Tag Archives: Great East Japan Earthquake

Goodbye 2013

tokyo sunsetWhen people hear that I teach in Japan the most common reaction is some kind of assumption that all the students (a) work incredibly hard, (b) are unquestioningly obedient and well-behaved and (c) are quieter than proverbial church mice. My response to this is (a) their industry is the same as students in other countries, some work very hard, others do not and many are hindered by a lack of study skills, (b) they are certainly less of a challenge than the students my friends often teach in the UK but not unremittingly well-behaved, and (c) I work at a girls’ school, are you kidding?

As I have mentioned before, I think Japan is a country which is often portrayed in a stereotypical manner, and the appetite for wacky stories in foreign media is always there. What people say to me about my students is an extension of what many people believe to be an accurate portrayal of Japan and its people. It is frustrating to live here and watch with disbelief as yet another journalist files a stereotype-laden report, or takes one incident and extrapolates to imply a general truth. In over twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet a Japanese person who conforms to all those stereotypes, the quiet, obedient automaton.

Over ten years ago, a Swedish gospel singer came to visit the school, and as she sat on the stage waiting to begin a question-and-answer time after she had performed, she remarked that she could tell she was at a girls’ school because there was a noticeable level of chatter in the hall. Some things are not a surprise. What may come as a surprise to people who only know of Japan through cliché’d news items is the levels of noise in Japan sometimes. It is not always a land of zen-like tranquility, as anyone who has ever walked past a pachinko parlour can tell you. Politicians, right-wing sound trucks, recycle companies, roasted sweet potato vendors and purveyors of laundry poles are all capable of disturbing your wa (和), or harmony, as you relax at home, walk down your local street or take the train.

There is a word in Japanese which has a lot of different meanings, but Japanese language learners probably first encounter it as ‘noisy’: urusai (うるさい). My dictionary, however, offers all of the following as possible meanings: noisy, loud, annoying, troublesome, bothersome, persistent, fussy, particular and fastidious. I would say a person who is ‘urusai’ is a wa-disturber, and this year the leading lights of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been disturbing all kinds of wa. That their antics have not been more widely reported internationally is disappointing. I have heard Japanese friends express concern that this is how Japan slid towards militarism in the 1930s.

So, just to do my bit to draw attention to what Japanese politicians have been doing this year, here are their greatest hits:

* In May, Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka declared that the ‘comfort women’ (women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WW2) were ‘necessary’. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22519384

* In July, the Deputy PM, Taro Aso (also a brother-in-law of the Emperor) suggested that Japan could learn from how the Nazis pushed through unpopular legislation. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23527300

He was referring to the current government’s desire to abolish Article 9, the part of the Japanese Constitution in which Japan denounces war and the means of war. Mr. Abe, the Prime Minister, has been getting more and more bellicose and would very much like to ditch Article 9 and arm Japan to the teeth. There is a hefty, so-called Self Defence Force, but Mr. Abe wants more. There have been groups all over Japan for a long time to protect Article 9, but this year it has come under serious threat.

* In September PM Abe reassured the IOC that Tokyo is and always will be safe from any danger that may come from the crippled nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi. Following his statement and Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympics, the word ‘lie’ was used by parts of the media to refer to his comments. You can read about it here:

http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/2013/09/25/did-japans-shinzo-abe-lie-to-get-the-olympics/

* Of course, the news that has rumbled on all year is the ongoing dispute between China and Japan (and Taiwan) regarding sovereignty over the group of tiny islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, and in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. In November China  declared an ‘air-defence zone’ over the islands, just the latest move in this very dangerous dance. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25062525

* Finally, at the end of the year, Mr. Abe decided to make a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in his capacity as Prime Minister. While millions of Japan’s war dead are enshrined there, the souls of hundreds of war criminals, including a number of executed Class A war criminals are also enshrined, and it is this fact, and the apparent honouring or worship of these souls which so infuriates China and South Korea. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25517205

So, Japanese politicians, I would say that you have been very ‘urusai’ this year, that this war-mongering is deeply troubling, that your lack of sensitivity (or deliberate disregard for other people’s and other countries’ feelings) is equally concerning. What are you doing to the country I love? This has not been a great year for Japan. With the exception of the successful Olympic bid, which did seem to boost spirits, 2013 has been a steady stream of worrying news from TEPCO and Fukushima Daiichi and the constant sound of rattling sabres.

So for 2014, my first prayer is for a concerted effort to really do something about the giant mess that is Fukushima Daiichi. The situation there is scary and there are many people who don’t know if, or when, they can ever go home. My second prayer is also related to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; that the people who are still living in temporary housing almost three years later be re-housed in permanent new homes. My third prayer is for peace between the countries in East Asia, that we can all be much better neighbours than we have been in 2013.

