Interesting read here in the Japan Times by the William Andrews about the case of Fumiaki Hoshino who was convicted of killing a policeman in a riot in Shibuya in 1971.
Nicely updates something I wrote before yet never quite got around to investigating more. In interviews with Hoshino San’s wife Akiko, we learn more of the petty cruelty of his detention like the 20 day punishment he got for washing his feet without permission after stepping on a cockroach or the lack of adequate heating and air-conditioning to deal with the the extremes of Japan‘s seasons.
The cruelest revelation of all is that Akoko San has never even touched her husband since their marriage in 1986. Conjugal visits have been denied and even a request to have his baby via IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation Treatment) was rejected.
Never mind the fact that his twenty year sentence has been extended indefinitely and numerous appeals refuse to reject the confessions that were used to convict him even though they were withdrawn soon after they were given with claims they were forced. Never mind the appearance of new evidence that casts doubt on the identity of the person responsible for the policeman’s death or the unbelievable fact that the prosecution is allowed to hide that evidence.
It all looks like a huge miscarriage of justice that has got both The United Nations and Amnesty International interested. Even after nearly forty years in prison the most amazing thing we learn in the article is that Fumiaki Hoshino is still optimistic that he will be released one day.
Here’s hoping he is.
You shouldn’t do this to a Ferrari.
Am I right?
Working a few other stories at the moment, just something fun to keep you entertained while I shoot and scribble away.
A few meetings yesterday and then a quick photo trawl around Shibuya to shoot the people enjoying the Halloween celebration.
Being a Thursday I hadn’t expected it to be so busy. Indeed the main Halloween celebrations took place last weekend but a lot of young people seemed to be getting very firmly into the spirit of the day as the sun came down on Shibuya.
Busy day again today.
Hope you had a good Halloween if you do that sort of thing.
Love the clearing skies after a typhoon. The atmosphere sparkles and the air is clear and fresh. The views are hard edged and bright. All the rush and rime of the city has blown away.
It is good to be out in the light that follows these storms; there is a sense of escape both mentally and physically as you leave the house you had to hide in through the rattling winds and rain. Outside, the city is scrubbed and good to look at again and you want to explore.
The memorial is small: a makeshift alter on a tiny oblong of unused ground next to the train tracks; surrounded by plastic construction site fences that are much too cheerfully green. Behind it a couple of rough tin and wood shacks are collapsing in on themselves and the passing commuter trains on the other side wobble the ground like an earthquake. It is an extra-ordinarily ugly location to honour the life of a woman who did an extra-ordinarily brave thing.
On October 1st 2013 Natsue Murata was driving back to her property company office with her 67 year old father, Shigahiro. They had stopped at a level-crossing just outside Nakayama Station, in Yokohama’s Midori Ward, at around 11:30am when she noticed an old man laying on the tracks. They were at the head of the line of waiting cars and she could see clearly that there was something wrong. The crossing barriers had already closed but the man wouldn’t or couldn’t move to the safer side of them. A train was approaching: the crossing signals alarms were incessant with that warning, but forty year old Natsue knew he was in danger and couldn’t just sit there and watch him get run-over by the train.
“I have to help him.” She said as she got out of the car.
“Don’t go. There isn’t enough time!” Her father called after her but against his advice, she crossed the barriers and tried to pull the old man to safety.
The train driver saw her struggling to move the man and applied his emergency brakes but couldn’t stop in time and Natsue was struck by the train and killed. She had managed to move the 74 year old man enough to save his life however. He sustained head and back injuries, including a fractured collar bone, but is expected to make a full recovery.
The old man doesn’t remember anything of the incident and apparently only became aware of his surroundings in the ambulance. Some people have commented that he may have been trying to commit suicide but it is more likely he had a seizure or “senior moment” on the crossing.
“My daughter was someone who could not ignore a person in trouble.” Shigehiro told the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.
“I have to console myself with the fact the old man is alive.” He said, adding that he hopes the man lives to a very old age.
The trains that were stopped for several hours by the accident last Tuesday rattle by frequently again now. The crossing signal sounds and the cars, trucks and pedestrians stop and wait at the barriers until it is safe to cross. The routine returns to normal and the heroism and unluckiness of that day become part of the background like the pure white table cloth covering the makeshift alter which is stained now where the rain has washed the colours from the flowers that are piled above it.
