Category Archives: March 11th 2011

Friday again

Planet earth 2

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years already, but here we are again, March 11th. It’s a date to remember, to mark, but not a date that jolts like it did the first couple of years. Add in a leap year, and it’s fallen on a Friday, just as it did That Day. Five years on, most of Japan is back to normal, thank you very much. Really, western Japan wasn’t directly affected by it much anyway, and for us in Tokyo, the energy-saving and the empty shop shelves soon faded into memory.

But for the people of Tohoku, the people whose homes, villages, schools and places of work were wiped off the map, things are not back to normal. There is still an exclusion zone (which is smaller than it used to be) around Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant is still not secure, and there are still tens of thousands of people displaced, living in temporary housing in Tohoku or in other cities in Japan, in housing provided by local governments.

I remember that day clearly, and since today mirrored it in some ways, it was easy to feel its echo through the day. My morning was the same, five years ago and today; I spent it in school, working on end-of-year grades. I came home around 2pm and got ready for the reading group of Japanese ladies who come twice a month. They arrive at 2:30 and I make them tea, and so five years ago we were drinking tea and chatting before we started to read, when the quake started, a sort of medium-sized quake at first, the kind you notice and wonder if it’s going to get bigger or just fade away.

This one just kept getting bigger and bigger. I was standing for most of it, and felt the ground start to rock as the building swayed with the quake. Apparently this is a good thing, that the building has some give in it; otherwise it would just shatter as the tremors went through it. Even as I was standing there, feeling the ground rocking, I looked at a vase of freesias and watched them swaying around. One of the ladies picked up a cushion and put it on her head, some elementary-school training kicking in.

When the shaking and rocking finally stopped, one of the ladies turned on the TV and we watched the news coverage. My own very British reaction was to decide to make more tea. And so it was, about ten minutes later, I think, that we sat with fresh cups of tea and watched the tsunami rolling in and destroying everything in its path. I remember one of the anchors announcing that the tsunami was arriving at the coast, using the same language platform announcements use when a train is arriving and then watching with disbelief as the grey water just kept coming. It looked like an ordinary wave until you realised the scale of it, that those small objects being tossed by the water were cars and buses, that buildings were disappearing like matchboxes.

The aftershocks continued, and one was large enough to make us wonder if it was starting again. The TV coverage continued, with the anchors wearing hard hats and as each aftershock hit they encouraged people to take cover, to take care, as they hung onto their desks and tried to sound calm.

About half an hour later, my doorbell rang, and I assumed it was someone from school coming to check that I was all right. It wasn’t. It was the postman, delivering a package too big to fit in my mailbox. I expressed surprise that he was still out doing his job; he reassured me that he was outside and completely safe.

We didn’t read that afternoon. We watched the news, we drank tea and sat as witnesses to the horror unfolding in Tohoku. At some point I think we saw footage of Fukushima Daiichi and the beginning of what we now know was several meltdowns and partial meltdowns. The phone networks, both mobile and landlines, were mainly down, but trying repeatedly we managed to make a couple of calls to the ladies’ relatives at home.

At four o’clock they decided to try to get home. I asked them to come back if they couldn’t get anywhere. Of the five ladies, one walked home, one took a taxi to where she had parked her car (usually a fifteen-minute train ride away) and the other three went to the station. When they found the trains weren’t running they went to a large teaching hospital down the road and sat for hours watching the news and making occasional forays to the station to see if the trains were running yet (they weren’t) and to buy food at the convenience stores. At 11pm the hospital announced to the people who had taken shelter there that they couldn’t stay there any more and had to leave, something I still find quite shocking. Only at that point did they call me and ask if they could come back, as I had asked that they do seven hours previously.

I went outside and watched them walk back up the hill. They looked stressed and exhausted and when they came into my apartment they all sat in the middle of the floor. They were hollow-eyed and worn out after watching the news for hours on end. I remember telling them that instead of the usual tea in cups with saucers that I usually gave them, that I was making tea (more tea!) in mugs. They drank their tea and looked a little better.

To be honest, I was glad of the company that night, it was not a time to be alone. They slept on the sofa beds in the living room. In the morning we were all up early. The trains were running again and they were anxious to get home. After they left I went into school and found that about one hundred members of staff and students had spent the night stranded. Everyone was calm and the focus was on making sure the girls could get home safely.

The days and weeks that followed were strange; stressful yes, but people were kinder, seemed to interact more. As the news from the nuclear power station grew worse a lot of people left, some temporarily, some permanently. I remember being at Starbucks with a friend and hearing two Japanese women remarking on us as a rare sight after so many foreign residents had left.

We held a pared-down version of Graduation Day and then it was the spring vacation. I had planned to take it easy anyway, but I spent my days close to home, sending e-mails to friends and family reassuring them that Tokyo was all right, and firing off complaints to the BBC about their irresponsible and overwrought reporting. I never received any response.

