March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Tsunami Disaster and Nuclear Meltdown, Edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima

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September 26, 2015

On March 11, 2011 a tsunami triggered by a 9.0 megathrust earthquake off the pacific coast of the Tōhoku region in Japan rolled across the coastal towns in Iwate prefecture and Sendai area.

Some places were wiped completely off the map. Equipment failure as a result of the tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which further threatened lives and caused widespread fear.

People stopped eating food and fish from the area.

Over 15,000 people were killed. Over 8,000 were left with injuries. Many disappeared into the ocean forever. In terms of psychological injury, I don’t think there was a single Japanese who went unaffected by the tragedy.

This collection of stories and essays reflecting on the March disaster is a one year retrospective. It comes from mostly Japanese authors, and a couple foreigners with strong ties to the land of the rising sun. It serves as a collection for them to express their feelings through works of fiction, non-fiction, and (of course) manga.

What’s nice about the anthology is the range of authors presented. In terms of demographics they’re male, female, old and young. The stories themselves span across genres. None of the stories are very long. You could probably read a couple on your morning commute, time depending.

Elmer Luke is an editor of fiction and non-fiction, and is known for his work editing translations of contemporary Japanese fiction. David Karashima also translates contemporary Japanese fiction into English and served as director of the first Tokyo International Literary Festival.

I came to Japan in March 2012, nearly exactly one year after the tsunami diasaster.

I flew into Tokyo and took the bullet train to Yamaguchi station, in Yamaguchi prefecture, in southern Japan, which is quite far away from the area directly hit by the tsunami.

Even though Yamaguchi is about 1,000km away from Tōhoku area, people in the city still spoke fervently about the tsunami. How their family or friends had lost a home, or how they had lost people. My server in a café had ‘3.11’ tattooed on his inner forearm. In a culture where tattooing is by no means mainstream. I asked him about it. “Do you know about the tsunami?” he said, “it’s so we don’t forget.”

There was no shortage of stories.

There was a shortage of power.

During the summer everyone was very conscious of their power use. Not just for moral reasons, but also because it was damn expensive. Sometimes my Chinese roommate who had been there longer than I had would remind me to turn off my A/C overnight, and just sweat the evenings out instead.

It was expensive because Japan had reduced its nuclear power creation in the wake of public outcry by running facilities at lower capacity or, in the case of a few, turned them off altogether.

This is known as a ‘phase-out’.

I sweated, and loved that the Japanese, whom so many associate with consent and mildness had taken such a strong political stance.

Later in the summer, I went to Tokyo and attended a rally in the Kasumigaseki political district in front of the National Diet (the diet is akin to parliament in Japan).

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After I left a new Prime Minister was voted into power in December 2012: Shinzō Abe. He has since restarted construction on nuclear sites, and has turned many of the nuclear power plants back on as a part of his new Abenomics policy.

There was a protest just last month in Kagoshima, as the power plant there was turned back on for the first time in years.

I loved reading this collection of stories. There’s a few that take a magic-surrealist approach to dealing with diasaster. Think Haruki Murakami, or Alice in Wonderland, with the sweet sauce of Japanese nostalgia thrown in.

Reading this brings to mind some of the vintage post-atom-bomb manga and cartoons that came out of Japan following the end of World War I. The Japanese have turned coping with trauma and defeat through stories, visual imagery and metaphor into an art form. They are also practiced and proficient at rising from the ashes. As anime teaches us, they love a good underdog.

The stories themself are short and sweet, translated to English by an assortment of authors. It was also nice in that it introduced me to some contemporary Japanese writers I wasn’t familiar with.

Hearing Japanese stories by Japanese authors is also important for outsiders to read, as it lets us hear their experiences with their own voices, rather than through the voices of western journalists.

Even though stories about post-tsunami Japan have faded from our newspapers in North America, there is still a lot of fear, stigma, anger, hurt and broken families.

It is hard to believed that the upcoming March in 2016 will be the five year anniversary of this tragedy.

Reading this continues to give me hope that the resilient people of Japan will continue to find hope in its many forms – planted in a rice field, found in a shoe, felt in a shrine, borne into a family, voted for, and yelled at political rallies. And that Japan will once again surprise us all with another phoenix-like flight from the ashes.

And read this book, it’s quite lovely.

All royalties from the book’s sale are donated to earthquake relief and radiation cleanup in Tōhoku.

 がんばって!

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