Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Peace Boat update, 5 months later . . .

A case study in independent disaster relief can be seen in the Japan Times' August 23 analysis of Peace Boat's efforts in Ishinomaki. You can read the full story here. Peace Boat has built the most credible delivery structure of any independent NGO, filling needs that have fallen through the cracks as both government and large-scale relief agencies like the Japan Red Cross have struggled with applying their resources to on-the-ground problem-solving.
Because of it's success, Peace Boat is now positioned to play an even stronger role in applying the resources that large international corporations may contribute. But the arena of corporate giving is in some ways much more difficult to navigate than the mud-filled streets that characterized Ishinomaki earlier this year.
In April I had the privilege of observing Peace Boat's operation headquartered in the Takadanobabo neighborhood of Tokyo. It is a small organization of earnest volunteers. They demonstrated great sincerity in trying to do things the government and other organizations shied away from, especially in the task of making productive use of foreign volunteers. They must be given great credit for this, because the lasting benefits of the relationships they formed in this process transcend this one disaster and one country.
The Japan Times article even-handedly addresses the positive and negative sides of Peace Boat's unique role in the ongoing recovery. I hope you will read the full article from start to finish, and form your own opinion.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Struggling Cities

Struggling Cities is an exhibit of Japanese urban design proposals from the 1960's. The exhibit is currently touring major U.S. and European cities. See Struggling Cities for more information about some of the visionary proposals from Arata Isozaki, Kenzo Tange Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki.
Pictured: Isozaki's "Cities in the Air"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Love Story

Star Festival, Tanabata in Japan, is based on the Chinese legend of The Princess and the Cowherd. Princess Orihime was a devoted daughter who wove cloth for her father Tentei, the Sky King, on the bank of the river Amanogawa (the Milky Way). Recognizing her hard work, and her ensuing loneliness, Tentei arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi, the Cowherd. The Princess and the Cowherd fell madly in love, and Orihime began to neglect her weaving, and Hikoboshi his cows. Angered, Tentei forced their separation from each other, relegating them to either side of the Amanogawa. Orihime continued her weaving, but passed each day in sadness, working, and missing Hikoboshi. Seeing her sadness, Tentei relented and allowed the couple to see each other once each year, on the 7th day of the 7th month.

There was no bridge, however. Orihime cried and cried, and finally a flock of magpies took pity on her and assembled a bridge of their wings for her to cross to meet Hikoboshi. It is said that on those nights that it rains, the magpies stay away (the stars of the Milky Way don't appear), and Orihime must wait another year before she can see her lover.

While other communities in Japan celebrate Tanabata in July, following the Gregorian calendar, Sendai follows the traditional lunar calendar, in which this year’s 7th day of the 7th month is August 6. Sendai’s is the quintessential Tanabata festival in Japan. Prime Minister Kan announced today that the people of Sendai would go on with the festival in spite of everything. Why not go and support them, and take in Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival the same week?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


April 20th is the anniversary of the birth of architect Liang Sicheng. In an article today, Chinese news agency Xinhua called Liang the “father of modern Chinese architecture,” and interviewed his second wife, who is still living. But he’s really nothing less than our single most important connection to ancient Chinese architecture. Liang and his first wife Lin Huiyin were educated at U Penn’s architecture school, married, and returned to China to undertake the first history of its traditional wood post-and-beam architecture.

Prior to Liang, documentation of China’s rich architectural history existed only in text. His expository drawings and diagrams, published in 1946, were the first to visually explain the curved roof and bracket sets which form the grammar of Chinese timber construction (and Korean, and Japanese architecture as well). Modern architectural education in China today is based on the model Liang brought back from U Penn, so in that sense the Xinhua article is correct.

I hope you’ll read more about this amazing couple, perhaps starting with Wilma Fairbank’s Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past, described by the New York Times as “the story of a romance and of a heroic struggle against great odds . . . in the final years of an epoch when Old China faded away and New China took its place.”
You can most readily find Liang’s elegant drawings in Chinese Architecture: A Pictorial History, edited by Fairbank. Liang and Lin paid a price to bring us this legacy, overcoming illness, injury, and wartime occupation. Indeed, the drawings came perilously close to being lost forever during World War II. They were the product of arduous treks to remote sites, and Liang, since his work emphasized the significance of traditional Chinese architecture, was later persecuted and branded as a “counter-revolutionary” during China’s cultural revolution. Lin Huiyin had died in 1955 after a long struggle with tuberculosis.
Lin, considered China’s first female architect, was also a highly regarded poet, essayist, playwright and translator. Her niece is the American architect and artist Maya Lin. Her husband Liang’s father, Liang Qichao, was a highly respected scholar and reformer at the end of the Qing dynasty. Such is the connection of past and present represented in these lives.
Pictured is Liang's Jianzhen Memorial Hall, photo by Gisling from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thinking about Japan now