The memorial was set up on the October 2nd, the day after the accident by JR (Japan Railways that operate the Yokohama Line), so many people have left flowers and cards that many of them have had to be moved to another location. More people arrive daily to offer prayers for Natsue however. A piece of cardboard lays on the ground in front the alter for people to kneel on when they pray and two security-guards bow and welcome those that come to offer condolences.
Not only locals have been moved by her selfless act. The Japanese government and national Police Agency (NPA) have presented a medal with a red ribbon, the highest civilian honour, and a silver cup to the Murata family to mark their daughter’s courage. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, also sent a letter of gratitude. Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshida Suga, personally handed the letter to the family on Sunday. In it the PM expressed his condolences and honoured her courage in putting another person’s life before her own.
When politician, especially ones as unscrupulous and stupid as Abe it is easy to be cynical. Perhaps he is coat-tailing an act of unusual courage for political gain: something he can spin into some sense of unique Japanese fortitude that suits his nationalistic agenda. But if so he would need to ask why no-one else there that day thought to help the old man or Natsue as she struggled to move him.
It makes him more human perhaps; more caring in a way his other policies are not but I do not think it so shallow a ploy. Perhaps like many people he has asked himself the question we all do at such events: would I have helped? Would I have been brave enough to do what she did? I’d like to think I would; but with a train baring down and a statically higher risk to my own life as the rescuer, I wonder. I wonder.
All of which makes Natsue Murata’s sacrifice all the more extra-ordianry and maybe that is enough to make all of us, great and small, honour her and we should just leave it at that.
The nights are drawing in. Soon I will spend a good proportion of my day shooting in the dark.
At least it is cooler though and I don’t need to carry so many T-shirts around as I am sweating less.
I might soon need to start carrying a coat again however and that is equally a hassle.
The skies are mostly clear and blue though and the dusk does lend a certain colour, that I like, to the cityscapes.
Above is an image of the back way into Ebisu Garden Place that I came across last Friday. So dark, so uninviting, but look at bubble-blue late evening sky!
Lot’s to do today.
The Yasukuni visit on August 15th is a ritual for many photographers in Japan; we go to see a side to Japan that is often hidden but which bubbles below the surface of most interactions. Because on this day, the day that marks the end of the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat, the unique pride of the Japanese in themselves is on full display.
And it is a display for the best part: a strutting peacock in khaki and medals display of historical myopia and stupidity. Patriotism is one thing, and a worthy one at that, but here, on this day, people look to the past to find the cause of their present discomfort, laying their search wrongly and missing the message in remembrance: They see a small Asia country respected through its export of discipline and order not the fear created by the colonial adventurism of its despotic military rulers. They see romantic hopelessness and the divine sacrifice of youth toward a passion of place not the national embarrassment that should be the kamikaze. They see the faces of millions of innocent men branded evil by unwelcome and uncouth enemy lords, without realising that at least 14 of those faces deserve that very description. And they see conspiracies of foreign subjugates to belittle Asia’s natural leader not the collective response of an organic new world order and the beginnings of post-colonialism, Asian or otherwise.
What they do not see enough is the waste of life that was the Pacific War. An easy victimhood can be found in the numbers of dead but they blame he wrong people for those lost souls and put defeat down to diet or bad luck.
Almost every year my photographer friends and I go to see the dichotomy of Japanese nationalism here. There is a superciliousness to it that is laughable when the history is recalled yet it is a sort of pantomime of self-regard that is of course interesting as a photojournalist; with posturing men in uniforms they have not earned and a mania of flags, fights and misplaced anger. The constant question foreigners get asked, when talking to people at Yasukuni on this day, is where we are from. The openness of the relationship that ensues depends on answers stuck in past animosities. Obviously British and American citizens are derided whereas Germans and Italians are treated as brothers and welcomed.
The biggest pantomime is the annual ”will he, won’t he” of politicians’ visits who nominally go to remember the war dead, but actually do so to make political statements and cement their right-wing credentials. This year Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, (who right wing credentials are quite strong) stayed away in a realpolitik attempt to avoid increasing tensions with China and South Korea after territorial disputes and several racist gaffes by senior cabinet members. At least three of his cabinet ministers visited the shrine however and 77 other Liberal Democrat Party lawmakers (LDP) also did. In total 89 politicians paid their respects at Yasukuni on Thursday. I watched some arrive; driving up in their cars and getting out, in formal frock coats, to polite applause. Famous faces got loud cheers and the less famous a mere smattering of sweaty hand claps from the more enthusiastic onlookers, before embarrassment that they didn’t actually know who that person was sent them silent.
