Dogwood Tree

Dogwood Tree
Dogwood Tree

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Outtakes 1

Our Trip is Drawing to an End

Well, our trip was drawing to an end, and so is yours, Dear Reader. If you are a Loyal Follower, you have read your way through my May volunteer experiences in Tono, then held your breath waiting for more during my long hiatus, then been overjoyed to read my new posts in August. If there are actually such people out there, thank-you for your time! If not, thanks for glancing at my Blog once in a while!

Just because I have returned to the States doesn't mean I'm "done" with northeastern Japan. If anything, the more I travel there, the more my interests seem to zero in on that region. The more I read about it and travel through it, the more it takes shape in my mind.

That being said, my ideas for continuing to support the Sanriku Coast region are still vague. For now, the only concrete idea I have is to do a project supporting Takkon Daycare, so I'll start with that. I'm also thinking of doing some art inspired by my experiences, and having a show to raise money for the region.

As for conclusions about volunteering, I've learned a lot, but like most learning experiences, it just raises more questions.

Hmmm. I keep writing paragraphs hoping that the next paragraph will do a great job of summing up my Blog, but I'm not hitting the jackpot. Since this is a Blog, not a novel, I guess I don't have to worry about how good the ending is.

This is it for my official account, but stand by for a few outtakes!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Takkon Daycare

So Ben and I went to Takkon Daycare with several other volunteers (including the young woman pictured in the previous post, (who I now recall called herself "Chonmage" because she had a samurai-like ponytail). We did a very simple project of passing out paper and crayons for the kids to draw pictures. They got to keep the crayons. Ben was the object of much admiration among the little kids-- I don't think he quite knew what to do with all of the attention. As we left, I asked the principal for her business card. I have a vague idea of building some kind of relationship with that daycare. Maybe Northfield Daycare could send drawing. . .anyway, I'm still thinking about it. Any ideas?

It was an enjoyable, but exhausting, day. I have much respect for professionals who deal with little kids all day long!


The charming young woman pictured with Ben (I lost her name) accompanied us to Takkon Daycare in Ofunato, where we did a project with some kids. We arrived in the town early, though, so she suggested we go and see Goishi Beach on Matsuzaki Penninsula. It's called Goishi Beach because the pebbles are especially round and look like Japanese Go (a board game) pieces. She was worried that Goishi Beach might have been struck by the tsunami, but we found it largely unscathed. The rocks were just like she said, smooth and beautiful. Funny, in the areas with no human habitation the tsunami just came and went, leaving little trace.

A Woman's Worn Back

I already mentioned that Ben and I spent a day visiting temporary housing, where our job was to communicate with the residents, assess their needs, and perform "tapping touch," a kind of massage. We set out with a team of five-- looking back, this job could have been done well by two people, but one of the principles of volunteerism is to be a "tool" doing tasks determined by other people. (Although at Tono Magokoro, where there is lots of turnover, another principle is that as soon as you are ready (or before), you should move into a position of decision making and responsiblity.)

Most memorable was our visit to an elderly woman living in a small temporary house. We waited for her for about twenty minutes before she arrived. She'd gone out on a short errand, but I could immediately see why it took so long: like many hard-working women her age, her body was bent into the shape of an "L" roated 90 degrees to the right, so she must always walk staring at the ground. It looks intensely uncomfortable, but one must become accustomed to it.

The woman sat on her small bed while one of the female volunteers asked her questions. I was chosen to climb up behind her on the bed and do the "tapping touch" massage. I had been instructed carefully about how to think about my relationship to the person receiving the massage. I was to think of myself as having the honor of giving her a massage, not as a "giver" performing a service. At the time I received the explanation, I thought, "Really. How new-wave." But as I looked at the woman's small, rounded back, I suddenly understood what they were talking about. I thought about how years and years of labor, probably in a fishing family, had slowly pushed this back into position, about the inoxerable process that had rounded it into the tiny shape in front of me. In comparison to this woman, had I ever experienced the weight of the world, or struggled against the forces that mercilessly crush us into an aged shape? What nerve I had, raising my pampered hands incapable of any useful labor and intending to give some kind of comfort to her weathered back! I hesitated with my hands raised, overwhelmed by my own uselessness. But of course, there was no going back. The other volunteers watched me expectantly. So I rubbed my hands together to warm them up (the first step is to simply warm the person's back), then I cupped her shoulders in my hands and began.

The Value of Someone Else's Photographs

One day, Ben and I opted for photograph duty. Photograph duty is divided into two parts, washing/drying and scanning. Boxes of photographs, found in the wreckage, arrive at the Center. A team then washes them gently in water, attempting to separate those that are stuck together, and hangs them up to dry like a row of laundry on a line. Some people say this labor is almost as hard as rubble removal, because you have to lean forward over the washtubs in an awkward position. Dried photographs are taken to the gym, where there are two laptops with attached scanners. Ben and I helped to scan the photographs into folders. I was impressed with the thoroughness of the volunteers- any photo with even a trace of an image had been saved. I remember one in particular, a photo of a houseplant that had gone completely yellow. Only faint white marks showed where the plant was in the photo. I wanted to throw it away, but since another volunteer had already washed it and decided to keep it, I scanned it instead. How can one know the value of someone else's photograph? Maybe it was the beloved houseplant of a little old woman who lived alone. Maybe it was a birthday gift from a son to his mother- the mother survived and the son perished- all other photos of her son were destroyed, and only the plant is left. Maybe. . . while pondering the significance of the partially ruined photographs, I kept sorting them and handing them to Ben, who worked the scanner.

I once read an article by a foreigner who saw a Japanese woman cleaning the gutter with chopsticks. He was amazed she would be so thorough even in cleaning the street. Is it only in Japan that a volunteer would save a picture of some white smudges on yellow, scan it, label it, and put it in a photo album? Or is this part of the ethics of being a volunteer, not to make any judgements on value?

