Five years ago, ten years on


Book review, from Tokyo – Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. In the Japanese central government’s last official ceremony in memory of the disaster’s victims, the Emperor clearly expressed a sentiment that echoed – the disaster continues today. While international news outlets continue to cover the anniversary, there is also a growing amount of literature – naturally, when survivors, people who have lived through the event become ready to talk, then will there be light shone on its many facets.

One such publication is 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group). Released five years ago, the words of three students from Omagari Elementary School in Higashi-matsushima City, Miyagi prefecture, trace their thoughts of how they came to terms with reality and what they hoped to achieve through sharing their stories under the Kids Now Japan project (Kids Now). Former Miyagi prefecture middle school teacher Toshiro Sato started the project after reading a newspaper article on Nayuta Ganbe, one of the three children, speaking about his experience.

Structured as three separate accounts, Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa share their journey of overcoming loss, facing reality among friends and adults, and finding a way forward through speaking up. P5 in 2011, they may have gone to the same school just 2.3km from the sea but their stories of that day and the five years that followed differ not only because of what they saw, but also because of their very different characters.

When the earthquake struck, Tsuda was excited at the intensity of the initial quake as she took cover under a grand piano while a strange calmness came over Aizawa as she soothed panicked friends a few rooms away. When the tsunami came, Ganbe froze as the outstretched hand of a middle-aged man drifted into the murky waves that battered the school building he was taking refuge in from two sides, and in the aftermath, bodies that once breathed life strewn across the land. Whatever was left of Tsuda’s early excitement vanished when her father showed her what was left of their home – nothing. Its second floor laid some 50 metres away by a river. As for Aizawa, despite her disbelief at her hiraya one-floor home gone, she had clung onto the hope that her beloved dog had somehow survived because it was never found. But soon, she had to come to terms with the death of a dear childhood friend.

The three of them all knew that one unnamed person, but it was especially excruciating for Aizawa because the two had quarreled over something she could not recall the previous day and could no longer apologize. For Tsuda, this same person, who knew Aizawa took time to befriend someone, had once said “ano ko no koto, yoroshiku ne” to her about Aizawa, and that now took on a different meaning.

Recovery took time; the three of them eventually each found their own way. When school resumed about a month later, students were instructed not to talk about the tsunami. In middle school, inlanders, who did not suffer much damage, outnumbered those who came from the coast, and so the differences in how they behaved, what they spoke about became more pronounced, increasingly marginalized. Ganbe gradually came to understand the gag order, but he was shocked when he heard someone else, about the same age, speaking out at an event – it’s okay to talk about it! – and he soon found meaning in speaking and sharing his story with others. Especially when memories were gradually changing as time passed. Talking made him feel better but he also saw how he could help others learn about the disaster in this way. He saw how natural disasters could strike Japan at anytime, anywhere – that others were mi-saisha (people who may one day be afflicted by a natural disaster). And he saw how his work could help save lives in the next big one.

On the other hand, Tsuda’s frustration exploded in class one day when she flung a table at a boy who was making fun of how his mother panicked during the quake. Reacting in that way allowed Tsuda, and some of the boys in her class, to keep their heads, she reflected. She also saw how some adults, being humans themselves, pushed children aside in the queue for rations. Tsuda had a father, and teacher, who trusted her to find herself, her own way in life as a person, which was liberating. Inspired by Ganbe’s actions, she also too took to sharing her experience with her peers. Near the end of her account, she reflected how not everything since 3.11 had been bad, and also on the importance of human interaction, because despite all our records of the past, when those cease to exist, what remains would be the depth of one’s memories.

Aizawa, however, was one to bottle things inside. Like others traversing childhood and adulthood, she didn’t find it easy to open up to an adult, and so she didn’t. Instead, she found respite in venting to Tsuda her complaints and troubles during their walks home from school, but the emotions and tension kept churning within. She confessed to having lost her old positive self as she fell deeper and deeper into negativity with each harsh uttering of her stressed friends. But she was not suicidal. Just lost. Not necessarily searching for any particular direction in life. But when she was given the chance to speak, she found that the freedom to speak without restraint to her peers allowed her to slowly find her cheerful self again. In retrospect, she wished that adults had simply watched over them quietly instead of probing from time to time. And, she still loves the sea.

The book encapsulates in time, fixing in print the words of these three 16 year-old survivors who were 11 at that time. It also includes an entry by Miyu Yamashiro, a Tokyo high schooler who heard them speak, along with Sato’s entry that rounds up the book. Sato himself lost his daughter who was raring to go on to middle school. But Ganbe’s, Tsuda’s, and Aizawa’s words gave him another perspective, that of children that day. Their voices drive the hope and strength enclosed in these pages that make this title one not just for their stories but also a reminder of other children who have suffered more. As we remember the lives lost and the missing, we must remind ourselves to be ready for the next disaster and the recovery in its aftermath.