12:30 blue skyFor myself, this has been a very mixed year, but I am ending the year feeling positive. I have travelled and seen friends, and in my life in Tokyo I have so many blessings. I have a job I love, friends and colleagues I am grateful for. In the last fifteen months I have found a new joy in writing this blog and been amazed that people read it. It’s a very humbling feeling. I am going into the new year with plenty to think about, lots of things I want to do.

Yesterday I was in Shibuya and saw a lot of people with suitcases, on their way somewhere to celebrate the New Year. When I went out to do some grocery shopping this afternoon I noticed how quiet everything was already. With the exception of the crowds in the supermarket there weren’t many people about. Tomorrow I am going to start the year the same way I did this year, walking a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. The weather forecast is for another sunny day.

Goodbye, 2013. You’ve been an interesting year; not the best, but not the worst either. The neighbourhood has gone quiet, and I can hear the sound of the local volunteer fire corps on their yomawari (夜回り) or night patrol warning us of the perils of starting a fire. My new year cards are written and mailed, it’s time to curl up and relax.

new year postbox

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

Tokyo: A safe city?

Olympics4On Sunday mornings I have a very early start, and am regularly awake by 5am, so this morning I was already up and watching the news when Tokyo was announced as the winning bid to host the 2020 Olympics. I watched the Japanese delegation in Buenos Aires jumping up and down, the scenes of jubilation from the arena in Komazawa Park, built for the 1964 Olympics, and I thought . . . well, I thought a few things. I have quite mixed feelings about it.

The Japanese bid had focused on being a safe choice: ‘the Olympics will be safe in our hands’. But what does ‘safe’ really mean?

First of all, the statement that I think most people would agree with, that Tokyo is generally a safe city for tourists and for residents. There are clichéd stories of people losing valuable items and getting them back, but it really does happen. Wallets, purses, mobile phones – drop something in the street, leave it on a train and if you go to the police box or station office there is a high chance that you’ll get it back. Not every time, but a lot of the time.

A few years ago, a group of people from a small company I knew in Tokyo went to the UK on what was termed a ‘study trip’ (= junket). On their return they told me that a woman in their group had had her handbag snatched one day. She had been shocked but also infuriated and so had given chase. She had managed to retrieve her handbag (Japanese company employee 1, Petty Criminal 0) but when she wrote a report about their trip she included an account of the incident (which I wholly understand) and concluded with this statement:

‘Japan is safe. Abroad is dangerous.’ (日本は安全、海外は危険) Cut and dried, black and white. No more to say. Of course, it’s not that simple, but with the exception of a few places, I would go anywhere in Tokyo at any time of day or night, on my own, and I would feel safe. I often walk home from the station at ten or eleven o’clock, listening to my iPod, and I don’t worry about being safe. I wouldn’t do the same in the UK. I go out and leave my windows open, and in fact left them open while I was away all summer. I leave windows open at my mother’s house in the UK, but she lives in a village and even that is against recent police advice and know friends and family in cities who lock everything before they go out. I have friends in rural parts of Japan and even Tokyo who never lock their doors.

Japan is safer than many, if not most other countries. Japanese citizens and residents who have got used to life here need to remember that when they travel and be more cautious, but the idea that someone is imperilled the moment they step off the plane in another country is not true.

So, Tokyo will be a safe place to hold the Olympics. Visitors can be generally assured of their personal safety. Yes, I will give them that. Generally, that is a truthful statement.

Next, the Tokyo bid claimed to be a safe (reliable) city which could be counted on to complete construction on time, to have a mass transit system capable of moving huge numbers of people from A to B. Again, I would give them that, but the way it was highlighted left a bad taste on one memorable occasion. At the end of April, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose cast aspersions on Istanbul’s bid in the most general and unpleasant terms, when he criticised Islamic countries (yes, all of them), saying, “The only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes.” He was slapped down by the International Olympic Committee, who said that cities bidding for the Olympics should not make negative comments about rival bids. Governor Inose apologised, first claiming that he had been taken out of context (that old chestnut) but then acknowledging that his remarks had been ‘inappropriate’. That was the end of the story.