For a while the energy-saving measures (brought on by the total shutdown of all Japan’s nuclear reactors) made Tokyo a dimly-lit place. A friend who had been out of the country at the time came back and said it looked like Blade Runner. We put one foot in front of the other and life in the capital was normal relatively quickly. For Tohoku, not so much. Five years later, I can still write so many sentences about the area using ‘not yet’ and ‘still’. I think the questions I heard most in the days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami were, ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Were you alone?’

For the people whose homes and lives were impacted that day, the answers are, ‘I was home, and can never really go back,’ and maybe, ‘I am now’.

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Dreaming different dreams

holmesfieldStudying Chinese at the University of Leeds in the mid-eighties, I found myself immersed in the wonderful world of Chinese propaganda. The dictionaries we used had ridiculously political example sentences, our textbooks exhorted us to ‘learn from Lei Feng’ and my vocabulary contained such gems as ‘running dog of the imperialists’ and ‘oppressing the masses’. After a year of intensive language study I spent a year in Shanghai, then returned to the UK for two more years of Modern Chinese Studies; the language, history, literature and politics of the modern Chinese state. One of the features of Chinese political manoeuvring was the frequent purges, falls from grace and miraculous political comebacks, and I was reminded of all this earlier this week, when I read about the purging in North Korea of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Apparently he has been purged before, but this recent fall from grace seems to have been particularly public and theatrical. He has been accused of all manner of unspeakable behaviour:

“Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene. Prompted by his politically-motivated ambition, he tried to increase his force and build his base for realising it by implanting those who had been punished for their serious wrongs in the past period into ranks of officials of departments of the party central committee and units under them. Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life. By abusing his power, he was engrossed in irregularities and corruption, had improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants. Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party.”

He’s clearly been a busy and apparently very naughty man. I know it sounds completely over-the-top and ridiculous, but I also find it rather delicious. I feel quite nostalgic for my student days, when this kind of language was just another day in the classroom, just another example sentence in my dictionary. One phrase stood out though, three words, the title of this blog post, something that seemed to me to be a good thing, something to strive for, unless you live in the Orwellian state that is North Korea.

‘Dreaming different dreams’ – now why would that be wrong? As a teacher I am inspired by my students’ dreams, I find joy in the successes and achievements of my friends, I feel awe at the resilience and determination of the seemingly ordinary people I meet. In the days, weeks and months after the 3/11 earthquake in 2011 I was inspired by the resilience of the Japanese people, and in more than twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet the stereotypical Japanese person. There’s always something remarkable, something unusual, something unexpected.

My grandfather was born in the white house you can see in the distance on the right in the picture at the top of this post. He was the giant of our family, a man who didn’t have much education, but someone who worked hard, took care of the people he loved, faced down his fears if he could achieve something for his family, and became a managing director at a company in Sheffield. He died over twenty years ago, but my mother and I often talk about him, it doesn’t seem so long, and my godmother still remembers his presence and spirit. Though he was born one of three children in a poor family on the outskirts of Sheffield, he dreamt different dreams and achieved so much.

This month we have been doing speaking tests at school, and it is always an opportunity to talk to each girl individually and learn something of their achievements and dreams. Several years ago I spoke to one particularly quiet student who  told me that she regularly went to her local swimming pool to practise diving off a 10-metre-high diving board. Recently I have heard from a couple of students that they are going to study mechanical engineering. Many of them have travelled overseas, lived in other countries, are creative and have done a lot of volunteer work. A lot of them have been to Tohoku to work with survivors there. They are remarkable, their dreams often unusual and unexpected.

Growing up in Sheffield, studying French, Spanish and Latin at school, I realised that I loved and was good at learning languages and decided to do something completely new at university. A degree course in Chinese took me to Shanghai for a year; I travelled to Tibet during Spring Festival and saw amazing sights. I met Ralph Vaugh-Williams’ great niece and danced to the music of the ancient jazz band at the Peace Hotel on the Bund; decades earlier Noel Coward had written Private Lives there.

After graduation I returned to China, this time to Shenyang in Liaoning Province, in the north-east. I went there on the Trans-Siberian railway (in February!) and missed seeing the live pictures of Nelson Mandela’s release because I was somewhere near Lake Baikal at the time. In Shenyang I taught at a teachers’ college less than a year after the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement on June 4th 1989, made friends with Chinese students and personnel at the US consulate. One of my Chinese friends was merciless in her insistence that I practise my Chinese, and her persistence paid off. When we met she was a fearless 16-year-old, everyone’s fixer, she knew how to get things done. Today she is mother to three daughters, lives in Dubai and plays polo.

