It is exactly one year since the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan triggered a huge tsunami that claimed around 20,000 lives and left tens of thousands homeless. The world watched in horror as live broadcasts carried high definition video of a churning black waterfall, 10 metres high in places, advancing up to 10 kilometres inland, swallowing whole townships in its wake. The tsunami disabled critical cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station which lead to a serious nuclear incident, explosions and the release of radiation. Japan thus considers the events of March 11 to have been a “triple disaster”, and the Prime Minister at that time declared it to be the largest crisis to face this country since the end of World War Two.
In Nagoya we feel quite removed from what happened on March 11 2011, and what is continuing to unfold in Tohoku – some 500km north-east of here. None of our friends or relatives have been directly affected by the disaster. We have not visited the area, so I cannot provide any information that is first hand. Despite all this I still want to try to convey, however inadequately, something of the suffering that continues to face the people of that region, and the immense challenges yet to face the region and the country as a whole.
March 11 has dominated the TV schedule for the last week. What is clear is that Japan has changed – forever. People who have lived near the sea all of their lives now fear it. Towns and cities scramble to prepare for future tsunamis much taller than have hitherto been forecast. Faith in Japan’s advanced technology has been shaken, and the myth of totally safe nuclear power has been shattered. An incestuous, self-serving relationship between the government nuclear regulator and the nuclear industry has been exposed, one report at a time, compounding what seems to be a loss of trust in government amongst the general public. With the temporary suspension of all nuclear power generation in the country, “Energy Conservation” has become a national religion. People have stopped buying rice and vegetables produced in Tohoku – even from agricultural areas not affected – causing further economic hardship for the region. Fresh produce from China is, for the first time, an appealing alternative. Tourists have stopped coming to Tohoku. Foreign tourists have stopped coming to Japan all together.
The myriad of TV interviews with disaster survivors being broadcast this week echo common themes: Insatiable emptiness. Deep anger. Deep grief. For men who have lost their livelihoods, a general loss of purpose. Regrets. The guilt surviving when your child didn’t. There is anecdotal evidence of families and marriages falling apart; people turning to drink; committing suicide. For thousands who are living in temporary accommodation, either because their homes were destroyed in the tsunami or because of forced evacuation due to radioactive fallout, there is anxiety about when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes and land. Roots in Japan run deep.
Regarding things physical, reconstruction has barely begun. But it has begun. Debris has been stockpiled but not removed, as prefectural governments squabble over where it should be dumped. Master plans for reconstruction of each town are being formulated. Design guidelines for reinforced concrete buildings have been rewritten in a bid to make these structures tsunami-resistant. In Minamisanriku, a town in Miyagi Prefecture that was mostly wiped out, the government plans to remove the top of a couple of hills and build two new hamlets at a safe altitude. Funding to do this is still in question. It is likely to still be half a decade or more before residents can return.
What is clear is that the disaster of March 2011 didn’t occur in March 2011… That’s just when it began. The impact of the disaster in the tsunami-hit region clearly still has a long way to run. The human aspects, psychological and emotional, are only now coming to the forefront of public consciousness. The catchphrase found on goverment literature, billboards, on signs in schools and on cross-promotional products is “Ganbarou, Tohoku.” Hang in there, Tohoku. Keep persevering. Work hard. But the burden of this exhortation is in fact, contrary to the best of intentions, crushing upon the spirits of the survivors. How can a pain so deep from the loss of a son, the disappearance of a wife, be conquered by mere stoicism alone. Contrarily, I believe people need to hear that it’s OK not to cope. This is, in a strange paradox, the only way they can.
This is not the way the world was meant to be. Yet this is how it is. We all need a Saviour to save us from death.
In Japan, the glossing-over of atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) during the Pacific War (and the Second Sino-Japanese War in particular) is sadly neither new nor uncommon. Outright denials that such events occurred are thankfully much rarer, but it often seems that men with such extreme views end up in positions of political power giving their views undeserved attention.
This week Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, made headlines both here and in China for his denial of the Nanking Massacre, in which the IJA raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in the winter of 1937. These atrocities were shockingly brutal. Kawamura’s father was stationed in Nanjing in 1945.
Nagoya and Nanjing established a sister-city relationship in 1978. Kawamura, showing his complete ineptitude for diplomacy, chose to make his remarks to a visiting delegation of Nanjing city officials. Nanjing has since suspended its city sister relationship with Nagoya.
Even after 70 years, Japan’s continued inability to unequivocally acknowledge and honestly reflect upon the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War has been a major contributor in preventing the warming of Sino-Japanese relations, both at diplomatic and personal levels.
For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.
Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.
My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)
During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations. As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.
I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.
The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.
In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.
I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.
The story of Oskar Schindler is fairly well known. He is credited for saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware factory, and his story is retold in the famous film Schindler’s List. The State of Israel honoured Schindler as “Righteous Among the Nations” – a status it endows on Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
In a town called Yaotsu about 60km from here was born another of whom Israel has deemed “Righteous Among the Nations”. Despite his relative obscurity, at least compared to Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara is credited with saving thousands of Jews during this terrible time in history. Last weekend we visited a commemorative museum dedicated to this man and his story.
Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania in 1939. In July and August 1940 and he used his position as a representative of the Foreign Ministry to write transit visas to allow European Jews to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan to claim asylum in countries of refuge.
He contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to request permission to grant transit visas to fleeing Jews despite them not meeting the requirements for issue of a visa. Tokyo responded that without a visa to a destination country a Japanese transit visa could not be granted. Realising that the Jews coming to his office would be in grave danger from the Nazis if they could not escape, he began to issue visas by his own hand, without authorisation from Tokyo and in defiance of direct orders to the contrary. Given his low position in the Foreign Ministry, cultural pressure to follow orders, and the Japanese alliance with Nazi Germany, this was an incredible act of bravery.
Sugihara hand-wrote visas for up to 20 hours per day. As news spread of his actions, more and more refugee Jews lined up outside the consulate in order to get a transit visa through Japan. This continued for only a couple of weeks after which the Japanese consulate was closed in September and Sugihara was ordered to leave.
Sugihara died in Japan in 1986. His story is not well known in Japan. His humility was such that it was only when a large Jewish delegation (including dignitaries) attended his funeral that his neighbours and friends found out what he had achieved.
The little commemorative museum in Yaotsu does quite a good job at recounting Sugihara’s story despite its paucity of related artefacts. (For example, the only visas on display were replicas.) However, as is typical of most Japanese recounts of World War II, the broader Japanese Imperial context in which these events took place is missing. Despite this shortcoming the museum does a good job at bringing visitors to uncomfortably face the extent of human evil (it includes photos from the Nazi death camps), as well as the joy of redemption brought through a man that chose to do good.