Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's the 1st of the month. Here's your $452, honeyI

'Wives Tighten Purses on Japan's Salarymen'

According to a survey by Shinsei Financial Co., the average allowance given to Japanese salarymen by their wives-- who typically manage the family finances, including the husband's earnings -- is now a pitiful $15 a day, or 36,500 yen per month -- the lowest since 1982, Bloomberg reported in this article dated June 27, 2011. Economic growth in Japan has been stuck at less than 1% a year for the past 10 years, exacerbating deflation; wages are down since the March 11 earthquake/tsunami. Chances of a consumer-driven rebound? Slim.

Workers’ allowances peaked in 1990 at the height of the country’s asset and real-estate bubble, with men receiving a monthly 76,000 yen, more than double what they get today, according to the survey. Respondents in [the June 27] report said they spend the greatest proportion of the money on lunch, dispensing an average 490 yen.

That's a beef bowl at Yoshinoya. Or two cucumber rolls from a sidewalk sushi vendor. Or 4 sticks of yakitori from the Food Show.

It's a Coffee Jelly Frappuccino at Starbucks.

Read the story here.

free cake!

This is what happens when you go to a neighborhood restaurant every other week, usually on a Tuesday or Thursday and always an hour earlier than most other patrons would dream of dining (so the place is empty aside from yourselves) over the course of 3+ years. Both the waiter-manager and the cook smile as if greeting old friends, and they start preparing the kids' usual -- fried chicken and margarita pizza. And when your child mentions that it's your birthday (technically it's tomorrow, but whatever), they go all out -- at the end of the meal, before bringing the check, they switch off the lights and, with candles ablaze, deliver a slide of roll cake with sliced strawberries and "Mommy" written in chocolate on the side of the plate. And then they sing. And the manager takes a picture with his own digital camera. And then asks for your email address. And then emails it to you within the hour. With a message that reads, "Thank you for coming every time!" and "We wish you a HAPPY LIFE!"

I love Japan. And I will absolutely keep going to La Boheme-Ebisu.

Usually it's just me and my two boys grabbing dinner at this place, but this time we had friends with us. Standing in the back, arm in arm: Ana and Pedro, recent arrivals from Brazil. Pedro's 3-yr-old brother was with us too, but he missed the photo...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

photo of the day

Spotted on Komazawa-dori, around 9 a.m. Tuesday, heading toward Ebisu. I have to say, it's really not as hard as you might think to pedal in high heels.

for PB&Js

I've never before seen this "peanut cream" (left) but now it's available at the combini!

Mejiro shotengai

I met up with Louisa the other day and we wandered up and down Mejiro's neighborhood shopping street, or shotengai (a term I can't believe took me three years to learn). We grabbed lunch, talked about books and trains and Tohoku, and while walking back to the JR train station, we passed a tatami shop. I didn't realize that underneath the mat's soft top layer of woven straw (onto which this guy is sewing a fabric border) there's a foam core between two boards of compressed wood chips (see lower right). Apparently this is how newer tatami are made; in the old days, the mat was made up of rice straw through and through.

Yakuza in Tohoku

The most important thing is helping the weak. Duty and kindness are second. Then the third would be: don’t betray others.

– Matsuyama Shinichi, chairman of the Kyokuto-kai yakuza organisation, on what it means to be a yakuza member.

For the yakuza helping the relief effort, it’s partly about living up to the slogans they profess. It’s also about getting a stake in the reconstruction of Japan. Construction is big business.

– Tomohiko Suzuki, author of I’ve Met 1,200 Yakuza, investigative journalist and former editor of the yakuza fan magazine Jitsuwa Jidai Bull.

Read this fascinating story by Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice (which I swear I am going to read), about the role of organized crime (yakuza) in Japanese society, and the response by some of its members to the disaster in Tohoku. Think truck loads of food and supplies, delivered immediately and under cover of night...

It's in the Asia Literary Review, vol. 20, Summer 2011.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the boys after school

Shibuya station, West bus terminal

Hiro-o, 1 chome

today's treat from the combini

Purchase motivated solely by packaging.

Score! Something we actually like - caramels.

Monday, June 20, 2011

one of these things

is not like the other...

Who can tell me what these things are? (Hint: my boys collect them and use them whilst doing homework.)

OK, that was an easy one. Now tell me which one isn't one of those things.

Bonus points for the person who reveals the unique problem these things present for an American parent whose kids attend the British School.


What IS the Red Cross doing?

