustic little cabin).  Her cabin has become a focal point for Japanese anti-nuclear protesters, and she has finally won support and praise from like-minded strangers across the country.  Whatever the outcome of her battle, this must be at least some consolation for her, after years of swimming upstream on her own.  Ogasawa does not believe in hypocrisy; she has equipped her cabin with solar panels to ensure that she will never need to be dependent on the plant whose existence she has consistently fought against.  Her justification for two decades of protest is simple: “If nuclear plants are safe for people to live near, they should build one in the middle of Tokyo, ” she says stubbornly. If one believes that any life is valuable, then yes, this is true.  Lives in rural Northern Japan are just as valuable as the lives and ensuing infrastructure of Tokyo, and the country needs both to survive and preserve its balance. The country’s balance has been thrown off by the multiple disasters, and the courage of folks like Ogasawara-san is needed to set things aright again. In her case, fight rather than flight was the brave choice.

Finally, here’s a photo of a well-known (depending on your circles) Japanese reggae singer

Rankin' Taxi wants YOU!

who goes by the name “Rankin’ Taxi”.  He’s one of the multitude of singer/songwriters who have been re-writing old hits with new anti-nuclear lyrics, or penning new and wildly popular tunes protesting TEPCO and nuclear power in general. Radio stations will not play their music, but young people find them on you tube, and their music gets thousands of views-the number steadily increasing.  The theme of Rankin’ (Mr. Taxi?) ‘s latest popular video is the lack of discrimination shown by nuclear radiation.  In “You Can’t See It, You Can’t Smell It”,  a multitude of world leaders, movie stars, sports players, anime characters, and even famous monsters (both Godzilla and Mothra make an appearance) flash across the screen,  juxtaposed against images of nuclear explosions.  Mr. Taxi is undoubtably glad to be getting attention with his music, but under the circumstances, it’s hard to celebrate. (“I sang, and people listened, but it came after the fact so it was almost like salt in the wound,” he said ruefully in a recent interview).

Still, no movement is complete without music, and Mr. T. is undoubtably underestimating his own potential to effect change from here on in. He’s got young people (and those of his own generation, like myself) interested, and other musicians stirred up as well. Friday’s  International Herald Tribune says an “electricity-free music festival” is planned for August 15th in Fukushima. Wouldn’t it be excellent to get them all together for that event: the Suicide Squad of old guys who want to go in and clean up TEPCO, “Our Man in Akibo” (the blogger and activist from Chiba), the anti-nuclear TEPCO shareholders, Sugaoka-san the whistle-blower, Ogasawara-san (the lady who refuses to be bought), and of course Mr. Taxi.  Now THAT would promise to be some event. Thank you all again for reading, and good night.

Prophets, Prophecies, and Open Wounds

All the fuss about a Rapture has been unknown and irrelevant here in Hadano City, and probably across most of the nation, with the exception of young people on Twitter or Facebook who have friends in the US.  I tried, in vain, to explain the concept to my co-workers this week, and was met with bewilderment and only mild interest.  Earthquakes?  Floods?  Just part of living within the Rim of Fire.  End of the World?  Well, that’s exactly what the Tohoku quake and tsunami must have felt like, and folks survived, didn’t they?  Not just the bad ones, either.  Anyway,  Japan has its own prophets (called “Yogensha”), and now the nation is in the process of rediscovering them.

I recently attended a concert with an old friend; we hadn’t seen each other for nearly a year, so at the post-concert dinner we had a bit of catching up to do.  It is customary these days to greet friends we meet only infrequently with, “Are you okay since the quake?  How were you that day??” (Not necessarily, “What were you doing?”, though that’s usually the follow-up question).  Since most of my friends are from either Kanagawa or Tokyo prefecture, we all know that we were okay–there were upsets and minor injuries, but no deaths this far South.  That said, most of us were not really emotionally okay the day of the quake, and the aftershocks that followed left us nervous and shaken.  So we recount our own experiences, and inevitably agree that we’ve never been quite that frightened, EVER.  Then we must mention how lucky we were, and how much harder it was and still is for the victims in Tohoku. Even if we don’t know anyone personally, we can imagine. Those who lack imagination have only to turn on the nightly news, which still focuses nearly exclusively on the disaster, as well as the country’s efforts to save energy (“setsu-den”).

