Thursday, May 05, 2011

The trip (I)

It was in the earl days of May, 2011, that I found myself finally on a Tohoku Shinkansen train bound for Sendai.

It was a trip mixed with apprehension and remorse. Apprehension, as I did not quite know what to expect. I was planning to hire a car. Would the road be OK? Will I be able to get gas? Remorse, as the trip was somewhat overdue. I would have liked to travel to the devastated area earlier, helping people in need in any way I could. But simply couldn't. I suspect it was partly a question of schedule and partly inaptitude lurking in my personal traits. I was simply unable to find a temporal or psychological "window" to travel to the afflicted areas, no matter what the consequences might be.

A few weeks earlier, I was having conversation with Nobuto Ariyoshi, Chief Producer of "The Professionals" program on NHK, in which I played the role of the castor for more than 4 years. Nobuto and I are very close personal friends.

I was telling Nobuto about my plan, and revealed that I would probably walk from the Sendai station towards the sea, thus making myself independent of any means of transportation. "You should definitely go to Onagawa", Nobuto said. "You should head towards where the Maine Pal building used to be."

Nobuto went for a few weeks to the NHK outposts in the Sendai area, helping his colleagues report on the state of the region and people's tremendous efforts towards recovery in the afflicted area. Nobuto said he had seen scenes of damage beyond description. "It goes on and on and on", Nobuto said. "Even with our best efforts as tv journalists, we simply could not cover everything. There are many unreported sufferings, unnoticed by the world, silently endured by those affected. You should definitely go there yourself and see how it is"

It was perhaps Nobuto's words that finally pushed my back to venture into the most severely damaged areas. I decided to go to Onagawa as Nobuto suggested, and witness the devastation by myself. I felt that I had a duty to experience it, almost like a moral imperative, and report it to the larger world in my own words, to record and not to forget, what happened to many innocent lives.

Preparation for the trip was an uneasy one. I had to think what I could do, once getting there. Would I have a chance to talk to the small kids in the refugee camps? Would they be pleased, if I had a few snacks to share? How about a few boxes of "Mushroom Mountain" and "Bamboo Village" chocolates, two definitive favorites of Japanese children? Or should I bring some interesting books that the kids can read in the long afternoons in the school gym, where they and their families are taking refuge? Should I consider helping people with the clearing of debris, an indispensable action in the process towards recovery?

It was difficult to assess the situation beforehand. There were reports of too many materials being sent to the relief camps. Books are difficult to match, people having different preferences and interests. I felt somewhat shy of bringing my own books. Probably I would appear too presumptuous.

After much thought, I finally came to the conclusion that I should go anyway, without any definite plans to do any specific volunteer works. It is quite possible that I may be unable to visit the relief camps in a proper way, without a prior arrangement. I may just have to observe, and see what I can do, perhaps not on the spot, but on the intermediate to long terms. Of course, should some opportunities arise where I could be of any help, I would and should be prepared. I put a pair of thick cotton gloves, and a pack of masks into my backpack. Finally, I set off.

As the Tohoku Shinkansen train left the platform, there was much formality and perhaps a little bit of tension on the train bound for Sendai. "In the event of an earthquake, the train would make an emergency stop", the train conductor warned in a carefully worded announcement. The digital news flash above the door of the car carried a special message, expressing condolences to the people in Tohoku for the tremendous loss, and hoping for a recovery. When I walked out onto the deck to go to the toilet, there was a man in black suits, wearing the Japan Railway Company badge. Apparently, this gentleman, most probably a management high in the rank, was stationed there on the train to see to it that everything was going as planned.

It was quite understandable that they were taking these precautions. The Tohoku Shinkansen train, the pride of Japan Railway East Company, had resumed its operations only a few days earlier. The Tohoku line was severely damaged by the earthquake. The resumption of Shinkansen service, after a hectic recovery effort in defiance of aftershocks and threat of power shortages, was regarded by many to symbolize the hope that things, somehow, would slowly go back to normal again, if not immediately for the better.