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Island and the Tsunami

I liked this doodle Ben wrote in my notebook (I colored it later). We traveled around the edge of one particular bay where, according to one of the volunteers, "The damage would have been even worse, except that the island took the brunt of the tsunami." Always amidst disaster, there are cases of hope like the island, where one feels (or wants to feel) divine intervention. Will noticed that among the wreckage, somehow shrine gates seemed to be mysteriously spared!

On the other hand, when I visited Wano Kaikan, a small refugee center, and expressed an interest in the rumored "god of the mountain," a man gave me a wry grin.
"Kikanai kamisama desu yo." (That god doesn't listen.) In view of the mess just a few hundred yards down the mountain, I can certainly understand this view, as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Rare Bit of Coast

My first volunteer activity with Ben was to head to a village of temporary houses to talk with survivors, assess their needs, and perform "tapping touch," a kind of massage. I'll have more to say about this later, but for lunch we (a group of five) drove up the mountain to this picnic area. High on the side of the hill, the picnic area looks down into a small bay with brilliant blue water. Because there are no buildings along the bay, and probably because of the steep cliffs, from this particular viewpoint we could see no tsunami damage-- a little glimpse of the marine paradise this coast was before the tsunami, and a preview of the beauty that will come again.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Gutter, Part II

Ben and I got tired after the first day, but Will liked The Gutter and opted to continue for another four days. During that time, he got to know "my guy," (from my previous blog) and the guy pictured in the photograph, Mr. Ban. Mr. Ban was good at English, and good-humoredly translated for the three gaijin (foreigners) on the team.

One reason Will liked gutter work was that the filthy water was nice and cool. Afternoons were baking hot, and the humidity was always high, so even chemical-filled water was a draw. At least the day I was there, Will spent most of his breaks standing in the water. "My guy" went to the length of stripping down to his shorts and washing both his body and his clothes in the water (although the foreman recommended against this). The first time he did this, he didn't have a dry towel, so I leant him one of ours. He was remarkably grateful and assured us that he would give us a new towel the next day-- which he did. He also gave us a fan. I should have been used to such good manners after twenty years of present-getting, but I was amazed that even the gift of a simple wash towel required a formal counter(measure). How can I be useful as a volunteer, when no matter what I do someone else does more for me?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Red Dragonfly: Reprise

Our first day of work involved taking a bus to Hakozaki, in Kamaishi City, a city hard-hit by the tsunami. The damage is so complete that there's really no place to start- like one of those fairy-tales where the heroine must drain a lake with a sieve, or find a needle in a barn full of straw. However, there is an order to clearing wreckage: first, the most hazardous materials are removed and roads are opened. That had already been achieved. Next, utilities are restored. Our task was to clear debris out of a large rain gutter with shovels and wheelbarrows. And when I say debris, I mean BIG debris such as chunks of asphalt, rocks and shovelsful of heavy sand. The team of about 15 people included a Stanford graduate (Japanese), a couple of young men from California, a Mongolian boxer, a large number of tough-looking Japanese workmen, and, of course, us. We were given either a shovel or a "neko" ("cat," the Japanese slang for wheelbarrow) and got to work under the fairly hot sun.

Will, of course, was a natural. He jumped into a gutter, immediately up to his calves in polluted water, and got to work. The foreman took one look at Ben and I, and gave us wheelbarrows instead of shovels. Ben started in and did a great job hauling. Meanwhile, I assisted the tough, wirey worker featured in the photograph, who later became friends with Will. Some of the gutter was covered with concrete lids which didn't come off, and my guy decided to crawl under the lids and clear out some of the garbage.

"Sing to me," he said.
"Yes, you must inspire me. Sing so that I can hear your voice and have a goal!"
With that, he dived into the gutter.
Well, he had asked the wrong person. Embarrassingly enough, what I wrote in a previous blog is actually true: the only song I can sing all the way through is the Japanese folksong Red Dragonfly.
"Sing! Sing!" came a dim, echoey voice from down in the gutter.
"Okay," I said weakly, and started in. I thought I heard a muffled, "Huh?" from under the concrete.
With vague hopes that "Red Dragonfly" would again produce tears of emotion in my audience, I dutifully sang all four verses. Then, out of songs, I gave a rendition of the only other songs I know even a bit, James Cagney's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "We are Marching to Pretoria (both courtesy of my grandmother, who lived through World War I).

A time later, my hero backed out of the gutter shaking his head. "Too much gravel," he said. "Can't get through."

"It's my fault," I said. "I didn't inspire you."
He shook his head. "No, very good." He grinned. "Can't believe you decided to sing a Japanese song. . ." He added hopefully, "Maybe next time Madonna or American Pops?"

