The Second Anniversary of The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

charmworks1It seems like the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 was a long time ago, and chronologically, I guess it was.  Here in Japan, however, the events of the day are still in the front of our minds, brought to the fore with just the slightest whiff of reminder.  Many people across the country are still affected by the events of the day, and many people are still working hard to repair and rebuild those affected areas, as they will be doing for a long time to come, still.

One such young woman who is working on rebuilding is Sohpia Slater.  I had the privilege of interviewing her recently and she speaks with the wisdom and foresight of someone well beyond her years.  Sophia is sixteen and a junior at the American School in Japan.  She started the charity “Charmworks” that you can find here.  Twice a month, she and various people around Tokyo get together to paint charms made from the roof tiles salvaged from a fishing village in the Tohoku region called Funakoshi.

You can read more about my talk with the delightful Ms. Slater on the site A Hopeful Sign.  All money she receives from charmworks2the sale of the charms goes back to the people of Funakoshi so they can rebuild their industry and lives.

As a note, in addition to starting Charmworks and being a good student, Ms. Slater is a rather insightful young lady.  She has a lot of good ideas about the notion of recovery as it encompasses both physical and emotional healing, and how the two go hand in hand.  You can read more about that in her blog posting in the Huffington Post.

The young Ms. Slater’s work is one example of the dedicated men and women across Japan who are working to rebuild the once beautiful seaside towns in the Tohoku region.  Please consider buying a charm from her, or continuing to support Japan in some way.  We live in a 24-hour news cycle these days, and one crisis tends to give way to the next.  But people continue to suffer long after the reporters are gone and the initial sensation is over.  We should always remember.


These days in the expat community…

My friend has this theory that all expats in Tokyo who were here for the events of March 11, 2011, have some sort of latent Post-traumatic-stress-disorder.  At first I pooh-poohed her idea, but as time as marched on toward the end of the school year for expat kids, I’m embracing it more and more.

Perhaps I say this every year, but this year seems particularly difficult as far as the number of  families that are planning to leave at the end of the school year in June.  In the past two weeks, I have been to a million lunches where it becomes a “last time” sort of sayonara visit together, and I have a lot more to go in the next four weeks until we go.  I’m sure there are official numbers of the shrinkage of the expat community – and I’ve heard numbers up to 20% – but I see anecdotal evidence of it every day.  This is the first full year after the earthquake, and there’s still seismic activity in the expat community, brought on by the economic situation that was exacerbated by the events of 3/11.

According to my friend’s theory, there are 3 types of expats in Tokyo post 3/11.  There are those who dig in their heels, insist that this is their home and they aren’ t leaving.  I admire these people a lot – especially those who do not have one partner who is Asian. They know Japan and they are certain of what is right for them.  And then there are the people who are leaving because of the economy, the job situation, whatever – they’re going.  At least we don’t hear too many people saying that they’re leaving because of radiation fears anymore – or earthquake fears, but that’s another story altogether – we all live with that threat every day, even the Japanese.  But we have to face the reality, as expats, that sometimes the feasibility of living here, which was once so great, is becoming less so.  The exchange rate is down – the yen is too strong – and Tokyo was an expensive city in which to live even before factoring in the exchange rate issues.  The people who work here have to work ridiculous hours because that’s what Japanese business demands, and family life suffers.  And let’s face it, if an employee is unwilling to work the insane 50-60+ hours per week, the firm can find someone who will.  Easily.   So there’s a group that is just throwing in the towel and going home. (Forgive me, dear readers, if you don’t fall into this category if you’re leaving – I’m generalizing to make a point)

Of course then there’s the third group, who says they have no idea when they’re leaving here, but it could be any day or it could be never.  These are the people who are scared.  They live in limbo and they’re watching their friends be decisive and leaving.  It’s a tough space in which to exist, and I fall into this camp.  My husband’s job is great and the kids’ schools are fantastic.  My husband works long hours, and weekends, but that would be happening wherever we are in the world – he’s an attorney. It’s expensive here, I have no idea how long we’ll stay, and some of  my closest friends are leaving.  I can’t help but sit here and wonder: do they know something I don’t?