My friend Fusae-san and I had finished detailing our personal quake stories, had covered the “so sad for the victims” part, and were starting on dessert. That’s when she informed me that I  *must* read the latest blog that *everyone* was talking about. All ears, I asked for details.  Apparently, the blog was written by an older woman, whose posts were now considered prophetic, and who has become an instant celebrity. Her name was Matsubara Teruko, and according to Fusae, her posts were actually typed by her daughter, as she was not computer-literate.  Ooooh, good stuff–a prophet!  I  Googled her the next day, and she popped up immediately after I typed in “Matsubara”….a celebrity indeed!  I struggled to read her posts in Japanese (found them rambling, but cheery), and paid particular attention to the month of February (as Fusae had suggested).  What I found was….dubious at best.  Among a myriad of other topics were mentions of preparing for disaster, based on the Christchurch Quake and other disasters across the globe that were linked together in her mind. ” You can never be too prepared!” was her basic message, and although sensible and praiseworthy, I hardly consider that advice prophetic. Nonetheless, she is now wildly popular, and everyone loves a little old lady with her own blog.

Other prophets are more long-suffering, and have spent their lives in a very Biblical fashion, warning their neighbors, and  being consistently ignored and even shunned by their own families. Wednesday’s NY Times Global Edition gave two of these prophets validation and instant fame, by publishing their stories on its front page.  Nagano Eiichi, ninety years old, and Shiratori Yoshika, seventy-eight, are lifelong anti-nuclear activists. They and their colleagues have known nothing but defeat in court battles, warnings from employers, and harassment from their neighbors. Suddenly, the tables have turned, and “the aging protestors are now heralded as truth-tellers, while members of the nuclear establishment are being demonized.” (Martin Fackler) Another elderly man from the town of Iwaki in Fukushima is now not only a prophet, but a hero. After years of preaching to deaf ears ( we’re on the coast! A tsunami could strike any minute, and we’re not prepared! ) , Suzuki Tokuo had gone so far as to create his own evacuation manual, distribute it to the entire community, and make plans for an evacuation drill in the fall. As he was discussing the plans with a local police officer, the quake struck!  Fearing the onset of a  tsunami, Suzuki boldly hopped into the passenger seat of the police car, urging the officer to begin cruising the neighborhood.  Indeed, the tsunami did strike shortly after, and the two could see the water moving in from their hilltop vantage-point. According to the Asahi Shinbun, Suzuki used the microphone inside the patrol car to warn residents to flee to higher ground, first urging , and then “ordering”.  Those who heard and took him seriously were saved, but many still doubted and lost their lives.

And so, in the end, the prophets are now enjoying fame and recognition after enduring years of humiliation and defeat.  Most find this only small consolation. Nagano Eiichi, the ninety-year-old nuclear activist, finds his fame especially bittersweet. “If we had done more, if our voices had been louder, we could have prevented the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi,” he says. Perhaps. I personally find it sad that Japan’s young people have been sluggish and apathetic until this point. Older activists like Nagano, Suzuki, and Shiratori have been consistently ignored by college students and their entire generation (who I sometimes suspect have been too busy plucking their brows, creating elaborate hairstyles, and keeping themselves otherwise well-groomed), and have been unable to drum up support for their efforts. Well, no longer!  College students, young parents, and thirty-something office workers are now all on the band wagon, marching in Shibuya and getting photographed in spiffy clothes. They owe a debt to their elders, who did the hard work for them.

This week’s news has been packed with new revelations from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, including the resignation of the TEPCO president, who “accepts responsibility” for the disaster. He will carry the weight of his role in the dirty dealings surrounding the crippled plant for the rest of his life, but now at least the multiple burdens of shutting down the plant, preventing further environmental damage, making compensation payments to all manner of claimants (including, it has been determined, emotional damage payments to families in Fukushima forced to evacuate to shelters), and somehow managing to stay solvent, have been lifted from his shoulders. I’d guess he’ll be sleeping pretty well, all things considered.