As the bullet train approached Sendai station, I looked for signs of damage inflicted by the earthquake. There were blue sheets here and there on the house roofs, indicating an ongoing repair process. Apart from those visual signs of irregularities, the city of Sendai seemed to be up and going.

Getting off the train at Sendai station, I began to see signs of recovery. People in the corridors were smiling, briskly going on with their own businesses. Pupils in school uniforms were chatting loudly, as any healthy teenagers would do. Store clerks were selling at the top of their voices local delicacies and souvenirs. I was heartened to see these testimonials of the energy and determination of the Sendai people to make life tick, no matter what.

I slipped into the rental car office. I could only reserve an outdated model. I would have preferred a hybrid car, which would have alleviated worries about the need to refill gas on the way.

Gas was a natural theme for our conversation. "Would you fill the gas before you return the vehicle?" asked the store clerk in a polite manner. "Sure," I said. "I wonder if there would be any trouble with the gas stations?" At that time, memories were still fresh with images of people lining up for the gas, in the days after the earthquake. There was a high profile tragedy of a man who was lining up to fill some gas for his daughter at night, taking warmth from a heater, fell asleep, and was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. "The gas stands are quite all right", the man in uniform answered. "At least within the city of Sendai."

The store clerk took me to the car park. The number plate was that of Okinawa. Presumably, they had to take in cars from the tropical island to fill the shortage of rental cars in Sendai area. The car was small, but functioning excellently. You could not expect less from a Japanese car rental company.

It was thus with a little anxiety and trepidation that I got on the road to Ishinomaki and Onagawa. Honestly, I did not know what to expect. For sure, I have seen the coverage of the tsunami disaster and the devastation inflicted upon the region. However, as Nobuto said, the damage was apparently too severe and widespread to give a full coverage. I just had to see and take in, in order to start things in earnest, my way.

(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan.)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Everybody is different, everybody is good.

After leaving the city of Hagi, we went on a seaside route, heading towards the hot spring town of Nagatoyumoto. "Yumoto" (literally meaning the source of hot water) is a common denominator for many hot spring places in Japan. Our designated lodging for the evening was Otani Sanso, which has a reputation of wonderful service and food, combined with, needless to say, an excellent bathing experience in hot water.

On the way to the hot spring town, I was looking out of the car window with an idle heart. The impressions felt at the school under the pine tree was still very much alive within me. What are we going to do? In the flow of consciousness, in the aftermath of an intensive encounter, I was taking it somewhat easy, absorbing with interest the passing coastal scenery of the Sea of Japan.

At a turn, a roadside sign attracted my attention. "Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum", it said. Misuzu Kaneko is a household name in Japan, famous for her poems, which are poignant and vibrant, verging on being almost beyond belief, that such words could ever come out of a human mind.

"Everybody is different, everybody is good", she wrote in one of her well-known masterpieces. Thus to praise diversity is a politically correct cliche nowadays. Given the context and age in which these words were churned out, Misuzu's words are almost like miracles. Misuzu's poetry provides such a wonderful and gentle penetrator into the human soul, moving people, inducing them to be fundamentally better.

"I cannot spread my hands and fly. Birds are unable to run fast on the ground like me. When I shake my body, I don't make an enchanting sound. Bells do not know many songs as I do. Bells, birds, and me. Everybody is different, everybody is good."
Misuzu's works are in plain and simple Japanese, so that even a small child can understand and appreciate them. The philosophy expressed is deep. It resonates well with the traditional sensitivity of the Japanese for the changing and the perishing, including their own lives. The appreciation of the pathos of things ("mononoaware").

Reading her poems, one feels that Misuzu's heart is always with the suppressed and defeated. In one of her poems, Misuzu portrays the joys of fisherman at great harvest, contrasting it with the mourning processions of fish in the ocean weeping for the lost ones.