Here's a link to a pdf file from the Red Cross on some of the work they have done so far in the aftermath of the disaster. (When you click on the hyperlinked text above, the pdf file will immediately start downloading to your computer. It's a three-pager, a quick read, and gives a good synopsis but it's the two-month report so it's more than a month old.)

On June 10 the American Red Cross announced it was making another $46 million donation to the Japanese Red Cross, bringing its contributions to date to nearly $210 million.

According to the press release:

Three months on from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coastline ... the Red Cross remains focused on helping to improve living conditions for many of the 98,000 people remaining in evacuation centers - most of which are situated in the hardest hit prefectures of Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate. Japanese Red Cross employees and volunteers are providing a range of services for the evacuees and plans are underway to install washing machines, water tanks for hand washing, privacy partitions and televisions. “The physical and mental health of evacuees is of major concern, particularly where people are facing prolonged stays in centers,” said Alex Mahoney, disaster management expert with the American Red Cross. “Longer-term solutions to find more appropriate accommodation for people who have lost their homes are urgently needed.”

The Red Cross is supporting families moving into temporary housing units provided by the government, helping to restore a sense of normality in their lives. Home appliance packages, comprised of a washing machine, rice cooker, refrigerator, hot water dispenser, microwave and television, will be provided to more than 90,000 families with support from the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross is also increasing the number of caregivers and psychological support teams working in evacuation centers and nursing homes to address mental health issues, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety amongst survivors.

With major damage to health and care services, another priority is to support medical facilities, such as hospitals, clinics and care homes. In Ishinomaki, the Red Cross is planning to boost local health services by building and equipping temporary medical facilities. Specially-equipped beds are also being donated to existing nursing homes across three prefectures where many elderly people require special care.

To date, the Japanese Red Cross has sent approximately $1 billion to 15 municipalities charged with distributing cash grants to the survivors who have lost their homes, loved ones and livelihoods as a result of the tsunami.

Picture of the Day

This is from Japan Today (and this is the link that will take you to the webpage)
(C) OGA for Aid (Daniele Bragaglio)
A wrecked car is seen in Minamisanrikucho, Miyagi Prefecture. More than three months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, people are still in dire need of assistance, say members of OGA for Aid, which has been in the field providing assistance daily based on the motto “no person left behind.”

I met the people of O.G.A. who are busting their butts to help the people of Minamisanriku a couple weeks ago, when I was in Sendai. They made a presentation about their mission and the state of things there, about how the people of this town still aren't getting what they need three months on, and described some of the difficulties and frustrations of relief work. And this is just one town - one that was completely flattened by the tsunami. As of June 1 there were still 9,500 living in shelters (more than half the pre-March 11 population). Click here to read more about this startup NPO and to see the latest needs list. The organization has a Facebook page too.

the choice up north: stay home or eat

This story posted June 18 by the UK's Daily Mail echoes some of the things I've heard first-hand from people I know who've been up to Tohoku and have seen for themselves what's going on up there. And it ain't good.

According to the article: "With unemployment running at 90 per cent, the needy are starting to revolt. One third of families are refusing to move to temporary housing, opting to remain in shelters to hang on to their precious food benefits. Sixty per cent of the 28,000 temporary homes remain unoccupied. A staggering 90,000 people remain in shelters."

And: "The worst affected may prove to be those who lost nothing in the way of homes or relatives. They may have no running water, no money, no employment. But when compensation is finally awarded, they will be entitled to nothing" because they will not qualify as "victims."

Read more:

When I first read the headling I thought the story would be about the people in the devastated areas, turning on each other, that that would be the "proof" that Japanese 'wa' or harmony was a myth, but apparently it is the government that is failing the people, not doing their jobs, not acting quickly or capably to minimize suffering and get recovery going. There are plenty of examples of people helping each other get by, taking neighbors in, etc., so I think there is still some 'wa' on that level. Take the woman in the story Chieko Miura, 62, who has 12 evacuees still living with her in her home on a hilltop just north of Minamisanriku. If that's not wa...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

tourism 'takes a nose dive'


By Chico Harlan
June 15, 2011

TOKYO — Beth Reiber, the freelance writer responsible for the set of Frommer’s guidebooks on Japan, felt lucky just to get on the plane. Her editors had canceled plans to publish a Tokyo guidebook for 2012, thinking it didn’t make sense to spend all that money to publish a book that nobody would buy.

But Reiber pushed back and gave them the same message that Japan is struggling to give the world: Tokyo remains radiation-free and just as safe as always.

