Japan, its Children, and the Tsunami

With constant news rushing through our lives, earth-shattering disasters, such as the Tsunami on 11 March 2011, somehow get swept under the daily news flood.

But as the anniversary is drawing near, more documentation surfaces. When I noticed the length of the film (58 minutes), I decided to only have a 10-minute peek at it. But I could not stop watching it.

BBC’s documentary film Japan’s Children of the Tsunami  features children telling their side of the story. A very sober, yet also heart-wrenching documentation about how life goes on for the 80,000 residents, the ones who had to evacuate to emergency housing outside the exclusion zone.

Children narrate their experience during the Tsunami, how they live today, and what their hopes and dreams are for the future.

Personally, I don’t think there is a chance to move back any time in the near future.

One month from today, I will be in Japan once more. We will be touring the island of Kyushu and this will be my first time to travel as a backpacker via JR Railway Pass.

Kyushu is quite far away from Fukushima (966 km/600 miles), but after watching this documentary, I know the aftermath is far from over.

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Green Rice Fields and Red Flowers in Japan

One of my favorite images of Japan is the one of the flower Higambana (彼岸花), separating rice fields. The colors are so stunning – the contrast of the green rice plants, the deep red flowers, and the blue mountains in the background are a haven for artists, Zen followers, nature lovers, and dozens more.

Higambana means Autumnal Equinox flower and its blooming  lasts for about 10 days only.

With the current news about Japan and so many negative images of destruction, angst, and death, I tried to remember the Japan I used to know, and the image of the Higambana came to mind.

Higambana flowers and rice fields around Kitakyushu/Japan

The only time I saw these flowers, was when we participated on a bus tour, sponsored by the International Center of Kitakyushu. Otherwise I might have never spotted this plant, which only blooms for a short time.

This sight in late summer, combined with summer’s humidity and a slight evening breeze, is the real Japan.


On March 3, Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) is celebrated in Japan. This Girls’ Day, a.k.a. Dolls’ Festival, is a day to pray for a young girl’s growth and happiness.

Girls' Day in Japan

On my very first Hinamatsuri living in Japan, I was invited by a student’s mom to attend her daughter’s hinamatsuri celebration. My being a foreigner also lured other moms to her house to have a closer look at me – the foreigner with yellow hair and a high nose. And being from Germany also added even more to my being an exotic guest (Kitakyushu had a population of over one million, only four of them German citizens).

They asked about my previous employment in Germany. I told them about my job in management and was surprised to learn they limited my skills  to that of an office lady (OL). As late as the early 90s, office ladies existed en masse within Japanese companies. Their job description entailed the following: be young and pretty, willing to make copies and serve tea.

With great effort due to my then limited Japanese speaking skills and their low English listening skills, it was difficult to convey I had not been an OL. But I managed, but then I got classified as a career woman. Among others, future Rabenmutter also entered my mind. Career woman just sounded being so selfish, with these moms tending to their children’s educational needs and their husbands’ appetite.

It was rather difficult for these Japanese wives to place me in the middle – I was a young woman in my late 20s, working to make a living away from home, and paying my own bills.

A lot has changed in these past 20 years. Young Japanese women have more options nowadays and can fill the in-between spots in society. They have the freedom to be   more than an OL, yet also more than a housewife, and succeed in a career without being called a career woman.

Japanese Baby Kimono

In English, most Japanese wrap-around clothing is referred to as a kimono. In this case however, this little baby/toddler coat would be  appropriately called a yukata (浴衣).

Japanese baby yukata

The interesting part is that it has been made entirely from used cloth diapers. Back in the days, when Japan had not yet been such a throw-away society, the baby’s old diapers got recycled for a practical purpose. After a thourough cleaning, indigo dye was applied to give this lovely tie-dye pattern.

I had read about this technique in one of my Japanese textile history books and got very excited when I actually spotted one in an antique shop (the only tie-dye baby yukata I ever saw in three years of browsing antique shops in Japan).

The price, I believe, was  5000 yen in the early 90s, which equals about € 45 today.

Breakfast for a Homeless Japanese

Yesterday’s mail delivered two reminders about the old stigma that there is no poverty in Japan. One was the article  Japan tries to face up to growing poverty problem in the International Herald Tribune, the other came by e-mail from a friend in California who also mentioned my fondness for bums. Yes, that’s right. Bums, not buns.

While living in Kitakyushu/Japan, I found a new friend in the bum who used to live in the tunnel between Kokura station and the former Kitakyushu International Association (KIA).

Every Wednesday, on my way from the station to my volunteer job at KIA, I would first stop at the bakery to get some breakfast to go. Not for me, but for my friend who had been living in the tunnel for I-don’t-know how many years. I am pretty sure it must have been years as Japan offered almost no assistance, neither granted by the state nor its society, in support for sore sights such as the homeless.

Granted, many people rather turn a blind eye, but I found the Japanese to be even willfully blinder than the rest of us. In the early 90s, seeing a bum did not sit  well in their self-projected image of an affluent society.

My friend, whose name I will never know, must have been in his late 80s. I only saw him squatting down, a bony torso, lower limbs missing, and head always posed in shame.

I always greeted him and said a few words in Japanese, while putting down his breakfast. For the longest time, he never looked up, but he audibly came to know me as the strange person, speaking accented Japanese, who would bring breakfast on Wednesdays. Once, towards the end of our relationship, he looked up and I noticed his blank stare. Of all the things in the world, he was blind, too.

One Wednesday in late winter, he went missing. I took his breakfast with me to KIA and mentioned to my Californian friend  that the bum had not been there this morning. Strangely enough, she thought I had referred to my husband, which took a couple of minutes to clear up this misunderstanding.

I never saw him again and was unable to find out what happened. I can only guess that his lights had gone out. That same year, when he went to his creator, another little boy found his way into and under my heart. Our son Thomas was born the following winter.

Why do I like bums, you might ask. Whether they are homeless by choice or free will, they are people like you and me. And I would like to think that if any one of my children ever ended up living on the road, as a parent I would be happy to know that someone would be kind enough to share some food. Wouldn’t you?

The city of Frankfurt is home to 1800 homeless.

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