Thursday, August 4, 2011


The first problem was boots. Although I had made sure Will brought his own boots (size 14, all rubber, with metal inserts to protect against nails), I had been counting on picking up two pairs of boots for myself and Ben at the Center. I had some reason to expect that boots would be available, because when I’d last visited a month before they had lots of spares. To my dismay, the system had changed completely in the month I’d been away. Now the extra boots were quarantined on a ledge to the left of the entranceway with a sign proclaiming “Don’t take these!” Hiding my indignation, I approached a businesslike man at the front desk and asked about the situation.
He smiled wryly. “Yes, it was the case that you could pick up the excess gloves, masks and boots that people left behind. But then volunteers started counting on things being available. People came from all over Japan expecting boots and gloves to be provided. So we had to change the system. After all, one of the principles of volunteering is to be self-sufficient. We now expect you to bring your own boots.”
I nodded understandingly. I did not want to be confused with those freeloaders who expected everything to be laid out before them! Reluctantly, I walked away (not without a furtive glance at the rows of boots and a furtive calculation about the possibility of swiping a pair after dusk).
I was stumped. After having bottomed out my budget just getting to Tono, it looked like Ben and I would not be able to work in the disaster area the next day, and I didn’t want to send Will alone. Reluctantly, I decided to ask Mr. Koiguchi for yet more good will. Using a cell phone he had provided, I called and asked if he had any spare boots I could borrow (stink up/puncture/ruin). As he had before, he immediately came through for us. In just 20 minutes he pulled up to the Center with two pair of very nice rubber boots. As I brought the boots in through the entrance, I made sure to signal to the man behind the desk. “I didn’t take these from out front- a friend gave them to me.” I held up the boots.
He nodded. “Do you have inserts?” he asked.
My face fell. I had overlooked the fact that Mr. Koiguchi’s boots did not have metal inserts for working in the disaster area.
The man pursed his lips. “Hmmm. Well, you’ve gone to the trouble to procure your own boots, I suppose we can supply inserts for you.”
“Oh, Thank-you, Thank-you!”
He rummaged around and got out a few metal inserts, but did not find the proper size, 24 centimeters. He cast a furtive eye at the forbidden extra boots, which could be seen through the window, all neatly lined up in a row.
“Hmmm. Well, look. You have obviously made an effort to supply your own boots, and your friend has gone to all of this trouble. It would be a pity to get your friend’s boots dirty. I tell you what. These extra boots have metal inserts already in them. Why don’t we borrow these, just on this one occasion.
“Are you sure?” I asked humbly.
He nodded decisively. “Yes.”
When I next saw Mr. Koiguchi, I told him the whole story. “So you see, your boots were very important,” I said, “Even though we did not use them.” Mr. Koiguchi’s boots had allowed me to demonstrate my sincerity as a volunteer.
As it turned out, the change in boot policy was just one of many changes in how the Center was being managed, one month after my previous visit. Tono Magokoro Net was proving itself to be a “learning organization.” I was amazed at the vitality of an organization that could evolve and adapt, even while the people at the front desk came and went.

10 Bag Trip

On July 4th the three of us headed for Tono City; this would be my third time volunteering, the first for Will and Ben. As it turned out, hauling 10 pieces of luggage (including backpacks) to Tono was perhaps the most physically taxing activity of our entire trip. We schlepped our ten bags to the airport, from the terminal to a bus (with no luggage compartment), from the bus to the train terminal, on the train (again, no place to put baggage), and over the train tracks to the station exit. We had then intended to walk to the Welfare Center, but the miraculous Mr. Koiguchi and his wife were waiting with their car. Mr. Koiguchi did not balk (although he did raise his eyebrows)at the huge volume of luggage, but managed to stow it in his trunk (after taking apart most of the inside of his car to do so.) Arriving at the Center, we hauled the huge bulk of our luggage into the gym, created a giant pile, and thankfully proceeded to forget most of it for the remainder of our stay.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Blog, Interrupted.

Yes, my Blog ran right smack into a wall—a wall called my two sons, who arrived on June 11th and promptly commandeered my life and computer. My rarified world of coffee sipping and blog composing was rudely ripped to shreds, as the spectre of my real life, “working mother,” returned.

Now, I find that almost two months have passed, and my blog has joined the millions of accessible but abandoned Blogcastles out there in Etherdom. However, despite the fact that I’m already back in Minnesota and settling back into my accustomed habits, I want to properly finish my blog and let my fans (at least five!) know about the remainder of my experience. Therefore, I made a mini-vow to spend the next week on a wrap-up. Not only will this serve as a record of our June and July in Japan, it will also be a space for me to ponder my experience, and to brainstorm how to continue my involvement with Northeastern Japan.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I was asked to make a speech at Chapel this week. I've decided to talk about my experience singing "Red Dragonfly" for the people at the refugee center. Since Chapel is mandatory, there will be a very large number of girls listening to me- hope I can do a good job. I decided to end my speech by singing the song "Red Dragonfly," and spent a whole day illustrating each verse- my way of procrastinating, because I should have been polishing my speech instead. The illustration in the picture is for the second verse, "Picking mulberries in a mountain field and putting them in a basket- a distant vision from my youth."

The speech will be on the 22nd- after that, I can relax for a while.

Ben and Will will come to hear the speech. It's in Japanese, so they'll have to listen hard!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gonna be a hot one. . .

It will doubtless be a hot summer in Japan- always is, as far as I can remember (20 years). However, due to the earthquake/tsunami combo and worries about nuclear power, even the nuclear power plants that weren't affected by the disaster are partially shut down for a double check/ quick update. Since most big cities get a large percentage of their power from these plants, the power companies are asking everyone to reduce power usage this summer by 15%. There's some controversy about this, but probably most companies and citizens will try to comply.

Yet this is Japan, and Japan was making a pretty good effort to conserve energy anyway. Through the eyes of an American, buildings are uncomfortably hot, trains uncomfortably crowded, and home-air-conditioning units woefully underused. This is already the land that invented "cool-biz," which means they won't turn the air conditioning on, so you don't have to wear a tie. It's also the land of mesh-backed shirts to reduce summer sweating.

How will they cut more corners? Well, I already noticed some effects: convenience stores, once oases of icy air, and regular temperature : ( . . . movie theaters are a little warm : (

I already bought a gel-pack freezer pillow for my head at night! In the picture, the talk-show host is discussing other alternatives, such as curry that tastes good without heating.

Oh, and time to start cutting back on the number of trains leaving Tokyo station! Train packers, get ready to push!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Great Arrival!

