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