I’ve never quite seen a hotel door like the one that greeted us in Kamaishi. Maybe its stylish beauty was to compensate for the plain Jane of the city, with its industrial history of iron and steel production. Oy maybe we had the honeymoon suite by accident.
We were in Japan in May. Akii stayed a month. I was there just two weeks, and with only one thing on my mind: to meet Chiaki and apologise for failing to set up the project to bring schoolchildren from Otsuchi to Scotland for a welcome break and some English (Scottish) language immersion.
Otsuchi, a costal town just half an hour from Kamaishi, in the north-east region known as Tohoku, lost 1000 of its inhabitants to the tsunami of March 3, 2011. This included half its city office staff; not surprisingly it took this shattered community a long time to get back on its feet.
I became involved with Otsuchi at long distance after 3/11. Having collected coats and blankets for survivors and evacuees, I networked to try and find a way in which they could be distributed up north. Which is how I found Chiaki.
Takahashi Chiaki (family name first in the Japanese way) – based in Morioka City, Iwate Preffecture, and working as an English teacher so enabled to communicate internationally – had established an amazingly efficient volunteer organisation: Iwate Relief. It was she who drove my boxes to Otsuchi, and saw the contents distributed.
Halfway through Level 4 of DOTWW at the time of the disaster, it was clear after we reconvened three weeks later that everyone’s attention had been redirected. Alena was preparing leave Tokyo as a “radiation refugee” and move south to Wakayama Prefecture. Jacinta went on to set up (first by Facebook, later as a website) Embrace Transition, to help people cope with change. Jeffrey began writing songs about Fukushima’s unfolding tragedy, and produced a CD to help raise funds. James joined them on a trip to Otsuchi, to distribute gifts, as donated through the Share Your Christmas with Tohoku Campaign.
We had dreamed up this project over a rather drunken dinner one summer evening; good to report that it’s still going strong, with people all over the world sending gifts to share each year-end.
Eighteen months later, preparing to leave Japan for Scotland, I contacted Chiaki again. Did she know anyone who might find my sewing machine useful? Yes, she replied, a woman with children who having lost her home to the floodwaters was desperate to support her children. So off it went…
The world assumes four years on that all is well with Japan; it has “recovered”. But believe me, in those parts that have been conveniently forgotten by the media (as instructed by government), the need remains enormous. Communities have not only been battered, but subsequently abused, with Otsuchi providing a clear example.
Chiaki had gone to a lot of trouble to make our visit clear and instructive. After picking us up from the hotel, she drove 30 minutes from Kamaishi to the kindergarten in Otsuchi, where she teaches English to the little ones. I use the word “teach” loosely; rather she is familiarising the under sixes to hearing a different language and making them comfortable with using some simple phrases. And how beautifully she does it: in heavily accented American-English and using American-English expressions, true, but to which they respond with great enthusiasm and joy.
There was no fear of me either. In 1986, when I first arrived in Japan, the large majority of children ran a mile!
The owner and founder of the kindergarten came to meet us, showing us photographs of the ground floor interior after the tsunami had swamped the place and retreated. Staff had managed to get all the children to safety, barring one. A mother had driven to pick up her child and then turned back into town to find her mother; they were all swept away.
Otsuchi lies at the head of an inlet, with valleys running inland that funnelled the tsunami higher and higher. Chiaki drove us around to make sense of this geography, we then had lunch at the one operative restaurant above the beach and sea. Hard to imagine on such a lovely day that a body of water could be anything but cheerfully stroppy and as blue as the sky above.
It was over our meal that I apologised for not coming through with any kind of seriously funded scheme to bring high school students to Scotland. Chiaki mentors and nurses the most enthusiastic of her English speaking high school students in Morioka through a nationwide speech contest; they do very well too.
Never mind, she soothed. “I have another idea…”
This idea began as a seed, sprouted through the afternoon, and has been blossoming ever since…
Chiaki volunteers every Friday to Ostuchi, driving up from Morioka to not only teach at the kindergarten, but at the community facility high above the temple and its graveyard. This had been one of the town’s designated major evacuation points in an emergency, and it was to here that many residents climbed, believing they would be safe. Sadly the tsunami was higher…
Survivors gathered in the community hall on top of the hill. It was so cold, with snow falling outside, that adults cut down the long, free-falling curtains to wrap the children in. The ragged remnants of these curtains, high above, remained a traumatic reminder to all the school students and staff when classes were eventually resumed. It is thanks to Chiaki’s efforts that money was raised internationally (a large contribution came from Germany) to replace them. And very fine the ‘Curtains of Love’ (as the project was named) are!
While we sat in, she taught English to four groups, aged seven through to eleven, all of whom had made us drawings to welcome us. It was towards supporting these children that she suggested we put our energies. Children that she will dedicate her time and energies to for another five years, until they enter middle school: “I believe that exposure to people and life beyond Otuchi, together with confidence in English, will provide them with expanded horizons for the future.”
On Friday, July 29, she and other volunteers took a group of these youngsters to Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture. Helpers included British-born Japanophile Kevin Dodd (who not only funded some activities but flew in from Paris to help supervise) and Canadian born Heather Wilson, my friend of many years from Koshigoe, south of Yokohama. Having travelled by train and bus, they tall stayed overnight at the pension That Sounds Good, right on the lakeside. Here the children were able to to play in safety, experience English immersion, and learn to swim. None of them could; they were too terrified to go to the beach, let alone enter the sea.
We know that many parents in Otsuchi have been watching this project unfold. By next year, Chiaki believes more will be wanting their children to have the chance to experience life beyond their immediate community. As of now, 3,000 survivors are still in so-called temporary housing, with families cramped in tiny rooms, and few to no facilities, and an uncertain future.
After the waters had retreated, leaving the fishing industry in tatters and survivors too shocked to understand what was happening, the vultures descended: real estaters from the capital, buying up land that no-one (having lost everything) could prove had been their own for generations. Now the construction industry is having a field day, laying down infrastructure for houses to be built on piles of sand “glued together” (which is how Chiaki described the process). You can be damned sure that when they go on sale, no-one in Otsuchi will be able to afford.
In Fukushima, we met a man who had lost his house and car, but was still having to pay the loans on them and was hardly surviving. He suffers acute bouts of depression, as do many of the adults and children we met. Chiaki spends all her free time offering support as best she can.
However, this – and the rest of our trip – is another story. In the meantime, with everyone returned home safe and happy, here are some photos of the weekend.