The Water Cooler

Voices from Japan: Six months on

This piece should really be called mera something hain Japani? After all, what is that talking point that runs off, just skirting our headline radar in a heavily mediated world? Something that often eavesdrops on our collective cynicism with its quieter can-do-ness. Leaving one with an exasperated wow from the confines of a busy day. Or reminding the journalists that a human interest story often begins with one  human, struggling to be so.

The September 11 date, with its spate of  quiet and graphic remembrances, converged on another more recent anniversary. 6 months since Japan's March 11 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear situation. While the media megamart chronicled it with a powerful sense of the phenomenal from ground zero (remember  NYT's before and after satellite imagery), I turned my distant empathy from Indian shores to a different sense of the interactive soon enough. Japanese voices that spoke compellingly of their own tribulations through these six months.

There was a Osakan vegan chef's blog, who in her broken English conveyed some other things that were breaking in her within days. She was for one, too shocked to cook. "After I found out about explosion, first thing I imagined was invisible radiation covering all over land in Japan, contaminating all the food. Cooking is my life since I was 3 years old. I felt like my best friends were killed in front of my eyes. If I choose to continue my work with domestic contaminated food, I will be poisoning others…"

The whiplash poignancy of possible contamination soon gave way to the impulse to do-can-do. "On April 3rd there was anti nukes walk in Kyoto. The organizer of this walk announced participants to make your own signs, banners, etc. So, I baked cookies instead, using ingredients to protect body from radiation intake because we will be walking outside for about 2hours while some radioactive substances flown from Fukushima and we will all inhale them, I decided to give those cookies to children if there were any.." She called them one-love cookies.

Strangely appealing. As the international press coverage became incrementally incidental, stories of loot and open despair were as if on mute. Until I came across  this American crime reporter in Japan. One of the first to report full time for a Japanese newspaper since the late 80s. The first responders — speaks of the yakuza, the criminal, illegal and mostly violent gang communities who came in after the quake. The first to help. With more underhand stakes in the construction industry revealing itself as time went by, but the efficiency of the outlaws, unmistakable.

The  summer 2011 issue of Asia Literary Review brought on a medley of Japan connected voices that revealed the complicated layers of the Japanese psyche with much more reflection and lived ease. In June came a broad Buddhist perspective  from a Japanese spiritual leader Dr.Daisaku Ikeda. He animated and sort of countered the flat faraway comments on the calm-cooperative-semi-fatalistic-Japanese as a people, with a more insightful yet immediate verve. In The courage to rebuild he shares directly, "I was told of one woman from Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, who saved the lives of her neighbors. As the raging waters reached the second floor of her apartment building, she held onto an air-conditioning unit, meanwhile preventing a man carrying a baby from being swept away by pinning him against a wall with her back. With her free hand she then grabbed and held onto another man by the collar. She said she was determined not to let them go even if her arms were torn off." There is not an unforeseen occurrence in the world where powerful stories of human reaching out to human, do not emerge. But what finetunes the heart and conscience each time is to hear it's alive and kicking our sedimented insides.

As it did for a half Malayali-half Japanese 15-year-old Delhite who put down his experience of this annual visit to Japan via a story. Invoking playfully a Japanese literary tradition of a pen name.

"His eyes were closing shut. He was no longer able to tread the mighty water. Nobuhiro had now lost all hope of ever seeing his house, his friends , his school and above all, his parents.Just then something caught his leg. He was being held by a cable of some sort. He turned around to see Mr. Ishikawa standing on the broken ledge of a building, completely drenched and bruised but strong enough to hold a rope and pull Nobuhiro accross to the ledge. Nobuhiro was saved, but was he?"

As the number of foreign visitors to Japan decrease, the radiation testing of infants increases and over 800 insurance claims are being processed daily in Japan - across this metadata of reconstruction, are also a  million lives like above. I've heard from friends about children from worst-hit Tohoku cheering other kids in Japan with their hopeful haikus and stories like  a carpenter who found his tool box in the debris that was his home - and the first thing he carved was a sign for all in his town saying 'Gambaro Ishinomaki.' Bullet pointing a journey best described by a Japanese word.

GANBATTE. Loosely reconfigured in English as something something do your best. Six months on, a local survey, drafted by students and distributed across a sample of the student population in three of the worst affected prefectures  in Japan points to what can shift, when more than the ground does.

P.S. Ganbatte, ganbatte, this spirited call would speak to a country closer home - another semi-Buddhist post ravaged land, also on the path to reconstruction. Here's a wide-angled report that doesn't use people as a prop while attempting to deconstruct: Truth Vs Hype in Sri Lanka

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