Last year only 55 politicians came to Yasukuni on August 15th and indeed the whole place seemed busier this year. A spokesman for the shrine told the press that 175,000 people had come to pay their respects, up from 161,000 last year, and the queue of people waiting to pray stretched back far further than I have ever seen it before.
Maybe the current troubles with its far too critical neighbours is causing this surge in national pride. But these are not your rabid right-wing activists in Uyoku jump-suits. Most of the visitors were mostly ordinary people, living ordinary lives who may never express openly, at any other time,, the feelings they have. They may work, live and study with foreigners every day without their dislikes getting in the way. Perhaps they do not even feel that dislike day in, day out. But is must be there , mustn’t it? For the wish to march with a flag on the street and to express your belief in your nation’s exceptionalism is not normal. Pride I get. Patriotism I understand. Respect for victims of war I agree with. But Yasukuni is not about any of those things, it is about expressing a political opinion that places all other nations below your own and refuting the lessons of history, with an apparent intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about nationalism and xenophobia. The politicians know this; the right-wing ideologues and their foot-soldiers know this. The foreign media know this. Yet a visit to Yasukuni is still reported as an innocent expression of commemoration and hopes of peace. Yet can it ever be that when the shrine so disingenuously ties the unpleasant aspects of Japanese history to the memories of its victims?
Are the Japanese people really so stupid, or do they really feel that dangerous pride again?
Confusing and troubling day as you feel for a moment there that you do not understand this country at all. Men in shirts and ties insult you to your face whereas other men in boiler suits with swastika badges apologise for standing on your foot while they are fighting with riot police in an attempt to cause real physical harm to peace protesters.
Can’t keep away.
More images of the Yasukuni Shrine end of war celebration on August 15th at my archive site here:
Due to family pressures (it was much more of a beach holiday for the kids!) didn’t actually get to see much of the festival itself but did meet and get interviewed by William Adams himself (bottom image). As the real Will Adams died in 1620 it wasn’t actually him of course. Indeed it wasn’t even an Englishman but a Japanese man in a blond wig and Elizabethan clothes who was very hot in that get-up but also very happy to share the history of Ito and tell me about the blue-eyed samurai who came to Japan 400 years ago and became a friend and advisor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
I know a thing or two about William Adams as he is from my hometown of Gillingham in Kent. My dad’s interest in history plus his connections to the sea made the name something I grew up with. When James Clavell’s Shogun was shown on the TV in my youth we all watched it religiously. I learnt my first few Japanese words from watching it; indeed it would be true to say that series piqued my initial interest in Japan itself.
There was a touch of home also as the parade, that is the main event of the festival, got ready when I met and briefly spoke to four exchange students from Medway who were leading the parade (third image). The students: two women called Sally Jeffery and Molly Ellwood and two men called Matthew English and Lare Erogbogbo were somewhat hot and flustered and seemed either unimpressed or too tired to react to this chance encounter with a Kentish compatriot.
Japanese people love organising photo calls and poses and all lots of old men and women were fussing around them of them. It seemed everyone had a job and a particular place to be stand and smile to do so our conversation was brief. Though it appears they are over of a few weeks, heading off to various cultural events and having a good time despite the heat. Indeed Lare seemed to be loving the sunshine.
Then it was back to the beach, past the statue of William Adams that commemorates his connection to this town (It is where he oversaw the building of Japan’s first western style sailing ship) and then a sunburnt afternoon with the kids at the beach and fireworks over red wine at night kind of a day.
A mostly good day out to be honest.
Hope to go again next year.
It has been a pretty cool and wet summer so far. Not the usual routine. I still feel I am suffering in the humidity though so found this image of Shinjuku and thought I’d share it. Winter in Japan is cold but there are these beautiful skies.
Feel cooler yet?
Been a busy few weeks covering the elections here in Japan.
Calmer now and with the kids off school I’m going to be on full time father duties for most of the summer.
I love those busy times with a camera though. Not only for the subjects you get to cover but the chance to run into other photographers.
He is a great photographer and yet also a gentleman in the manic scrum that snappers sometimes have to get the shot. He is never in your way; he always waits patiently for you to get out of his and will even help you get the shot despite being competition.
Once when I was photographing a demo by Iranians in Tokyo against the previous election results, it was raining heavily and Inouye san even held my umbrella for me while I climbed up on a bench to get a shot.
I met him again shooting actor, Taro Yamamoto’s political campaign the other week and tried my best to keep out of his shots and be patient and polite and smile and choose good positions that inconvenience nobody; because that’s just how you act when you are around Mr Inouye.