Well, THEY finally arrived. Sorry for the blurry picture- THEY can be very difficult to photograph at times, especially after a 23 hour transit experience. Their names are Ben and Will, and from now on it will be THE THREE OF US, conquering all odds to survive here in Japan for the next five weeks. They will also be traveling with me to Tono in July, where I'll continue to investigate questions about what it means to volunteer, and to figure out what kind of contribution we can make.

Meanwhile, in Nagoya

While nervously awaiting the arrival of my sons Will and Ben, I visited my friend Carrie in Nagoya. Carrie and I have been good friends since she hosted me as an exchange student in 1990. She was 28 at the time; I was 20. We went to Osukannon, a temple complex in Nagoya city. There, we saw a manzai (sit-down comic) performance by Kairakutei Black (Pleasurable Black), a half-Japanese, half-American performer. Born in Japan in 1952 (probably the son of a soldier, who then left the country), he speaks only Japanese. In fact, he speaks Japanese at the pace of an auctioneer- I didn't understand most of his monologue, which was something about having his camera stolen by another actor. The stars-and-stripes kimono is a nice touch!

After enjoying Black and three other actors (a juggler, an accordian and guitar duo, and another sit-down comic) on the stage of a small, old-fashioned theater, we payed our respects at Osukannon temple, where I unsuspectingly bought a dish of rice grains to feed to the pigeons. WHAT A MISTAKE! I was clawed within an inch of death. Pigeons on my bare arms; pigeons on my shoulders! Pigeons on my head! (Multiple pigeons on my head!) By the time the dish was empty, my upper torso was covered with red scratches. The photo doesn't do it justice! Carrie noted that one pigeon came early, sprawled himself all over the dish, and got most of the rice.

To recover from my terrifying experience, we stopped at a Japanese sweet shop, where Carrie chose the dessert pictured: a green tea slushie! As you can see, Japanese size does not necessarily mean small.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Meanwhile, in Tokyo. . .

Meanwhile, I also visited my sensei in Tokyo. We ate at this fashionable restaurant in Kagurazaka. Whatever there is to be done in children's literature that's difficult (such as trying to make peace between China and Japan, protesting war, or even harder, trying to get the Japanese interested in Korean children's literature), that's what you'll find my sensei doing. One of the tasks I keep pushing on her is to help me get my own manuscript published-- trying to get Japan interested in Marnie. Actually, believe it or not, three years ago I began writing about a fantasy country located off the coast of Northeastern Japan. My long-suffering sensei has helped me to bring the manuscript to its current state, while along the way introducing me to everyone possible who might be interested in it. I don't know if sensei is reading this blog, but I just want to say, thank-you. And thank-you, and then once more: Thanks, Sensei!

Shakespeare Garden Shots

Meanwhile, in the Shakespeare Garden

Meanwhile, in the Shakespeare Garden at the College, this stray cat rules (or so I assume, since other cats cringe when he walks by). He spends his luxurious afternoons sprawled on his tummy amidst flowers like primrose and heliotrope that appear in long-forgotten Shakespeare plays. Disregarding Shakespeare's subtleties, he whiles away his time stealing food scraps, fighting crows, and scratching other cats in the face. I have not seen him playing the lute or reciting poetry to beautiful women (or cats).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Mr. Osaka's Home

This also happened at Osabe: Mr. Osaka, who is running the refugee center at Osabe, wanted to show us a video he took of the tsunami with his camera. He had fled partway up the hill, and was looking down on the village (pictured in the photo). He filmed the scene as water swelled over the sea wall and flooded the village, but as the water climbed higher and higher he dropped his camera in surprise. For about 20 seconds, the camera filmed the winter sky, then he hastily re-focused on the scene. In the video, water creeps higher and higher as voices of alarm and consternation rise from the crowd. Mr. Osaka kept urging us to look at the Fisherman's Guild, a four-storey building on the ocean front. Water rapidly climbs up the side of the building, reaching the middle of the fourth floor before slowly (but only temporarily) receding.

Although it was drizzling, he took us on a walk down into the town to see what was left-- almost nothing. Only a couple of blocks from the water wall (which the tsunami cleared by fifteen meters) was Mr. Osaka's house. He carefully showed us his garden ("My bonsai collection was over there"), his living room (he hasn't found a single one of his possessions) and the back entrance. Standing on a flat boulder that used to be the doorstep, he pointed out the scenic view. The view remained, but the home to view it from was gone.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Listen to Red Dragonfly

This woman's version isn't bad.

