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Three Gorges Dam Problems “Some problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction but could not be solved immediately.” Despite the huge amount of water it is designed to control, China’s Three Gorges Dam can do relatively little to alleviate severe drought conditions, and continues to cause harm downstream along the Yangtze River. (from CNN – Three Gorges Dam) Life in Hell ”If I were an avant-garde Japanese fashion designer, she’s who I’d want to be.” “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening collaborates with Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo to create fashion items based on the cartoonist’s Life in Hell comic strip. (from – Matt Groening) Burmese Buddhist Skating “We witnessed a different side to the Burma that you see in the news.” English filmmakers release their 2009 film Altered Focus: Burma, which features a dilapidated skate park, Burmese skaters, and young Buddhists trying skateboards for the first time. (from CNNGo – Skateboarding Buddhists) Refugees Help Tohoku “We’re refugees because of human-made disasters. In the case of the people in (the) Tohoku region, they are evacuees of natural disasters.” Refugees from Myanmar and Senegal volunteer in Japan’s Tohoku region to help the homeless and displaced. (from The Japan Times – Foreign refugees in Japan volunteer for disaster relief) 900 Million Cell Phone Users in China ”China added about 11 million mobile phone users in April.” On May 24th, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a report stating that the country now has just over 900 million cell phone users. India, with 811 cell phone users, is not too far behind. (from PC World – 900 million China cell phone users) Corky Lee – 40 Years “I document the history because I need to leave it for another generation that I’ll never see or hear. If I don’t document it, who will?” says Lee. “So I’ve taken on this quest, kind of like a Don Quixote mission.” (from NY1 – Photographer Chronicles Four Decades Of City’s Asian-American Community)
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Please excuse the scattershot nature of this rambling work in progress. – m

Today is the one-month anniversary of the Tohoku quake and tsunami disaster, but my flat is still rattling from aftershocks (I counted three today, but I’m sure there were more). Last weekend was actually the first I’ve spent at home in Tokyo since March 11, when the big one hit. Much of the last month I’ve been up north, looking for my in-laws, ferrying supplies to relief organizations, and being a guide for foreign television crews looking to get close to ground zero in the first days after the disaster.

The first of those trips began only a day after the initial quake. At 3:45 PM I’d received a fragmented text from a brother-in-law living up north: Fleeing. After that, it was impossible to get though to anyone in Tohoku via landline, mobile phone, or internet. But the television reports during the first hours, though incomplete or contradictory, were painting an increasingly bleak picture. Onagawa, Ishinomaki, Tagajo, Kesennuma, Minami Sanriku, all the nice little northern towns I’d visited so many times over the last ten years, were now listed as among the worst hit by the tsunami. The extent of damage to the Fukushima and Onagawa nuclear plants was as yet unclear, but I remembered years ago joking with my Onagawa in-laws about the disaster warning intercom installed in their kitchen. This little box would periodically sound a test alarm, like the radio broadcasts I grew up hearing: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System…” (perhaps, given the Japanese context, more like an air-raid warning).

I got the call from Christian Storms (real name) around midnight. A crew from Channel 7 Australia needed a “fixer” for a trip to Tohoku. A fixer’s job typically involves interpreting and translating, driving and navigating, arranging interviews, and securing official clearance to shoot. Not my usual gig, but Christian knew I had family in the affected areas and thought I might be a good fit for the Aussie expedition. Twelve hours later, having bluffed our way through the police barricade at the Tohoku Expressway onramp, the four fellows from Channel 7 and I were driving northbound in Christian’s eight-seater Toyota HiAce van.

I had a vague plan to make a stop at the house of one of my brothers-in-law, in Tagajo, a Sendai suburb, and drop off a Hefty bag of hastily gathered (in retrospect, quite useless) supplies. But our real goal was to get north of Fukushima Prefecture, and up into Miyagi’s Oshika Peninsula, where some of the worst tsunami damage had been reported. We’d been told of an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team that had flown in on a military transport from New South Wales, and hoped to track them down and deploy with them, but we really didn’t know where we’d end up or what we’d find.

Over the next three days, I guided the Aussies from one wrecked seaside town to another, stopping to pick up interviews or shoot an on-camera report, making detours to visit local refugee centers and ask about my in-laws, scrounge gasoline, and sleep on floors. My notes of the trip read like passages from the Divine Comedy, where Dante leads Virgil through the nine circles of hell. (I think the Taoists give hell eighteen layers, but who’s counting?)