Misuzu was born in 1903, and her short life ended in 1930. She was only 26. Her marriage to an untruthful and profligate husband resulted in much misery and a prolonged battle over the custody of their only daughter. Finally, Misuzu could not take it any more. The poet took poison, escaping from the miseries of life.

Thus, from a practical point of view, Misuzu's life might have been a tragedy. However, the purifying effect of Misuzu's genius meant that the sufferings and torments had no trace in her works. Reading her lines, one would not suspect the ups and downs (mostly downs) of her personal life. Actually, it comes as a great shock for many of Misuzu's poem lovers, to get to know the actual history of her existence.

The very magic of Misuzu's poetry resides thus in the cleansing process. The secret of creativity is to hide its sources, said Albert Einstein. Misuzu's life and her works are great lessons for humanity, telling us that it is possible to remain mellow and pure after unspeakable afflictions. Turning sour as a reaction to hardships is not necessarily a natural course of things. People from children to mature adults simply adore Misuzu's lyrics. Perhaps we can all sense, without even knowing why, the existence of a deep, and embracing love in what Misuzu writes.

The roadside sign for "Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum" brought all these reflections within me. We were passing the seaside town of Senzaki, where the poet with a gentle heart was born and lived. It is probably fitting, I thought, that I remembered Misuzu Kaneko at this time of difficulty. Maybe we can learn a lot of things from the lovely poems of Misuzu. Perhaps we can all be like children again. Then we could derive strength from the audacity of youth.

The sun was inclined towards the west as our car arrived at Otani Sanso. There was one hour or so before supper. At such times, I always make a point of walking around, trying to get to know the area, acquainting myself with the ambience of the land. After casual conversations, I discovered that my editor and photographer preferred a dip in hot water to physical activities. I thus set out alone, exploring on my own the tranquil charms of the town of Nagatoyumoto.

There was a river just in front of the hotel, and a small path led gently to the riverbank. It was clearly a stroll designed to entertain the whimsical and easygoing hearts of people coming to relax in the hot spring. The route was flat and effortless, inducing one to go into deep thoughts.

It was only a few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, and the connotations were inescapable. The town of Nagatoyumoto was far from the sea and there was no real danger of a tsunami. However, the river flow reminded me of the numerous towns in the ocean side exposed to and perished by the savage forces of the tidal waves. Suddenly I felt like crying.

How many people would you say there are, in this quiet and lovely town of Nagatoyumoto? One thousand? Maybe two thousand. It is such a small and beautiful town. The traces of history, the tiny workings of the everyday, are the building blocks for this community. The breathings and touches of people are recorded and expressed in every tiny nuance of the town. There is nothing more beautiful than the venerable, peaceful tranquility of a historical community.

And yet, in Tohoku, numerous communities were lost as the result of the earthquake. Houses where memories had been kept, tiny paths children hed been using to go to school over the years, pa and ma shops where laughter and opinions had been exchanged, were lost forever, in the brutal wave caused by the tremors of earth's crest.

There is no atonement for such a loss. It is, simply and precisely put, irreparable. I thought to myself, trying to come to terms with the unexpected surge of emotion.

Walking along the serene flow of the river, I cast my eyes on the loveliness of the town of Nagatoyumoto. After what we have experienced in the earthquake, appreciation has perhaps become deeper and more lasting. You learn to take pleasure in the smallest of things, like a pot of plant placed in a garden corner.

Everybody is different, everybody is good. I thought of Misuzu Kaneko again. Her creations have been inspiring and giving a lot of courage to people. Did she ever come to find solace in the hot water here, I wondered. Did she ever have a moment of tranquility, when comfort came her way, rather than she offering the world words of sunshine?

At that moment, I felt as if my personal happiness depended very much on the answer.

I sincerely hoped she did.

(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan. This essay is a sequel to "School under the pine tree".)