Earlier in August, Japan commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today the average age of survivors, called hibakusha, is over 82 and as every year passes, it becomes more rare to hear their testimonies and calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons in person.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking with several survivors since participating in the 2012 “Hiroshima and Peace” program at Hiroshima City University. That experience has left a lasting impression on me, and both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are cities that have opened my heart and mind. This year, in recognition of the 73rd anniversary, I wrote a short essay for Medium, highlighting distinct ways women were impacted by the bombs and the enduring relevance of survivors’ words.
By now, images of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown that shattered northeastern Japan in 2011 are well-known to the public. Some of the most horrifying images depict waves gushing inland and destroying everything in its path, and survivors shivering in blankets as they look upon endless piles of mud and debris.
But seven years on, what does recovery look like, and what are the hopes of residents who were impacted the most by the triple disasters?
Kizuna (絆), which means bond or “people connecting” in Japanese, is a project led by Chicago journalist and musician Yoko Noge Dean, an Osaka native who started the effort as a way to push past the narrative of destruction and create a humanistic portrait of people who live in the Tohoku region of Japan. The earthquake severely disrupted life in three prefectures in Tohoku: Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima.
The group has organized photo exhibitions since 2012 to commemorate the disaster. In past years, the exhibition was comprised of photographs from various artists or journalists.
This year, the committee selected the theme “Women in Tohoku,” and enlisted the help of Alan Labb, a photographer and Associate Professor of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, to depict this theme through his own work. Labb had helped curate the Kizuna 6 event in 2017, and later that year traveled to the three stricken prefectures.
The theme became especially relevant this year as nations around the world, including Japan, grapple with the #MeToo movement and ways to support equal pay and rights. In Japan in particular, women still struggle against some patriarchal aspects of Japanese culture; with few opportunities for childcare, they must often choose between career and family. Their role in rebuilding Tohoku, Labb and Noge Dean say, deserves recognition.
“I myself went to Tohoku and I realized how women were instrumental to having a strong recovery process,” Noge Dean says. “They were often the center of the family, the center of the community, and the center of the effort for non-profit organizations.”
Together, Labb and Noge Dean created a list of questions to ask Tohoku residents. Starting north in Iwate, Labb traveled around Tohoku with his wife, Kimiko, who translated the conversation and helped with touring logistics.
The selected photographs and accompanying text provide viewers with an intimate view into the lives of Tohoku residents, some of whom lost family members and others with roots in the area who are working to rebuild communities. In the cover photo, calligrapher Seiran Chiba, a special ambassador for Fukushima who used calligraphy to help residents express themselves, stands behind one of the oldest cherry tree groves in the country with her calligraphy brush raised to the sky. In another photograph, two women still coping with emotional trauma from the tsunami keep busy by spinning yarn for their work on a sheep farm that sells local crafts and products.
“Almost everyone I interviewed, when you ask them about that day, they just have to collect themselves,” Labb recalls. “It takes a few minutes. It’s very emotional.”
Subtly through the text and photos, questions about complex social issues also emerge — How will the nuclear fallout be cleaned? How can communities safely move homes while maintaining views of the coastline? How can a culture be preserved if few residents return home? How can deceased loved ones be respectfully honored and remembered?
“Some areas that were just all but wiped out via the tsunami, everyone has been moved of course, because there was no housing, there really was no structure there. And if they had young children, they really weren’t coming back,” Labb says. “So the people who are attached to the land tend to be the older generations who are slowly making their way back to those spaces, but then that leaves a very large gap in who’s going to carry on the traditions of the area. How are they going to revitalize without a youth culture?”
Despite the ongoing hardships faced by the communities, both Noge Dean and Labb hope the resilience of the human spirit — and the courage displayed by so many residents — emerges through the photos. The medium of photography provided a unique gateway to tell these stories.
“I could talk about sea walls forever…but until you see that a view is getting closed down and you visually have that impact of what that means, that a house that maybe has always looked out to the sea is suddenly going to look out to a 12-foot wall, you wouldn’t understand that without the visuals,” Labb says. “So the photographs do tell a very particular type of story.”
