Sunday, March 20, 2011

Japan's Triple Tragedy: 9.0 Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster

Japan's triple tragedy of a 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that started on Friday, March 11, 2011, happened so fast that I didn't have time to process the disaster until a week later. At first it didn't sink in for me because I didn't know much about Miyagi prefecture nor did I have any friends or their families that were affected. Having lived in Japan for two years, I had been used to minor or major earthquakes and/or tsunami warnings, but this was a domino effect of tragedy that went way beyond what I experienced.

The reality of this tragedy kicked in for me a week later when news reports started announcing the numbers of those that were dead or missing. With more than 8,000 people officially dead and 12,000 people missing, it was finally the impact of the death toll that did me in. To think that 20,000 people are missing or presumed were wiped off the face of the earth in one day was mind boggling to me.

The 9/11 Terrorist Attackers killed nearly 3,000 people, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and left nearly 2,000 people dead, and the 2010 Chile earthquake took the lives of over 500. All of these tragedies, including Japan's, happened in developed countries yet the magnitude of devastation, both on the psyche of its citizens and economically, has humbled us all.

To put things into perspective, I looked back in history at two recent earthquakes in lesser developed regions of the world that both killed more than 300,000 people: the 2004 Indian Ocean (9.0 magnitude affecting Thailand and Indonesia) and the 2010 Haiti Earthquakes (7.0 magnitude). While the natural disasters in New Orleans and Chile are no less in scope, they were both in more developed countries and the loss of life never reached into the tens of thousands. Would fewer people have died if Haiti, Thailand and Indonesia were more developed countries? The possibilities are endless and I'm sure that scientists will discuss this for many years to come, but we can't ignore the fact that natural disasters and man-made ones (fires, nuclear and biological) are getting to levels we haven't seen in centuries (the Black Plague in Europe, volcanic eruptions that ruined Pompeii, etc.).

All of the natural disasters and massive loss of life that have occurred in the last five or six years were tragic, but they never directly affected me. Sure, I gave money to the causes and followed the news to see what would happen next, but I didn't know a soul that lost their life. This tragedy touched my heart, because I felt for the people in the country that I called my home for two years and that I claim as my second home.

I had just visited Japan for my first return visit last summer. While I was there, wherever I went, food was in abundance, people enjoyed festivals and school children were playing and laughing. That's quite a contrast to what my Japanese friend reports from Tokyo a week after the earthquake hit when I checked on her:

Gina, I'm scared!! But so far we believe that we are okay. I wear a cap, a mask
and gloves when I go out. We will get out of Tokyo if we see a clear danger.

Toilet paper rolls and rice are sold out at all the stores. So I took one

roll from a hospital. Now we have enough since my stepdad send them from Osaka.
There are several kinds of food we cannot find but we're much much better
than what disaster victims are going through.
This is just one friend's account, but when I checked on other Japanese friends based around the world and in Japan, they seemed confused about why the Western media seemed to sensationalize the tragedy and likened it to Chernobyl. I'm not sure if I should be more worried for my Japanese friends or not, but I'll leave you with that same friend's last email, which should tell you how she feels about the atmosphere in Japan right now:

Thanks for checking on me!
We want to help victims but we can’t even go there.
I wonder how long it will take until we recover.
I’m so worried that this will cause a huge damage on our economy and our lives.
Many stores and restaurants are still closed.
Our lives have been stopped or being very slow. I can’t wait till we’re allowed to laugh with friends, enjoy our meals with beer and wine.
While we worry about how to fix the global recession, handle multiple wars, bicker about how to deal with tyrants and revolutions in the Middle East, it's tragedies like this one that make us all realize that we are just alike when we face tragedies or challenging situations. If tragedies brought on by nature create a space for people across cultures to care for and support each other, then that is just one positive thing that could come out of this situation. Still, my heart hurts for Japan and its people.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Japan Travel Guide by a "Gaijin" (foreigner) for a "Gaijin"

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine went to Japan for work in Tokyo and then traveled to other parts of the country. I had lived and worked in Nara, Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for two years and he wanted to travel to my old stomping grounds, the Kansai (or Kinki) region: Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe in Hyogo-ken. I was SO excited to tell him about my favorite places there. There's so much to see in Japan, but I told him that if I wanted to experience real Japan, you have to go to Kansai: Kyoto, Nara, Osaka prefectures, which are the most well-known must-see destinations.