The plane from Minneapolis to Tokyo was “packed,” Reiber said, “and I was thinking, ‘That’s great. People are coming to Japan.’ Then we arrived at Narita [airport in Tokyo], and about 30 people got off the plane. The rest went on to Vietnam.”

Although the triple catastrophe of three months ago caused its most acute damage along Japan’s northeastern coast, it changed the image of the entire country, with millions across the globe following the news and concluding that one of the world’s safest nations was no longer so.

Much of this is founded on misperception: A region was battered, not all of Japan. But the March 11 disaster has dealt a severe blow to a tourism industry the nation had been counting on to help offset static domestic consumer demand due to a shrinking population. Tourism and its secondary industries contributed 5.3 percent to Japan’s gross domestic product and accounted for 4.3 million jobs in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the government-run Japan Tourism Agency.

Now, when Japanese officials speak about a brisk recovery powered by necessary reconstruction spending, they acknowledge that the tourism industry could face a particularly long-term setback amid lingering fears about radiation, food safety and the possibility of future quakes.

“Everybody else in the world thinks Japan is saturated with radiation,” said Zensuke Suzuki, an international travel executive at the Japan Tourism Agency. “And we can try to convince people otherwise, but whatever Japan itself says, people won’t really trust.”

Amid the ongoing nuclear crisis, Japanese travel officials have not tried to calculate the effect on foreign tourism. But eventually they will promote not just Tokyo but also major cities such as Kyoto and Osaka that are farther from the disaster zone. They will also promote travel to the tsunami­-battered Tohoku region, in the hopes that tourism can boost its ailing economy.

Radiation fears

Japan’s travel agencies used to base their campaigns on postcard images: geishas, white-capped mountains, plates of sushi. Buses docked every afternoon along the main shopping streets in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district, depositing Chinese tourists who thronged department stores that had signs in Mandarin and ATMs from Beijing-based banks. The Japanese government designated 2011 as a benchmark year for tourism, hoping for the first time to exceed 10 million international travelers.

Now, the Japan National Tourism Organization posts radiation levels from around the world on its Web site. (Most days, Seoul has twice the background radiation that Tokyo does.) In April, the number of tourists visiting Japan was down 62.5 percent from the same month last year, and a comparable decline was expected for May, though statistics have not been released. Airlines have slashed flights. Small-hotel owners fear for their businesses. New York’s Metropolitan Opera came recently to Japan for a three-week tour, but two of its superstar singers backed out at the last moment because of radiation concerns.

For celebrities who do come to Japan, their mere arrival sometimes doubles as a sign of solidarity and hope. Despite reported fears among his crew members, pop star Justin Bieber kept his plans for two Japan shows, in Osaka and Tokyo. “Like I said . . . we are going to JAPAN! #supportjapan,” he tweeted May 8. Ten days later, he was at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, posing for photos with nine schoolchildren from Tohoku.

“Justin, I just want to tell you how much we admire you and appreciate you coming here to Japan,” U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos told the singer. “You’re a very special young man, sending a message to the entire world.”

In a way, Japan is depending on outsiders — celebrities, travel writers and government officials — to reassure foreigners. The United States recommends that its citizens avoid travel within a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but on May 16 it relaxed the restriction slightly, advising that people could safely use the bullet-train line and the Tohoku expressway, which cut through the no-go zone.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Daiichi facility last month during a trilateral summit, they ate locally grown cherries and cucumbers, and both pledged to help Japan’s tourism industry recover. A week later, a 100-member delegation of Chinese travel officials visited Japan.

“Having [Wen] come, that has had an enormous effect,” said Shinya Kurosawa, an executive at JTB, the largest travel agency in Japan. “But nothing will improve drastically overnight. There hasn’t been any proof to say that there has been an end to the radiation danger, and that has a lot of impact on the consumer psychology.”

Few foreign faces

For Reiber, the travel writer, this latest trip to Japan has underscored the depth of that impact. Every day, she picks a neighborhood, touring hotel rooms, double-checking restaurant menus, asking about operating hours. On her first day, in Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood, she saw “four foreigners total.” When she visited one branch of the Sakura guesthouse, a worker there said it was catering to a domestic clientele and offering cheaper prices.

Reiber has been coming here for almost 30 years, starting in 1983 — Japan’s economic-powerhouse years, when the country didn’t need tourists and didn’t try to get them. After spending several months here in 2009, compiling the 10th edition of the Frommer’s Japan travel guidebook, she wrote about the way in which the nation’s recession had forced the beginning of the tourist industry. She wrote about 100-yen stores and lunch deals at upscale restaurants. She wrote that “virtually every prefecture” is “trying to figure out how to lure more international travelers.”

