Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!

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