Remembering the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, March 2011 – “We Want Them To Know They Are Not Alone” by Chieko Furuta Suemori

March 11th marks the 2nd anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake – two long years of striving and rebuilding for those whose lives were altered by the disaster.  At the IBBY Congress last year, JBBY, the Japanese section of IBBY, hosted a very well-attended early-bird session, where we learned about the phenomenal work being done to bring books to children, and the healing that those books were and are able to effect.  Each speaker gave a personal account of their own experiences on 11th March 2011 and the different children’s book and library projects they have been instrumental in getting off the ground.  You can read the presentation given by JBBY President Takao Murayama here, in which he introduced the “Books for Tomorrow” project.  Hisako Kakuage spoke “To the Children of Fukushima, and for Children with Special Needs”, showing a selection of multi-sensory books, including cloth books and music (I was delighted to see Suho’s White Horse there).

Chieko Suemori, a former Executive Member of IBBY and founder of publishing house Suemori Books, launched the 3.11 Ehon Project Iwate within days of the disaster.  To date, they have received more than 232,000 books, which reach children via the Ehon Car mobile library project.  Chieko has given me permission to reproduce her presentation here.  Six months after the IBBY Congress, it is still very relevant and definitely worth reading, especially around this time when our thoughts turn towards those who are still suffering because of what happened two years ago – and to those who are doing all they can to help them.

We Want Them To Know They Are Not Alone by Chieko Furuta Suemori
~ Presentation given at the IBBY Congress, London, August 25, 2012

One year before the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I moved from Tokyo, north to Iwate prefecture. The place where I live is inland, but still the shaking of the quake was horrible. It was a quake stronger than anything I had felt in my life. Electric power shut down, so we had no telephone, television or Internet access. Probably many of you were seeing the images of the tsunami on TV before we did.

Yamada is one of the coastal towns hit hardest by the 11 March tsunami. After the waves destroyed the town, fires raged from huge gas storage tanks and spilled crude oil, and even the water of the harbor was on fire. This once-peaceful place was a haven to my ancestors, who fled persecution of Christians in Kyushu, several generations ago. As soon as the telephone and Internet began to work, many friends asked me what they could do to help us in Iwate. I recalled the work of IBBY’s [founder] Jella Lepman, and I thought: we must gather books for the children. A newspaper reporter I had known since the IBBY Congress in Basel wrote a story about my plan, and within days we began to receive an overwhelming stream of picture books from all over the country. I had not realized how much confidence Japanese place in picture books as a source of strength for children. Some days we would receive 200 to 300 boxes of books! Within two months, we had 230,000 books.

We also had a wonderful team of volunteers who helped us at the Central Civic Hall that was the base of our project. They opened the boxes, unloaded the books, and filed the letters and messages enclosed by the senders. Then we began to sort and organize the books, following the advice of our experts on picture books.

On 4 April, three weeks after the quake, I first visited the disaster zone. Amid the rubble of the town of Yamada I came upon a young Buddhist priest wearing only straw sandals even as snow continued to fall. Desperately wanting to do something, he had come, determined at least to pray for the dead. He was not even sure how helpful that was, but still he kept on praying in those wretched streets of broken homes, washed out streets, and burned out workplaces. All he could do was pray, he said, but he would walk the whole length of the long, convoluted coastline of Iwate. At night he faced the ocean, which had claimed the lives of so many, and after a deep bow, raised his voice high, chanting a sutra for the repose of their souls. My encounter with that young priest was a blessing, an experience I will never forget.

The tsunami washed away schools and libraries. In some cities, even the mayor and members of the city hall staff were caught up in the deadly tide. The children said nothing, but I could see how bravely they understand the situation. On the day I visited a day care center, there was a little girl in a pink shirt who did not join the circle of children listening to a story, and while the others played happily, sat alone, gazing at the floor. She was one of the children waiting for a mother who would never return. All I could do was to take my chair over and sit next to the girl in the pink shirt. I wanted her to know she was not alone.

When we invited the children to pick a book they liked to keep, they began to search through the boxes. One boy kept on searching for one of his favorite books, and when he found it, he clasped it dearly as he left. I realized that the children were searching for their favorite picture books they had read at home, kindergarten or day care before the tsunami.

About a year after the tsunami, on the 5th of February, I visited Rikuzen Takata, a large city that suffered massive damage. I visited the school gymnasium. It had been designated as an evacuation center in case of emergency, but the 200 people who had fled there were caught up in the tsunami and whirled around as if in a huge washing machine. Except for two or three, almost all had died. Although a year had passed, the city still had buildings crammed with upside down automobiles washed along by the tsunami and tangled rubble everywhere. There I found a small stuffed animal lodged in the sand. Somehow unwilling to just leave it there, I wrapped it in a handkerchief and took it home. A cute pink figure of a cow, it had a broken bell around its neck. It must have belonged to a small girl. Thinking of the fate of that little girl, I keep the little pink cow on my windowsill.

With support from IBBY and many others, our Ehon Project Iwate has launched six Picture Book Car mini-bookmobiles. In the disaster zone are a number of people whose homes were not damaged in the disaster who have set up small bunko home libraries. The vehicles are small so they can pass along narrow roads and streets, and the managers of the home libraries can easily drive them. They are equipped with winter-use tires and even insurance policies.

This year, in order to provide information and encouragement for these home libraries, we started regular gatherings in Morioka centering on picture books called “Picture Book Rendezvous” (Ehon Salon). By offering various enjoyable events and a place for networking, we hope to support the endeavors of people devoted to bringing books to children in communities throughout Iwate.

We have decided to continue this project for 10 years, helping the people managing bunko libraries in their homes along the Iwate coastline. By then, the city offices, libraries, and schools that were destroyed in the disaster will have been rebuilt and restored to some extent.

In closing, I would like to ask you to listen to a song. It is a song about finding hope in the midst of despair and about what we want to leave to our children. All sorts of people are singing—actors and actresses, singers, television entertainers, professional sports people—all of them with roots in the disaster zone. The recording was originally part of an NHK program, but for this IBBY Congress we have prepared a special version with English translation by Roger Pulvers. The song gives us a visible sense of the meaning of hope and shows that we have taken up the torch to carry on for those who have died.

We think of the many children throughout the world who suffer in many different ways, even without destructive earthquakes and tsunami. For those children as well, we must sustain hope through our commitment to children’s books.

Comments are closed.