But while that was the end of Governor Inose’s mouthing off, he was following in a long tradition of Japanese politicians saying offensive things, and then trying to wriggle out of it by saying their words had been taken out of context. Gov. Inose’s immediate predecessor, Shintaro Ishihara, was of course well-known for his offensive remarks, but he seemed to enjoy the upset he caused and unlike other politicians never seemed apologetic. However, Deputy Prime Minister Aso was true to form in July when he made remarks regarding the government’s desire to change the constitution, specifically to remove Article 9, in which Japan renounces war and the means of war. He suggested that Japan’s government copy Nazi tactics to push through constitutional changes: “The German Weimar constitution changed, without being noticed, to the Nazi German constitution. Why don’t we learn from their tactics?” You can read the full article here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23527300

This is probably the subject for a separate blog post, but it does seem to me that Japan doesn’t ping the international radar with its unsavoury behaviour, and I wonder why. Maybe Japan seems non-threatening, not a country that could pose a threat, but anyone who knows about the rise of militarism here in the 1930s knows that’s not true.

But back to the second idea that Japan is safe, meaning reliable, will have everything ready on time, and be able to move everyone around the city efficiently. Yes, I will give them that too, but how much will it cost? The Japanese economy has been stagnating since the bubble burst in 1990, and the gamble seems to be that massive construction will boost the economy and a fat profit will be made. In the meantime, the taxpayers of Tokyo will be picking up the bill.

Finally, the aspect of Japanese safety that has been in the news a lot in recent weeks: Fukushima. The Godzilla in the room.

Two and a half years ago, a tsunami slammed into Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and three of the six reactors went into varying degrees of meltdown. The hapless, incompetent and arrogant Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has been trying ever since to get on top of the situation, while running rings round the government and anyone else trying to get an accurate picture of what is going on. Now it seems they never really got their act together and since last month the facts and figures finally emerging have painted a very scary picture. Water contaminated with radioactivity is leaking into the Pacific, and into the ground around the plant. It has reached such high levels that anyone exposed to it would die within hours.

This was the issue which threatened to derail the Tokyo bid, and Prime Minister Abe addressed it personally when he spoke in Buenos Aires before the final vote. According to the BBC, “He allayed fears over the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant 150 miles (240km) from the city by saying: ‘It has never done, and will never do, any damage to Tokyo.’ ”

Yes, well, boo to that, Mr. Abe. That’s not so far away from Tokyo, and while I know it’s Tokyo which will host the Games, I don’t think that’s totally the point. 150 miles (or 240km) away from Tokyo there is a serious, ongoing nuclear incident. The most serious since Chernobyl. There is an exclusion zone around the plant, a dead zone, and who knows if people will ever be able to live there again? The spent fuel rods were, last time I saw any information about them, 4 storeys up in a damaged building, in a tank of water, exposed to the elements, covered with blue tarpaulin. The plans to sort out this mess are measured in terms of years, apparently lacking any sense of urgency. What would happen if a typhoon hit the area? Or another earthquake and tsunami? It seems to me there is a lot of gambling on what probably won’t happen, and politicians making statements about scenarios that will ‘never’ happen. But can they really give such absolute guarantees?

After the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, the number of tourists visiting Japan fell dramatically. Despite assurances, people didn’t want to risk it. There are some words which people react to on a very instinctive level. I would suggest that those words would include ‘earthquake’, ‘tsunami’, ‘nuclear meltdown’, ‘radiation’ . . .

150 miles or 240km. Does that sound like a great distance? In the UK that is the equivalent of London to Chesterfield or Cardiff, and in the US, Washington DC to Philadelphia PA, or Baltimore MD to Richmond VA.

Do you still feel safe? Would you still feel confident that people will travel here and happily ignore the risks? We’re not talking about vast distances here.

Underneath the declaration that Tokyo is safe there is so much more information, so many more aspects to this. Facebook has lit up today with a wide range of opinions. This is in no way anything other than anecdotal, but from what I have seen, opinions range from a straightforward, ‘Yay for Tokyo, that’s great!’, to ‘Oh no, Tokyo shouldn’t have got it’. There are a lot of mixed feelings, and that is where I find myself.

I am proud of this city, I love so much about it, and I’m excited that Tokyo will have an opportunity to showcase what’s great about it, that people will come and have an amazing time. That certainly happened when Japan co-hosted the 2002 Football World Cup. But, but, but . . . how much will it cost? Will it make an already emboldened, aggressive and increasingly xenophobic government even bolder? Some have pointed out that Mr. Abe probably won’t be the Prime Minister, that this current crop of unpleasant fellows will not be in power. True. But the LDP has been in power for most of the last seventy years, do you think that’s going to change? It won’t be Abe & Co. in power, but in the tradition of generations of political families here it will probably be their younger brothers or sons.

I do hope that the 2020 Olympics will be a wonderful opportunity for Tokyo. I really do. But I also hope that for the next seven years, there is a spotlight on Japan, that the rest of the world watches what Japan’s leaders say and do, that they are held to account, and that they deal with the situation in Fukushima sooner rather than later, not just for the Olympics, but for all the people in Tohoku who have already endured two and a half years of Tepco lies and government ineptitude.