Red Dragonfly

On Saturday the 29th I went with a volunteer named Ayano to the refugee center at Osabe. There, I had a totally unexpected and very memorable experience.
That day there wasn’t much to do at the center. Lunch was under control- ramen and bread had arrived, and those people at the center who weren’t out working grabbed their portions from a large box. We were to help cut peppers and eggplant for dinner, but that job could wait until later. Instead, we were encouraged to go see the Japan Self Defense Forces give a band concert in the gym at the elementary school (one building away). Feeling quite guilty for failing to help and instead sitting in on a concert, I went with Ayano to the gym. There were about 60 people sitting in folding chairs, listening while the band members gave a demonstration of how to play the different instruments. They were obviously very good, but I listened with mixed feelings: after all, I wrote my dissertation about peace literature, and my sensei is adamantly anti-war. However, obviously right now the JSDF are not out fighting wars on foreign soil (they don’t do combat, anyway), they are performing essential services and saving people.
Just as I was taking mental notes to report back to sensei, the band burst into a rendition of Spaceship Yamato, one of my favorite TV-credit songs of all time.
With silly TV tears in my eyes, I reflected on how the battleship Yamato (the actual battleship was sunk off Okinawa late into the Second World War) is a particularly Japanese symbol of resurrection. The animation Spaceship Yamato (Starblazers) is set on an earth far in the future that is polluted by radiation. In the animation, the old battleship rises from its grave in the sea bed and sails off into space, on a mission to the planet Iscandar to get a high-tech device that will clean up the polluted and dying earth. (Of course, there are also bad guys called Gamilions.)
Knowing that Sensei would frown on my sentimental attachment to a song about a battleship, I nevertheless dissolved in tears. At that point, a young female soldier, Ms. (Private? Seargeant?) Abe, approached me and greeted me in English, which was obviously very brave and difficult for her. Suddenly, I felt like I shouldn’t just stand at the back of the crowd- I should be brave like her, go up front, and say a few words. After all, what was the use of coming all the way from America and not giving some message of friendship? I asked (Private? Captain? Officer?) Abe, “If there’s time, may I say a few words?” After confirming that I could say a few words in Japanese (as opposed to English), Officer Abe disappeared up front and appeared to talk to the M.C.
Not long afterward, the band made an announcement. “We hear that there is an American in the room who would like to say a few words.”
Cursing my over-enthusiasm, I made my way up front. I took the microphone in a daze, and in a wavering voice said a few things that were on my mind. I said that people all over the world are thinking of Japan now, and mourning with them. I also said that many people would like to help, but since Japan is so far they cannot afford to come themselves. I said that many people (including me, of course) love the Japanese people and culture, and that these people will continue to hope and pray for the Tohoku region. Having run out of words, I told them I would sing “Red Dragonfly,” to express my feelings. “Red Dragonfly” happens to be the only Japanese song I have memorized. So, with shaking knees, I started in.
Verse 1: “The red dragonfly, against the sunset. Ah, when did I last see a red dragonfly?”
Actually, I have Will to thank for knowing all four verses of “Red Dragonfly.” I used to sing this song to him when he was a baby, to put him to sleep. Since Will rarely went to sleep without putting up a long and impressive fight, I usually sang all four verses many times.
Verse 2:
“I remember picking mulberries from the trees in the mountain field, and putting them in a basket. It seems so long ago- maybe it was all just a dream.”
Even after Will grew up, whenever I would pass by the mulberry tree on the Farm, I’d remember the song and sing all four verses. I never sang it when someone was listening, because after all, it’s Japanese.
Verse 3:
“When my sister turned fifteen, she got married and left the village. We never heard from her again.”
I first heard “Red Dragonfly” as a young girl. My parents had a record where Jean Pierre Rampal, a French flutist, plays that song and some other Japanese classics—of course, with no words. I always loved the melody, so after learning Japanese I decided to look up the lyrics. At first, I sang them without understanding them, but over the years I believe I’ve grasped most of the meaning. It’s a very deep song, a song about home. Kind of like a Japanese “Home on the Range.”
Verse 4:
“A red dragonfly, against the sunset. Look, there it is, sitting on that fence post!”
In other words, people may come and go, but the sun continues to set; the dragonfly will come again. One’s hometown will always remain.
As you can imagine, the song I chose (my only possible choice!) evoked an emotional response from the crowd. I saw people covering their eyes. Although I’m not a good singer, luckily I was able to sing all four verses in an acceptable voice, at least not so bad as to detract from what I wanted to express. I realized that even if I did a stupid thing in coming forward, it was the right thing.
As I hastily returned to the back of the room, one of the women from the refugee center grabbed my hands and pumped them up and down. “Thank-you, thank-you,” she said over and over.
I felt happier then than I have to a long time.
I heard on the news a while ago that volunteers who go up north intending to encourage the disaster survivors often find that they themselves who are patted on the back, given words of encouragement and smiles. These north coast people are very strong—stronger than most of us. Some say, “God only gives us trials that we are capable to bearing.” There is probably a reason that God, or the kami, feel free to send the Northerners earthquakes and tsunami.
They can take it.
After some very embarrassing applause and lots of turned heads and smiles, the Band made an announcement. “There has been a slight change in the program. The next number will be an American march!” The band did an energetic rendition of an American march (which I didn’t recognize, but I certainly take their word for it). So thanks to Private, Captain or Office Abe, a full circle of international exchange was completed!
I’m not naturally an outgoing person, but as I get older, I realize that sometimes it’s important to speak up. Since I’ll be going up north again, I need to have the courage to create another moment like that- there are a lot of people (especially entertainers!) who could have done that better than me, but I have to face the fact that right now, I’m one of the few who’s on the spot, and who can make a difference.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Tsunami of 1897

Over a hundred years ago. Same place, same disaster. In the photograph, a man sits listlessly on the beach. He is staring at his child, who was killed in the tsunami.

They had even less warning. It was May 5th, Children's Day. The villages were celebrating the holiday, as well as the triumphant return of the soliders from the war with China. As the evening went on, the revelry increased-- no one thought much of the series of small earthquakes throughout the evening. In the darkness, the sea retreated until the floor of the bay could be seen- a sure sign of a tsunami. Some travelers saw a mysterious flash out at sea and thought it was "fox fire," strange, inexplicible gleams in the darkness. In reality, it was the crest of a gigantic wave, glinting far out at sea. Then most people heard two huge roars, like thunder. Some thought it was an attack by the Russian Navy. Not long after, with no warning, a wave of water crashed through people's windows and doors. In an instant, the villages were swept away. In some villages with populations of a thousand or so, there were only a handful of survivors.

People like me who live on high, dry land wonder. How could people be caught, be fooled by a tsunami? There's an earthquake, right? Then you have a half hour to get to high ground.

As usual, people like me who don't know the real situation are the "wisest" in judging how to stay alive.

We were talking to Mr. Osaka, who lost his house in the tsunami. He watched the wave surge over the dike and wash over his village. At one point, he was so amazed he dropped his camera. For about 20 seconds, the camera is filming the sky.

