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

Monday, March 4th, 2013

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.

Poetry Friday: Be Not Defeated by the Rain…

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Back in March, Sally highlighted the launch of our current Book of the Month, Tomo, edited by Holly Thompson (Stone Bridge Press, 2012). Carrying the by-line “Friendship through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories”, this is a wonderfully rich book that readers will want to dip into again and again, and all proceeds go to organisations working with young people affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.  Our review is coming soon; in the meantime, I wanted to return to the poem that Sally highlighted in her post: “Be not Defeated by the Rain” by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933).

I didn’t know the poem before I read its opening cited at the beginning of Tomo and I wanted to know more about it. I was not only bowled over by the poem itself, but I was also much struck by Holly’s description in her Foreword of how the poem came into her head and repeated itself over and over as she attempted to come to terms with the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year.

The rest of the poem is no less powerful than the opening.  Although I am sadly unable to enjoy the poem in the original, I love the sonority and simplicity of David Sulz‘ translation, quoted in full here:

Be not defeated by the rain, Nor let the wind prove your better.
Succumb not to the snows of winter. Nor be bested by the heat of summer.

Be strong in body. Unfettered by desire. Not enticed to anger. Cultivate a quiet joy.
Count yourself last in everything. Put others before you.
Watch well and listen closely. Hold the learned lessons dear.

A thatch-roof house, in a meadow, nestled in a pine grove’s shade.

A handful of rice, some miso, and a few vegetables to suffice for the day.

If, to the East, a child lies sick: Go forth and nurse him to health.
If, to the West, an old lady stands exhausted: Go forth, and relieve her of burden.
If, to the South, a man lies dying: Go forth with words of courage to dispel his fear.
If, to the North, an argument or fight ensues:
Go forth and beg them stop such a waste of effort and of spirit.

In times of drought, shed tears of sympathy.
In summers cold, walk in concern and empathy.

Stand aloof of the unknowing masses:
Better dismissed as useless than flattered as a “Great Man”.

This is my goal, the person I strive to become.

Tomo has a blog running alongside it, featuring a wealth of interviews etc. with the book’s contributors.  Do read the interview with David Sulz, in which he discusses his translation of the poem and its impact.  He generously gave his translation to the World of Kenji Miyazawa website, who have made it freely available.  You can also read more information about Kenji Miyazawa and his children’s stories and poems, including background to “Be Not Defeated by the Rain” here, and other poems to download here.

Apparently Japanese children used to learn this poem at school, and perhaps they still do.  I think it would be a good poem for children to learn wherever they come from.  I’m certainly going to introduce it to my two…

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Rena J. Traxel at On the Way to Somewhere – and she also has a caption competition, so head on over…

Canada-Tohoku Kids to Kids Cloth Letters

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

An interesting art project spearheaded by Japanese Canadian artist and film-maker Linda Ohama is currently being displayed at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.  The Canada-Tohoku Kids to Kids Cloth Letters is a response by Canadian young people from the ages of 3 to 17 to the earthquake and tsunami that rocked northern Japan on March 11.  The children painted messages on cloth squares to disaster victims in the Tohoku region to express their sympathy for them.  The letters were assembled into a giant quilt and sent to the area.  In response, children in Miyagi created their own quilt with squares donated to them by children in Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture, the ancestral home of Linda Ohama’s grandmother.  Together the two quilts are now on display at the Canadian Embassy until the end of this year.  Plans are afoot to tour the quilts in Canada after the new year.  For more information about this interesting project, see Norm Ibuki’s interview of Linda Ohama on the Discover Nikkei website.


Postcard from Japan: Children’s Day

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and Asian Pacific American Month in the U.S.  In Japan, May is the month of Golden Week — a string of holidays at the beginning of the month that often results in a week off for some workers.  One of the Golden Week holidays is Children’s Day which is on May 5.  In Canada, our family usually celebrates the occasion by flying the koinobori carp flags and having a wiener roast for the boys on our street (if it’s warm enough!).

This year with us being in Japan and not having access to a flagpole, ironically means we have to celebrate a little differently.  Being in Japan, however, has allowed us to see the koinobori flown in various locations where we live.  We spotted farm fields and rice paddies with koinoboris flying from bamboo poles out of the train window last weekend and it was quite a colorful sight. 

In the city of Nishinomiya, where we live, Children’s Day is celebrated with koinobori flown over the Shukugawa River. The custom is seemingly new.  In 1995 after the great Kobe earthquake, a city in Shizuoka sent 500 koinobori to Nishinomiya to encourage the city’s children during their time of crisis.  Since then, the flags have been flown over the Shukugawa River every Children’s Day.  Some have become old and worn during that time, so citizens have donated flags so that the number is up to nearly 2000 flags.  This year, Nishinomiya has sent 100 flags to a city in Iwate-ken in the same spirit of generosity and sympathy shown to them by the city in Shizuoka — a beautiful and symbolic gesture to encourage the children of northern Japan.

Postcard from Japan

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

I’ve been away from posting on the blog recently because of a temporary move … to Japan!  And now, having settled in a bit, I’m ready and roaring to go (appropriate for a PaperTiger blogger!) from my new location here in Nishinomiya City, Hyogo prefecture.   I’ll be in Japan for four months and hope to immerse myself in the wonderful world of childrens’ literature as it is experienced here by readers.  Japan has some great childrens’ book writers and illustrators and I’m eager to explore that world with my children as they attend the local elementary and junior high schools here.  With Japan being so much in the news, I feel in the unique position of being a reporter-of-sorts, in particular, of any activities related to children and the recent disaster in northern Japan.  Days after arriving, I heard about a childrens’ book donation program through Unicef; childrens’ books were being collected to be sent to children in the earthquake and tsunami-hit zones.  The program, running for only a short time, was very successful.   I was heartened and encouraged to see how the Japanese responded so swiftly to a request for books, knowing full well the transformative powers of story on the lives of children.   Even as the basic supplies were being sent out to the victims and survivors, here also was considered necessary, supplies for the hearts and minds of the most vulnerable.  Kodomo no tame ni — for the sake of the children — is a Japanese phrase I first encountered in Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan.  How apt this phrase is for these times of trial and hardship for northern Japan!