Title: 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group) by Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa, supervised by Toshiro Sato
Publisher: POPLAR Publishing, 2016

Nayuta Ganbe appears in this recent article.
Japan’s children of the tsunami shaped by tragedy, Jakarta Post, 4 March 2021

(Updated on 14 March to include Tsuda’s opinions on non-negative things post-3.11 and revise ending)

Safely hidden


Book review, from Tokyo – A summer vacation offers, for many, respite from the daily grind of school and the office. The hiatus often brings a selection of scary tales to library shelves, one both refreshingly frightening and inspiring at the same time.

Etsuko Yamamoto’s YA chapter book『神隠しの教室』(Kamikakushi no kyoushitsu, lit. The hidden classroom) tells the story of the sudden disappearance of five children in the middle of a normal school day like a classic who-dunnit.

The missing children come from varying backgrounds – a straight-talking 5th-grade girl born to Brazilian parents; her quiet classmate who somehow fell into the bad books of that cool girl in class; a nerdy-looking, bespectacled 4th-grade boy; a timid, soft-spoken, nervous 1st-grade girl; and a gangly, unkempt 6th-grade boy.

The teachers and school staff scramble to find the lost children. Meanwhile, the kids realize they had somehow entered a parallel world, with no one else in the entire compound, which looked very much identical.

Taking it onto themselves to join hands to find food and shelter in the confines of the school, they find their lunches served as they should at meal time, at their tables in their classrooms. There was also electricity and gas. Besides the fact that no one else was there, the school seemed to function like any other. They start to get used to their one-meal-a-day, care-free lives in this otherwise empty school, that is, until the weekend, when there was no school, and no food served.

In the hokenshitsu, the medical care or nurse’s room found in Japanese elementary schools, Sanae, the school’s nurse, notices something amiss. The bread she routinely puts in her drawer for the gangly 6th grader is gone. Had he somehow taken it without her knowing?

Ruffling through the school’s annals in the Principal’s office, the children find out that Sanae herself was similarly spirited away in 6th grade, in that same school. Uncanny. Perhaps the school was doing this. But why?

Gaining access to a computer in the audio-visual room, the kids manage to contact Sanae through her counseling blog. She rummages her memory to suggest that they open the same door at the same time to connect both worlds. However, their attempt only manages to open a blurry portal, which they could not walk or reach through. Something was lacking.

Sanae realizes that the school might be keeping the children safely away from something. As she gradually unravels the story behind each missing child, the five children grow closer with each passing day.

The children finally ask Sanae to reenact her return by asking their now distraught mothers to help them out of the other world. Only four return to their parent’s relieved embraces. The gangly 6th grader chooses to stay behind, his mother not there, or so it seemed.

Eventually, he too returns unharmed, striding out alone to four newfound friends, and the nurse who now knew and threw light on their stories.

Throughout the book, the children are plunged into varying degrees of self-doubt (why me?), self-blame (I’m the reason they are here with me), disappointment (it’s just not working), frustration (it’s all your fault!), and hopelessness (we’re never going home). But each time, some one would come up with a diversion, an idea, an outlet that offered hope or just a welcome break.

They could have chosen to stay in that hollow parallel world, until the point they realized that their loved ones were waiting on the other side, and also that the old building was slated for demolition.

In a story that was not unlike some bizarre escape game, the children found each other, a peer group, a group of individuals whose presence at school was under threat for some reason – bullying, abuse, neglect. Finding that group inspired the courage and clarity of mind to take the step back into their lives, with deep gratitude to the old school building that had developed a mind of its own.

 

Title: 『神隠しの教室』(Kamikakushi no kyoushitsu, lit. The hidden classroom)
by Etsuko Yamamoto, with illustrations by Yuki Maruyama
Publisher: Doshinsha, 2016
The book won the 2017 Noma Prize for Juvenile Literature.

Somewhere in between


Book review, from Tokyo – This post on Miku Ito’s  『カーネーション』(Kaaneeshon, lit. Carnation) is timed between May 5th, Children’s Day in Japan, and Mother’s Day. This tale is nothing like the normal present for that day, but a troubling story of a failing relationship between a mother and her child in the Touno family – Aiko, mother; Hiyori, middle-grade daughter; Kouko, kindergarten daughter; and Shinya, father and sole breadwinner who is that familiar Japanese male wage worker. Told in a series of monologues by Hiyori and Aiko, Aiko effuses love and attention for Kouko, but doesn’t seem to be able to treat Hiyori the same way.