For first-time travelers to Japan, I recommend an online guide: Here are my personal favorites in Kansai.

A word about temples:

They will all look like temples, but the difference is shrines represent the Shinto religion whose followers believe that the Emperor is a living descendant of god and explains why the Japanese fought to the death during WWII. If you know that history, then you’ll remember that in addition to the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in order to truly discourage the Japanese from continuing to fight, that Gen. MacArthur forced the Emperor of Japan to do a radio address telling his people that he was not a god. There are still some old Japanese that still practice Shinto, but most younger Japanese (under 50) are not religious at all, however, you’ll most likely catch a beautiful Japanese wedding (in traditional kimonos) at a Shinto shrine than at a temple. Definitely stalk the shrines to see if you can catch a glimpse of a Japanese wedding where the bride and groom will wear beautiful kimonos.

Just remember: “shrines” have orange ‘toris” or gates and have “jinja” somewhere in the name and temples have a variety of names, but they’re usually less decorative and simple, made out of dark wood and might have “terra” or “dera” in the name (depending on the kanji that is used).

Kyoto: Attractions in Kyoto-shi:

Kyoto is one of many ancient capitols of Japan (read a little bit of history about Japan), but just so you know: Osaka, Kyoto and Nara were all ancient/old capitols of Japan depending on the age/period and the emperors. Japanese history is simply fascinating! Temples are everywhere, so it will be quite easy to get all templed out. I’ll rank my favorites below:

1. Kiyomizudera (temple) – this temple is absolutely breathtaking. It doesn’t cost much to enter, but when you do, you’ll see that the temple is built on the side of a mountain and since it’s winter, you won’t see the canopy of trees, but you’ll be able to see most of Kyoto from there. There’s also a "love shrine" built right next to it. Perfect for couples to visit.

2. Kinkakuji (temple) – it’s a feat that they built this temple in gold. The beauty around it makes it worth seeing just for the photo opportunities.

3. Ryoanji (temple) – this is where you will see real monks. They actually do make these amazing designs in the rocks as some kind of meditation. When you look at it you wonder how they made such designs in the rocks/sand without making footsteps.

Note: You will likely not have time to see more than 3 temples in a day, simply because of all of the traffic in Kyoto and the fact that the streets are so small. Definitely, when you arrive at Kyoto station, look around for the tourist map and also find the bus terminal at the station and get an all day pass. ALL of the buses can take you to a temple/attraction.

Other attractions in Kyoto, if you have more than one day…

1. Kyoto Tower – I recommend doing this first so that you can see how far most of the attraction you’ll see are through the telescope. Perhaps even have some “udon” noodles while you’re there if the restaurant is open.

2. Arashiyama – if you have time, take a train from Kyoto station up to Arashiyama, but don’t get lost! Follow the crowd when you get off the train and say, “Arashiyama”? There are wild monkeys in the mountains there and it’s kinda cool to see. You can also take a boat ride on the river there. The shopping is quite good too. There’s a $10 store there (1000 yen pronounced “zen yen” and I think that they use omi-se to refer to “store.” I can’t remember anymore). This trip will likely take a whole day (get back to Kyoto city before night falls).

Nara prefecture:

Temples, Deer and Shopping! Nara City is one of the ancient capitols of Japan and happens to be the capitol of the prefecture that I lived in for two years. Take a train from Kyoto station to Nara Station on the Kintetsu Railway line. Here are a few highlights:

1. Todaiji Temple – home of one of the largest indoor Buddhas in the country and a World Heritage site, at Todaiji Temple, you can buy treats to feed the all-too-friendly deer that are roaming free across the city. Take pictures in the sitting Buddha’s pose and try to squeeze yourself through the hole in one of the massive columns in one of the oldest wooden structures in all of Japan and perhaps the world.

