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.
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.
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.
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?