Noge Dean adds: “Without images, it’s very hard to convey themes, what’s happening and what are people’s expressions and emotions. Images are a very, very strong thing.”
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear meltdown that ravaged northeastern Japan. I spent the night listening to speakers — Japanese and American — discuss the situation in Tohoku and the current state of recovery efforts. More to come about that discussion, but for now, here are few things you can consider doing to help the people of Tohoku — many of whom are still living in temporary housing and who remain grieving for all that was lost four years ago.
Donate to the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund — Anderson was one of two American English teachers who lost their lives in the tsunami. Her family has been very active in keeping her spirit and love of Japan alive through this memorial fund, which promotes education and cultural exchange between America and the Tohoku region.
Per my annual tradition, here are twelve photos representing my 2014. Although it was wonderful to be closer to family, it feels strange not to include a single photo from Japan. Unlike in previous years, all photos below were taken in the Chicago area.
In 2015, I plan finish my “Transition Japan” series to focus on more narrative non-fiction stories. Happy New Year everyone, and may 2015 bring you much joy! 明けましておめでとうございます｡
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to blog.
Although my first goal was to write about your first few weeks in Japan on the JET Program, with November here and winter just around the corner, it now makes more sense to write about your first few months in Japan. Below are a few suggestions to keep you focused as winter rolls through and likely forces you to consider why you came to Japan in the first place.
1. Continue to Study Japanese — I had zero Japanese knowledge before going to Japan on the JET Program, and though I left Japan by no means an expert in the language at all, I learned the most about Japanese culture when I studied the language and began to understand parts of conversations I overheard. I wish I had been more diligent about studying grammar and kanji — unfortunately, this is an all-too common regret among JETs. I think it’s safe to say few have uttered, “Boy, I wish I knew less Japanese and hadn’t studied so much!”
Tips: If you’re not interested in the JET books (I wasn’t after briefly trying), search for the Genki Japanese series. Also, find a Japanese tutor. My first Japanese teacher, who was a volunteer at the local city hall in the town next to mine, became a good friend who I hope to see again when I visit Japan.
2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone — By now, your so called “honeymoon” period in Japan is over and you may be beginning to peal back the thick, mysterious layer of Japanese society and seeing its imperfections. This can cause culture shock and homesickness, but a great way to see Japan (and yourself) in a new light is to pick up a new hobby and try something new. Your options may be somewhat limited with a language barrier, but among the things I had never tried before that I did in Japan include: photography, helping write a play, climbing a large mountain, running a 5K and 10K race, and modeling!
Tips: Pick a new hobby. Mine became running. I have continued with it since leaving Japan and just completed my first half-marathon.
3. Invest in Becoming a Better Teacher — JET gives us the wonderful opportunity for self-discovery (see number 2) and learning about another culture. However, we were also selected to work hard and hopefully become role models for our students. Teaching is hard work and takes a lot of practice, as well as trial and error. Even if you will not become a teacher when you leave Japan, investing in your ability to at least try and become a better educator will benefit not only your students, but also your professional capabilities and likely gain you more respect among your co-workers.
Tips: Sign up for a TESOL certification course online, or take free courses in education at Coursera.
4. Think About Your Goals — Living in the moment is a wonderful thing that I wish I could do more. However, so is the ability to have a clear idea of what one wants for his/her life. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but holding off on decisions will only catch up to you.
Tips: Start making a list of small goals that you wish to achieve; write them down and create a larger goal as soon as you accomplish a smaller goal.
5. Immerse Yourself — Whether you’re staying in Japan for one year or five, your time in Japan is fleeting (unless you plan to say forever). As much as I sometimes missed America during my time abroad, I now miss many parts of Japan, as if part of my Japanese identity has been somehow intertwined there and remains in me even as I continue to readjust to American culture.
Tips: Get out and open your eyes.
Next in Transition in Japan: Your re-contracting decision!