"They fled along the coast," he said. "Look at this valley. There are only two roads out." I looked. The roads are very narrow. "They wanted to get to higher ground, but the road was jammed. They were still on their way up when the wave hit."

Other people didn't notice the siren. Some didn't even notice the quake. It's not as easy to feel if you're in your car.

Besides, one can't spend one's life rushing to high ground every time there's an earthquake. 299 times out of 300, it's going to be a false alarm.

Have you ever taken a chance? It usually works out, doesn't it. I sometimes walk outside in a thunderstorm. My chances of not getting struck by lightening are excellent. In fact, I frequently walk in the woods during hunting season. Sometimes I even wear brown. After all, it's our property. A woman should be able to walk on her own property without being shot! If they do shoot me, it's their fault!

If I lived in Otsuchi, Miyako or Rikuzen-Takata, I'd probably be dead.

Potato Salad Culture Shock

Potato Salad Culture Shock
I consider myself to be a reasonable person, and rarely clash with people. But that may just be because I am rarely crossed. When I think about it, actually, I react rather poorly to being crossed.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen, following orders from other volunteers that relate to preparing large amounts of food. It’s been an almost entirely pleasant experience. As I mentioned before, I’m not great at cooking, so I’ve resigned myself to having some of my work “fixed up,” or even just plain “done over.” As long as I’m a net asset, not liability, it’s fine with me.
I believed that I was in that mentality when the Leader for the day asked me to chop up onions for potato salad. After being shown exactly how thin, and what direction, to slice the onion, I carefully followed instructions. Then I rotated the slices 90 degrees and chopped them again. I figured since it was potato salad, the finer I chopped them, the better.
That was when the Leader descended on me in a state of great consternation. “Oh, my god! You minced them!”
“Minced won’t do?” I asked. I probably didn’t sound annoyed, but I certainly was. It’s potato salad, for crying out loud! You stick stuff in a bowl and stir it up! Does is really matter if the onions are chopped one extra time? “Let’s just put them in. It’ll be fine.”
“Oh, no, these can’t be used for the potato salad now. I guess we’ll stick them in the miso soup.”
I couldn’t help muttering a weak protest. “I think these onions are fine,” I said.
“No, no, no, potato salad onions must be cut in only one direction.” She whisked my onions away and dumped them in the soup.
I treated myself to an inner diatribe.
I spent the next half hour in a mental self-help session. I reminded myself that I was here for one purpose only, volunteering, and was not here to start preparing a list of mortal enemies. I decided to wait quietly, follow directions even more carefully, and see what happened.
A few minutes later my fellow worker, a young man, finished chopping the cabbage for a different dish. He presented it to the leader.
“Oh, my. Oh, this is not right. You need to chop it more finely. We can’t use this for the salad. . .maybe we can find some other use for it. It seems a pity to throw it away. . .”
Instantly, my feeling of alienation was replaced by one of brotherhood. I smiled peacefully at the crestfallen young man, waves of benevolence emanating from the corners of my blissfully upturned mouth.
“Should we add some eggs to the salad?” I asked.
“Eggs in potato salad?” asked the Leader, confused. “No, eggs are not used in potato salad.”
“Oh,” I said happily. “Of course not.”
I smiled a yet more peaceful smile, happy in the knowledge that last week, at a different refugee center, I had been instructed to chop up eggs to put in potato salad.
I couldn’t help noticing that the Leader was boiling the potatoes to add to the salad. Last week, at a different refugee center, I had offered to boil potatoes for the potato salad and been stopped. “Boil? No, potatoes for potato salad must be steamed. That’s much more delicious.”
Who would think that working together to help people in trouble could be so thorny? Like I mentioned before, any time humans try to do good, they must first deal with their own human relationships. I imagine that sometimes means a dead stop.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Let's go for a walk. . .or should we?

It's lovely spring weather (though the rainy season looms). The azaleas and the wisteria are in bloom. Rather than playing Cops and Robbers, I suggested to Koharu that we take the three girls on a walk. Koharu looked a bit hesitant.

"I'd love to go on a walk, but. . ." she cocked her head slightly, as if pondering some difficult puzzle.

"It's okay," I said hastily, "Let's play another round of Cops and Robbers instead."

It seemed likely to me that Koharu's mother had instructed her not to leave the area immediately by the Center. Of course, that makes sense. The valley is hardly a safe place for little girls to play. It's occupied by the army and the police; it's occupied by trucks installing new electric poles (I heard that several electricians have died trying to hook up the mass of tangled wires and fallen poles). Not only that, but were we to go on a walk, what would be our destination? Certainly not the lower part of the village, which is a desert of rubble. Fortunately, one can't see the lower town from the Center, so the girls can run around and even pretend things are normal. Obviously, I should not take them down the hill to see a scene that could only bring back bad memories. I can't really ask them what those memories are, so I must tread carefully. I must interact with Koharu in a small, limited mental space, like the small yard of the Center. Within this space things are relatively normal and calm, and it is my responsibility not to invite her out of it.

But there's precious little to do in the Center yard-- hence Cops and Robbers, yet again!

Too Many Cooks

With seven cooks in a modestly-sized kitchen, there are bound to be differences. Two completely different styles of cooking emerged and promptly clashed. The first weekend I worked, an older man (a former fireman) was in charge. He ran the operation just like we were cooking at the firehouse: He gave the orders, and we followed. If he was missing, we sat and waited for him to appear. Some of the experienced female cooks appeared to chafe at this modis operendi, in particular Mrs. Masuda.

