jump to navigation

Anne Thomas: Rebuilding life in Sendai May 25, 2011

Posted by chezanni in Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,

It has been well over a month since I have been in touch. Much has happened in that time, both in Japan and in my personal life. Of course, the world’s attention has mostly sifted away from the disasters here, but even so, there is a lot still going on.

This country has been slowly and steadily getting back on her feet. Progress is uneven, but it is happening everywhere. Extremely devastated areas are still struggling with clean up and rebuilding, but much effort has been made to get Sendai proper functioning as normally as possible. We still have ongoing daily earthquakes, huge cracks in the roads, shattered buildings and walls, and protective blue mats everywhere, but reconstruction work is evident wherever you look. Supermarkets are open normal hours now and are well stocked, although some items are still unavailable or rationed.

Almost everyone is intensely focused on remaking their lives. Those who were seriously hit have had to start almost from scratch, but even those who suffered little physical loss are trying to reassess their attitudes, values, and ways of being in the world. Almost everyone is caught up in a wave of discarding unneeded items, and rearranging material belongings to reflect the deep inner changes that this searing tragedy has brought about. A former student of mine, who now lives in Singapore, came to Sendai to help her parents. As she sorts through her family home, she keeps asking her mother, “Do you really need this anymore? Why not get rid of it? Why not start again fresh?” Another student has taken load after load of earthquake-broken or unneeded items to the dump. She was totally astonished to see the mountains of goods that people are getting rid of. But the rubbish place is well organized, typical for Japan. “TVs go over there, refrigerators on that pile, heavy dressers are down this row and on the left,” say the guards at the entrance. Yes, it is a time of peeling away, discarding, reassessing needs and wants.

But there is a lot of buying, too. Home centers, for example, are packed with people sorting through furniture, appliances, bedding, and carpets. There is not an “S” hook to be found in most hardware stores, as people are buying them by the fists-full to hang things in their newly arranged homes. Companies are all displaying messages that say: “We apologize to you for not being able to serve you for several weeks after the recent disaster. That was very inconvenient for you, so please allow us to give you a discount on our items.” Or they might say, “We have all suffered a great deal in the past few months. So, please refresh your feelings by the generous prices we are offering in our shops.”

The first week in May is called Golden Week. That is because there is a series of national holidays one after another. That is the time famous carp streamers are hung out in honor of children. You can see them flapping everywhere this year, more so than usual: above buildings, across roads, in people’s gardens, even over rubble. They bring a great sense of hope and of joy. This week traditionally people travel for enjoyment, very often overseas. But this year most people from this area feel a need to stay close to their roots; or they are too busy sorting out their personal lives. So instead of going to other places, the big trend now is to volunteer. Locals are, of course. But other people are, too. Rather than going overseas, people from all over the country are flocking to this area to lend a hand. Sendai Station has a booth with a list of places needing volunteer services. The city hall has a bulletin board with the same kind of information. In fact, dotted all over this area there are centers recruiting volunteers of all sorts. No matter what people’s specialty, everyone wants to contribute in some way. The sense of drive and of purpose is palpable everywhere. One young woman friend loves to make cakes. So she has been making almost 700 bean cup cakes on her days off and has them delivered to evacuation centers, where there are still hundreds of people waiting their turn to get a temporary home. And signs all over town say: “Gambatte Miyagi! Gambatte Sendai!” This adds to the enthusiasm and drive to rebuild, to forge ahead without giving up, no matter how daunting the work involved may be.

Sports are really big now, too. They provide an energetic diversion from tragedy and also promote a sense of team spirit and working together for success. There have been several baseball games in the past few weeks. Usually Sendai’s team plays with great élan, but always loses. This past week, however, it has been winning every game, to the cheers of the astonished and delighted crowd.

But for some people things move on a much deeper level. A friend, who lives in hard-hit Natori, came to Sendai to help me with changing legal documents after my move. She told me that normally she loved coming to the city; she appreciated the variety and stimulus of Sendai. But now all she wants to do is to be quiet and reflective at home. Previously she had volunteered for two days in evacuation shelters, where her job was to register people. But after hearing story after story of dead or missing relatives, and not knowing what to say or how to comfort the victims, she realized that sort of work was too emotionally overwhelming for her. The depth and extent of this traumatic event hit her very hard. She told me that now it was difficult for her to focus. She reads my letters or news articles, understands every word, but can not pull the ideas together to make coherent sense. So for her, as for many, this upheaval has created a time of deep soul searching and wonder.

Actually, I have found a similar attitude in my own life. It is very hard to be other than nose-to-nose with the present moment. Life is the Now. And that is more than enough. Also the circumference of my efforts has narrowed considerably because of having to move. And when I relocated into this new apartment, I realized immediately that this would take all my time and energy. I sensed, too, that I wanted to be fully attentive to what was happening in my own life, even though I am still greatly concerned with what is happening to others all around me. One small way to honor my desire to be attentive was that I did not turn on music I love, catch up on reading, or listen to the news, as I would normally do. I found those activities too intrusive and inappropriate. Rather I wanted to be totally receptive to this place and myself in it. I wanted this new home to speak to me, rather than actively fill it with my former self. So I have spent days in silence, with “only” the sound of birds, wind, and rain, with “only” the prismatic sunlight that graciously illumines these rooms, with “only” an inner attunement of how to arrange this new home to reflect the person I am now. It has been an exhausting, but very sacred time for me. I realize that starting over like this occurs very rarely. So I have been making it be a privilege, one that I am fully attuned to while it is happening, not as William Wordsworth would say in moments of tranquility and reflection after the fact.

