A Franco-Japanese at Home in Tokyo
I am now living in Minatoku, Tokyo, Japan since August 2012 and there is too much to tell. I have not even informed my friends abroad (nor many in Japan) of an address in Tokyo for the next four years nor of my presence, let alone had time to write or formally study Japanese. I hope you will forgive me.
Forgive me for this absence. It has taken me time to get settled and I have much to learn.
I begin again on the spirit or soul of the Japanese with Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture (Tohoku). I write about artists who through their work bring joy. They are many.
The town was devastated by the tsunami on March 11th. NHK has mentioned that the water overcame 46 percent of the city’s land which is not difficult to imagine when one watches this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBtRIRiTJqA .
An article in the Huffington Post co-authored by Tokyo based Robert Michael Poole states that more than 3,000 residents died and about that many remain missing as of a year ago.
Not so Far Up North
We went up to Ishinomaki with my six-year-old daughter and many families from her school, TIS (Tokyo International School) as they had donated a Playground of Hope for the residents in a housing project. We took the Shinkansen past Fukushima (the stop at Fukushima seemed a bit odd – a deserted feel) and continued up north to Sendai. From there we took a 1 ½ hour bus ride.
TIS and the Playground of Hope
Thanks to a year of fundraising by TIS (Tokyo International School) students, teachers and parents, Bita Alu, a parent and friend, had selected the NGO It’s Not Just Mud and been in contact with Michael Anop and Jamie El-Banna. The NGO is involved in several projects including building playgrounds, which bring a dash of color to temporary housing residences. The NGO is efficient, and no frills attached.
When Temporary is Childhood
Jamie from It’s Not Just Mud explained to me that it was difficult for the parents in this temporary residence as there were no places for children to play and often local or national organizations have not responded thinking it not a necessity to build a playground as the housing is temporary.
And yet, temporary housing here is estimated to be five years—a good part of youth for a child.
A Playground for Kids or Adults?
Jamie pointed out to me an old man with his grandson who had watched the playground being built since the beginning of the week. “He’s been here since the beginning,” Jamie says smiling. “I keep telling the man, ‘It’s for the kids!’ but he always returns!”
Black and White with a Touch of Yellow
When we got off the bus, the cold wind (strong enough to blow off a door of a car if left open according to one resident) added to a feeling that there was no natural warmth here. The trees which all had been destroyed by the tsunami created no front against the most chilling wind.
So when we approached the playground (and could only hear the cries and laughter of children) playing, the contrast with the scenery struck. The black and white photo suddenly had a small dab of yellow.
My daughter was a bit shy at first. She clung to me and even the clown, Supa Gajin, had a little difficulty initially warming her up (although after he had great success). And just as I was wondering what to do, a Japanese man from the town with the most expressive eyes came forward with his little dog, and suddenly the scenery had changed for her. The little dog, this Japanese man, and my daughter became friends. After a short while, my daughter played with the children in the playground.
I stood by and envied how children do not need to speak the same language.
A Place to Play
One resident told me that the children all went to different schools, and that to get to their schools they take different buses. So the children, despite they live in the same housing unit, never play together. Now they have a place to play and can make new friends. Now the parents can sleep a bit better at night in rooms too small for play.
A Place for Everyone
Another old woman told me she felt useless. That she could no longer clean clothes nor read given her age. I told her I felt lucky when I was with older people. There is a wisdom in age, that is more meaningful than any task we can accomplish.
A young man in his early twenties seemed lost and disoriented with nothing to do. I saw he had lost all his teeth and wondered how that happened. I went up to him and we spoke a bit. I gave him some models I brought. Something to occupy, one was of a Japanese temple — and that was the one he wanted. Perhaps he was telling me discreetly that we have succeeded in building houses, but forgotten the human spirit.
Just Like Us
There was a very nice father smiling with his child. A man with deep eyes, smart, and a feeling of warmth about him. He was watching the clown Supra Gajin with his child in his lap. He was just like us. But his wife was not with him and he lived here.
A Smile One Can Not Forget
There was a man who I did not speak to, but whose smile lit up the whole playground and miles around. I am told his name is Yamakami Katuyoshi, and he is the head of the housing association we visited.
He works freely and given his work is a full time job I wondered how he managed to feed himself or his family. Yamakumi’s smile was infectious, it never came off his face, not once.
Men with a spirit like this can change Japan.
When A Smile Lasts
There was a man, a clown, who I met, an artist by the name of Gaetano Totaro, who is known as SupaGaijin the smile ambassador. I had heard of him before from my son’s school BST (through Helen O’Brien who runs BTT Bridge to Tohoku) and has done wonders with children.
BTT has supported the smile ambassador’s work in Tohoku by helping him pay expenses (he gives his own time freely). Unlike many others who first came to this region, Gaetano returned over and over building a relationship with children – a lasting smile.
A Clown who Doesn’t Clown Around
This clown who was trained at Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College had a way of bridging barriers amongst children. By using familiar objects such as an umbrella, which could be found even in temporary housing, he encouraged children to use their imagination and to begin a road to recovery.
I thought, I want to do something with this clown, this artist of great imagination.
When we departed, my daughter had made a new Japanese friend — a girl with the greatest smile. The two girls didn’t want to separate. As soon as my daughter got in the bus, she opened the window. The Japanese girl ran to the bus and through that small window, the two girls held hands. Surely, they were not saying goodbye.
There is nothing Fun about surviving and yet Joy
I am told that there is a difference in Japan between “tanoshimu” and “yorokobu.” The laughter–a deep kind– that lasts—is of the latter. It is caused not by fleeting entertainment, but by the deep smile of a Mr. Yamakami and by true friendship offered to us so freely by the Japanese we met in Ishinomaki. We have much to learn from you.
Thank you. We will return.
A VIDEO OF OUR VISIT ISHINOMAKI