“If you act, you change” – Women of Fukushima

Sometimes life as a JET is too easy. It is easy to become absorbed in your own world, unconnected to current affairs, neither grounded in the community outside your door, or the one you’ve left at home. But it’s good to be reminded that there is something more important out there than your weekend plans.

Today I watched two films that stirred something inside of me. A friend told me of her visit to the Tohuku region (the area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) and how she felt deeply moved when she visited there. Whilst she was there she met some foreign film makers who were documenting how people dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. I recommend you watch both of them, but here are my thoughts.

Then and Now: Ishinomaki


This 14-minute film shows the fighting spirit of the Japanese people. The determination of people who won’t just move away from their destroyed homes and start over again, but are battling to rebuild their community.

It is filmed eight months on from the tsunami, but it looks like the destruction happened yesterday. About half the city was engulfed by the tsunami and it was here where nearly all the students at an elementary school died, as well as a 24-year-old American JET named Taylor Anderson. Instead of focusing on the sadness of the place, this film shows the hope and courage of the survivors.

An elderly couple stand in a gutted building and enthusiastically explain their plans to reopen their liquor store. Having spent three months in temporary shelter and got ill from that, they ask “What else can we do?”, we have to try. A white-shirted bar-man tells of how a group of locals decided to make the Ishinomaki 2.0 bar. “There was no place to go in the evenings to have fun, we needed somewhere to talk together”. So with a bit of hard labour and DIY, there is now a place to relax and have fun.

Toshihiko Fujita, a volunteer at the community centre, explains that the tsunami “destroyed everyone’s lives”. He speaks boldly, “we can reconstruct building and house, but when it comes to people’s spirit, it’s very difficult”. People living in temporary buildings don’t have neighbours, they don’t go out, so they need to share in their suffering. That’s why at the community hall they is a soup kitchen, a counselling service, and volunteers run a kindergarten and clean houses. Why was this so necessary? Because of the number of people who were committing suicide. The film states that in Ishinomaki, ten people commit suicide a month (data from January 2012). With one in two people without a job, and their town looking like a wasteland, suicide becomes the only way out for some.

What comes through from this film is the strength of the survivors who have stepped up to rebuild not just their town, but to kindle the spirit of their community.

LKG_Japanese-Art_Blog_Ishi-no-maki“I’m just an ordinary person, so all I try to do is wake up each morning with courage and hope.” Toshihiko Fujita

Women of Fukushima Fukushima no onnatachi 


In the previous film, the men hint at how “the Japanese government are preoccupied” and one states “we survivors are just the baggage”. Yet in this film a group of six women have become political, openly speaking out at the lack of help given by the Japanese government. These women explain they are “gosei yakeru” (beyond anger) at how they have been forgotten. This anger has been channelled into protests and action to bring about change in Fukushima.

Near the start, one woman comments on the one-sided media portrayal of the Fukuishima disaster, saying “the Japanese government only shows beautiful things”. The footage of people waiting in line at a combini, was not what she saw. Even on the first day of the disaster the combinis were all looted.

In between interviews with the passionate women are scenes of their town, the barrier across the road that reads “Keep Out”, white people in radiation coats revisiting their homes, and strangely enough, an ostrich pecking at the empty ground.


What are these women fighting for? For no more nuclear power stations in Japan. One woman shakes her finger at the camera, “The most important things are life, health and raising healthy children. We don’t need nuclear power stations for this.” These are mothers who have extended their care to their community. They wonder if the young people care, if people in Tokyo care, if women in the next prefecture care? They want to unite the women in Japan for their cause.

Pictures of the demonstrations with people shouting “Stop the restarts” are the most angered pictures of Japanese people I’ve ever seen. Some women went dressed with a one towel’s stuffed under their dresses to make it look like they were pregnant women and shouted ‘Protect the children!’.” These women are serious and empowered. But who is listening? The mainstream media didn’t report a ten-day hunger strike in Fukushima city and these stories of protests don’t  often make the TV bulletins

This film uncovers the struggle of the survivors of the 11/3 disaster and their fight to stop nuclear power plants opening again. These women have taken the battle into their own hands and are not afraid to speak out against the government, even though they know they are being watched. I hope their protests are listened to.

It’s not just mud

A NGO is helping rebuild the city of Ishinomaki by organising volunteer work to build playgrounds, run a café and rebuild houses. Anyone can donate, and anyone can volunteer. Fellow Fukui JET Anna Ho spent two weeks volunteering with INJM. Read about it here. Perhaps I’ll sign up as a volunteer this winter. Who’s with me?


Best places to see cherry blossom

It has been said that Japan has six seasons; spring, summer, autumn, winter, as well as the rainy season tsuyu (from June to July) and the typhoon season (from September to October). Yet I would say there is one more to be added to that list, sakura season. From January the pink flowers open in Okinawa and sweep their way up the country, reaching Hokkaido five months later in May. During sakura season weather forecasts include the predicted opening times of the cherry blossom and people talk about how early or late they will open in offices, cafes and on TV chat shows. It’s a big deal, and it’s infectious. So excuse me, while I reminisce about my first sakura season, and the best places I saw it.

Sakura-dori, Nagoya

IMG_0784I will never forget the first time I saw a blooming cherry tree in Japan. It looked magical. Like a weeping willow hangs in a way which evokes both sadness and romance, this tree was weeping with the most beautiful pink stars of flowers I’ve seen. What made it all the more special was that I’d just met my Mum and could share this moment with her.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto


In the gardens of the palace are orchards of sakura trees that have been enjoyed by people for centuries. Hanami is the term for ‘cherry blossom viewing’ and is when families, office workers or friends picnic, BBQ and drink under the pink petals of the cherry blossom. It is the celebration of spring, the moment winter ends and the warm weather returns. People take afternoons off work to enjoy the petals at their peak, as they know they won’t be there the next week.