Kids’ stuff now
Not content to be led by two cartoonishly accident prone leaders, the Japan Restoration Party enters the Upper House elections today fielding a candidate whose appearance is rather like that of a Batman villain.
Antonio Inoki, is a former wrestler and wrestling promoter. He also has the biggest chin in showbiz!
In a country where fame attracts almost no distractors, the pronouncements of celebrities carry weight and people listen whether he is talking about historical revisionism in front of Shinjuku station, as above, or shopping bargains on daytime TV.
Inoki is one of the most famous and best loved personalities in Japan and a self-made man whose life story has to be respected even if he is not exactly the smartest man around or the hype surrounding him is rather overblown. He is a valued product of the media and as such he always gets an audience.
Opinions in celebrities are not common. In the west his current ideas would also not be popular and rightly ridiculed. The politics of the Japan Restoration Party are extremely unpleasant being a nationalistic, racist party that wishes to return Japan to the hollow pride of the Showa Era empire builders. They equate respect with fear and are in a dangerous game of keeping up with the Joneses regarding China and Korea. But he is allowed these opinions and beliefs because they are “on message” with those that control the media. He still has has a platform to express his views on immigration, patriotism, or the best shampoo, and continues to enjoy his celebrity. Indeed it is his star power that has JRP co-founder and one of the aforementioned leaders, Shintaro Ishihara hoping his presence will undo some of the damage caused by the other leader, Toru Hashimoto‘s comments on the comfort women issues.
“[Inoki is] here to give us new life, and help us fight through this trying time.” Ishihara said at a press conference to announce Antonio Inoki’s candidacy in June.
Contrast the indulgence Inoki’s conscientious stand is given with that of actor, Taro Yamamoto‘s who decided after the Fukushima nuclear accident on March 11th 2011 that he could not agree with nuclear power generation policies in Japan and has had to essentially give up his acting career.
It is not sure if even someone as popular as Inoki can reverse the JRP’s fortunes however. Their support rates have plummeted since the Hashimoto faux pas. Inoki has run and won seats in the Upper House of Japanese politics before and might just be able to give some much needed muscle to the campaign. But the JRP brand, though once quite popular, has become toxic to many.
To me though the machismo of the JRP is also something that really doesn’t need adding to. These dinosaurs of belligerence need to learn that Japan is a very different place to the one they wish want to return it to and its place in the world is not going to be secured by acting-up. Japan is an important country that is widely respected for exactly the reason these paranoid men see ridicule. Yet it is actually politicians like Ishihara, Hashimoto and if he is successful, Inoki that make people not take Japan seriously. As governor of Tokyo, Ishihara insulted almost foreign visitor. Hashimoto re-energised Osaka as its mayor to be true, but Osaka people have a great sense of humour and can swallow most idiocies; on the national stage he has looked seriously provincial and out of his depth. And inoki just has that chin! He also has a wrestler’s skills at debate and rhetoric, i.e. none. The second image is him performing his trademark slap on a young supporter. Basically he is indulged in any argument to win by being stronger so we are really not going to get any useful discussion if he enters politics.
Like the others he confuses having political view and enough power and wealth to run an election campaign with being a politician. There is more skill and nuance to the job than any of these people can muster. Indeed in politics in Japan there are precious few that have those skills that could guide Japan to take its rightful place globally.
Including the current Prime Minister.
UPDATE JULY 22nd
Inoki San won a seat for the Japan Restoration Party in Sunday’s poll. The JRP did badly however losing their widely declared “third force” position after the lower house elections in November to something much lower and less influential.
This very spectacular festival takes place in the middle of July every year and involves about 40 mikoshi or portable shrines winding their way down from shrines all over the areas to Southern Beach in time for sunrise. When they have been blessed in a Shinto ceremony the tired, often rather drunk, carriers take them into the surf to cleanse them.
It is manic fun and not a little dangerous for the camera as the waves come roaring in to break over the mikoshi and their supporters.
This Monday’s sunrise was rather grey and flat to tell the truth and the festival seemed overcrowded and a little lacking in energy due to the close, muggy atmosphere. Not the best one I’ve experienced.
Yet I did do something different for particular this visit. Have got a contact in one of the teams carrying the mikoshi I managed to follow the procession through the night. The best part was in the centre of Chigasaki itself when three mikoshi came together outside the station before crossing the tracks and heading towards the sea. See images above.
