Skip to main content

Reprise: A Review of Strong in the Rain


This post first appeared in March, 2013 at Ecotwaza.com, a lovely little company here in Japan dedicated to sharing the joys of Japanese culture, where I wrote a monthly column.

The aftermath of a natural disaster is no simple affair. Even in Japan, a country long accustomed to earthquakes and the tsunamis that inevitably follow, there is an element of unpredictability. The 9.0 magnitude quake that struck on March 11th, 2011, brought with it a tsunami the likes of which had not been seen for 500 years. That was long enough to forget the warnings of previous generations and trust man-made barriers to protect shoreline communities. Still, it was the nuclear wild card that threw this country of calm and order, the one most prepared for such kinds of calamities, into new realms of environmental degradation, community displacement, and crisis management. For those living in Tohoku, the northern region of the country directly impacted by this triple calamity, the catastrophe lingers two years later as a dull ache of temporary housing, economic crisis, and energy turmoil. 

Strong in the Rain by Birmingham and McNeill (2012) introduces readers to six survivors, each representing a particular segment of Tohoku. Readers meet a fisherman whose first instinct took him to his boat and the sea to avoid the tsunami; a school teacher who fought the tsunami to help others survive as the water inundated the gymnasium where they waited; a nuclear power plant worker who readily returned to his job despite the risks; a high school student who barely escaped the tsunami with his family; a mayor who struggled to bring his city's plight to the attention of the world; and a nursery school cook who helps her young charges to safety only to return to the unrecognizable landscape of her city to begin the search for her own loved ones.  

Some are famous, like Mayor Sakurai of Minami-soma whose city lies twelve miles from the ailing power plant. His cries for help via YouTube echoed around the world and brought the world and it's helping hands to his ailing city. Others, like Kai Watanabe (a pseudonym), a nuclear power plant worker who returned to the plant again and again out of a sense of duty to his company, community, and country, remain unknown. Readers meet each one the morning of March 11th, by all accounts a bright sunny day with snow predicted for the afternoon, as they finish breakfast, head to work or school, and say goodbye to loved ones. 

It is, of course, the middle of that afternoon that forever changes their lives, destroying homes, stealing loved ones and livelihoods in a few moments. It is also from that moment that Birmingham and McNeill set about unraveling the tangle of events, people and issues which become the March 11th triple disaster. Alternating personal stories with official accounts and scientific information, a picture of a geologic and environmental disaster layered against a complex background of history, politics and culture becomes clear. The pattern that emerges as these threads are woven together is one of brave citizens fighting the same battle their ancestors did against a government and corporate culture that often appears ready to take all they can with little regard for the consequences. 

The book could almost be called “The Places in Between” for all the gaps it charts in the landscape of the unprecedented triple disaster. McNeill and Birmingham guide us through the tightly entangled relationship between TEPCO, the company that owns and operates the nuclear power plant, and politicians and money that continues to muddy the waters of recovery and investigation today. We also witness the shocking failings of the Japanese media, government, and most of all, TEPCO. Journalists, ordered out of the area by their companies and at risk of losing their jobs if they returned, left the citizens of Fukushima alone at a time when their story most needed to be told. Foreign journalists, often with little or no knowledge of the country, culture, or region, eagerly filled in. The exaggerated reporting that often resulted brought attention to the regions plight but further muddied the waters surrounding an already chaotic situation. Meanwhile, Japanese media and government officials faithfully listened to and believed TEPCO's reports that everything was under control. Until, that is, the moment of the first explosion. 

Taking its title from a poem by Iwate poet Kenji Miyazawa, the themes of duty and community responsibility pervade. Touted again and again as a region epitomizing much of what Japan considers best about itself: sacrifice, perseverance, loyalty, and humility, each turn of the page introduces people who show what the human spirit is capable of even in the worst of times. These six are joined by other survivors who helped settle fellow community members settle in temporary housing or identify recovered bodies. Readers also meet others who come to lend a hand, ranging from the Tokyo firefighters who volunteered at the plant in the earliest days of the crisis; members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces who scoured endless fields of debris for personal mementos, the injured, and those beyond help; and more. 


Birmingham and McNeill's time spent in the region interviewing and visiting sites as well as researching its history and culture shape a compelling narrative of the events as they played out following that fateful moment two years ago. They weave the threads of loss, politics, and perseverance into the context of national as well as regional culture and context to present a clear picture of the crisis, its immediate aftermath, and how the decisions made then rippled out to Tohoku and beyond.  Readers are also left with a feeling of hope, however feeble, that perhaps Japan will take this opportunity to move forward to safer, sustainable methods of energy creation.  For the sake of those we meet in these pages and beyond, let's hope they do. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Finding Heirloom Seeds in Japan

Drying pods of heirloom Hutterite Soup Beans. Since moving to Japan eight years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are nearly all F1 varieties. Heirloom and F1 Varieties In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a gold paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1. In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I'll need to choose members of that first generation that are headed in a direction I like - early ripening, medium-sized fruit, good taste - and save their seeds. I'll plant them and repeat the process again and again over time unti

Satoimo: One of Japan's Favorite Slimy Things

Satoimo in all their hairy glory. This post first appeared in slightly different form on Garden to Table as part of the 2012  Blogathon . The website has since moved on to the ether, but the post is still a good one. After all, people here are still eating satoimo on a daily basis, and many others are just seeing these little potato-like objects for the first time. Enjoy! Satoimo is one of Japan's odder vegetables. Under it's rough, slightly furry skin is white flesh that is a little bit slimy even raw, and with a gentle nutty flavor.* Baked, grilled, steamed with dashi, or deep-fried satoimo stands well on its own or paired up with other vegetables and meats in a wide variety of soups and stews . (The leaves are also edible.) Satoimo stores well, and like any root crop worth the effort, stocks are just running low on this household favorite as the farmers in my area of Tokyo get ready to put a new crop in the ground in May. I cannot say I was a fan of this l

Goma Ai Shingiku - Sesame and Chrysanthemum Greens

Last week I had the pleasure of helping some friends work in their parents garden not too far away. Tucked behind the house, the garden sits on a former house lot. When it came up for sale about five years ago, my friend's father jumped at the chance. Open land in Tokyo can be hard to find and expensive, but for a retired professional looking for a little spot to till in the city it was an opportunity to good to pass up. Now, it is a garden to envy. As we came through the gate rose, lily, and peony blooms greeted us with great shouts of color while rows of vegetables stood tidily at attention on the sunny center stage. Small fruit trees along with one of the biggest sansho trees I've seen yet stood quietly here and there. Near waist-high sweet corn, bushy young potato plants, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, and beans were preparing their summer fruits, while a handful of still quite luscious looking winter vegetables like komatsuna, mizuna, and kabu held one last ro