The opening prepares the reader well. Hiyori gets a question at cram school from Tougo, a middle-grade boy, probing about whether she disliked anyone in particular. She mirrors the question, deflecting away the thorny issue. Tougo lives in with Kazu, or Kazuki, the sole tutor at a tiny cram school. Not that Hiyori really dislikes anyone, but she struggles to constantly fight for her mother’s love, to just make her smile. She finds respite and a welcoming smile from her aunt Yuzuki’s nearby shop and finds the space to return home as normal to a bawling baby sister and the protective, loving mum.

On the other hand, Aiko cannot bring herself to understand why she expresses her love for Hiyori the way she does. Perhaps because her daughter’s eyes remind her of her younger sister, who died an unfortunate death. Perhaps she was to blame those many years ago. Hiding this past from her daughter, she soldiers on, as mothers do, trying valiantly to understand her, hoping that she will one day open up to her.

With the ties pulled taut, things come to a head when Hiyori prepares a surprise birthday present for her mother, only for her plans to be foiled by that troublesome, inquisitive younger sibling. Hiyori bursts out of the house and takes refuge in the cram school. Aiko ends up needing depressants in hospital after losing her footing in her frantic search for her daughter.

All this while, Shinya had closed his eyes to the tension at home, choosing to gaze at those twinkling shows of light within them. Wife in hospital, daughter fled from home, younger daughter in the care of sister-in-law, he finally faces up to reality, to open up to change things, to save his family, which he succeeds with the help of Kazu, his old friend at the cram school, and Yuzuki. That change, of course, began from within.

Published on Mother’s day last year, Ito’s novel gives her YA readers a peek into the minds of parents in a not-entirely-improbable family situation and the sanctuaries to be found in friends and relatives. For the inquisitive reader-parent in me, it wrings those parental heartstrings – the mother struggling to fulfill her motherly duties, albeit in largely different ways for both daughters; the father finally opening up to his part as a parent in the family, with Shinya coming into the alternating monologues toward the end.

As a father, husband, brother and son, I see myself somewhere in between the two female protagonists in the story, which contains a message to fathers, and fathers-to-be, as part of a family. 『カーネーション』attempts to throw light on those oh-so-normal boundaries of gender (Tougo cooks well!) and parenting responsibilities. Painting a portrait of a family in transition, the ending also suggests change in Japanese society where men realize the need to do their part in sharing the family burden as more women divide their energies between work and facing the lifelong pressures of motherhood.

With an off-white cover adorned by carnations in four different colours, this different story serves up a reminder of the toils of a mother, and adds to that a failing mother-daughter relationship. A troubling tale that closes on a reassuring note with light shining through at the end for the daughter and her family.

Title: 『カーネーション』(Kaaneeshon, lit. Carnation)
Text by Miku Ito, pictures by Komako Sakai
Publisher: KUMON Publishing, 2017

Carrying on from a story of March 11


Book review, from Tokyo – Leza Lowitz’s verse novel Up From the Sea tells the story of Kai, a teenage boy who survives being swept away by the tsunami.

In just a few opening pages, we are given a quick rundown on his Japanese family, his estranged American Dad in New York, his pals Ryu and Shin, and his daily routine. And when the earthquake struck, everything came, thick and fast. We race out of school together with him and through his town in search of higher ground, but get swept under. He and his classmates, Taro, best friend Shin, and Keiko survive, and are later reunited with Ryu. We later learn that he loses his grandmother, and finds his grandfather’s shattered fishing boat, but not his mother.

Fighting and spite with Taro seem to give respite from guilt, loneliness, confusion, and anger. Then there are the calm, heartening moments. These seem to grow as Kai begins reaching out to other survivors, bringing food to people, handing out riceballs, kicking a soggy football with Guts and other younger boys, praying for the dead.

But his mental state remained still fragile. Come summer, the Japanese tradition of making wishes on Tanabata (七夕, Chinese Qixi festival) reminded of his childhood dreams and wishes, and his encounter with a drunk buried in the sand ends with him wandering into the sea. He is saved, and realizes something that gives him newfound hope.

Surviving yet again, a talk with his grandfather’s fisherman friend Old Man Sato gives him some wise old words that help him take the chance to meet 9/11 orphans. He finds his way to the US, and perhaps his father, and returns alone to Japan after leaving a note in New York. The novel ends on a tone of hope, of acceptance, of reconciliation with his father, and light shining the way forward.

I particularly liked how the novel threw me into the struggle right from the start and how the first person verse narrative effortlessly raced through the speaker’s emotions, and left me with work to do on some of Kai’s closest thoughts. Of the many moments that left an impression, the lessons from Old Man Sato’s story stood out – You’ve got to be able to save yourself, because “we’ve got the future to build.” Indeed.

Title: Up From the Sea
by Leza Lowitz
Publisher:
Hardcover: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016,
Paperback: Ember, 2017