I do not want to make it sound like I’m sitting around being upset or anything.  I am fine and going about business as usual.  I love living in Tokyo as much as I always have and there are no plans for us to go anywhere as of now.  I have also spent a fair amount of time connecting with friends who ARE staying, and reminding myself that I will indeed have a lovely life to which to return in August.  I am so lucky to know the women that I do, who make my life richer every day.  It’s just that August this year will be different.  It’s always different, but it will be differently different.  Japan and the expat community living in Japan have a lot of work to do to get into the state of New Normal that is coming down the pike.  Uncertainty is never attractive.  But if we can all keep our spirits up, and be aware of our latent PTSD, I think there can be wonderful opportunities afoot as well.  We just have to keep our eyes wide open and jump in with both feet.  No amount of whining is going to make it better or different so my plan is to just embrace it as best I can.  Your support is appreciated.

A Special Evening at the British Ambassador’s Residence – for Tohoku

 The woman from Ishinomaki, in the Tohoku region of Japan, spoke with passion about the day, just one year ago, that a powerful tsunami, spawned from a powerful earthquake, changed the landscape of her life, both literally and figuratively.  Using spare words, she spoke of the rising waters, the running, the devastation and then the despair.  Her audience, a group of dedicated men and women who gathered at the British Ambassador’s residence in Tokyo, made no move to check their tears.  The event, designed to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, was also a celebration of life. The people present had donated countless hours of physical labor for clean-up, and money to the British Chamber of Commerce’s (BCC) Back to Business (B2B) program which was started a year ago to fulfill needs of the people affected by the natural disasters.  Indeed, the woman from Ishinomaki told of how she learned to have hope again when she met the executive director of the BCC, Lori Henderson, and together they found ways to rebuild the community.  Under Ms. Henderson’s guidance, the B2B program has donated practical items such an industrial freezer to a fisherman so his catch can once again be preserved and sent to market, or tractors to help revive the once-thriving strawberry industry of the area.  These are necessary items for rebuilding business for people who lost everything, including the tools for their trades. The donations from individuals and companies have been generous and continuous since the disasters.  Another visitor from Tohoku who came down from her hometown to participate in the evening said that the generosity of not just the Japanese, but the foreign community, has been breathtaking in its expansiveness.  A man who is a principal of a junior high school in the affected areas spoke of the destruction of his home and living in his workplace, which was turned into a shelter.  There were pictures of the B2B initiatives including the British Ambassador, Sir David Warren, in his coveralls setting to work.

It was an example I will not soon forget.  The British people living in Japan, like so many other communities here, came together to help those affected by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and they understand that just because a year has passed, the need for help is still great.  The event I attended raised a further 3.5 million yen for the B2B program.  I was so grateful to be a part of the special evening, which of course included wonderful food, wines, and even a song debut by Nick Wood and Julian Lennon, the proceeds from which go directly to charity.  But more than what was physically there at the ambassador’s residence, was the feeling present in every attendee: hope.  Pride.  The promise of the future.  The beauty of Japan these days encapsulated in one room – full of non-Japanese people who believe passionately in the possibilities of that future and who actively work to ensure it.

Reconstructing 3/11

No one can see into the future, but certainly some people are more adept at analysis and prediction than others.  To that end, there is a special book that has just come out for the first anniversary of the disasters and I would urge you to get your copy now.  This is not a book of quake or tsunami experiences.  This is a book comprised of pieces by journalists on various aspects of the disaster, recovery and reconstruction efforts.  What is happening now in Japan? What may happen as a result of the nuclear crisis in the country?  What about the economy?  How is the clean-up really going?  What are the people thinking?  If you have any of those questions, then this book is for you.  You can download it here for your Kindle, and if you do not have a Kindle, you can get a free Kindle-reading-app for your computer.  If you buy one book of analysis of the country one year later, this should be it.  The hard-nosed journalism mixed with the appropriate amounts of compassion and skepticism make this book real and believable.  Some of the proceeds go to support various charities, but regardless, you want to own this book. At $2.99, it’s worth every penny.

For those of us who live and work in Japan, the specter of the Great Tohoku Earthquake is never really off of our minds, even now, one year later.  We lived through it; we continue to have contact with the effects of it; and we are living in a world where everything is divided into “before” and “after” March 11th.  Earthquake drills at schools take on new meanings. Earthquake kits have been beefed up and put in more accessible spots. More furniture is now bolted to the walls.  And as one major after-affect, the closets of every single person I know have been cleaned out more than once so any extra things that we were hanging on to will go to good use for those people up north who lost everything – clothes, kitchen items, bedding, everything.  Japan did not have a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGO) before the quake – the government was always able to take care of everything.  But this was just too huge and people genuinely wanted to help in various ways.  There are tons of new charities around Japan that help with everything from simple financial assistance to bicycle donation to fresh food deliveries to areas where the soil is no longer viable due to radiation concerns from the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  Understand us.  Buy the book.