Things are still raw and painful for folks up North, as evidenced by more small tidbits of news.  A “rakugo” storyteller attempting to cheer up shelter families with his performances is meeting with only mixed success, despite sticking to lighthearted traditional tales. “Some people can’t even laugh yet; they just walk out when I start,” he admitted.  My friend whose mother lives in Sendai also confirms this.  According to her Sendai friend, there are many stories that never make the news here about parents who have lost children; many have also lost their sanity, and some their will to live. Suicides are not unusual, she said, though they are not publicized.  Thinking of my own children and imagining my life without them, I can fully believe this. On the other end, children who have lost either one or both parents have now returned to school, and are attempting to find a measure of normalcy themselves. Three hundred students in Iwate prefecture’s Ootsuchi  Middle School are packed like sardines into a school built to hold one hundred; half of them are commuting from shelters, and many have lost one or more parents. Their teachers have had “two hours of special training on post-traumatic stress”, but that seems like only a drop in the bucket to me.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, despite the dark trains and uncomfortably warm restaurants and stores (no air conditioning!  Even CURVES was cooled only by a floor fan today, and I was sweating bullets), there are pockets of cheer. Because offices are committed to keeping the use of air conditioning to a minimum this summer, businessmen will now be allowed to wear cooler, and “cooler” clothes to work, including Hawaiian shirts and jeans (no holes please) !  Whether they will or not remains yet to be seen, but fashion retailers are hopeful. My husband is disgusted, and has already stated his intention to continue in the ranks of the uncool and sweaty.

So that’s the situation  for now….or at least a very small sliver of a big big pie. In closing this entry, I want to post a link to a new blog I’ve just found that might be of interest.  A Yokohama man has set off for Ishinomaki , and is working with the volunteer group Peaceboat in the clean-up and restoration of the city; you’ll be surprised by some of the situations he encounters, and get a first-hand account of how foreigners are aiding in the reconstruction efforts.     Again, thank you for reading, and enjoy whatever the day might bring.

"Hey, where were you guys when we needed you?"

The Falcon Train Flies Again!

Hayabusa, the "Falcon Train"

It is Sunday afternoon in Japan; the end of a highly emotional week, or the  hopeful beginning of a new week , depending on your calendar. My wall calendar says it’s the start of a fresh new week, but my “techo”, or date book, says no: the old week has not been fully processed yet, and it’s too soon to put it behind me. Certainly, there was a lot to process. The biggest news on evening TV was the resumption of services of…..the Tokyo to Tohoku bullet train!  The trains themselves were undamaged by the quake, but power outages, damaged cables, and a myriad of complications have prevented them from running. Finally, this Monday, the first train was set to leave for Aomori prefecture, just North of Iwate. There was great fanfare and publicity as volunteers boarded the train, energized to aid in the clean-up efforts and play their part in the reconstruction of Tohoku. The train’s destination, Aomori, was shaken but relatively undamaged by the quake and tsunami, so tourist agencies had been assiduously promoting their hot springs and historical sites in an effort to lure tourists for the Golden Week holidays as well.  The bullet train up and running–it should have been a triumphant event….but it ended in frustration and disappointment as problems with overhead power cables in Tohoku prevented the train from leaving Shinjuku for six full hours. The well-wishers and tourists went home, the passengers waited-at first patiently, but with increasing boredom-and railway workers strove  frantically to resolve the problems. The train finally limped rather than sped out of the station in the early evening, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The train continued to be plagued with power outages and suspended services until Thursday, when it was announced that services were “back to normal”. For those of you who are not familiar with the newest, fastest, most stylish bullet train called “Hayabusa” (literally, the “Falcon Train” ) , I’m including a photo; even if you are not a train geek (a good portion of Japanese men are, and some women as well), you must admit that it is a thing of beauty and wonder. If you’ve had the good fortune to have ridden on any one of the legendary bullet trains, you will appreciate the comfort, cleanliness of the train, as well as the impeccable manners and attractiveness of the attendants who push the snack trolleys back and forth down the aisles.  Non-train geeks and those who have never indulged in the luxury of a bullet train ride must gaze at the photo and imagine the symbolic significance of this sleek mechanical beauty, and what it means to the country to have it up  and running again.