On Monday, Reiber spent several hours walking through the Akasaka area, a salaryman-friendly neighborhood of office buildings and lunchtime eating spots. At the exclusive Hotel Okura, a luxury spot for foreigners, she asked whether the hotel was still offering its afternoon tea service and free shuttle bus. Reiber took notes.

“International guests — do you have fewer now?” Reiber asked.

“It’s half of what it was,” one employee told her.

“Is it getting better?”

“Yes. Slowly.”

A few hours later, Reiber talked about the ways in which Tokyo feels dimmer, cheaper, more homogenous. She still isn’t sure how her Frommer’s guide will address radiation concerns. Until a few years ago, she said, the guidebook included an entry for the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s free museum, an eight-floor center with displays about energy history and the safety of nuclear power. She said she eventually deleted the entry, because the museum appeared like a shameless company advertisement.

The museum closed May 31.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

If you want to see photos...

You can click here to see my Flickr album, but my snaps are nothing compared to the talented work of two pros, Dee & Tracey from 37 Frames. (There are a few great shots in my album but they are the ones that I "borrowed" from fellow volunteers who shared their pics with me on Facebook. It's not theft, it's a tribute!)

Dee & Tracey's brilliant shots, which you can view here on their blog, show in living color the condition of northeast Japan after the Great Tohoku earthquake/tsunami of March 11. They have driven relief supplies up to the area a few times already and so have several photo-driven journals posted over the last three months. In "Black Mouth," an account of their first trip up to Ishinomaki posted March 29, they wrote something that sort sums up how I justified my own recent weekend up there with a group of mainly Western businesspeople ("Get Your Hands Dirty" program organized by ACCJ): "All we can do is make a difference on a human level. Try and help, assist, listen to one person. Touch one. If we could all affect this, volunteer even for a day, reach out to just one person then collectively tides of survival give way to those of recovery and life beyond."

This follow-up was posted on April 19, after their second visit:
"[In] downtown Ishinomaki ... the big white boat on the corner now doesn’t wait to cross the road. The dramatically parked red fishing vessel is also gone, the streets a little bit clearer, change certainly occurring here." When I walked through the downtown area with my group on June 5, most storefronts were still dark, but a school uniform shop was open for business and you could see through the front windows that it was stocked with merchandise. An izakaya was functioning as a kitchen for Peace Boat's food service for the people in nearby shelters. But signs of life (economic and otherwise) were few and far between. And the waterfront was flat, bleak, a mess.

Click here to see some more of Dee & Tracey's astonishing photographs, so beautifully rendered. I should've linked to them ages ago.

Monday, June 13, 2011

the holdup

From the blog Foreign Volunteers Japan, posted June 10 (reprinted from Yomiuri Daily newspaper):

Less than half of the more than 80 billion yen in disaster-relief donations already sent to prefectures affected by the March 11 quake and tsunami has reached the hands of people waiting for urgently needed cash to rebuild their shattered lives.

To be paid, a person needs a disaster victim certificate. To get a certificate, one must undergo an inspection. The problem is that there is not enough staff to handle the issuing of the certificates, which has severely slowed up distribution of the donation money.

Click here to read the full article. (Foreign Volunteers Japan is also a Facebook Group. And here's a link to its Ongoing Volunteer Opportunities page. There are so many organizations out there striving to help fix the unfixable. )

Facts and figures:
Municipalities in Miyagi prefecture have paid out just 28% of the 33.1 billion yen they've received in donations; in Fukushima, the rate is higher: 61% of the 35 billion yen received has been distributed. In Iwate prefecture, 47% of 10.2 billion yen has gone out to victims.

This is interesting: If your house was completely destroyed, you get 350,000 yen. Partial damage, either by tsunami or fire: 180,000 yen.

But there's another issue in all this. It's my understanding from Peace Boat that local governments at least in Miyagi prefecture have yet to determine whether certain areas should be rebuilt. Those residents who receive their compensation and move forward with reconstruction without awaiting official word on this could end up being told to relocate, their streets declared unsafe. How long can people wait? Not just for the money, but to find out the fate of their neighborhoods?