Aiding Tohoku for the Holidays

Unloading a Second Harvest truck in Ishinomaki, Japan (courtesy of Second Harvest)

This past Sunday, my kids and I went over to the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ), where we belong and the kids go to Hebrew school, and we participated in the adopt-a-family program from Second Harvest, Japan.  It was a wonderful experience in community and helping others for both of my children, and of course for me.

Second Harvest is a charity created in 2000 by a collaborative of food banks in Tokyo with a mission to collect food that would essentially go to waste from various venues around the city, and get it to people who would otherwise go hungry.  Ergo the name: if the first harvest is the commercial preparation of the food, then this is the second harvest.

Since the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011, Second Harvest has taken on another role: disaster relief.  They have delivered literally tons of food to the disaster-stricken areas in northern Japan.  Here is an excerpt from their most recent blog post: After eight months since the disaster, most debris has been cleared, and disaster areas are relatively clean now. More and more stores are reopened, and local people can enjoy shopping. But in areas devastated by the tsunami, local businesses have not recovered yet. Survivors there have difficulties in going for shopping without cars or bicycles. Furthermore, many people have lost their jobs. Food supplies for them are still strongly needed. 2HJ wishes to ask for your unfailing support so we can continue to provide relief supplies for survivors until they rebuild their lives and stand on their feet.

The latest project from Second Harvest is to partner with schools and other organizations for an adopt-a-family program.  The JCJ asked their membership if they would like to adopt a family and then registered with Second Harvest for those families.  In return, the JCJ received specific instructions on how to pack a box of supplies for the families.  The boxes had to include staples of Japanese life: rice, dashi-stock, mirin, soy sauce, and seaweed.  (Those are clearly not American staples, but they are Japanese staples)  The JCJ members were told exactly how many people they were feeding and their approximate ages so we could include small presents if we had space and weight.  It was crucial that no box be over twenty kilograms.

The family for whom my kids and I packed the box was just three adults.  I went to a shop and bought hats and neck-warmers for all three of them – choosing items that were useful, but adding little weight or space.

It took us just minutes to put all of the items we bought into the box, label it with the correct number to reach the right family, and then tape it up for delivery.  My daughter and son wrote a note to enclose.  The kids didn’t talk while they packed, but we had talked plenty about the people less fortunate than we were with the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  Our talk featured a large dose of gratitude, to which the children were particularly receptive.

The high school where I teach is doing the same program and will be packing boxes for Second Harvest next week.  And so the lessons will continue.

There was such a joyous, yet somber feeling at the JCJ as all the children packed.  In all, there were 35 boxes done that day.  The kids all feel the value of giving to others – and doing it for people in the country in which they live, especially for those who did not fare as well as they did on that fateful day last March.

A special thank-you to Second Harvest and to the JCJ for making it happen.  Please see the Second Harvest website for information on how to donate to this wonderful cause.  Help is still needed and gratefully accepted.

#Quakebook – Bilingual, Physical Book On Its Way

It has been my privilege to work with a talented team of writers, editors and other assorted heroes on the Quakebook.  If you don’t know about the Quakebook yet, please go to the website and have a look and consider buying it.  It’s a Twitter-sourced compilation of stories from people affected – emotionally or physically – by one of the worst natural disasters in history. As of today, it’s available via the Amazon Kindle and Sony e-reader.  What’s exciting about the publication is that 100% of sales go directly to the Red Cross for earthquake/tsunami relief in Northern Japan.  Amazon and Sony waived their normal percentages so the most money can go directly to the people who need it.

In other exciting news, Quakebook will be available very soon as a physical book and it will be bilingual, Japanese and English.  It’s available for pre-order at Amazon Japan and I’ll circulate the exact publication date when it’s announced.

Artists and writers such as Yoko Ono, Jake Adelstein, William Gibson have given pieces to the Quakebook, but that’s not the only reason to read it.  The contributions to the book are heartfelt and real.  Each one is beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time.  This is representative of the spirit of a people who will rebuild and return.  It’s a testament not only to the way the Japanese feel about their country, but the way foreigners feel about – and fall in love with – Japan.

Please help buy purchasing a copy – electronically now, and physically later.  It’s a small price for a great gift.  And as an extra bonus, spread the word.

A Fantastic Quake/Post-Quake Story

One of the best earthquake/post-quake stories I have heard comes from my good friend, Debra Bajaj.

