I intended to write a post to commemorate the March ’11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan… How does one commemorate a mammoth natural disaster? By remembering those who died indiscriminately; by praying for those who struggle to reconstruct their lives and surroundings; by honouring the people who have volunteered and led the clean-up; by wondering how the Japanese state will cope with the stratospheric ramifications of the disaster through policy and strategy?
I can’t. I don’t want to – go over the same human stories covered by the Sunday papers and radio accounts. Rescue miracles, family tragedies, enduring charity, and unerring strength of spirit. Japanese qualities and stereotypes in abundance – the calm, the austerity, the samurai mentality, ordered, polite, post-war perseverance, punctuated by ‘out of character’ anti-nuclear protests. Such stories have their roots in reality, but obscure how humans – from any culture, cope with emergency, and how such tragedy has been experienced by the nation as a whole.
Commentators reflect on the impact of reconstruction on the Japanese lifestyle with a drama which denies the conclusion that many of the transformations occurring in Japan, magnified by tragedy, existed before 3/11… So, my commemoration for a country deeply important to me is to remember those people whose localism, originality and innovation existed long before a tidal wave put community, self-sufficiency and home grown on the national agenda:
Salaryman atop hill
A crisp, clear day so aqua blue that the sky was in danger of reflecting on the ground. I was sharing a car drive through the hills and countryside of my local area after harvesting rice (yes). As we passed through green, verdant landscape it felt like even the wilderness had been gardened carefully by a natural hand. My companion decided we must visit the top of the valley to view the horizon, and said that it would be ideal to do so from a small farmstead growing organic beans. The owner of the farm, ex-city ‘salaryman’ turned farmer was an inspiration. He had fled Tokyo, and an endless list of city evils, and planted a new life for himself with an organic farm. Intent on being completely environmentally friendly he was building a home alongside the farmhouse entirely out of eco-materials to a design of his own. I have never really met a Japanese hippy, but I have encountered his air of complete inoffensive indifference and Zen on many occasions over there. He casually gave us a tour of the build – pointing out the treated straw insulation, mud brick layers, goats hair insulation etc… he humbly described the open plan circular design; single, centrally contained room and the building process that he had initiated independently. There is nothing more inspirational than meeting someone who has combined beauty and purpose, practicality with impulse, for purely personal contentment and wellbeing. Not even a hint of the desire for recognition or reward for his imagination and resourcefulness.
Friday-Curry Dinner Lady
In the large staffroom of the school where I worked, sixty-odd teachers ate lunch at their desks. From Monday to Thursday this was either a homemade lunch, or a pre-ordered box delivery from the local lunchbox shops (most boxes are reusable, and are delivered and collected everyday by the same local owners). Fridays, however, beckoned a weekly event that never failed to fascinate me. Half an hour before the lunch bell, a rotund dinner lady, ancient enough to have been pickled many times over, would heave a set of canteen cooking utensils into the staffroom. Once this was accomplished, she perched them at the far end of the room on the desks of part-time teachers who didn’t mind their workstations becoming a feeding ground. As soon as she entered, the room was awash with the thick, sweet smell of Japanese curry – a brown goo closer to treacle than Dhal. Teachers prepared their own plates and cutlery and stood excitedly around her for helpings of the week’s cheap and cheerful hot lunch. There was something so quaint and nostalgic about her worn white apron, red headscarf and old ice cream box full of loose change… I have no idea whether Friday staffroom curries have existed for decades or are a recent addition to the staff’s lunch options. Yet, the festivity and parade of the occasion not only fed those hardworking teachers some stodge and overpowered the smell of chalk and book dust for an hour; it briefly brought everyone together for a moment of childish glee at the surprise of each week’s menu and amused everyone in the queue with the sound of colleague’s hungry, rumbling tummies.
Pan man is a tricky character to describe trying as I am to be Politically Congenial: he was the scariest person I ever met in Japan. Scrap that… the scariest person I have ever met. Though I feared Pan Man’s sporadic and unannounced visits to my staffroom desk, I will remember the theory behind his visits as being admirable. To begin with, he was toothless, a single tobacco stained relic loomed from his gormless gums. He grinned eerily. He was significantly more stained and dirty than you would expect of someone trying to sell you food. He shouted… more accurately, he screamed at the top of his voice. You could hear him approaching in the lobby downstairs, some minutes before the thumping of his carousing gait came tumbling through the staffroom doors. Nothing akin to market stall calls, his screams were the repetition of ‘pan’ and ‘buy my pan’ in a voice so threatening that many teachers were undoubtedly bullied into buying pan that they didn’t want. Pan means bread. He approached me with hand outstretched and I knew what would happen. He grabbed mine, shaking it vigorously in a tight wrench and refused to release me. This is not an exaggeration… he punched me on the arm once when I tried to pry my hand back. A playful punch, one might commiserate, if it hadn’t hurt so much. He took things from my desk and I had to fight to get them back. His visits were feared, notorious, and perplexing. His departure a relief that lingered in the air long after the sound of his white van had spun off school grounds. Why was he allowed to visit, without warning, brandishing a box half empty with the dregs of a second-rate bakery, to peddle his wares in our workplace? Because he came from a local project giving industries to adults with learning disabilities, he was being cared for through work – and this was something to acknowledge by compliance, (alternatively the school may simply have been too scared to turn him away…)
Originality in the provisioning of shelter, employment, sustenance and community care: these are all themes repeatedly reported on in 3/11 ‘aftermath’ coverage. Every effort to rebuild lives in more eco-friendly and socially beneficial ways are remarkable: I just wanted to commemorate the idea that a nation doesn’t need a disaster to implement such changes.