Fast forward one week to my second trip to Tono. I arrived at the same shelter, again with the purpose of cooking. But this week there had been a shake-down (shake-up?) in the power structure. The fire chief had been replaced by Mrs. Masuda. Mrs. Masuda was very pleased with the change. "He was always barking out orders," she told me in a confidential voice. "And as it turns out, the residents could hear him through the closed door, and it made them very uncomfortable."

"Oh." I could see where she was coming from, because The Chief was the one who'd insisted on re-grinding my seseme and re-chopping my salad greens. . .

"A woman is better, you know," Mrs. Masuda whispered. "With a man, the residents didn't feel like they could express their opinion. He was always saying, do this! do that! chop this!, chop that! But now that he's gone, the residents are really warming up to us. They come in the kitchen! They give their opinion about the cooking! It's 180 degrees different."

Seeing the situation at the shelter for myself, I couldn't help agreeing. Due to the passage of time, and doubtless to the ousting of The Chief, the atmosphere was much more friendly.

I feel like I learned a lesson from this, but being me, I'm not sure exactly what it is. Perhaps one lesson is that all human activities revolve around human relationships. The Chief was a very capable person who wanted to help, and he did it efficiently. . .and yet, he failed to please.

Next weekend, I'll go to the same refugee center again. Luckily, I'm just a minor cog-- the success or failure of human collaboration at the center doesn't ride on me. My job is to steel myself to play Cops and Robbers-- many more times than I could normally be induced to play!

Sunday, May 22, 2011


In the beginning, I came to Tono ready to help people dig out their houses. I expected to be raking mud, hauling rubbish in wheelbarrows, and hosing off family photos. I never really expected to spend my time cooking. However, due to my schedule, I've ended up mainly doing cooking. The problem is that the clean-up crew gets on the busses for work at 7:45 in the morning. No matter how much a rush, I am at the mercy of the train schedule and cannot get to Tono on Friday before 8:00. That puts me in the 8:30 "Wakachiai Squad," or the "Sharing Squad." (Sharing basically means cooking for people at the shelters.)

To me, cooking is purgatory. I'm not horrible at American cooking-- I'm acceptable. But I am horrible at Japanese cooking. Not only do I not know the recipies, I don't even know how to follow directions. Sometimes, I don't even know what the ingrediants look like! So, although I do my best to follow directions and do manage to chop things acceptably, I end up spending a lot of time hanging around. Since the squad has seven volunteers cooking for about 30 people, there tends to be free time for everyone. Volunteers hang around empty-handed, and when a simple job comes up like dish washing or vegetable chopping, everyone pounces.

Naturally, the first ones to notice the fact that there were spare hands in the kitchen were the children at the shelter. Specifically, three elementary age girls. They soon appeared, peeking through the sliding door into the kitchen and clamoring for "Big Brother," the handsome 20-something volunteer, to play for them. As I was low on the totem-pole in the kitchen, I was also conscripted.

First, we had to play tag. When the adults became sweaty and balked at continuing the game of tag, the three girls agreed to change the game. . .to guess what. . .Cops and Robbers, which is basically a different kind of tag!

This left the adults (including me, first and foremost) in a fix. On one hand, we were there to help out residents as much as, and in any way, possible. And yet, adults are well known for their stubborn resistance to playing running games. To give us credit, the adults rose to the challenge and played an impressive number of turns of Cops and Robbers. Later, I was successful in getting Koharu, the most outgoing girl, to do some sketching with me instead!

There is no picture of Koharu and friends yet--but Mr. Kanamori did get them to pose, and he promises to send me a copy of the photo.

The Lowest Form of Hotel

The lowest form of hotel is the what I call the Internet Booth (pictured above). Internet Booths are to be found in internet clubs like Kaikatsu Club, a 24 hour club for "net nanmin," or "net refugees." Net refugees are young men and women who do not wish to spend time at home. Instead, they become a member of clubs such as Kaikatsu Club. The Club is always open, always welcoming! It provides drinks and simple foods such as fried pork, hamburgers, noodles. It provides DVDs of your favorite movies and copies of your favorite manga and magazines. You get free internet access, and I believe they even have a shower.

On entering, you can choose from three types of booth: business type (with a work station), massage-chair type, or "lie down and rest" type. The booths are about as big as a handicapped toilet stall, and they are just that: booths. It's like a cubicle where the wall doesn't go all the way down to the floor. There's no ceiling, and they don't turn the lights off at night.

I mention all of this because, due to my own stupidity, I ended up in Morioka with no hotel reservation. Fate is generally kind to me, so I trustingly approached a hotel desk expecting to be given a room.

No luck! All hotels in the city were booked! Shaken, I remembered that last summer Carrie (my Japanese friend from Nagoya) had gotten me a membership at Kaikatsu Club. Not only that, I had seen a Kaikatsu Club from the train. I took a taxi to the Club, where I easily checked in and prepared to spend the night. After paying the equivalent of $15, I was shown to a booth and left to my own devices. Lying down, I threw my jacket over my head to hide from the overhead lights, stuffed my earplugs in (although net refugees are notoriously quiet-- they just lurk in their booths), and prepared for a night of restless sleep.

I have now experienced the lowest of the low!

Why are Tono Kappas Pink?

Several people I met who know something about folklore told me that Tono Kappas are not really Kappas-- they are unwanted babies who were sent down the river, an euphamism for killed, of course. It's called "mabiki," and was once an accepted way of life in the far north. The land was poor, and famine frequent. Birth control was unknown, and large families impossible to maintain. Extra children had to be sent down the river, but in order not to talk about this fact, the kappa was created. There are little hints about the truth, for instance the fact that Tono kappa are "red" like babies, who are called "little red ones." (In my opinion, babies are pink. Therefore, so are kappas.)

Today, life in the north country is still tough, but mabiki (abortion aside) is a thing of the past. Nowadays, you can buy kappa stationery, kappa keychains, and kappa stuffed animals. There's even a Hello Kitty in a kappa costume.