Aside from the symbolism, the “Falcon Train” is, as I mentioned, bringing hundreds of volunteers to cities like Ishinomaki and Kesennuma; young people from the Tokyo area have chosen to spend their Golden Week ( four national holidays sandwiched in between two weekends) in Tohoku, putting their energy and enthusiasm to work doing manual labor. At this point, there are still many more would-be-volunteers than there are resources to house and organize them. One might think that any help would be welcome, no?  But in reading a description of the volunteer experience of a British man who had travelled to Ishinomaki with an NPO called AP Bank, I began to understand why controlling the number of volunteers and planning and organizing their schedules is of such grave importance. The Tokyo man, Richard Smart, had been sent to an uraban area which had suffered very little structural damage, but had been deluged with mud and debris from the tsunami. He writes of the mind-boggling layers of protective covering he was required to don: “…industrial face masks, protective goggles, protective boots, industrial gloves and waterproofing from head to toe.”  His first thought was that these were just cautionary measures, but changed his tune quickly when confronted with “…a mix of dust, rotting matter, fish, oil and stagnating water,”  as well as a toxic sludge covering the floors of the buildings he was sent to clean. Within seconds, he and the other volunteers felt a burning in the back of their throats, and hurriedly slapped on the face masks.

Volunteers like Smart from various NPO agencies travel with their own food, sleep in tents, and take orders from local officials. In contrast, those who make their way up North as individuals without sleeping arrangements, food, protective clothing, or even a plan cause more trouble for already overworked officials and are, in general, not welcome. I have seen no mention of the language issue, but my guess is that non-Japanese speakers (no matter how genuine their desire to help may be) could also be problematic for local officials, as time would be wasted scouring the town for translators.  Locals are also understandably wary of “disaster tourists”, who arrive with cameras around their necks to gawk at the desolation, get a video to post on you tube, and hurry home. As the US Air Force troops stationed in Misawa (just north of the worst-hit areas) understood, picking up the pieces that were Northern Japan must be done carefully and precisely, the Japanese way. The airport in Sendai, which was nearly written off as a complete loss, was cleaned up (and believe me, that took more than a few dishrags) and given a new purpose as a desperately needed transit station for planes bearing aid supplies; this was done tactfully, with the approval and mutual efforts of the Japanese military. The US troops won praise for not charging in and wresting full control from the Japanese, and Japanese troops were equally praised for gracefully allowing the US troops to lend their expertise and bail them out (literally and figuratively!) of a situation they would have been hard-pressed to tackle alone. Regardless of how hard they were hit by the quake or the tsunami (or the combination), neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities all have plans by now, and are beginning to move forward. Those who truly want to “help” must go through the proper channels, receive the proper permission, and work with qualified and experienced organizations (such as the volunteers who were sent from Kobe, who had first-hand knowledge of disaster clean-up), or their help turns out to be a further burden on an already stressed system.

I wrote that towns and cities have plans now and are moving forward, but that of course excludes the prefecture of Fukushima, where nothing is certain and the future cannot be predicted.  Towns closest to the crippled power plant have been completely evacuated, with livestock and family pets left behind to starve or run wild, whichever the case might be. Rumor says that veterinarians sent in to assess the situation found nearly all the cows locked in their stables either dead or severely weakened with hunger, the chickens  all dead, and pigs, as natural scavengers, surviving off the meat of the carcasses around them. We have no actual statistics, and can only imagine the carnage and suffering of the animals who have died and are dying–not of irradiation, but of hunger. Monday’s news focused on the farmers, their sorrow and frustration at being unable to evacuate their herds, and Tuesday’s news featured a demonstration in Tokyo (finally! About time!) held by farmers from the Fukushima prefecture, who had travelled to the big city with crates of fresh produce, huge metal containers of fresh milk, and two bewildered and long-suffering cows. The scene at the entrance to  TEPCO headquarters was broadcast on the nightly news: over the mooing of the cows, angry farmers demanded compensation for their losses (300 liters of milk poured out and wasted per day!), and declared themselves dissatisfied with the electric company’s response to the nuclear disaster. Many of the farmers live in Fukushima prefecture, yet far outside the evacuation zone, where the level of radiation is not considered dangerously high. No matter. Their milk will not sell.  “This situation,” one farmer announced, “was caused by humans, not nature.”