I do not have a TV, but the other day I stopped by my favorite greengrocer’s, where Grandma was watching the local news. She and I sat next to each other, watching, commenting on the sadness of it all. There are literally thousands still in shelters, many are sick from lack of exercise and from sleeping on hard cold floors. It is especially hard on the old, of course, but small children find it very confusing, too, especially if they have lost one parent or both. For many this is truly a period of “Gaman” or “Gambatte:” “Don’t give up,” “Hang in there,” “Keep up the fighting spirit.”

A friend told me that every night on TV the local news follows the story of one family. It shows the devastation, presents the tremendous loss, but always tries to balance that in favor of individuals’ positive spirit, their determination to begin again and to get life moving forward in a constructive manner. Even though in many ways it seems as if people are trying to go back to how things were before – factories running smoothly, products available in stores, people concerned about appearance – in reality no one is the same. People may strive for outer things to appear as they were before, but the inner dimension is entirely different from when March 11, 2011 changed our lives forever.

My friend also described the tremendous effort people are making to coordinate children still in shelters with specific schools. They are trying to arrange it so that children can return to school with former classmates. Some youngsters have been relocated very far from this area, however, and unfortunately sometimes their new classmates will bully them, saying “You have ‘radiation coodies.’ We don’t want you here.” So, it can be an extra long, up hill struggle for some. But even so, every effort is being made to help the children and their families. Kobe was hard hit with an earthquake several years ago. So, the local Tohoku governments have invited children from there to come to this area to encourage the kids here. Many of those youngsters also lost parents, so know the terrible consequences of this sort of natural disaster. In one shelter all the children, from both Kobe and Tohoku, held hands making a circle. They swayed and sang together, giving each other love and understanding. At other times those lovely kids from far away would read to elementary school children still in shelters. And then they would do various activities together. All these are little steps that, hopefully, someday will bring about an all-encompassing level of healing.

Other work of volunteers, adults, is to sort through the debris and collect various items of importance. A picture album here, a bracelet there, a shoulder bag or a fragile bowl: all the little things that make up ordinary daily life. Then they take these precious items to a central area, where the evacuees can sort through them, and hopefully find something that is theirs and that holds a universe of memories. Little acts of kindness, stemming directly from the heart, can make such a world of difference. In one extremely devastated area I saw the frame of a house still standing amid vast expanses of rubble. I was deeply touched to see one window still in tact and sitting on the sill were piles of books. Obviously the army clean-up crew had found these meaning-filled items and had graciously placed them where a family member, should they be able to return, would be able to find them. The cleaning up process is painfully slow precisely because the workers are doing it with deep consideration for the feelings of the victims. That is so much more important than a quick, efficient clean up. And also it is a very Japanese way of being in the world: thoughtfulness towards others’ feelings.

There is a sense of caution in the air, but even so people are getting out and trying to enjoy life once again. In late April Izumi’s family and I went out to the countryside to picnic under thousands of cherry trees in full bloom along a riverbank. We wandered slowly, savoring the gentle beauty all around. There were many others there, too. Usually there is a lot of drinking and merrymaking as people view the cherry blossoms. But this year the mood was different. There was no loud partying, no drunkenness, only a sense of deep appreciation. In fact, the atmosphere was subdued and solemn.

To get there we had to pass through Natori City, where we saw cars still lying in rivers, houses broken like splinters on the streets, and protective blue mats holding down walls or roofs of buildings. Even though we had seen such sights in our own neighborhood and every night on TV, it was a shock to see so much damage in such a concentrated area. We enjoyed the cherry trees, of course, but we also stayed constantly aware of the ongoing tragedy all around us.

The other day a friend and I were talking about national flowers and birds. Everyone knows the sakura, the cherry blossom, is Japan’s flower. But did you know that the blue-black, screeching, forceful crow is her bird? I was totally amazed when I learned that curious fact. But when I thought about it, I could catch a wider understanding of the Japanese psychological and emotional makeup. Ethereal, very short-lived delicacy on the one side, and strong, focused, tenacious determination on the other. People here try to live balancing an attitude that honors those extremely divergent dimensions – and everything in between. The Japanese are masters at temporarily diverting their attention away from their problems in order to appreciate a moment of beauty or pleasure. They do this not as a way to avoid their burdens or responsibilities, but as a way to live a balanced life. They fully enjoy a happy moment, knowing they will soon return to their work, hopefully refreshed and ready to put all their efforts once again into what is demanded of them.

This message is getting very long, so I would like to end with a quotation that I came across as I was sorting through my papers. I have no idea where it comes from, but that does not detract from the message. “In his beautiful book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who is also a concentration-camp survivor, writes: ‘A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the why for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any how.'”

That seems to sum up much of what is happening here now. Most Japanese who are currently facing a life filled with sorrow and loss also have a tremendous sense of unfinished work. As one man said, “I want to rebuild not for myself but for the children.” That forward-looking attitude, so much larger than oneself, is a motivating factor uniting us all.


Wondering how you can help? Aid relief efforts by clicking here to donate to the Japanese Red Cross, or text redcross to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Photo by Su Neko via Flickr.



1. Anne Thomas (@LettersFromJP) - March 5, 2012

It has been nearly one year since Anne wrote her first letter after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 11 March, 2011. Although much work has been done, many people still need assistance. Anne has collected her touching letters and have published them in a book called “Letters from the Ground to the Heart – Beauty Amid Destruction.” To read more stories like these, please consider buying the book or donating at http://www.lettersfromthegroundtotheheart.com. 100% of proceeds go to survivors of the tragic events.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: