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Remembering 3-11

A recent strong aftershock in a wide area beyond the Fukushima epicenter, that sicking feeling of a very different kind of earthquake, was a rude late night reminder that March 11, 2011 is never far away. 3-11 as the Japanese call it was terrifying on a ground floor Tokyo building, it’s difficult to imagine what it felt like near the epicenter in Sendai and Iwate. But the terror of the quake pales in comparison with the tsunami devastation. I will never forgot the horrifying live TV coverage of a huge fiery wave engulfing Natori. The aftershocks were endless and disorienting. After a few days you couldn’t tell if the ground was shaking for real or was in your head.

There are many tsunami videos, and I have watched countless of them over the years, but there is one taken near Minami Sanriku Irizen harbor that shocks me every time. The location is slightly inland on a hill just behind a Chofu Boiler dealership. The video was taken almost on top of the tsunami as an entire town is completely obliterated in the first 4 minutes. The cacophony of destruction is particularly horrifying with headphones, but even that cannot match the quiet otherworldliness at the 8 minute mark as the tsunami silently peaks then groans back to the sea.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to visit Iwate and see the effects of tsunami devastation. I rode the Shinkansen to Morioka then a local train to Miyako. From there I had to take a local bus to Yamada Machi as the train line beyond Miyako was completely destroyed. I will never forget the disconnect as I watched the scenery looking for destruction but there was none. It looked like a pleasant countryside. Then I finally noticed endless foundations covered in weeds and grass. Everything was scraped clean, of destruction, of life. I wrote an article from the experience for the Nichiren Shu English newsletter and repost it here in memory of the warm friendly people of Yamada Machi to mark the 10 anniversary of the disaster. Their quiet positive outlook in the face of devastation and great loss was a revelation and remains a constant inspiration.


Recovering from the Tsunami Disaster

Yamada Machi in Iwate prefecture is a beautiful area on a bay in the Tohoku coast famous for oysters and scallops. From the top of a steep hill with a commanding view of the bay is Zenkei-ji temple. From there, on March 11, 2011, Reverend Eishin Miura watched the tsunami flow over the top of the sea wall, quickly wiping out the entire village below. “The first wave was was held back by the (7 meter) sea wall, so everybody thought it was safe and ran back to their houses to grab belongings,” he said. “And then the second wave hit….”

Rev. Miura’s tsunami video taken from Zenkei-ji temple was used in a broadcast news segment

The Tsunami
The second wave that crashed over the sea wall in in front of the temple hill was over 8 meters high. One kilometer down the coast it was 15 meters. Further down the highest tsunami was recorded at 25 meters.

“That first night we had over one hundred people staying in the temple,” Reverend Miura explained. “It became an evacuation center for over a week until people could make it to the official evacuation centers.” “There was no running water so we had to haul buckets up from the bottom of the hill everyday when the water truck came,” Rev. Miura’s wife added. The main hall of Zenkei-ji still has boxes of emergency supplies, covered with blue plastic tarp, which spill out into the side-hall.

“Right now the temple is just an afterthought for our temple members. Which is as it should be. The most important thing is for them to rebuild their lives and make a living,” he explained. Making a living applies to Zenkei-ji as well. At present there is not enough work to make ends meet, so Rev. Miura and his two sons all travel to different temples far away from Yamada Machi. They only gather at the temple for special ceremony days such as Setsubun, Higan and Oeshiki.

The 60 temple families of Zenkei-ji are rebuilding their lives as best as they can. Rev. Miura took us to visit and talk with some of them to see exactly how this temple and its community are reconstructing. A short drive from the temple, we visited one of the temporary housing sites where a temple member has lived after her home was swept away.

Miki Sato, 71, lived with her husband in a flat area just north of Zenkei-ji. Shortly after the earthquake hit, her husband drove an elderly neighbor to the evacuation center. “I was waiting for him to come back when all the neighbors started running and yelling for everybody to escape. I barely had enough time to get out before the tsunami came. 5 minutes later and I would not have made it,” she said. “We ran to the North Elementary school with the tsunami right behind us. It inundated everything, even the school playground (in front of the school).”

Mrs. Sato said there were 500 people crammed into the gym floor the first night. “All we had was a single rice ball per person that night. It was 3 days before we finally had hot miso.” She did not hear from her husband after the tsunami hit. The next morning people went out from the school and started searching for family and loved ones. It took 14 days to find Sato’s husband under the debris in the front school yard. 

