The Kizuna Project

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In December 2012, three students from Macquarie University, Emily Maitland, Karl Roman-Miller, and Lisa Inglis, were selected to be among 100 Australian and New Zealand students to participate in The Kizuna Project. Karl and Lisa shed light on a country’s triumph after tragedy.

MY TIME IN JAPAN

by Karl Roman-Miller

It was only when we arrived in Minamiaizu, Fukushima that we realised we were going to be staying at a privately run ski resort, alone. In addition to the tangible devastation caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, there were silent, invisible effects upon the region that extended well beyond physical destruction: tourism to Fukushima prefecture dropped off, as did the purchase of products from the region, precipitating a further downturn for what was an already beleaguered area.

The city of Fukushima is roughly the size of Canberra and is sufficiently distanced from the nuclear plant to avoid the worst of the radiation. The exclusion zone set up around the Daiichi nuclear power plant takes up only 9.11 per cent of the prefecture’s total land mass. Nevertheless, fear is still strong. To illustrate, upon returning to Australia and talking over my time in Japan with friends and family, I heard one person remark, “Oh, Fukushima, that’s the place that blew up, right?”

The people of Japan are hesitant to trust official statements. This lack of trust was borne out of the government’s handling of the disaster. Information on the true extent of the radiation and damage to the plant was deliberately withheld from the public, leaving many in danger of exposure and incapable of knowing what action was best to take. Ayumu Yasutomi, Professor for the University of Tokyo, said that “people learned to mistrust those in authority, so much so that even if they told the truth, people couldn’t tell. They just automatically thought they were lying.” This makes it an uphill battle for the government to regain the public’s trust.

I felt that there was so much more we could have been doing, ways in which we could have really helped the people most hurt by the earthquake: community service, cleaning up ruined paths, helping with basic repairs, these kinds of things. As I talked to other participants, I found many of us had indeed expected to be helping in this way. In fact, our handbook for the program listed “Volunteer Activities” as part of the program structure, including “cleaning up the beach, removing small rubble in farmland, planting, and putting on performances and exchange with people at meeting places of temporary housing or welfare facilities”. None of this was done. We were reduced to mere ancillary reporters of the event, working off slideshows and speeches in the safety and comfort of areas over 100 kilometres from the actual disaster.

Despite all of this, the Kizuna Project was the most enjoyable trip to Japan I’ve had so far. The kindness of the Japanese people cannot be understated. Those whom we met and stayed with, and those who conducted our stay deserve some of the highest praise. For all the niggling faults, the programme was a hard-earned success on the part of its organisers.

It is difficult to describe the collective impact of all these individual moments of the Kizuna Project. I can only hint at them, and then ask you to imagine from the barest details.  Better yet, go to Japan. Don’t just stay in the cities, travel through the country. Meet the people, make friends and build relationships. Make memories for yourselves and try to understand just how much there is in this world.

okiagari koboshi                                   Photo: Lisa Inglis

JAPAN BOUNCING BACK

by Lisa Inglis

As I entered the mystical town of Minami Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture, Northern Japan, I felt like I was in a magical snow globe.  The stunning mountain ranges were flecked with Christmas trees and the slanting roofs were covered with a thick layer of snow that looked like marzipan on a cake.

It is difficult to imagine, but on 11 March 2011, Mother Nature chose to shake this snow globe so ferociously that the winter wonderland was smashed to pieces. International media covered the story of the Great East Japan Earthquake (magnitude 9.3) and the subsequent tsunami (of up to 20 meters) and nuclear accident. However, the ongoing ramifications on the economy and once tight-knit communities have not received the same widespread media attention.

Kizuna means ‘peace’ in Japanese and this project was designed to strengthen ties between Japan and Australia. Coordinated by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was one of many international delegations invited to visit the Tohoku region in Northern Japan, with the aim of uncovering the current impact of the earthquake and listening to testimonies of those affected.

In the aftermath of the earthquake there were misconceptions that the radiation had spread throughout the whole of Japan. This misinformation has tainted the reputation of the Fukushima Prefecture and Greater Japan. Minami Aizu is 120 kilometres away from the nuclear plants in the same region (roughly the distance between Sydney and Wollongong) and is not affected by the radiation. However, many businesses were forced to lay off workers and shut down.

We heard a testimony from Yoshiko Aoki, who was forced to evacuate from her home in Tomioka.  She showed us two images of cherry blossoms taken in the same location. One was taken before the disaster, during the Spring Festival, where people were dressed in bright costumes, laughing and cheering. The other was taken after the evacuation, where people now wear white protective suits to walk down the same streets. She stated “although the cherry blossoms remain the same, the people underneath them have changed.”

One of the most inspiring and beautiful gifts the delegation received were okiagari koboshi (small dolls). Each doll is weighted so that no matter how many times you try to push it over it always springs back up. In many ways this doll is representative of the Japanese people and their resilience during these tragic circumstances. It is this type of courage and selflessness that prompted Aoki-san to say, “We are the victims of the disaster but the heroines of our own recovery”.

Learning the Japanese language and culture has opened up my world to new friends and experiences. I encourage everyone to visit Japan, particularly Fukushima, to meet the warm-hearted and hospitable people and enjoy the picturesque views.

The Kizuna Project was an eye-opening and memorable experience and although I wasn’t able to piece together the entire snow globe, I hope that I can play my part in the reconstruction by educating others about the realities and ramifications of the tragic events of 11 March 2011.