I was tired and sweaty but what a great night of mayhem on the streets of this otherwise nondescript Kanagawa town.
Tempted to do it all gain next year too.
More electioneering today along with the beautiful Mitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Shrine.
This election provides so many choices for the man in the top images who is checking the names and faces of the candidates. A total of 433 candidates have registered for 121 open seats in the Japanese House of Councillors election this year.
The ruling LDP led coalition needs sixty-three of those places to gain a majority that could lead the politics of Japan back into the single party dominance of the past. Something they are predicted to do despite the number of other choices available to voters.
This is good news for the Abe’s aims to amend the constitution and resume nuclear power generation. Basically with a commanding majority he can do whatever he wants.
There are a few independents around that could upset the numbers though Of course there is Taru Yamamoto as in my last post. There are smaller parties too and some colourful characters that offer broad degrees of seriousness and otherwise to most of Japan’s political events.
None perhaps more colourful than Yoshiro Nakamatsu however (in the second image.) Known as Doctor Nakamats he is a prolific inventor and TV celebrity well known for entering, and losing, elections. He has stood for the upper house elections before and also run for the Governor of Tokyo twice. The young people coming out of the Mitama matsuri were very happy to see him. It is this sort of star power that attracts votes regardless of his policies. This time he is supported by the powerful, rich and rather scary Happiness Realisation Party though and their broadly nationalistic agenda.
Let’s hope his luck doesn’t change too much this time round.
Though of course Abe is hoping the same thing.
It’s a dilemma.
I photographed him last year when he tried to get elected in the lower house poll in Tokyo. He lost that particular race but having secured 70,000 votes he understands that his message is one that many people perhaps want to hear.
It is a hard job campaigning in the Tokyo summer hear but Yamomoto San has given up a lot more than sweat for his beliefs. His acting career suffered as the media shut its doors to him after publicly stating his opposition to nuclear energy. In Japan celebrities are expected to be passive and not have opinions. Yet Yamamoto san has always stood up for what he believes in: from the dangers of nuclear energy to the rights of teenagers to use hair gel. Having spent some of his childhood travelling and volunteering in The Philippines there were rumours that the lack of future prospects was forcing him to leave Japan and live there. But it appears he is staying now; trying again to keep the anti nuclear message in the forefront of Japanese political debate by running for the Upper House elections this month
He has the same passion as before. He strongly believes that the nuclear policies of the Japanese government, especially under Prime Minister Abe are going to affect the future of the country and the people in it. He called the Ministry of Education’s raising of the limit of acceptable radiation exposure for children from 1 millisievert to 20 millisieverts a year was “an act of murder”.
Those are fighting words and he certainly seemed to be be more professionally taking the fight to the powers that be. Though his supporters are still mostly volunteer and there is an informality to his politics that makes it accessible and attractive. How can you not like a election hopeful that gives a speech in shorts?
I wish him luck
UPDATE JULY 22nd
Taro Yamamoto succeeded in securing a seat in a five seat district of Tokyo. I picked up uover 660,00 votes and was the forth most popular candidate or party in the poll. Upon victory he refused to do the usual “banzai” as a celebration, saying that he had done nothing to celebrate yet.
“I will do a banzai to celebrate the occasion when I really end up helping the victims of the nuclear disaster. A thorny path lies ahead of me. Vested nuclear interests will no doubt try to sabotage my efforts.”
Anyway is is still an amazing result for a man that the media mostly ignored until it became apparent he might win and for an organisation that is not an official party yet and relied on the organisational skills of 1,200, mostly amateur, volunteers. So congratulations Yamamoto San!
The cutting edge tech in the organic LED screens that make up Geo-Cosmos globe at the Miraikan museum of emerging sciences says it all really. It is obviously very photogenic also.
Off out again today to Odaiba, I hope. With kids this time. Off to explore the world.
Fun seeing it through their eyes this time.
You may take some convincing but the Meguro Parasitological Museum is well worth a visit.
Apparently, and not unsurprisingly, it is the only parasite museum in the world and has a large collection of the nasty critters preserved and exhibited. Indeed it pulls no punches for the squeamish and arrays an impressive display against you as soon as you walk in the door.
Upstairs the 8.8 metre long tape worm removed from the stomach of a 40 year old man is truly stomach churning.
The museum is free but is, unlike many other free museums, really nice. The display cabinets‘ glass is clean so your view of some extremely unpleasant looking (and large) helminths is unobstructed. There is a souvenir shop upstairs where you can even buy some sealed in plastic key rings or T-shirts bearing nematode portraits for that more conversational of presents.
