Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Onsen Tomodachi

A friend who has been working in Iwate, a prefecture in northern Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, is on break. The day, cold and rainy, had us heading toward the warmth and steam of the onsen hot baths. We talked about the elderly, countryside ways, and hometowns.

The tsunami destroyed the homes and landscape of Iwate to the point that even with clearing the debris, there is no place to build. Of the thousands of shelters needed, only a few hundred have been built. The people live in the school gymnasium for now. Though there have been offers of free houses in Kyoto, in Tokyo, the people, who are mostly older, do not want to leave.

The evacuees visit their home sites even if there is nothing there. The buildings may be gone, but every memory they have is tied to this devastated countryside. To leave after already losing everything,  it is too hard. This isn't just their hometown, it's their whole lives- the place of every celebration, the places where daily routines were kept, and the place their connections with each other were formed and continue, even in a school gymnasium. Many evacuees are fishermen and so the thousands of boats that disappeared left them without work. The few fishermen with both a boat and a net talked of the bits and pieces they found in their nets- from homes to humans, not exactly the catch of the day.

Many agencies and groups have rushed in and asked, "What do you need?" Then having delivered the goods, departed. The people left with each other and destruction at every turn, see the aid though generously given, not channelled toward the wider community, the greater good. A different kind of help is needed now-- a not so easy kind to give as a bottle of water. They need people to listen to their pain, to help them sort through options, to do so many things they can't yet name.

The ways of the Japanese countryside are hard even for a native- to them she is an outsider, from the city. There is a need to cultivate the locals to implement a successful program, but the prevailing approach is to push in outside ideas and bypass local input. In the best of times sitting in a Japanese board meeting as an American is tough- everyone has a say and consensus will be reached irregardless of time- it is tedious and painful. Americans tend toward avoiding the dissenters and skipping the gory details. Add to the mix: countryside, elderly, massive destruction, and lost lives, there is listening to be done.

"What do the people there want? Hope for?" I asked. "They want to rebuild. They want things to be normal again. When they talk, they start talking about the beginning. They are not past that," she said. I can imagine when you are sleeping in a school gym and staring at piles of debris that used to be your town, perhaps grieving for friends and family members who died, having a vision of the future is not your first impulse. People need to tell their stories, must tell their stories, before they can let go of their suffering whether from natural disasters or war. I thought of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid.

She said, "Operation Tomodachi- by the way, I liked the name of that."

There is something to having a hometown and being from somewhere. When you move away, work in another culture, you sometimes forget the power a place holds on all of these parts of you when you are from there, of there, and live there. Perhaps hard for foreign aid workers who live in another culture to remember when working in yet another culture.

I hope they build something beautiful for those who stay there that allows them to remain in place and that honors some of what they lost that fateful day. To do so, we must aim to remember who we help and not ourselves.