Is it a bad thing to ‘dream different dreams’? This is one of my favourite quotes:

“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. ”  – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

I love the quote, I love the image. I am me today because of dreams I’ve dreamt, dreams that were different, dreams that seemed quite outlandish or ridiculous to other people. I am me because of the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the cultures I’ve experienced. When I hear my students speak of their dreams I dream with them, excited about the journeys they will take in their lives. It is a giant cosmic gift, this ability to dream, to imagine, to dare to go places and do things. To look at look at the world around us every day and just feel a tingling, fizzing sense of joy, to find inspiration in anything and everything, it is fate, it is serendipity, it is God’s plan, it is the universe unfolding as it should, it is whatever you feel it is. We all dream different dreams, and that is the most amazing thing of all.

julian shrine candles

Not an ordinary day

March 11th has rolled around again. Until just a couple of years ago it was just another day towards the end of the school year, and we haven’t yet planted the date so firmly in our calendars that we see it coming from weeks away. It’s easy to be caught unawares when planning other things. Last month I was trying to schedule something at school with a friend and we decided that March 11th would be the best date, started to write it into our diaries and then stopped. March 11th. It’s not an ordinary day.

March 11th 2011. At 2:46pm a magnitude 9 earthquake hit off the coast of Tohoku, the northeastern part of Honshu. (The six prefectures are Akita, Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the latter three are the ones most badly affected.) In Tokyo, over 300 kilometres away, it felt very big and very long. The tsunami triggered by the quake caused devastation on a scale that even now is difficult to understand. What followed in the hours, days and weeks afterwards shook the Tohuku region and the whole of Japan and gave us a new normal.

I remember someone asking me in the days following the earthquake, ‘Is this the biggest thing you’ve ever experienced?’ and for many of us it was. Even now, it’s hard to find the words to explain this feeling. I wrote often and at length over the weeks and months that followed, and archived all of what I wrote when I started this blog. When I look back over those original e-mails I find myself back there, in that mix of anxiety and determination; anxiety about what was going to happen, and determination to stay, to keep faith with the people of Japan and hoping and praying, day after day, that it was all going to be all right.

For people outside the Tohoku region it has been. Western Japan was of course affected because the whole country was worried about what was happening, but in terms of everyday life they were not, and a lot of people in Kanto went to Kansai when they felt a need to get further away from Fukushima. In Kanto we were of course closer to Tohoku and specifically Fukushima; we felt the aftershocks and were more directly affected by the unfolding situation. But really, by Golden Week (the block of national holidays at the end of April and beginning of May) life was back to normal.

For the people of Tohoku it has not been. According to figures in the newspaper this morning, 700,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima lost their jobs or took leave after the earthquake, and this was 27.8% of the total workforce. The majority of those took leave but in the time since then many have changed jobs and been affected by lower pay. Looking at other figures in the same newspaper, it’s shocking how much has not been done, and even those figures present a picture more positive than the reality, according to local officials. Least progress has been made in what is referred to as ‘town reconstruction’; while all debris has been cleared away from the towns and villages, it has not been disposed of yet. What seems to me to be the most pressing need, for new housing for people who lost their homes, was the worst of all; 20,600 houses are planned, land for only 7,405 has been secured. No mention of how many have actually been built. Two years on, many people are still living in temporary housing.

On Sunday I saw a headline which read, ‘¥1.4 trillion to be carried over in quake-hit areas: most unused funds related to reconstruction’. Apparently this is caused mainly by a shortage of manpower and materials, but really, Japan is in a recession, unemployment is high (for Japan) and people need homes and infrastructure. Just get on with it. Make it happen. Communities have been decimated, as people of working age have moved away to find employment and a safer place to raise their children, leaving behind the elderly. I heard about a school in the affected area from one of the students at school, after she returned from doing some volunteer work there. Of 104 students before March 11th 2011, only six remain.

When I think about the earthquake and all the horror that followed, my memories are contrasting ones; of the facts and figures, of trying to make sense of all the information, but also of how everyone got through it together. We walked softly, we spoke gently, we all kept a lid on what we were feeling. I remember sitting on buses and trains and feeling the air crackling with emotion, but everyone staying outwardly calm. I remember going cherry blossom viewing in Yoyogi Park and feeling so glad to be outside, in the sunny weather, with thousands of other people. Most of all, I feel proud of just being here, witnessing this great country coping with something unimaginably awful. Yes, there were things done badly; TEPCO officials ran circles round the government and only months later did we hear that there had indeed been a meltdown and a partial meltdown at two of the reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi. But ordinary Japanese people were amazing, and it was a privilege to be here, the scariest and most inspiring time of my life.

Here are the numbers: 15,881 dead, 2,668 missing, 315,196 homeless. Behind every single one, a life lost or changed forever. What does that look like? This photograph was on the front page of the newspaper this morning:

3:11This afternoon I attended a memorial service at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. We prayed in silence from just after 2:30 until 2:46. It felt right to be there, in the same place I was last year, with other members of the diocese, silently remembering. It has taken me a long time to write this, the words didn’t come easily. Because really, there are no words. There is a deep sadness that drags you back down into those dark days, a reminder that for the people of Tohoku they still live with the aftermath, today and every day, but with that there is also love, pride and ultimately speechless admiration for the resilience of the human spirit.