The absolute nadir of this first trip has to have been our walk through Minami Sanriku with the USAR team. Our point of entry was about 10 kilometers from the coast, at the back of the narrow valley leading down to Shizukawa Port. We could see how the tsunami had hit the port and then been funneled up into this gorge, taking everything with it. It was like the entire town had been put in a Cuisinart. A snapshot I took during our first walk clearly shows a baseball bat, a fiberglass dinghy, an ice cream vending machine, a small tractor, a Western-style toilet, photo albums, bicycles, cars, trucks, children’s toys, a tool shed, a row of sinks, a water boiler, propane tanks, the roof of a house, a construction crane, and an entire daycare center, all in the same frame. Shredded, compacted, disintegrated, deconstructed, like someone had emptied out a child’s toy box onto the floor and then gone at the toys with a sledgehammer. And then there was everything that wasn’t visible in the picture: fourteen children (smashed into a corner of the daycare center), dead animals, gasoline, heating oil, raw sewage. Then it started snowing, snowing hard, further diminishing any trapped victims’ chances of survival (as if anyone could have survived submersion in sea water and two nights in the freezing cold). The Channel 7 report from Ishinomaki and Minami Sanriku is a pretty disturbing look at what the rescue team was up against.

We returned to Tokyo, all of us affected by the horrors we’d seen, but also deeply moved by our encounters with the people we spoke with: mothers who’d lost infants, orphaned children, people with nothing left but what they’d gathered onto their blanket on the high-school gymnasium floor (at one refugee center we visited). The Aussies had been to Christchurch, and I’d seen news reports from St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina; we all had notions of the destruction we’d see. But nothing prepared us for the stoic grace and quietly composed forbearance of the survivors. I’d found all my in-laws and, though they were undeniably pleased to see a familiar face, they were also standing fast, intent on sticking together and staying put, and refusing offers of refuge in Tokyo.

What a shock it was to return to Tokyo, where everything seemed business as usual, if not just a bit subdued and less well-lit. (It seemed downright peaceful compared to where we’d just been.) The Aussies made their uplink the first night back in Tokyo, and the next day I drove them to Narita for the trip home to Sydney. I have to admit to being mortified by the sight of all the expats lining up to get flights out of Japan. The number of surfboards visible in the queues suggested an early Spring Break for some. Christian said he saw two guys in a fist fight over the last seat on a Tehran-bound flight.

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The Quake Book – Interview with Our Man in Abiko I read about the Quake book on a one of the countless website that’s publishing about the disaster. This one caught my eye since it’s not a long form story book, but one using social media as the content aggregator. It’s speed of being made – one week sounded astounding and as I researched further, past GR contributor, SF Bay area resident Dan Ryan is one of the volunteers for the project. He began his contribution as editor and PR person just by sending an offer to help. Now on the verge of being released, this publication is rich in stories of the quake and it’s aftermath. The short texts are touching and include words by GR friend William Gibson. This will probably be the first of numerous books related to the quake and it’s process of involving social media couldn’t be more apt.   GR: You’ve sort of kept your identity mysterious, why? OMIA: Several reasons. The first, is that this is a collective effort for charity. It seems immoral to take credit for something that, yes, I started, but has directly involved more than 200 people around the globe in an effort to help people really suffering from the devastation caused by the earthquake, tsunami and radiation disasters. Everyone in the project has given their time for free. This is not my story, it’s Japan’s story. A secondary reason is I don’t want to subject my family to the glare of the media. To be clear, I’m not so much hiding my identity as choosing to adopt the pen name and persona of Our Man in Abiko, a redundant British agent who has found his voice in defence of Japan. It wouldn’t be hard to find my true identity, but I ask you not to. It’s more fun this way. GR: Publishing at this speed is amazing but it seems to be with some problems. Which were most frustrating? OMIA: The frustration comes from completing a draft book in one week, which is what I promised (and we delivered by Jove!) and then finding that it’s taken us over two weeks to get it published. The book world is not used to working at our pace, and it has struggled to keep up. But, it has been worth the wait because now, rather than just sell a few thousand copies from our own blog, we have the potential to sell hundreds of thousands from Amazon, who have promised to waive all fees, which is amazing and understandably took some maneuvering for their organization, which takes time. (this is just the bottom half of the book cover – the main image is the top)   GR: I know one motivation is to help via book sales, but what do you think will happen when people sit and read the stories? OMIA: Of course we want the book to sell oodles and boodles (that’s a technical term) but that wasn’t...
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