Fukuoka, Kyushu

P1040240Cherry blossoms can be enjoyed anywhere, not just at the famous viewing spots and it is made special by the people you are with. In a small park, next to a baseball field in Fukuoka, my companions and I ate bento boxed lunches and drank Brazilian tea under the falling petals. It is in this state, when the petals fall to the ground like snowflakes, that Japanese people find them most attractive. It is a lesson from nature as to how to enjoy the moment, before it is blown away.

The Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto


From Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) to the Nanzenji neighbourhood a line of cherry trees line a canal which a Zen philosopher used to walk and mediate along.  For three kilometres you can enjoy the blooming trees, but unless you go early in the morning you’ll be sharing the experience with half of Kyoto!

Tenryuji Temple Gardens, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Three weeks after I first seen sakura in Nagoya, I was still being blown away by the vivid pinks and reds of cherry blossom. My mum however, thought I’d gone a little mad, with the rest of the country, in exclaiming, “Wow, isn’t it beautiful” at every tree! But in the gardens surrounding the Zen temple of Tenryuji, I couldn’t help but admire the trees. It is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve been to and would definitely recommend it in sakura season or in the fall.











Maruyama Park, Kyoto



This is one of the most popular parks for cherry blossom viewing in Japan. It comes alive at night with young and old people alike drinking and eating under the festival lights. Japanese people work so hard, it’s great to see them in such a relaxed, public setting just chatting together and enjoying the setting. That is one thing we can learn from this sakura loving nation – stop and enjoy nature, plant trees which people love and cultivate them with parental care, line the streets with avenues of trees, the parks with flowers and the buildings with bright bushes, because seeing flowers brightens people day. This nation knows how to appreciate nature like no other I’ve been to.

Kodaji temple, Kyoto

P1040203My Mum and I did a full day of hanami in Kyoto and this was one of the last stops. Whilst looking around this old temple complex, with its lit up bamboo forests, moon-viewing platforms and manicured gardens, we decided to join a long queue of people. After waiting for about 15 minutes on our weary feet, we finally saw what the queue was for and there was no way back. It was an illuminated weeping cherry tree which turned blue, green and white every few minutes and the packed in crowd took photos of it like it was a national celebrity. It was at that point my Mum and I looked at each other and laughed, ok, there is a line for appreciating nature, and then going crazy for it!

I think this country has gone a little too mad for cherry trees, but perhaps I have been infected with it, as I am already looking forward to next year’s sakura season!

Playing the politeness game

Something funny happened at football practice the other week. It was a usual training practice for the Fukui Fist FC, in a local athletic ground that many people use for all sorts of sports. There are often kids clubs, or fathers flying kids with their children and there are always elderly people power walking the perimeter of the park. It’s the ‘public’ kind of field, or so we thought.

About twelve of us had just started playing a game when an official-looking Japanese woman appeared at one of the goal posts. She started speaking to Yuki*, a new Japanese member to our team, and explained the problem. The game stopped, the ball was picked up and people gathered closer to overhear the conversation. As I couldn’t catch her Japanese, I watched the reaction of Ryota, a Japanese man whose football skills holds our team together. He turned away from the woman and I could see him mouthing “Bull*~@>” to our other players, and started ranting about what she was saying to us.

Then Yuki, not knowing what to do, called Ryota over to speak to the official woman himself. Suddenly, the anger had gone from his eyes and he did the lowest bow I’ve ever seen. His nose must have skimmed his knees as he bent in two in front of her! He had to do the Japanese thing in this situation, apologise deeply and cohere to authority, with no argument and definitely no cursing.

After the woman had walked away, Ryota explained the situation. It turns out that the woman works for the athletic park, and for an organised team of people to use the green space, they need to make a reservation first. This is all and well, but when the woman told us that we had to stop playing right at that moment, we were outraged! We looked across the green, weedy field with its bunkers and pit holes and saw one lone man running about with a football. We wondered if he needed a reservation too!

Learning the rules

Although the strictness of the athletic park’s rules verges on the ridiculous, it was the incoherence of the first and second reaction of Ryota that surprised me the most! How easily he hid his annoyance, behind a mask of Japanese politeness. Trying to argue with the authority is just not done in Japan, well not if people are following the rules.

The concept of sunao means a variety of things, from “gentle, mild, meek, obedient, submissive, docile, compliant, yielding”, qualities which may imply a weak character in the West. Yet here, being passive towards authority and adhering to social etiquette to avoid conflict are qualities that are instilled in people from a young age. I see this in how junior high school students who come into the first grade with the same childlike qualities of elementary school; shouting out, getting out their seats, asking questions but within their behaviour changes and soon there are just one or two students who will voluntarily speak up in class. This is done by the strictness of the school rules; being punctual, greeting teachers loudly and cleaning in silence must all contribute to the quietness of second grade students who seem to adhere to the school rules with hardly any complaint or questioning. 

The play of politeness, where everyone knows their place and people follow the unspoken cues from society of how to maintain a group-orientated society. I saw Ryota’s true feelings about the situation when he threw his arms up and cursed in English to his team mates, but he so easily gave in to the woman in charge, because, that is the Japanese thing to do.

In defiance of the rules, our football team went back the following week with no reservation and again were thrown off the pitch. Now, we’ve moved to another field. We have given in and are following the rules. It’s the done thing in Japan.

Bowing-like-a-Japanese*Names have been changed.