It seems that her upstairs neighbor in her building had arranged for her child go on a play-date to Kidzania on March 11th.  For those of you who don’t know, Kidzania is a wonderland.  Kids can pretend to have jobs, earn and spend money, and learn about a slice of life in a playful way.  Kids of all ages and nationalities just love it. Since it was a day off for the elementary kids at the American School in Japan (ASIJ) it was a no-brainer.  Well, the child and the parent and the group of kids who were at Kidzania, were inside at the time of the quake.  Kidzania is in a big building, and they asked everyone outside and onto the roof after the quake.

I cannot begin to fathom the anxiety felt by the parents who brought the children to Kidzania that day.  Between being very cold and very hungry, I am sure it was a nightmare.  Later, they left and they got into the car to drive home.  Driving was also a complete nightmare with tons of painful traffic.  Through all of this, Debra’s neighbor was receiving updates about her child and knew all was well.

Finally, when she knew the car full of children had made it to Omotesando, a trendy area of Tokyo not too far from where they live, Debra’s neighbor and her husband went downstairs to Debra’s apartment and asked to borrow her bicycle.  The reason they specifically wanted Debra’s bike is because it has a seat on the back for the child.  Debra is a generous human being – of course she wanted her friends to take the bike and get their child!

In the course of getting into Omotesando, apparently Debra’s neighbor’s husband parked the bike to find the child.  When he went back for the bike, it was not where he left it.  It was gone.  Again, I can’t imagine the angst.  First and foremost that doesn’t happen in Japan.  Things don’t just disappear – they don’t get stolen.  The crime rate is ridiculously low.  And secondly, now they were in a pickle because they had lost a friend’s bike, not even their own.  And then they had to get home – most likely on foot.  There wasn’t a taxi around that would take a fare.

Deb wasn’t worried when they returned home bike-less.  It’s just so Debra – as long as her friend and the child were okay, she was okay.

Not too many days later, Debra left for the US for a few weeks.  Right after she left, her husband got a call from a random Japanese woman.  They had found the bike.

In Japan, all bikes are registered, and Debra’s is no exception, so it wasn’t hard to find her.  The woman had found the bike, knew it belonged to someone who used it regularly, and set out to find its owner.  Just last week, Debra and her neighbor went out together to get the bike from where this woman had been storing it.

Luckily, her neighbor, who is Japanese and obviously knows Japanese tradition, brought a gift with them for this woman.  It turns out that the woman had taken exquisite care of the bicycle.  It was cleaned and kept under cover.  The child’s helmet had been cleaned and Deb’s daughter’s headband was right where she had left it in the basket.  Yep, it had been lovingly cared for.  Debra gratefully gave the woman the wrapped Japanese cookies, a very appropriate gift for the occasion.

This is a classic Japan story.  People here take care of each other and each other’s things.  They find things that have been lost and they return them.  They typically don’t steal.  I’m convinced the bike was “borrowed” for an emergency, but that when it was left, it was with the knowledge that it would be returned somehow to its rightful owner.

It is these stories that remind me how much I love it here.

Bin Laden Is Dead – Rejoicing is Difficult

It’s a complex feeling to be in another country watching your president make an official announcement.

I am first and foremost an American and I stand behind the President of the United States 100%.  I am proud of our troops and the sacrifices they make on a daily basis.  I am in awe of the small, select group of men who killed Bin Laden and risked their lives to make the world a safer place.

I lived in Washington DC on September 11, 2001. I retrieved my son from his daycare within minutes of the attacks in New York.  My husband, seeing the smoke from the Pentagon from the balcony of his office in Washington Harbor, made the brilliant choice to head home immediately, and did not get snarled in major traffic jams.  The three of us were safe and together in under two hours.  It took another six hours to confirm that my uncle in one of the Towers in New York had gotten out safely, but confirm it, we did.

Not quite ten years later, the mastermind of the attacks is dead and I rejoice with my country.  I remember the unity the followed those days and I am grateful for the gift of my life and the lives of those I love.

But also, as I watch the continuing news coverage of the President’s speech and the joyful reactions of people around the world, I am reminded of the tragedy from which Japan has not yet recovered. Just over seven weeks ago, one of the greatest natural disasters in the world hit Japan, the country I have called home for six of the last eight years.  I have taken a lot of criticism for leaving the country and going to the U.S. when the going got tough in the first days after the quake and subsequent tsunami.  I had many conflicting emotions about my decision to leave and I have written here about my desire NOT to defend my actions.  Leaving Tokyo does not mean that I do not love Japan.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I don’t want the world to forget.  Celebrate and be joyous, America and friends.  But remember that there are thousands of displaced people in northern Japan that need our help.  New news will happen every day, but Japan will continue its work to rebuild the country.  Even in the face of the great joy of ridding the world of the henchman of all terrorists, Japan still suffers.  Let us remember.