What can I say. . ."You've come a long way, baby!" (Sorry!)


Spring has come to the North! Only minutes away from the disaster site, the spring planting continues as always. Farmers who once bent over double planting rice shoots one by one now use rice planting machines. The seedlings, loaded from trays onto racks on the machine, look like squares of green shag carpet.
Once, twenty years ago, Curt had a memorable incident on a railway platform. As he stepped forward to board the train he ran right into an elderly woman. She was so stooped over from a life working in the rice fields that he didn't even see her! Back in the '90s, you could see many such elderly people in the streets. Permanently bent into a tipped-over "L" shape, they went about their errands while pushing little carts. With rice planting machines and rice combines becoming ever more common, this miserable variety of old age may someday disappear altogether.
Like tiny mice nibbling away at the misery of traditional agricultural life, humans inch forward.

The End of the World, The Beginning of the World

While the world was ending, due to the prediction of some crazed (and wealthy) religious pundit, the world was also beginning again. The debris begins to form a pattern: first, the army comes in and clears away large items, such as trees and cars, from a certain section. They also check for bodies. (New bodies are "coming up" out of the debris still every day.) Once the okay is given, volunteer groups come in and clear up the small debris, including much glass and large chunks of asphalt. Small squares of bulldozed land appear; rice fields are cleared for planting (although they are full of salt water; real return to their natural state will take years). Like a mouse nibbling around the edges of a giant cheese chunk, humans eat away at the chaos and create order.

Meanwhile, this stuffed bear sits by the side of the road and watches the process. He wonders what his fate will be. Will his owner return to pick him up?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nobori-saka, Kudari-saka, Masaka

Volunteers assemble at 7:30 in the morning and hear a talk by the guy in the picture. The talk was the same all three days I was there. It's mostly about the pitfalls of volunteering. First, we are warned not to take pictures when working in the disaster area. The influx of volunteers can be irritating for disaster victims. When volunteers snap casual pictures of their devistated homes it is obviously extremely callous. I decided not to even bring my camera, because picture-taking is a basic travelers' instinct that is hard to resist. Better not to have the option.

Next, the lecture on boots, which begins "Safety boots are not safe." Of course they're not- when you're walking on large nails scattered at random angles. The solution is metal inserts, but even these can't prevent attacks from the side!

After that, he talks about the three slopes of life: the downward slope when life is going fine (kudari saka), the upward slope when life gets hard (nobori-saka), and the "ma-saka", the "Impossible!" Well, these people just ran into the "Impossible!" Volunteers blundering around in the wreckage, trying to do good, should keep that in mind.

The Rainbow Man

On Sunday evening a remarkable rainbow man arrived to cheer on the volunteers. Naturally, I had my picture taken with him. Later I learned that he is an author who has won the Naoki prize for literature, one of Japan's two greatest prizes. I hope he is not aspiring to a fashion prize. . .

Men's Room, Ladies Room

The perks of being a Lady! Ladies get to sleep in the big tatami room. It's not exactly comfortable, about one body per two square yards, but it's better than. . .

The Men's Room, which is the gym. Boy, I bet that floor feels cold at night!

An Average Housewife and others. . .

To the left is a self-styled "average housewife" who was in Tono as a volunteer. "In the morning I do two hours of Zazen meditation and then a little exercise." "Oh, you mean a half hour or so?" "Well, about six hours. Then I cook lunch." (Why do I always feel like the bar is raised higher here in Japan?)

Next to her is a nurse from Florida (who is a native Japanese). "I didn't know what to do with my life, so I decided to become an R.N. in the States." "But wasn't it difficult to read all those medical textbooks in English?" "Yeah, it was a little difficult."

Below, more "totally average people", a mountain climber and a nursing home worker, both probably in their sixties, who dashed to northern Japan to the rescue. That night the nursing home worker awakened all fifty-or-so women voluteers (including me), who were sleeping in one room, by screaming in her sleep. According to her testimony the next morning, after sorting diapers in the warehouse (where disaster victims can come for supplies) all day, she dreamed she was being attacked by a giant diaper monster. Just try and visualize that!

An Embarrassment of Riches

Well, I wanted to go to northern Japan and voluteer, and I did, and now I find myself with an embarrassment of riches: I have tons of stuff to write about, but no way to get it down on "paper". I lift my hands to the keyboard and put them down again, because it seems futile to try and explain my experiences. I guess the only way to write about complex experiences is ineffectively, little by little.

Above is the Hamayuri, which some of you may have seen on the news. I didn't actually see it- it's long been taken down off the building, because it was unstable, but it does give the idea of the chaos present at the disaster site. One of the voluteer jobs is to dig through all of this rubble and separate out important objects like photos, documents and other valuable items. This requires human hands and judgement, even though considering the scale of the devistation only bulldozers are large enough to make any headway. The ground is like a big fruitcake, with everything in the world mixed together in total randomness: shoes, blankets, rotten fish, cars, rope, power cords, baby bottles, computer mice.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kappas, here I come!

Well, here I go! I should arrive at this station (Tono Station) before lunch on Friday. I'll be staying at the local civic center and undertaking whatever volunteer work they think I'm fit for! Please look for my next entry sometime on Tuesday, American time.

Nuclear Pets

Poor pets! Stray pets have been on their own for two months, ever since people fled from the area. Today relief workers for the first time rounded up a number of pets and brought them out. These pets will be returned to their owners or adopted.

But where did those cows go??

Keeping the stable doors open

So he spent his time cleaning up the stable and setting out food so that they could come home any time, if they were around.

Where have the cows gone?

This elderly man was worried about his cows. He returned to the stable, but no cows were there.