Great place actually and, believe me, I never thought I would write that.
Great day out in Tokyo today. A free day of thankfully good weather and wandering aimlessly taking pics.
Well not completely aimless was following one of my longer term stories here when I came across this smoking room in a building near where I was photographing. Just thought it looked good so a few shots and I walked on.
I like days like today, no stress, no pressure. no great worries regarding clients or radiation or police.
Off out tomorrow too for some more serendipitous shooting.
Good news! It’s Friday!
Actually pretty busy tomorrow
There was a biggish anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo on Sunday. The government of Shinzo Abe has stated its determination to restart and exapand on the nuclear generation of electricity and around 7,ooo people took to the streets to protest this. Though the Japan Times quoted organisers saying 60,000 people attended this seems way too many. Even the police estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 still seems high compared to my own rough calculation at the site. The police are not known for talking-up the numbers of protesters though; indeed usually they do the opposite so I wonder what the real number was.
Some might say that it is foolish to hope the country will be nuclear free in the future,;Japan has no choice but to use nuclear energy when it consumes electricity at the level it does with no significant natural resources of its own to support it.
True these protests are not of the same scale they were at their height in 2012. But a lot of people still do care that government and industry collusion and corruption created the problems that Fukushima Prefecture and Japan has been dealing with since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th 2011.
One man, who many people credit for having saved the country shortly after those events took place is Naoto Kan. When the situation at the damaged Daichi plant was at its worst and TEPCO were apparently preparing to abandon it, he is supposed to have forced them to go in and manage the shut down. Rumour has it that he did this quite forcefully. So forcefully in fact that it appears as soon as was possible the powers in the political system and the vested interests in the power industry got rid of him pretty quickly afterwards.
So even he wasn’t exactly among friends when he turned up later in the day at the protest to speak, he could find some sympathy and gratitude in the crowd of protesters that surrounded the National Diet building.
Still as a politician, despite having nailed his green credentials to the mast most of his political career, it was a brave thing to do. His security was quite light and he was right there in the middle of an angry, motivated crowd that have a visceral distrust, even dislike, of most politicians.
I think history will be kind to Naoto Kan though.
A good day shooting.
More images of Naoto Kan speaking at the anti-nuclear demo at my archive here.
You’ll just have to make do with this image of another right wing nut job, the current Tokyo governor, Naoki Inose, who may recently have lost Tokyo its Olympic bid. He also lives in my town and can sometimes be seen jogging around on his tiny little feet.
I love Japanese festivals and especially ones that involve carrying a mikoshi around. A few weeks after I arrived in Japan I was wondering the streets of my neighbourhood when I stumbled across the local Aki Matsuri or Autumn festival. Now I was new in Japan and that day I learnt a lot of new words for the mayhem of these events: Words like mikoshi (portable shrine), tabi (festival jackets), “washoi!” (which as far as I know means nothing and is just chanted when people are carrying mikoshi during the festival) and even the word matsuri (which means festival) itself. It was such a magical, unexpected pleasure in a country that was leaving me, at that time, quite lonely, bored and poor. I could join in the fun of the festival without spending money and it had all the colour and unfamiliarity of the travelling life I had just left behind when I moved here. In short it was best day in Japan up to then and I have had a soft spot for this part of Japanese culture ever since.
The Kanda matsuri is one of the three great Shinto festivals of Japan and takes place on odd numbered years in the streets around Kanda. I had never been to it before and it made the news this year as it was returning after a four year hiatus caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku on March 11th 2011. I just had to go.
Also friends of my sons had relatives involved in the matsuri so we could really join in. Indeed I could not avoid joining in.
I have carried a mikoshi before and know from that experience that firstly they are really heavy and secondly that I am apparently genetically unable to get into the rhythm of the carry due to the fact that I am just that bit taller and my legs that bit longer than most of the other people I’m having to share the burden with. If you can’t get the “washoi!” beat going as you carry the mikoshi you can guarantee some nasty shoulder bruises in a very short while. My first experience found me under the sharp-edged wooden beams, that support the mikoshi’s weight, performing some very ungainly, bandy legged waddle in an effort to lower my shoulders to the same level as everyone elses. This of course also made my thighs scream in pain and my hips twist uncomfortably.
Those memories were still fresh when I was pulled from the crowd by well-meaning but obviously sadistic new friends and thrust under those same, sharp beams yesterday. I tried to get the rhythm I really did: I held onto the man in front and even a mumbled “washoi!” left my lips. The person behind helpfully and perhaps angrily adjusted my posture every time my head dropped a little too far or my arse stuck out a little too much. But try as I might I just couldn’t get the same bounce in my step as they could. My legs had to bend that bit more to travel the same vertical distance as theirs; there was a delay: I couldn’t move up with the ups and down with the down as well as they could and the weight of the mikoshi smashed again and again and again and again into my shoulder.
My sons were smiling at me, proud and photographing madly. Yet I was in agony. I stuck it out as long as I could: I wanted to make them proud of course, but my clown legs meant clown feet spread wide and as we moved the mikoshi around a corner I couldn’t follow the shuffled steps; my feet seemed seven sizes bigger and caught on the heels of the man in front and the toes of person behind.
It hurt, I looked like an idiot and though they smiled and said “don’t worry” I am sure my accidental removal of most of my neighbours footwear, multiple times, was somewhat annoying.
But at the rest stop the food and rink was generous and friendly. My kids and their friends had a ball. And I was free now, having done my part to photograph, up close, with my mikoshi colleagues.
Exhausted and bruised but a great day out all the same.
Cars can no longer cross the bridge in Tomoioka Bay. The earthquake dropped it about 30 centimetres and on the other side the radiation readings climb rapidly to levels that are getting unsafe. We walked it across on our last day in Fukushima. It was a windy day and the sound of the wind howling through the arches and railing of the bridge was unsettling. Indeed it would have been hard to find a scarier soundtrack for the foolish steps we took into this empty, overgrown place. We were about 7 kilometres from the Daichi nuclear power station and had we been stupid enough to leave the road and wander the paths through the highly radioactive undergrowth to a nearby hilltop, we could probably have seen.
Hillside, forest and craggy coastlines. A nice place to live before the events of March 11th 2011 which made the encounter I had above more poignant. I saw this couple dressed in makeshift radiation suits photographing the area as I crossed the bridge.
“is this your house?” I asked the man as I got closer and he had started to leave.
“Yes it is.” he said.
Then he turned and looked at the house and in the saddest tone I’ve ever heard said “Bye Bye”
He said no more, he didn’t need to.
He crossed back over the bridge, pausing one last time to look at his house, perhaps for the last time ever. Then he went down and we carried on into a place where there have been many similar, sad good-byes.
More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone at my archive here:
One of the things we have seen in Fukushima a lot, both inside and outside the exclusion zone, is the decontaminated earth and undergrowth piled up in vinyl bags. The government has decided to reduce the radioactivity of the soil around the Fukushima Daichi plant exclusion zone by removing the top two or three centimetres of soil. The aim is to reduce the contamination levels in affected areas to under one millisievert a year.
Farmland and residential areas are all to be scraped clean and many of Fukushima’s mountain areas (which accounts for around 60-70% of the contaminated land) will have 20 metres either side of every road cleared. This is what is happening in the image above near the village of Katsurao.
Some estimates put the total clean up area at 13% of the Prefecture: over 100 million cubic metres of soil and brush that so far is being stored in growing mountains of blue and black vinyl bags dotted around the countryside. Many of these are slowly being transported to special depots but some of the strict safeguards necessary to clean the area are already being ignored at this report in the Asahi Shimbun exposes.
Indeed, though technological solutions were promised to both speed-up and improve the decontamination work and companies that have expertise in dealing with such situation were invited to demonstrate their techniques; the job is mostly still being done by hand and the tools the workers can use are routinely primitive to say the least.
The Japanese government initially set aside 650 billion Yen for the decontamination but the area and the costs have risen beyond expectations. Corners are almost certainly being cut to save costs. Not least of these is in protecting the people doing the hard, dirty work of raking through the undergrowth and picking up the soil and leaves are putting them into the bags themselves. We saw no radiation suits or proper masks being worn. Indeed the most common mask we saw worn inside the zone, be they returning residents, clean up workers or policemen, was the next to useless hayfever paper mask that cost pennies in every convenience store. Some on the cleanup crew wore no masks at all! When we asked a not too happy security guard if the radiation was high in the trees and safe he said they measured it everyday and it was less than 0.6 microsieviets an hour (the Government reading). Yet if this was true why bother cleaning the area at all, it was already under the level that was the target of the action? Our Geiger counter read 1.57 microsieverts an hour on the road near where they were working. I cannot imagine what the readings must have been in the mud and leaves of the forest.
Whether this clean-up is for real or not is something I am unclear about. There are people returning to the Fukushima countryside for sure and a lot of the land in parks and schools and areas where people have quickly returned to now has a dry, dusty brown colour where the topsoil has already been removed. But the decontamination of the Prefecture’s mountains just looks like so much window dressing to me. Perhaps it will go on just long enough to convince people that efforts are being made to clean-up the mess and than will be quietly forgotten. It would take hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, to complete remove the top layer of the soil in the affected area of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures. A school playground can effectively been cleaned perhaps but the bottom twenty metres of a slope will easily be contaminated again the next time it rains anywhere on the slopes above. The project seems pointless to me: designed more to suggest it is now safe to return to the area; that nuclear pollution is actually easy to remove and thus nuclear energy itself is no longer something Japanese people should fear. This will of course make it easy for the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to follow through on its stated aim of building more nuclear power-stations.
Anyway it’s late I have another photo job tomorrow in Soma, north of the zone. And need to get some sleep.
The emperor of Japan visited the Kawauchi Elementary School last Autumn. There is a commemorative stone near the entrance to mark the event. The school children run past it on the way into school in the morning and out again in the afternoon. If they notice it they seem not to react to the honour. It makes their school special for parents and newspapers. But for the kids, their is school is special anyway.
The building is spacious and airy; the windows large and the floors and ceilings all polished wood and beams. The building is very beautiful but that is not what makes the school special. At 3:30pm as the school day finishes, the teachers (all of who seem to be quite young and wearing tracksuits) walk the children out, past the Emperor’s stone, and line them up to wait for the buses to take them home. The yellow-hatted first graders giggle and squirm as they wait. Noisy and naughty like six-year olds everywhere they are feral at this time of day and after climbing onto the buses rattle around the insides looking for distractions. Indeed as the teachers wave them good-bye, two small hands flap against the back window of the second bus; wishing the teachers desperate farewells. The hands are small against the emptiness of the bus’s back seats, the boy and girl, unable to continue the amusements of the queue in their isolation, look sad to be leaving. They are the only two children on the bus and they have nothing to do but wave. They are heading home to a town in a landscape that does not have a lot of young children anymore. This time two years ago in fact no one lived here at all.
After the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011 the town of Kawauchi swelled as it took in over a thousand homeless people from Tomioka on the coast. The tsunami could not reach this hill town of course but the sound of the explosions at the nearby Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant could and by March 15th the town was empty due to fear of radiation.
Yet Kawauchi is slowly recovering now it seems. One of the first places affected by radiation to re-open, the contamination readings are quite low and people are starting to make their lives here again. A lot of the topsoil has been removed and people are planting crops and setting up homes among the fields once more. A vegetable factory recently opened. Though if the area can ever regain the trust of the food consumer remains to be seen but there is hope that Kawauchi’s famous mushrooms will be a favourite of Japanese dishes as before. Most importantly however is the fact that some children have returned.
Even before the Fukushima disaster rural Tohoku had a problem with shrinking and ageing populations. Fears of radioactive contamination, and pointedly its effect on children, has unfortunately kept many from returning after they evacuated. In 2011 the number of students at the school stood at 114. This year there are only 24 across the first 6 grades. The first grade has a mere seven students: five boys and one girl. Grades three and four however have just one student each.
The teachers, all of whom were sent to the town from other areas of Fukushima when the school re-opened in April 2012, seem genuinely to love their posting here. Living in a school apartment building with other teachers from the elementary school and nearby junior high school and away from family and friends who are often in distant parts of the prefecture, they take the care of these kids very seriously. That reopening year there were only 16 students yet they have been surprised at how easily the kids have coped with the trauma of evacuation and a somewhat lonely return. Only one child was unable to get over the sounds of the explosions at the plant: Every-time it would thunder she would get very scared. All the teachers and other staff had to help her; talk to her; tell her it was going to be okay. It took just two weeks for the girl to believe them.
There is a deep skill and love in their teaching here. They know that the children are missing out on the normality of many friends and classmates and it is difficult for them so they fill in the spaces with a generosity of spirit that is humbling. We watched children practising athletics in the dusty, de-contaminated sports field. Athletics is a sport that individuals can do against the clock or each other because there are not enough students for a football or baseball team. All the teachers I met in this school seemed very genuine and gentle. Most importantly though they seemed to recognise that the children themselves were special. Just dealing with unreality of their school days here on the edges of the Fukushima exclusion zone takes a degree of bravery and determination that many children could not easily match.