Shortly thereafter she went to her daughter’s place in Kamaishi and stayed there until the temporary housing facility was completed in August 2011. In early February 2013, the local government was getting ready to unveil a housing plan to Yamada Machi residents. It has taken more time than anybody anticipated to purchase private land in the surrounding hills and mountains. For residents who want to rebuild their home at a designated higher elevation, the local government will buy the old land at 70% of the old value. Nobody wants to take a 30% loss but there isn’t much choice. 

Sato said she would not rebuild. “We had only just finished rebuilding our home when the tsunami swept it away and I still have to pay off the loan. Because of my age it makes more sense to move to the new public housing they plan to build in the hills.”

Rebuilding the Industry
Temple member Masashi Shiohara, a former boxing champ in his youth, is head of the Yamada fishing association and working hard to restore the local industry. Every morning at 2 a.m. he gets up and heads out to rebuild and tend the oyster beds. “It might look nice,” he said waving his hand towards the sea with neat rows of beds floating on the water, “but most of the beds you see out there are empty. It will be 3 years (from the tsunami) before we see income again.”

Shiohara was on his boat when the tsunami struck, and could even feel the earthquake on it. He spent the night there, avoiding and steering away from all the tsunami debris. When he finally got to shore he found his home, right next to the sea wall, had been washed into the mountainside, miraculously intact and spared from the fires that destroyed most of the village. “I found my father hiding in a closet on the 2nd floor, wrapped in a futon. I grabbed him, what dry clothes were left and headed for the evacuation center,” he said.

“Speed is the most important thing,” he said about the rebuilding effort, “the longer you wait the harder it is.” Shiohara said it took 6 months just to clear Yamada bay of tsunami debris. And then there was a year of rebuilding basic infrastructure since all the packing and processing facilities had been destroyed. “Last year was the hardest as we started with nothing. We had to do work on our ships because there was no place to work on shore,” he said. The fishermen have places to work now but they are mostly makeshift tents of blue plastic with wooden stoves for heat.

Labor is also a problem. Older fishermen are getting out rather than starting over, while other people moved away to find temporary jobs. Mr. Shiohara said they can overcome the shortage of workers but will have to consolidate. Before the tsunami, Yamada fishing association shipped 5,000 tons of oysters a year but he is not sure they can or should recover to the same level. Quality and “branding”, not quantity, will be keys to reestablishing the industry, he says, but convincing the other fisherman is not an easy job. As we were leaving Rev. Miura asked “How are you sleeping?” “I only get 2 or 3 hours a night at best,” Shiohara said. “I went to the doctor and got a prescription to help.”

Planning the Future
On the top floor of Yamada Machi Town Hall, Village Council Chairman Teruo Kon briefed us on all the tsunami disaster facts: Fires broke out 3 minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami breached the seawalls at 15:22, 35 minutes after the earthquake. Fires quickly destroyed most of what was left. There were 776 victims, 46.7% of all homes were destroyed. 50% of those will rebuild on higher ground, 30% will go into public housing, 20% are undecided what to do. 

There is 26,700 tons of tsunami debris, 60 years worth of work but concrete debris will be recycled for the new seawalls which will be 9 meters high. “A good rebuilding plan takes time,” Chairman Kon explained. “It takes 3 years to do all the necessary surveying and research, 5 years to plan and 10 years to build.”

Chairman Kon showed us old maps of damage from the 1896 Meiji-Sanriku earthquake/tsunami and the 1933 Sanriku earthquake/tsunami. The areas of damage back then, when there was no seawall, exactly matched the current ones. “When you read the journals of those times, there is so much to learn from. Unfortunately we neglected history and based all our protection plans from the 1960 Chile tsunami,” he explained. “If we had remembered our history, we would have been better prepared. My mission is to make sure our experience is recorded for future generations so that they won’t suffer what we have.”

The role of the temple
On the morning of February 3, the members of Zenkei-ji temple were busy preparing for Setsubun. A group of wives were busy in the side hall preparing a simple lunch. In the main hall, bags with Ofuda and small gifts for the temple members were lined up in front of the altar. Members squeezed in the main hall and sat talking, hand drums ready for the service to begin. The service started and was similar to any service at a small country temple with chanting, a Kito blessing performed by Rev. Miura and his son Rev. Edo Miura, and a Dharma talk.