Stay tuned for more details of other cities of Japan.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I'm Going Back to Japan! Nihon he kaerimasu!

So, after 5 years of hoping to return back to Japan, I am finally going back. If you kept up with my blog, you'd know that I spent 2 years in Nara, Japan (2003-2005) as an assistant language teacher (ALT) on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Unfortunately, I will only have one week to stay there to visit my friends in Nara (Heguri-cho), Tokyo and Osaka, but it will be worth it. I hope to see my former students who must now be in junior high, high school or college. I miss them so much and I've been having that old natsukashi feeling lately when I flip through or discover photos and handwritten notes from them. I will see my former co-worker, Yoriko, to reconnect with some students and then my former co-workers. Besides Tokyo, Nara and Osaka, I hope to take some excursions to Hiroshima and various sites on Kyushu Island. Can't wait!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Resurrection of The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama

It's been a while since I've posted to this blog, but I think that it's about time to get back to The Crowd.

What I've Been Doing

I've been going farther and farther down the path of squaredom: working a typical 9 - 5 job since I've lived in Japan. This is great for the income, but a killer on creativity. I am looking into making my life more flexible, by reading The 4-hour Workweek. It's quite inspiring, but halfway through the book, I'm wondering how I can accomplish this to free up some time for me to pursue my more creative activities such as creative writing.

I recently took my manuscript in process, The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama, to the doctor, the fiction doctor, Cindy Davis, that is. See read through my manuscript, which I found painful to reread and edit myself and gave me all kinds of helpful hints on how to move the story forward. I've been having trouble figuring out the POV (point of view) of the story, since I've always thought of Bianca and Michael both as main characters.

In any case, she had great advice that I intend to follow after I've put the stories to the crowd. I'm thinking about starting an online diary that Bianca would be writing about her daily or weekly adventures. I think that this will give me the opportunity to naturally develop the story and extract the pieces that I like for the book. Ultimately, I'd like to create a graphic novel and not so much a novel, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to find a graphic artist or illustrator that is willing to work with me for peanuts until I turn a profit or created an audience. If you know of someone that is willing to share my vision with them, then let me know.

We'll see what comes of my renewed interest in writing again. Meanwhile, comment away.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Japan Connection

I originally started this blog because I was tired of sending out the mass emails to my friends about my experiences in Japan. Since being back in the States, it's now turned into something that I hope reflects the international experiences ordinary people have everyday.

Well, one of my co-workers from my days as a teacher in Japan, Yoriko Kawakita, asked me to host her daughter, Yuka, when she came over from Japan for her month-long college vacation. Yuka is a 20-year-old Pharmacy student from Nara, Japan. She started in Philadelphia and then came down to visit me here in DC.

Meanwhile, my friend, Nicole Daley, who also taught English with Yoriko, was visiting Japan for a month following her graduation from grad school. What a small and interconnected world we live in!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

New Bianca Sukiyama Art

I'm finally getting somewhere with Bianca Sukiyama! I'm now working with graphic designer, Ricardo Mavin, to create some art work for The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama graphic novel that I hope to publish next year. Here's the first rough sketch of the characters. If you'd like a copy of the Bianca stories, please contact me at Thanks!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jero's Rise to Fame in Japan

Soooo, my friend, Jerome White, was featured in the Style section of the Washington Post as a new up and coming singer in Japan! He is African-American with a Japanese grandmother and sings "enka" music, a traditional style of Japanese music. Read the article for more on "Jero" (his Japanese stage name).