It's a fair question. But rebuilding in the same spot that got swept away with the March 11 tsunami seems, well shortsighted. But it wouldn't be the first time. This Japan Times article looks at several communities that refused to leave low-lying areas despite previous wipe-outs. Yoshihama in Iwate prefecture was an exception -- only four houses were lost and only one person died on March 11, because the town had relocated its homes to higher ground after the devastating tsunami of 1896. For other towns it took a double whammy -- 1896 and again in 1933 -- to convince people to consider moving. According to the article, in those other towns the fishermen were inclined to prioritize convenience over an uncertain threat, and so they returned to resettle again on lower ground close to the sea. Then others would follow the fishermen's lead.

At a party the other night I was talking to someone (who's in a position to know about these things) about the frustrations of assisting with the relief and recovery efforts, and he said that this resistance to leave the coast will not change even now. The fisherman from these small towns on the Tohoku coast simply do not want to live away from where their boats are docked.

Another thing this guy said: without qualification, the Japanese government has failed the people of Tohoku "on every level," in the way they've responded (or not) to the events of three months ago. The best way for somebody to help out is not to go through "proper channels" but to find out what is needed in a particular place (by talking to somebody who's on the ground, officially or not), to acquire those things, and then to drive them up north and hand them out yourself. My friend Lisa, along with her husband and some friends, did exactly that last weekend. Here is a photo of her after one of her supermarket runs:

I was skeptical of these kinds of rogue relief operations but I'm not anymore. I should point out that Lisa knows somebody who'd been living in the area for three months who could direct and guide her. I still think that's important, to have contacts like that. Avoid the red tape, play the gaijin card.

I just wish I had a car. And a license to drive in Japan. And kids who could fend for themselves, or a full time nanny.

Big Blue, we like your style

Watch Peace Boat volunteers from IBM hoist bags of contaminated soil that our crew had just dug out of a small park:

Shot June 3, 2011, in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture

Saturday, June 11, 2011

what June looks like

Three months after 3/11, Tokyo still feels different and yet is very much the same. Take the hydrangeas, which always seem to sprout up everywhere this time of year, in the parks, on the side of the road, in pots outside doorways, wherever there is a bit of landscaping or spot of green, like so many mini cheerleader pom-poms.

Have always loved this lumpy stone lantern, which anchors the north end of Ebisu Prime Square, the bricked plaza up the stairs from the Lawson's and the Dexy Diner and the fountain, and right across the street from our building where most weekday afternoons a group of dogs and their owners get together for a playdate.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Go Team 2!

Louisa and me. I was lucky to have her on my team in Ishinomaki last weekend. Those two-hour bus rides out to Peace Boat's base camp passed very quickly when we were seated next to each other.

A few days after we had returned to Tokyo, she emailed this to me: "I'm looking out my window at the incredible clutter of buildings and antennae and water towers, lightning rods, ventilation ductwork, water pipes, air conditioners, all chockablock (great Tokyo landscape). There are four guys out there on assorted roofs, dressed kind of like you in the picture (above)! I love this view and how I can see, on the exteriors of the buildings, how all the innards work. But it was another thing to see the innards inside out, so to speak, banged up and shredded, and to think of them as, well, dead."

Here's all of Team 2 (there were six teams of 7 total) at the end of our second work day, posing in front of the heap of trash bags we had spent the last several hours filling with toxic gutter slime and contaminated soil from somebody's yard (two other teams worked with us on this).
From right to left: The corporate trainer (Miyuki, Japanese), the Japanese translator (Brendan, American), the seasoned Peace Boat volunteer (Kenta, Japanese, assigned to make sure we didn't hurt ourselves, I imagine - see previous post), the construction firm exec (Adrian, Australian), the business school professor and organizer of this whole weekend (Tish, American), the history professor (Louisa, American), the writer (me, American), and the recruiter (Tomoyo, Japanese). Love all you guys.

And here's the whole lot of us:
It looks like Yoshioka-san, Peace Boat's founding director (front row, second from left, with Kenta sitting to his right) is holding up my chin with his thumb.

Click here to see more photos on Flickr.

Teyandei in Nishi-Azabu

Here's a great place to eat, not that expensive, and they get extra points for having a waiter on staff who happened to be standing outside when I arrived, saw that I did not have a lock for my bike, and so went inside to get one for me and then tied my front wheel to a pole himself. It was a combination lock so he had to unlock it upon my departure as well. (He had to come outside anyway to tell our group to hush as we were talking quite loudly and disturbing the neighbors.)

Our set menu consisted of some sesame tofu, a bit of unagi-tamago roll and pickled veg to start, fried yams with lemon and fresh cabbage leaves and a tasty dip, assorted sashimi, pork dumpling soup with a delightfully crunch chili-oil (we think the crispy bits were toasted garlic), onigiri, and for dessert, a slab of lovely vanilla ice cream inside a round of maple-sweetened crusty bread (unexpected, and delicious).

How to get there: if you are traveling along Roppongi dori, away from Shibuya station, turn left down a quiet narrow street (it's actually two one-way roads -- follow the direction of the traffic) a few meters shy of Gaein-nishi-dori (if you get to the big Gonpachi on the opposite corner, across the intersection, you've gone too far).

Once you've turned off Roppongi dori, continue along for a few minutes; the road will curve slightly to the left but you're basically staying straight. The restaurant will be on your left-hand side, in a two-story converted private house on the corner. Not much signage, just a small paper lantern and tasteful bamboo decorating the outside. Look for the signpost announcing that you are at 2-20 Nishi Azabu (address is 2-20-1).

I think the review sums it up well:

This is a comfortable neighborhood izakaya that serves terrific food. ...with decor that veers toward the traditional end of the scale. Traditional, but never stuffy - the friendly, upbeat staff set the tone, and their enthusiastic shouts and the celebratory sounds from the upstairs party space create a lively auditory backdrop.


I've seen a lot of dolled-up dogs over the last 3+ years, but nothing that comes close to this.

Check out the kicks:

Here's a closeup of the front legs and paws

Now the hindleg view

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

This Sunday: Peace Boat info session

Just pulled this straight off the Peace Boat website:

Peace Boat will hold an event on June 12 (Sunday) to report on its activities in Ishinomaki in the three months following the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

Yamamoto “Jr” Takashi, Peace Boat executive committee member who was one of the first on the scene in Ishinomaki to set the foundations for the relief and recovery efforts, will come to Tokyo from Ishinomaki to report about the situation. Other panelists will include musician SUGIZO who participated as a volunteer in Ishinomaki, Libyan student Adel Suliman who has acted as coordinator of many volunteers in the field, and other international volunteers and coorporate representatives. The second half of the event will be an information session for people considering volunteering in the affected areas in June or July.

Date: June 12, 2011 (Sun)
Part 1: 2 pm – 3:30 pm; Part 2: 4 pm – 6 pm
Venue: JICA Global Plaza
Bookings: Peace Boat Disaster Volunteer Centre
TEL: 03-3363-7967 (10:00-19:00, closed Sundays and public holidays)

Visit the Japanese homepage for full details about this event here.

Note: We are still confirming if English interpretation will be available on the day, please check again later for details.

[Editor's note: If you can not speak Japanese you must go up for an entire week, an the orientation is mandatory. No shorter stints available unless you bring a bilingual friend, according to my friend Kathleen who tried to sign up for three days.]

the comedown

I'm back in my nice Tokyo apartment, feeling like a very lucky human being with my safe, healthy family, modern appliances and a kitchen full of food, electricity and wi-fi and functioning washlets, restaurants and shops and the dry cleaner down the road all open for business, trains and buses and taxis at my disposal. The big city, a world away from the Tohoku disaster zone, is getting on with things. The boys are in school, so the apartment is quiet and I am sitting at my computer and thinking about last weekend, its purpose, how to use it as a jumping off point to do some more volunteer work. The kinds of things I'd like to do, I can't do, because they require running away from home and abandoning the spouse and offspring. Oh to be unattached and between jobs... wait, I don't really want to be that, just sayin'.

This is Kenta, fellow gutter-worker (we took turns shoveling the slimy black stuff and holding a bag open so the other could drop it in -- eeeyewww). You can see the concrete covers resting there like fallen dominos, which the bigger/stronger members of our team removed and placed to the side so we could get into the muck. But to the left are some pieces of plastic and slate and glass covered in all that black gunk that were stuffed into the gutter as well. We had to pry those out with a crowbar (well, Kenta did that while I watched and admired his skills).

This was one of Kenta's last days volunteering with Peace Boat. He had spent the last month camping in a tent on Ishinomaki Senshu University grounds like so many other volunteers. He turned up shortly after quitting his job, which he said he was planning to do anyway, before March 11, to bike around Japan. (He has since postponed that trip). Kenta joined our group as a seasoned hand, and I was lucky to work with him on that second day of our 3-day tour.