After the Dharma talk members set up tables in the main hall for lunch. After lunch everybody cleaned up and got ready for the final event of the day: the Setsubun raffle. Prizes ranging from sake and large slabs of omochi, to clothes, candy and more were lined up in front of the altar and raffled off. Everybody got a prize. Everybody had fun and left with a smile. But something deeper was going on.

Rev. Miura explained, “The worst thing in these times is being on your own or feeling isolated. That kills. It is important to remember we are all in this together.” Whatever was going on in the lives of the Zenkei-ji temple members, they were all coming together to chant, to take part in running the temple, and to share good times.

There are still tough times ahead for the community. Zenkei-ji temple could be swept away, literally: there are huge cracks in the hill right outside the small temple kitchen window. “The town hall officials came, took a look and told us to evacuate the temple,” Rev. Miura’s wife explained cheerfully while endlessly preparing huge meals. “The hillside could give away at any time. Any construction work has to be done manually because the road is too small for a hydraulic excavator, but those guys are all booked up for the next year.”

It will a long haul to full recovery, but after after talking with Rev. Miura and the Zenkei-ji temple members, their spirit of endurance and fellowship are remarkable. In the next 10 to 15 years, Yamada Machi could well be reborn into a vibrant and beautiful community.

Parasite Mind

I’ve been wanting to see the hit Korean movie Parasite even since it won the Academy Award for best picture but am too distracted by COVID restrictions and the hassles of life interrupted. Parasite was a small hit in Japan but when combing comments on Japanese blogs and forums, it’s clear the movie resonates with older views much more than younger ones. In particular it’s the older viewers who grew up and came of age in the Showa era who appreciate the social tensions and dynamics at play. Younger viewers just scratch their heads.

This kind of Showa is brilliantly portrayed in the 1982 movie ‘Giwaku’ (Suspicion) and Kaori Momoi’s legendary award winning performance. The last scene of her pouring wine on the lawyer who saved her life, played by Shima Iwashita is often called ‘over the top’ by western reviewers, but it is not. People who lived in that era know that particular coveting creature: wanting someone else’s something but also wanting the worst for that someone, a spiritual poverty of measuring one’s happiness by a particular persons misfortune.

It’s the same dark side sometimes implied, but never directly expressed, in the Japanese expression ‘mura shakai’ (village society/村社会) being closed off from society. It’s almost gone but still survives in tiny pockets. It’s not physical isolation but isolation in the minds of groups who close themselves off. A Sado friend told me about a recent event in one small corner of the island know to be that way. A Japanese man retired there from outside the island. He was mistakenly diagnosed as infected with COVID-19 (PCR tests are only 40% accurate). Village locals discreetly harassed him and damaged his house to the point where it was inhabitable. Only after he was driven out did the local hospital say they made a mistake, that his test was negative. It played out in the dark, off the record, nobody acknowledging anything.

We may snicker as such human behavior and think our modern selves above it, but the parasite mind is alive and well on social media. When cultural warriors who are only happy when they destroy peoples reputation and remove them from public life, that’s the parasite mind at work. Meanwhile I keep telling myself that I’ll catch up and finally watch Parasite…when things calm down…if they ever do.

Pets and Pistols

In our era of unending overheated news cycles I take comfort in the cold dispassionate analytic Japanese cultural characteristic. Its helpful not only for keeping a level head but also making interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things.

For example different cultural responses to the COVID crisis: in Japan people went out and bought pets, in America people went out and bought guns. Japanese like making those kinds of comparisons that seem to come out of left field, but for me provide ‘think outside the box’ context sorely missing in public discourse these days. And again when Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Buddhist Monks Are Snapping Up ESG Bonds in Japan,” that wasn’t getting any traction in the Japanese news space.

As a Buddhist priest (monks live monastic lives outside of society, priests do not) it stuck me as odd that a Rinzai Zen temple would advertise investing in ESG bonds as future proofing the temple instead of working to get younger people involved in temple activities. The Bloomberg piece also reads like stealth marketing, if Zen temples and the Vatican are investing in ESG bonds it must be good…right?

