Away from home when disaster strikes : Diary from a UK-based Japanese community after the Tohoku catastrophe


Watching the devastating scenes and reading the horrific headlines of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, our thoughts immediately go to the Japanese people in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefecture. From these images and texts, we both consciously and unconsciously imagine what the victims are experiencing. The unbelievable footage of cars, trains and houses being swept away by enormous tsunami waves seem more like scenes from a poorly filmed action movie than real life. As the Japanese author Murakami Haruki remarked when he visited Denmark in the summer of 2010, the border between fiction and reality has indeed become blurred. Still, from my desk far away from Japan, I suspect that what these people are suffering by far exceeds whatever misfortune I am able to construct in my imagination, even with these extremely vivid visual aids.

From outside Japan, we also anxiously hold our breath together with the Japanese nation as the uncertain nuclear problem at the Fukushima plant, less than 250 kilometres away from the densely populated Japanese capital, unfolds. Thanks to e-mail, Skype and other communication technologies, I am in daily contact with friends and colleagues in Tokyo, my home until about a year and a half ago. Several tell me they have fled the city, heading south, and some non-Japanese acquaintances have (temporarily) left Japan to seek shelter with family in Europe. However, most people I know simply try to get on with life. “It may take two hours to get to work instead of the usual half hour train ride, but that is no reason to stay home”, my friend working in the national police research department wrote three days after the quake. Others have been going out for lunch as usual or made sure their pre-booked kabuki theatre tickets did not go to waste. This of course stands in sharp contrast to the empty supermarket shelves portrayed by the international media.

Japanese communities in Cambridge

But how about Japanese people outside Japan who are watching these events unfold through international news media and via online Japanese web pages or obtain information directly from friends and family via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and the Japanese network site Mixi? Although they are physically far from the still shaking grounds of the Tohoku region, psychologically they no doubt feel very close to the people there. But unlike their fellow country men and women in unaffected parts of Japan, who also only experience this devastating disaster through media images, Japanese people outside Japan have no long-established community where they can give and receive support to cope with their psychological scars. An e-mail that I and several UK-based Japanese people received from a recent Cambridge PhD graduate who arrived back in Miyagi prefecture only a few days before the earthquake states, “by contrast I am lucky. Since the earthquake I have been with my family, seeing the following unfolding events from inside Japan. You, who are all far away in Cambridge, must be extremely worried – probably impatiently waiting without being able to do anything”. She later offered to post Japanese newspapers, which many recipients graciously appreciated.

Currently enrolled as a PhD student in contemporary Japanese cultural studies at the University of Cambridge, I have strived to become part of the Japanese community in Cambridge ever since I left Tokyo in September 2009. Although entering such a closed community as a non-Japanese can be difficult, since September 2010, I have found myself in the position of Vice President for the Japanese Interdisciplinary Forum (十色会 Toiro-kai), a university society that arranges academic talks and discussions in Japanese by UK-based Japanese researchers. I have also been fortunate enough to become accepted into the smaller and more informal Cambridge Japanese Society (ケンブリッジ 日本人会Cambridge Nihonjin-kai). Although some members belong to both these societies, most who attend Toiro-kai’s events are professors, researchers and graduate students, whereas housewives, their families and English language school students tend to dominate Nihonjin-kai meetings. In contrast to both Toiro-kai and Nihonjin-kai, the Anglo-Japanese Society, which is run by undergraduates, many with an international upbringing and therefore often not considered ‘real’ Japanese by those who have grow up in Japan, has some non-Japanese members. But apart from being on their e-mail list, I have not had much contact with them. That is until the recent tragedy in Japan.

Business as usual

As it happens, we had scheduled a Toiro-kai event to take place the day after the earthquake. My first thought was that at such an emotional time, it would be impossible to gather our members for a panel discussion on Japanese manufacturing in the global economy. However, the decision reached by the committee was to immediately join the “Japan Earthquake Relief Fund” established by several UK universities and societies, but otherwise carry on with business as usual. So on the night of Saturday 12th March, after only a brief moment during which the president expressed sorrow, I and a large crowd of Toiro-kai members took part in a three-hour long discussion on how Japanese companies are positioned on the global market. One panellist had family in one of the worst tsunami-ravaged areas, and with no information regarding his two grandmothers in residence there; he assumed that they had both drowned in the waves.