Communications and Journalism Delegation to Australia

From May 18 - 26, 2008 (minus a day in transit crossing the international date line), I went to Australia as a faculty advisor for the International Scholar Laureate Program's Delegation on Communications and Journalism with my co-FA, Vesna Jaksic. Vesna and I accompanied 72 college students majoring in the aforementioned fields to appointments to meet representatives of major media organizations in Melbourne and Sydney. We were responsible for creating lesson plans relating to journalism and/or communications.
(Photo: Sydney Opera House)
First, we arrived in Melbourne and went to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) to listen to academics talk about media in Australia. Some differences to note between Australia and the U.S.: Australia has "cross media laws," which prohibits people like Rupert Murdoch (an Australian that owns a large percentage of the media in the U.S. and Australia) from owning more than two types of media (i.e. TV and Radio and no print) at any given time. I also learned that the Australian government completely funds its public broadcasting outlet, ABC (ABC = Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

Some of the highlights of the trip was going to advertising agency, J Walter Thomas, where the students competed to create ads for something called the "buzz box." Also, while in Melbourne, Vesna and I staged a press conference where all of the communications and journalism students stepped into their respective roles as ad agency creative talent (graphic designers, etc.), PR specialists (spin doctors and PR students) and print and television/radio journalists. It was so amazing to see them do their thing. The scenario was that a famous Kangaroo soccer player died from an energy drink that the ad agency folks were advertising for (they didn't know this when they created it), so the PR people had to call a press conference to address the situation. The journalists showed up with their cameras and questions to drill the PR folks. It was so amazing to see how great the students performed under pressure (we only gave them 10 minutes to work).
On a side note, I went to a session on Political Spin where we met with one of the media advisors for a Labor Party politician. It was interesting to hear the same information that I learned from my former boss, who was a former Information Officer for the State Department at various embassies around the world, about managing the media.

In Sydney, we visited the ABC studios. We met with an environmental science reporter, a radio journalist and took a tour of the various areas of the studio. Here, I learned that they have a variety of news outlets similar to our PBS and NPR, but again, it was totally funded by their
government. The guy in this photo was telling us that when Bush came to visit Australia, one of their comedy show performers dressed up in an Osama bin Laden outfit and heckled him. I thought that that was sort of funny.
At the end of that day, we all went to the famous Bondi Beach for a great lunch near the water. It was pretty cold, because it's Fall right now, but we took a few photos. You can find more photos on my Facebook page.

The next day, we had a panel of DJs from various youth-oriented radio stations (Triple J, just to name one) representing Aboriginal, female and ethnic radio stations. Perhaps the most interesting speaker was, Grant Leigh Saunders, who was half Aboriginal and half white. He identified himself as black, but he looked "white." Anyways, he created a short film called, "B.L.A.C.K" which talked about Aboriginal youth and the influence of hip-hop. The students were SO interested in what he had to say. After the panel, he was bombarded with requests to have pictures taken with him. I suspect that it was because our schedule lacked any scheduled visits to learn about Aboriginals and their culture and because these were journalism students, curious by nature. I found out on my own (too late) that we were in Sydney during "Reconciliation Week." Which brings me to my next topic, Sorry Day.

Sorry Day was in February 2008 and it was the day that the new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, publicly apologized for "The Stolen Generation," when Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and stripped of their culture (watch "Rabbit-Proof Fence"). I watched a documentary about the Stolen Generation and then watched the images of PM Rudd apologizing. He was surrounded by Parliament members in the background. There were also images of Aboriginals and Australians holding hands, hugging and apologizing for the horrors of something that happened only a few decades ago. I think that this would be an amazing thing to happen in the U.S. in order to begin reconcilation on slavery. I think that a simple apology would heal so many wounds. I hope that it happens in my lifetime, but most importantly before those that lived for The Cause die off.
I can write so much more about this amazing trip, but it would take up pages and pages on this blog. For more information, please contact me directly or click on the links above. I highly recommend Australia and I hope to go back and see more of the "Bush" sometime soon.

(Photo: Me on the steps of the Sydney Opera House)