On Tuesday, it was also announced that more towns outside the original evacuation zone must now prepare to leave by late May. Residents of these towns, whose homes and businesses are barely damaged and whose children have just begun attending school, are understandably angry and frustrated. Mayors from two of the cities, Iitate and Kawamata, met with the Prime Minister to discuss their grievances.  Meanwhile, as the Mayors frantically search for an evacuation site for their citizens, the playgrounds of their children’s schools have been declared unsafe. On Wednesday, backhoes were scraping off the surface layer of soil, which registered a dangerously high radiation level, from school playgrounds across Fukushima prefecture. No place could be found to dump or bury the irradiated soil (you want it??) , so it has been left on the playgrounds, covered over with some sort of giant metal container lids. Children wear masks indoors and out, and can no longer use the playground at all. Schools where the soil radiation level has tested normal allow children to play outdoors for a limited time each day, and only on days when the radiation level in the air is at a safe level; this is determined by teachers, who wear dosimeters strapped to their waists and check the radiation levels hourly. Back at home, parks and playgrounds also bear warning signs, urging children to play outside for no longer than an hour at a time. No trouble there-most mothers are restricting their children’s outdoor activities completely. Everything is on hold for these families as they wait to see where they will be evacuated to, how soon (or if ) they will be able to return, or whether, by some stroke of good fortune, decisions will be reversed and they will be allowed to stay. Needless to say, those who have already been evacuated live in a state of even more uncertainty and fear, unable to move forward until they know the final judgement on what they’ve left behind.

On Wednesday , the Emperor and Emperess politely declined their invitation to Will and Kate’s royal wedding, and set off for Sendai, where they were seen visiting with and consoling shelter victims. The Emperess, who manages to be a combination of graceful, warm, and uninhibited, bent down to the level of the elderly residents, clasping their hands, and receiving a hand-picked bunch of daffodils from a woman who had lost her house, but found the flowers intact in her garden.

On Thursday, there was a Buddhist ceremony held jointly in memory of pupils from a single elementary school in Ishinomaki; seventy-four out of one hundred and eight students either dead or missing. The service, held in a vast indoor space lined with flowers, offerings, and photographs of the children, brought tears to the eyes of parents and teachers across the country who, like me, couldn’t tear themselves away from the raw emotion of the scene. Also on Thursday, TEPCO declared that “compensation guidelines have been set”, promising to pay out trillions of yen in damages, including emotional damage caused by weeks or months of shelter life. The government declares that although the final responsibility belongs to TEPCO, they will step in to make sure the payments are made. How either TEPCO or the government will come up with the trillions of yen is the real question, and politicians are seen arguing heatedly among themselves about the financial crisis on public television all day long. “Get a move on, and decide SOMEthing,” I want to say, but although Japan is technically a democracy, I know I won’t get that chance. I only hope that more time is not wasted in deposing yet another Prime Minister this spring (there are already calls for his resignation)!  Let’s just make do with what we have, and move forward with some plan–any plan–to begin the process of compensation and reconstruction.

Friday was spent in setting up this blog, and Saturday was a charity Easter Egg Hunt held on the lovely green lawn of a local college campus. Nearly two hundred small children showed up, and the event raised over a thousand dollars (in yen, of course…I’m estimating in dollars) to stock a damaged library in the Tohoku region. The weather was fine, the children adorable, and the event went off without a hitch. The money is just a drop in the bucket considering the damages, but I was doing what I do best (entertaining and engaging with children), and enjoying myself thoroughly. As a woman I admire, the Granny of the Big Smile, said, that’s what it’s all about anyway. A blogger known as the Tokyo Twilighter says it this way: “To support Japan, what I would say is this: Simply do what you do every day, but do it better. Go to school or to work but with passion and energy. Engage your neighbors or community but with more sympathy and compassion than you every have. Let these historic moments move you, inspire you and invigorate you for as long as the feeling lasts because, believe me, that initial adrenaline and humanitarian solidarity will wear off. Ride it as long as you can. Let it make you be a better person, and let it wake you up from the complacency in your life.”

Good night, and thank you for reading.