I asked a Japanese trader friend about it and he set me straight without blinking an eye, “With this coming out on Bloomberg just when the Dali Lama and Greta Thunberg are hooking up online to discuss environmental issues, it sounds like investment funds and players are gearing up to make a lot of mischief. The only difference is that they used to be better at hiding this kind of nonsense and now they suck.” Bingo…helpful context to divine where things are going. There is also online discussion of a COVID-19 ‘vaccination mafia’, but that’s another subject for another day.

Tokyo commuting in tough times

Many Japanese companies have implemented telework or flex time during the COVID-19 crisis so that employees can avoid Tokyo rush hour. My office has shorter hours so I take a later train. Tokyo train commuting has become a little surreal over the past week. Seats are actually available on the inner Yamanote line from Shinjuku before 9.

Most people wear face masks and don’t talk on the train but masks are still in short supply at the local drug store. I have to line up before store hours to get a box. Fortunately my partner, a doctor, bought hand sanitizer and mask sanitizer back in January before supplies disappeared. I use, and re-use 2 face masks with mask sanitizer and also have carry spray bottle of ethanol for hands. I don’t touch anything if at all possible, I lean on something instead, but the hand spray comes out the moment I go out the transit gate. There’s also my regulation hand wash and gargle routine when getting to the office, or returning home. I recommend Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch if that’s a commute option, it removes the necessity of touching the iPhone.

If you have to commute for work like me, I suggest dressing on the warm side or have a scarf handy. Dressing for a comfortable commute is always a challenge but most cars now have a window or two open for good ventilation. On the Tokyu Ikegami line the staff are opening half the car windows 5 cm or so. It can be quite chilly even with the heat on.

Have a safe and healthy commute.

On The Media

Tim has been on a roll recently. Not that Tim, the other Tim. Tim Pool. When YouTube and Twitter started purging ‘conservative’ Japanese content that wasn’t breaking any content rules, following what YouTube and Twitter were already doing in America, Tim Pool was the only online journalist reporting it.

I don’t always agree with Tim’s politics or watch every video post, but I always keep an eye on him. His reports on the devolution of mainstream media and how social media like YouTube and Twitter contribute to that decline, is on the nose. Another thing I like about Tim is that he believes in positive engagement and calling things as he finds it. This sets him apart from former Vice News colleagues: Tim has not lost the ability to think critically and objectively, he questions everything and tries to examine both sides of an issue. To me this is healthy.

And Tim knows when to play the YouTube de-ranking guessing game because he knows there are more important things to report on than waste time fighting YouTube. His milk toast reports are considered so dangerous by YouTube that real YouTube humans review his every video and suppress ones they don’t like:

One disturbing trend that social media drives is what I call cut and paste narrative journalism. Part of it is driven by the need for clicks and what big media thinks will sell. I see this frequently in mainstream western reporting on Japan that likes to portray Japan in a negative light. Here’s a recent piece written by Ian Bremmer for Time titled, Why the Japan-South Korea Trade War Is Worrying for the World, where you can see cut and paste narrative journalism in action.

Why the Japan-South Korea Trade War Is Worrying for the World

The opening sentence is a setup: “but it’s the trade spat between Japan and South Korea that signals the larger troubles ahead for the world.” This is Bremmer’s opinion, nothing else, and puts him squarely in the South Korea supporters club. There are plenty of economic experts who will tell you that Japanese ~ South Korean trade volume isn’t nearly as important as the media makes it out to be.

Skipping the next few sentences of regurgitated South Korean side only history, we arrive at the crucial sentence:

“Frustrated with the proceedings and determined to put pressure on Moon’s government to intervene in some way, Japan strengthened restrictions on several high-tech exports to South Korea in July and downgraded South Korea’s status as a trusted trading partner in August.”

This is classic cut and paste narrative. It substitutes fact for opinion, while presenting it as fact. Bremmer removes all the context of Japanese claims that South Korean was violating UN sanctions on North Korean, among many other things, leading up to the sanctions. Instead of crucial context we get: Japan is frustrated. Really? Can you prove that Ian?

The rest of the piece deflates from there into a half-hearted denouncement of President Trumps foreign policy, without naming Trump, as if Bremmer can’t decide whether it’s a good or bad thing for the U.S. to play the world’s policeman.

I find it hard to stay well informed with big media these days. Big media is still important but sifting the good from the bad is a lot more work. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to get easier.