On Sunday we did not work, but instead went to see some of the other things Peace Boat has going on in Ishinomaki, and then out to the more severely devastated areas along the coast. And for that, there are no words. Well yes there are words, such as, obliterated and astonishing and incredibly sad. Japan's Self-Defense forces are still looking for bodies in the rubble here. There is no rebuilding happening, and no word about when it might start. In these hardest-hit areas (we were in Miyagi prefecture but the tsunami also destroyed parts of Iwate, to the north, and Fukushima to the south), the local government hasn't decided where it should allow people to rebuild, where it will be safe to rebuild. Survivors are in limbo.

The stench in Ishinomaki's coastal Minato-ku is ghastly -- a lethal combination of sewage, rot and decay, I imagine, more potent than the gutters we cleaned (you had to bend down and get close to that gutter sludge to smell it, while here a face mask isn't enough). At least in the neighborhood where we were working, a few kilometers inland, many of the houses are still standing (if partially structurally damaged) and the roads are clear for vehicles to get through. We saw one car wedged between two small apartment buildings and another stuck in a tree. We saw piles of trash and a couch near a boat in a dirt lot. But there's just no comparison.

Earlier in the day we stopped at the base for a glimpse at part of Peace Boat's takidashi (emergency feeding) operation -- an izakaya in Ishinomaki city where volunteers cook the food that is then picked up by delivery van and taken to nearby evacuation centers, three times a day. Our group gathered in a small upstairs tatami room (sleeping quarters for some of Peace Boat's volunteers) for a look at the area map they had tacked up onto the wall. "Junior" Yamamoto -- Peace Boat founding director Yoshioka-san's right-hand man up there -- pointed out the fishing village we would later be taken through, including Onagawa, which must have been one stunning little coastal town right on the coast surrounded by green forests and beautiful mountains.

Yoshioka-san -- who spent most of the day with us -- told us that once survivors move into temporary housing, which is already starting to happen, they are no longer eligible to receive these hot meals they're providing at the centers because, the thinking goes, they will then have their own kitchens in which to cook for themselves. Trouble is, most don't have cars anymore (as they were all washed away and busted up by the tsunami) so can't get to a supermarket (the few and far between that are actually open and stocked) and anyway they have little funds with which to buy any food, because there are no jobs so there's no income. Doesn't give much incentive to leave the evacuation center. Yoshioka-san said he was thinking of starting up a food-delivery service to the new homes, much like the 'Meals on Wheels' program in the U.S. that brings food to poor house-bound elderly. He just needs the money and the manpower and the vehicles....

It is quite discouraging to see all that is needed up there, the enormity of it all. But also inspiring to see those who are working their tail off to get relief and recovery efforts going. There are Peace Boat volunteers who are living there, without pay, working day after day, week after week, month after month and sleeping on factory warehouse floors or in tents in a field, like my new friend Kenta. Not that our group didn't work hard, but we were in and out in three days and had private cozy hotel rooms and hot showers, electrical outlets in which to plug in our iphones, a 7-Eleven down the street and an izakaya around the corner. (Sendai city proper did not experience the effects of the March 11 quake.) We took the bullet train there and traveled locally by luxury coach. At least we gave the Chisun business hotel in Sendai some solid business. And I'm sure the izakaya that a dozen of us kept open late on Saturday night appreciated our bloated bar bill. So our presence was a not insignificant infusion into the local economy. Oh and we were told that the money we paid to go on the trip included a 15,000 yen donation to Peace Boat, so there's that as well.

Since I've been back I've been thinking what else I could possibly do, from Tokyo and during school hours. Lots of people on our trip said they hoped to return to Ishinomaki with a whole bus load of colleagues, which is good, because fewer folks are heading up there these days that did in the weeks immediately following the catastrophe. Numbers peaked during Golden Week, when there were three national holidays in a row (so volunteers needed only take two vacation days in order to spend 8 straight days pitching in). But there's been a dramatic drop since then, and student volunteers are not expected until the summer holidays (late July-August).

But Tohoku needs more than just day laborers clearing debris out of public parks and people's yards and taking toxic slime out of street gutters. They also need people to help with the big-picture stuff, like getting the fishing industry back on its feet, and local businesses up and running again. Question is how, where, who, how. They need international corporations with expertise and resources. How to make those connections and get that stuff going? I'm out of my depth here but maybe there's a small role for me to play, if only to write something that someone else reads and then decides to take action. So I am looking at ways to do that.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

ok, a tiny dent

I am on the bus heading back to the hotel in Sendai at the end of day two volunteering for Peace Boat in Ishinomaki. Thinking we did a good job. My team shoveled a lot of inky black sludge today, some of the nastiest shit I have ever seen, a malodorous blend of what looked like motor oil and smelled like fertilizer (probably run off from nearby factories that had been destroyed), with regular old dirt and the random item mixed in- squares of kitchen floor tile, a ceramic cup, a door handle. This toxic stew is clogging street gutters all over town. It took a dozen of us 5 or 6 hours to dig out a 100-yard or so section running in front of a single two story house (standing) and detached garage (gutted). There was a sidelined Harley and busted piano at one end, field of debris at the other.

When the the last bag had been wheelbarrowed out to the collection heap, when the guys had put the last concrete cover plate down over what had become a slowly moving river of filth, it felt like a triumph. It was watery and it was flowing. Maybe a miniscule achievement in the grand scheme of things, but it was something.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

in Sendai

We're all checked in at the Chisun Hotel in Sendai. I am in a single room with bath and mini fridge and electric kettle so in the morning I will be able to drink the instant coffee that I brought from home. I am happy about this.

Got to know the members of my team during the 2-hr shinkansen trip up from Tokyo. A couple of them said they felt apprehensive, not about their personal safety, but about how much they will really get to do. There is concern that they won't do enough, that their contribution won't be meaningful.

We've each been given rubber work gloves and cotton liners, and face masks to keep us from breathing in dust, but it's supposed to rain tomorrow so maybe that won't be an issue. We're to report to the lobby at 6 am. We will go to Ishinomaki by bus- about an hour away. At 7:30 am we will join other Peace Boat volunteers for the morning exercises, and then, I presume, we'll get our assignments.

I should get to sleep but I am too keyed up.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

making a dent

Many people I know here in Tokyo have a strong urge to jump in the car and drive up to the devastated areas with a carload of kitchen appliances or donated bicycles or other items that can help displaced persons restart their lives. Some have already done so. I say go for it -- as long as you've made contact with somebody who's there and knows what's needed and can guide you and help you stay safe. With 200 km of northeast coastline destroyed and 27,000 dead or missing, I imagine the relief orgs could use all the help they can get. The March 11 tsunami submerged 443 square km of coastal areas (!), sweeping across cities, villages, farmland. A half million people displaced! It's said to be the worst humanitarian disaster since WWII.*

Not having a car of my own, or much ability to read/write/speak or understand Japanese, I lack the means to go rogue -- I also don't have the guts. (Oh, and I've got two young children to look after, besides.) The only way for me to physically help out is to go with a group, for a limited time, under the supervision of an organization already working in the affected areas. Which is what I'm doing this weekend while Terry stays home with the kids. I'll be traveling up to Sendai then on to Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture (one of the worst affected areas) along with 40 or so other volunteers, mainly young professionals who responded to a call from the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ). Each of us attended the required orientation and paid 88,000 yen to cover train fare, bus transport, hotel stay, meals, insurance, supplies and a donation. (For 35,000 yen you could sleep on a factory warehouse floor; for 115,000 yen, you sleep at the Westin.)

ACCJ has arranged for us to work under the supervision of Peace Boat, an NGO working with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. They've brought 2,000 volunteers into the area to date -- all of whom, it's worth mentioning, returned unharmed, according to Yoshioka Tatsuya, the founding director. (This guy made one helluva presentation at the orientation last week, which I'll recount in more detail later. For now I'll just say that during the safety briefing/warning portion of that evening, after somebody shared that there had been some 120 volunteers deaths reported -- folks falling off a roof or being hit on the head by falling debris, that sort of thing -- Yoshioka-san reassured us that none of these unlucky souls had been working for Peace Boat.)

The ACCJ contingent has been grouped into teams of six, each with a bilingual leader; we are to wear waterproof jackets and pants and knee-high rubber boots (I got all three at D2 for less than 6,000 yen) and hardhats (provided); towels to help sop up the sweat, and a bandanna on hand should anybody need a tourniquet (to quote the packing list).

We will be cleaning up people's homes and shoveling mud. This is the manual labor phase of the recovery -- soon efforts will turn toward resuscitating businesses and local governments. Yoshioka-san told us at the orientation that by wiping dirt off someone's family photo album, or scrubbing a kitchen floor, or making a living room inhabitable again, we will help restore some hope and dignity to those who lost both on 3/11. I want to believe him. I'm just one person, and I'm probably not strong enough to carry one end of a rolled-up, ruined tatami mat out to the trash heap, but I can do other things, and so I am going to go and do what I can do. Wish me luck.

An article about the ACCJ program ran today in The Japan Times. Click here to read it.

*Source: Peace Boat report entitled 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Emergency Relief Operation