Poetry Friday: Original Haiku of Japan’s ‘sense of place’ wanted for Artists Help Japan project

Friday, March 25th, 2011

I have so often enjoyed reading original poems as part of Poetry Friday so I know this will be of interest to many of you. And do let us know if your haiku make their way into this exciting project.

Poets are asked to submit your Haiku inspired by Japan’s ‘sense of place’: inherent/special aspects of Japan. Works do not need to reference the tsunami. The haiku selected which will be used as the basis for a series of art events in Japan to support Japanese rebuilding and humanitarian efforts following the earthquake and tsunami.

All the proceeds from the sale of art cards inspired by the poems and the admissions to the events will go towards Give2Asia’s Artists Help Japan Earthquake & Tsunami Fund

WHAT: A series of art + Haiku events to support Japanese rebuilding and humanitarian efforts.
WHERE: In art galleries throughout Japan
WHEN: October and November, 2011
WHO: I’m an interdisciplinary artist based in San Francisco.
More info on me can be found here:

DETAILS: Poets are asked to submit Haiku’s that are inspired by Japan’s ‘sense of place’: inherent/special aspects of Japan. Works do not need to reference the tsunami. I will use (more…)

Japan Earthquake/Tsunami and World Vision’s Early Readers Series

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

A few days ago, in the wake of the earthquake disaster in Japan, I heard about a family acquaintance in Canada whose elderly grandmother in Yamagata had a very bad stroke.   Yamagata is in northern Japan and some of the services to that area were disrupted, exacerbating the situation for anyone needing medical care.   What did this family acquaintance do?  Well, she and her mother packed up their bags immediately and booked a flight to Japan to be with their loved one even amidst all the furor and panic around the nuclear power plant situation in Fukushima.  Hearing this story, I had an epiphany.  Love does not flee, it goes to whom it must attend, at all cost and without fear.

World Vision is one of those organizations that understands this notion and acts on it with conviction.  This week I was heartened by reading the blog posts of one of its workers in earthquake and tsunami ravaged northern Japan.  So, today I am focusing my post on one of its initiatives — books for children.   The World Vision Early Readers series are photo-illustrated picture books published by Tundra Books in conjunction with World Vision Canada.  The books are authored by Marla Stewart Konrad, a former World Vision communications professional.  PaperTigers recently did an interview with Marla and reviewed one of the books in the series: I Like to Play.   As mentioned in the interview, all royalties proceeding from the sales of the World Vision Early Reader books go to World Vision to help support their initiatives for children.   Marla’s own long career with the organization has helped cement her beliefs in the efficacy of its work in assisting children all over the world.

Right now, it is families in northern Japan that need the most assistance.  As you can see from its website and blog, World Vision is speedily making its way there as did my family acquaintance to her ailing grandmother in Yamagata.  Isn’t love truly the greatest thing?

Message of hope from author Noriko Kudoh to the children of Japan

Monday, March 21st, 2011

That was a horrible earthquake, wasn’t it? I’m sure so many of you are very scared right now.

But please, don’t worry. Grown ups are working together as hard as they can to make things better. It may take a while, but eventually, everything is going to be safe and comfortable again, I promise.

If you feel even the tiniest bit afraid or lonely, try to think about your favorite story…

So begins Japanese children’s author Noriko Kudoh’s Message of Hope to the children of Japan who have been caught up in the earthquake and tsunami that caused such devastation ten days ago. It was translated into English by Sako Ikegami of the SCBWI Tokyo Translation listserv, which focuses on translation of Japanese children’s literature; and you can read the whole message over at the wonderful Here and There in Japan.

It’s a very moving, thought-provoking letter and I urge you all to read it…

Kidlit4Japan online auction starts tomorrow

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

The Kidlit4Japan online auction begins tomorrow, Monday, at 9.00a.m. EDT – there are already more than 80 lots to bid for and these will go live every hour between 8.00a.m. and 4.00 p.m. EDT each day of the auction.

Currently the donations page is still open as the organisers decide whether to extend the auction from two to three weeks…

All proceeds will go towards the U.S. Fund for UNICEF‘s relief appeal to help the children of Japan whose lives have been turned upside down by the earthquake and tsunami.

Currently the donations page is still open as the organisers decide whether to extend the auction from two to three weeks…

Poetry Friday: Poems wanted for New Sun Rising charity anthology

Friday, March 18th, 2011

In the wake of last week’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami in Japan, efforts are underway everywhere to raise funds for the victims and survivors.   A few days ago, Marjorie mentioned in her post an initiative called New Sun Rising which is a charity anthology to which you can contribute writing.  They have a short deadline: April 11, so get your work in soon!  They are definitely taking poetry and if you are interested in submitting haiku, you might want to take a look at their post on the form.  For poetry submissions, their guidelines are as follows:

Poems should be no longer than 40 lines, and please no more than 3. (Unless it’s haiku. Then you can send us 5—and it’s still only 15 lines!)

So if you have any poems sitting around in a file somewhere, now’s your chance to submit them for a worthy cause!

Poetry Friday is hosted this week by Andi at A Wrung Sponge.