Back in the Saddle

There was a spot on the bench in Arisugawa Park today at noontime.  To some people, that might not mean much, but some people know that generally on a beautifully sunny day like today was, generally all of the park benches are full of lunchtime revelers who are taking a few precious moments away from the office to enjoy the weather.   When I saw the benches, I was momentarily flustered, but then I shrugged and sat down to enjoy my own lunch.

Yep, I’m back in Tokyo.

I’m so happy to be here.  This is home to me.  I know some of my friends and many of my family members think I’m crazy to be here and I spent a lot of time before I left reassuring people that I’d be all right.  But in the end, it truly doesn’t matter; I’m the one who has to believe it.

Other than yogurt, we can get everything we want from the grocery store.  The streets are quiet, but not overly so.  I’ve been here four days now, and I can’t see too many differences from before the earthquake, six weeks ago.  I suppose people are more anxious and there are fewer students in my kids’ classes now, but really, it’s not so different.  My suitcases still arrived on the Takkyubin (a delivery service) truck before they were supposed to; the streets and shops are still as neat and clean as ever; the five o’clock ding-dongs still chime; and my favorite sushi vendor is still in business.

Japan is an amazing country in which to live, and I’m so proud to be here.  Come visit any time!

The Media and Its Bias

Beyond earthquakes, radiation, economic woes, or anything, it’s the media that is going to drive us insane first.  Having been in the U.S. for about a month now, I can see why everyone here has gone so crazy about the situation in Japan.  Please know that I do not at all mean to downplay the seriousness of the circumstances, but given what I know, the media is not doing such a great job in general of accurate portrayals.

One of my most serious war-cries in recent years has been that not only don’t people read, they don’t read critically.  With all of the information available right now, most people choose one news outlet and follow it.  I say that optimistically.  Some people ignore the news, which is another problem entirely.  News has bias – most journalists, even the best ones, have a point of view from which they write/report.  A guy writing for the New York Times, for example, is not going to slam President Obama because the newspaper for which he works is a supporter of the liberal viewpoint.  This extends to advertisers.  Companies hawk their wares in the New York Times because they know what news stories will appear there.  Okay, Tiffany’s has had a standing ad on the top right corner of page 3 for a hundred years, but other companies decide very carefully in which papers or on which websites, their ads will appear.   News from any outlet must be read, understood, and considered.  People have a duty to not just believe what they’ve read, but to think through it, including the potential bias contained therein.  It’s a bit of a viscous cycle because the writers and editorial board might pander to the advertisers, while the advertisers, in turn, look at the newspaper and what they publish.  I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t read a newspaper – please support the newspaper industry!  But just be a  thoughtful reader.

All of this is important because yesterday I had a conversation with someone who is concerned about whether or not I should return to Tokyo.  She called because the Japanese government had upgraded the “accident” in Fukushima to a level 7 from a level 5, where it had stood for weeks already.  I explained to this person that the level change was indicative of the original disaster and nothing beyond the number had changed between Monday and Wednesday.  She argued with me.  She had read a headline that the situation had worsened.  I tried to be patient.  No, I said, if you read further, you’ll see that they’re still working to get things under control there.  It’s not great – things are not nearly as far along as I would have hoped a month after the quake – but certainly nothing serious has “happened” in the past day or so.

The Associated Press headline on Yahoo at 5:30am Eastern Time today was that there are “fresh woes” at the plant.  Well, that’s not really what they meant.  In fact, the story is about how the radiation levels spiked, but are now down and people are able to don suits to look for bodies in the area.  Now, an hour later, the headline is changed to say that the Emperor and Empress visited the coastal towns where the tsunami hit. It’s just so confusing and hard to follow.

In Japan, perhaps there’s a different problem – the media and the government are downplaying the extent of damage and disaster.  The Japanese people have to live there, though.  They don’t want to see or hear so much negativity.  They want to be calm – the government wants them to be calm.

What do we take away from all of this?  Well, the media in the U.S. is sensationalizing the story pretty well, which is a problem.  Disaster not only sells papers, it attracts advertisers.  Just be careful what you read.

More on this to come.  I’m not nearly done with this topic.