On Monday the 13th, a professor from Kyushu University in south Japan gave a talk on East Asian archaeology at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He began by explaining that while he had briefly considered cancelling his talk, he decided against it because the most important tool for academics to overcome hard times is to keep communicating and to keep undertaking research. Seeing him there, adeptly discussing how colonialism and the study of archaeology have influenced our current understanding of East Asian relations, I felt a sense of shame about my inability to carry on with my own PhD work.

The next day Tuesday the 15th, I took part in a Toiro-kai presentation to Japanese high school students who were on a school trip to the UK. The students and their teachers had left Japan the day after the earthquake following their school’s decision not to cancel the trip. The two hours I spent with this group, together with six other Toiro-kai members from various Cambridge University departments, were fun and full of energy. The teachers of these future adults were determined not to miss the opportunity to give their students a chance to experience life at an international educational institution in the hope that one day some of them would take up the challenge of studying abroad. The Cambridge-based Japanese hosts were likewise determined to carry on with the event. In fact, teachers, students and hosts all seemed to share the same thought that their most important contribution was to not despair but instead fulfil each of their respective responsibilities the best they could. This is how we should also understand the mindset of the Japanese MBA students in Cambridge University, all of whom sat through several exams alongside fellow students from across the world without even considering asking to have their tests postponed. This pride in carrying on as usual seems to be a way of dealing with grief and anxiety by insisting on continuing the present into the future.

Standing together with grief

On Wednesday the 16th, I attended a service held at the Selwyn College chapel in memory of the Japanese people who lost their lives in the tragedy. I was surprised to find that Buddhist elements had been incorporated into the otherwise Christian service. A Japanese PhD student in psychology and her British husband, a minister of the Church of England, together organized the service as a venue for the Japanese community in Cambridge to mourn. The chapel was crowded with both Japanese and non-Japanese people alike, though the majority by far was made up of the former, many of whom were quite unfamiliar with the English church. During the service, undergraduates from the Anglo-Japanese society read out messages they had received from friends in Sendai and other places in Japan. More than anything these carefully selected texts expressed forward-looking togetherness and encouragement. Personally, the service gave me an opportunity to cry. Cry for what I don’t understand about this tragedy and for my friends in Japan. For my friend in Fukushima, who I have not been able to contact and for my friends in Tokyo, with whom a part of me wishes I could rejoin in Japan. After we left the Buddhist-incense-filled chapel an undergraduate student burst into tears while stammering, “I know I shouldn’t cry. My family and friends are all safe while the people in Tohoku are suffering.” I couldn’t find anything to say other than that it was probably important for her to cry.

That night I had dinner with three students from the Japanese language class that I teach at Wolfson College. Joining us were several Japanese friends, including two young language school students from Tohoku University. Needless to say both had been extremely anxious about the whereabouts of their family and friends with whom they had only been able to establish contact with the previous day. Eating home-cooked Japanese food while talking with other Japanese and a few Europeans about all sorts of things – from anxiety related to the disaster to the challenges of learning the Japanese language – made a diverse group of Japanese professionals, university students and language school students come together. Under normal circumstances, the mix of age and social position between people who had never met before would have required a certain level of formal language and behavioural norms, but on this occasion it seemed that the common ‘Japanese-ness’ was the one factor that brought each of them comfort, allowing them to relate to one another on unusually friendly terms from the start.

Look forward – take action

During the dinner, one of the language school students told me he refused to sit and watch and, despite being worried about complying with British fundraising laws, he intended to raise funds on the streets of Cambridge. He later described a chance meeting the following morning with a Japanese housewife, who had written to the Mayor of Cambridge requesting permission to solicit donations and within only 15 hours of her request (a process that usually takes over two weeks) had managed to secure a fundraising permit. He immediately joined forces with her, and accompanied by several members of the Anglo-Japanese Society, together they raised nearly £10,000 in just two days. When I congratulated them, the housewife laughed, remarking that, “as a housewife, I know where the well-to-do do their grocery shopping, so I told the students to meet me there”.

This initiative by Japanese living in Cambridge was just the first of many to raise funds for Japan and has now been followed by diverse events such as charity raffles, cake sales, film screenings and concerts. With the challenges Japan currently faces, the raised capital will be put to good use by the Red Cross and other organizations working to improve conditions fast. However, unlike people in poverty-stricken Haiti where thousands still live shattered lives due to a natural catastrophe (although they have long been forgotten in the international media), Japan, as one of the world’s strongest economies, has the means to rise again, even without this aid. But the emotional importance of these charity acts should not be undermined by purely economic perspectives. As the PhD graduate in Miyagi prefecture wrote to me, “more than anything the charity events I hear you are involved with will surely foster psychological support to Japanese people outside Japan”. To experience this one does not have to be Japanese. Reading her words, I realized that my own involvement with charitable endeavours alongside Japanese people in Cambridge indeed continues to instil in me the strength to deal with my own anxiety and find hope for Japan’s future.

Disaster as history and fictional representation

On Sunday the 20th, I co-organized a general meeting for Japanese in the Cambridge area together with the PhD student in psychology, a Japanese undergraduate and an employee from a leading Japanese company undertaking training in the UK. Since the various Japanese societies in Cambridge traditionally never mix, the meeting was deliberately organized without affiliation to any one particular society. This resulted in an extremely diverse turn out of Japanese people – many of whom I or my co-organizers had never met before – including university undergraduates, pensioners, PhD students, housewives, children, working professionals and professors, all keen to discuss ways to take action. After a brief introduction to welcome all attendants, one person suggested we do a round of self-introduction, with each participant stating their name, profession and ideas for charity. In Japan, jikoshōkai or self-introduction is a typical social practice for individuals to bond as a group. This is a practical custom because, apart from revealing information about professional hierarchy and social positions (which are necessary to properly and politely converse in the Japanese language), it simultaneously functions as a kind of unifying ritual bonding the individual to the group. However, on this particular occasion, I think it served as much more than that. By undertaking this well-known act of greeting, each person got a chance to express their feelings about the triple disaster afflicting their home country and to empathize and listen to other Japanese people’s feelings and experiences. For example, one company employee read out loud an e-mail from his friend in Fukushima while others recalled stories from the 1995 Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, which seemed to lift the spirits and give hope to the younger listeners for whom the Tohoku disaster is their first experience of a real natural disaster – albeit witnessed from a high-tech media-created space where fiction and reality blend into one.

Through school training and exposure to expert opinion in media reports, all Japanese are aware that a major earthquake similar to the devastating 1923 Kanto earthquake is long overdue to again strike Tokyo. From my years living in Japan, I have also learned the basic survival procedures in the event of a large earthquake – turn off the gas, secure an escape route and then seek shelter under a table. I knew the locations of the designated disaster assembly area near my apartment, in which, like most households, I had stocked extra bottled water, long-life food and a battery operated flashlight. However, when I described to a friend how disturbing I found a then popular TV drama depicting an earthquake-ravaged Tokyo, she did not understand me. Looking back, it occurs to me that by having been brought up in Japan she had not only learned about the possibility of natural disasters, just as I had, she had also come to accept this possibility, which I probably never will.

Japan has a long history of typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis. It is therefore not surprising that fictional representations of natural disasters are an established part of the Japanese cultural heritage. From Katsushika Hokusai’s well known ukiyo-e wooden block prints of giant waves, volcanoes and strong winds from the late 1700s and early 1800s to contemporary animations such as Tachibana Masaki’s TV series Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 aired in 2009, which depicts Tokyo in a state of total destruction after a major earthquake, natural disasters have indeed been and continue to be thematised over and over again. In Europe, the best known literary work is perhaps Murakami Haruki’s collection of short stories that provide fictional pictures of how various lives all over Japan were affected by the destructive Hanshin earthquake of 1995 (the collection was translated as After the Quake in 2000). However, in many cultural expressions, natural disasters are also used for their symbolic value, as in the case of Tsujima Yūko’s short story A Bed of Grass form 1976, in which the protagonist informs us that,

“That’s why I’m a bit afraid of the ocean. There are all kinds of creatures, and you never know when it’s going to over flow,” I said. “I used to have a dream where I was sitting with my brother watching an ocean in the distance and then suddenly a title wave came in. We were swallowed up by the ocean in an instant. I was scared but at the same time it felt good.”

Quoted from Yukio Tanaka and Elizabeth Hanson’s translation in This Kind of Woman (1982: 257).

Of course, Japanese people do not welcome natural disasters with open arms. The persistent effort to earthquake- and tsunami-proof buildings and coastlines as well as the worn out expressions of people in shelters in the Tohoku region we currently see on TV all speak for themselves in this regard. During those few times I experienced earthquakes strong enough to shake things off the shelves and temporarily paralyse the Tokyo train systems, those Japanese friends and colleagues who I happened to be with were clearly just as scared as me. But the Japanese people’s remarkable ability to calmly respond to the devastating situation – a quality that has impressed the international media – as well as the incredible optimism to move forward that I have witnessed in the Japanese community in Cambridge, suggests an acceptance of natural disasters that appears foreign to many Europeans. In this regard, fictional representations as well as written and oral historical narratives have no doubt played an important role.

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant recalls traumatic memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ever since atomic bombs devastated these cities, human-made disasters and nuclear catastrophes have been continuously depicted in cultural expressions, most notably beginning with Godzilla, Tanaka Tomoyuki’s 1954 film that often has been described as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, and the animation Akira, created by Otomo Katsuhiro in 1988 that depicts Neo-Tokyo after a nuclear war. However, the possibility of human-made disaster is not, and should never become, an accepted given in Japan. The nuclear aspect of the Tohoku disaster is therefore the main cause of anxiety among both my friends and colleagues in Japan and outside of Japan. While entire towns and coastal communities have been evacuated for fear of radioactive leakage, the true consequences of the nuclear disaster remain uncertain, and we can only hope that Fukushima can serve as a tipping point that will alter not only the Japanese mindset, but the global attitude towards sustainable energy production in the twenty-first century.

Ganbaranakya, Japan!

As descendants of a people bearing the heritage of frequent natural disasters, people in communities across Japan, including the newly formed at shelters in the tsunami-hit regions, no doubt deal with the grief of such traumatic events – whether experienced in reality or through visual images and texts – by passing on tactic historical knowledge from the older to the younger generations. The ability to carry on as usual, to not become lost in grief and despair and to take action together as well as a firm belief that destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami will be overcome, just as past generations have done so many times before, all appear to be the power that keep Japanese people looking and moving forward.

This is no different for Japanese people outside Japan, but it requires a lot more organization and immediate bonding across very diverse ages, regional and educational backgrounds, where the only commonality is a shared identity of being ‘Japanese abroad’. It seems to me that the many gatherings and charity events that have taken place throughout the Cambridge area during the first week following the disaster as well as those that are scheduled in the coming months, are not just benefitting the victims and those directly involved in the clean-up effort in the Tohoku region, they also give the Japanese people in Cambridge an opportunity to bond emotionally and psychologically; to find the strength and share the knowledge needed to overcome and look forward. As a visiting professor from Tohoku University smilingly said while poking his ten-year-old son, “nihon wa ganbaranakya” – there can be no doubt about it – “Japan just has to hang in there”.

Gitte Marianne Hansen
PhD Student, Japanese Studies,
Department of East Asian Studies,
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies,
Cambridge University,
Associated PhD Student, NIAS.

Away from home when disaster strikes : Diary from a UK-based Japanese community after the Tohoku catastrophe

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