I was having breakfast in my hotel dining room when the woman at the neighboring table started a conversation. She was a Dutch reporter, newly arrived and about to go to Sendai to cover the unfolding story. What, she wanted to know, was I doing in Tokyo?
"Volunteering at Peace Boat," I said. "Tokyo-based NGO helping in Ishinomaki, providing 3,000meals a day and digging out a lot of mud. I don't have the language skills to be up north, but in Tokyo I can help packing boxes, sorting clothing and supplies, and helping with organized street collections. Basic stuff."
"Hmmm," she said. "Don't they have plenty of people here who can do that?"
A good question, and I had asked it of myself before leaving Chicago. Was I doing the right thing? Would I be able to help? And was I going for the right reasons?
In the weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, not every relief agency was taking foreign volunteers, but Peace Boat was both accepting and encouraging. I'd seen the challenges of organizing volunteer help last year when Peter Klick and I went with Rachel Henson and other students to New Orleans to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and Preservation Resource Center. These organizations have to answer the question: "is it worth the effort to train a series of well- intentioned but unskilled do-gooders, given their limited productivity?" The New Orleans organizations and Peace Boat decided that it was worth it. The reason is the same reason I am writing this post.
The reporter returned her focus to her bowl of cornflakes, from which I gathered the question was meant rhetorically, but I was ready with the answer. I had given, and encouraged others to give, to the Red Cross and Architecture for Humanity, two great organizations with, respectively, immediate and long-term approaches. Many say the best thing to do is give money and otherwise stay out of the way. I get it, let the people with expertise get the job done, and give them the resources with which to do it. I'll continue to donate, but I had the time in April to help, and in the end, we are more than our checkbooks (a good thing in my case).
Peace Boat knows the face-to-face contact, and the relationships formed while doing meaningful work, are an immeasurable source of support in times of need. The past two weeks in Tokyo helped me to realize the importance of the small gestures we make that convey our commitment. I didn't do anything physically or mentally taxing, just a lot of small things, but I think they add to the total (when Shinto brings a deceased into the fold, that spirit becomes part of the kami, or unity of souls, resident in the shrine. It becomes part of something bigger. Totally off-subject, but for a fun manga-inspired version of this kami thing, check out the 2011 movie Glantz).
People who run or walk on behalf of a charity, drop some coins in a donation box, or advocate for a cause, do this. One of the Quakebook stories is titled "Gesture" and it tells the simple story of people going out to direct traffic in their neighborhood when power outages killed the traffic signals after the quake. A small thing, but it was something they could do, and they did it.
Social media is playing an increasing role in every global event. But social media needs personal care. "Curation" is a vogue term these days, so I'll use it: Social media relationships need to be curated, meaning you want to meet the people you talk to online. The planners of the Egyptian uprising met in-person. Calls to action can be communicated via media; action must be done IN PERSON. The relationships I developed in my short time in Japan this spring increased the meaning of my Twitter, Facebook and blog communications exponentially. That's what I mean by curation: meet your contacts and enjoy them as people. I'd venture that the people I met in Japan got more out of it than I did simply because they helped me more than I helped them; this is always the way, right?
I've read news stories and tweets about Tokyo Governor Ishihara, but talking to Haruko and Yusaku over dinner on Sunday after they voted, brings perspective: they sincerely hoped he would be unseated. Not that I have any business talking about Japanese domestic politics, but I agree, the guy has made some unfortunate xenophobic comments. Results came in late that night, Ishihara was re-elected, but the next day I got another perspective. Tom (his Japanese name was a bit longer and harder for me to pronounce, so he introduced himself as Tom) a Japanese financial planner and fellow-volunteer at Peace Boat, told me during our lunch break all the reasons for Ishihara's re-election. I'm still not crazy about Ishihara, but how can I not respect Tom, who helped me in my efforts, translated everything for me, and worked alongside me in whatever needed to be done that day?
A visit to Pink Cow for the ebook Quakebook launch party introduced me to the Tokyo ex-pat community. As you may have guessed, I am a pretty naive, jump-in-the-water admirer of Japanese culture, so the idea of getting together with other Americans in Tokyo to eat Tex-Mex burritos was not the first thing on my agenda. But look at what they did: enlisted Yoko Ono, negotiated with Amazon, and did all the crap you need to do to get a book published, in ONE MONTH. And one hundred percent of the revenue goes to Japan Red Cross. Emphasis: not a percentage of profits, but 100% of the purchase price. And the stories will touch you. $9.99 on Amazon for Kindle (which is an app you can use on iPhone and iPad). Highly recommended; read Chicagoan Christopher Maurer's short essay "Beautiful" and keep going.
I went to a number of affordable benefits and informational events related to the relief efforts, and in every case met people who were helpful and supportive, and people you are just happy to know. Thank you Yumiko, Haruko, Yusaku and Miki! And, for the third time in three visits, I found myself standing at a busy intersection in the densest city in the world, thinking "I am so lucky to be here."
I am wondering what the Dutch reporter will think after her time in the affected prefectures. I missed a lot of U.S. news while I was gone, but saw this statement, in a different context, from President Obama: "We are all connected."

Monday, April 11, 2011


Informational/benefit event #webya311 at club SuperDeluxe in Roppongi (the place where the Pecha Kucha format was started). Orientations for NGO Peace Boat drawing 250-300 volunteers. Peace Boat is providing two to three thousand meals/day in Ishinomaki, and digging out a lot of mud. Obviously, our support is needed. Come to Pecha Kucha: Inspire Japan, in Chicago Saturday the 16th at Martyr's 1:30 pm! More information, and AFH long-term plans, can be found at Architecture for Humanity – Chicago.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How best to help?

If you're looking for ways to assist people who are suffering as a result of the Tohoku quake and tsunami, you can find a healthy online debate about how, and even whether, to act. Common sense tells us to resist the heart's desire to physically go to the scene; better to give funds to those who know how to organize and manage the relief effort.
An organization that knows how to respond is the Red Cross. Some have expressed concern that not all funds donated in the U.S. will reach Japan. Donations to the Japanese Red Cross Society will be allocated 100% in Japan.
Keep in mind that the Red Cross typically directs its efforts in two ways: first, they send teams to the area to provide emergency food, supplies, medicine and shelter. Second, the Red Cross makes cash donations to the victims. In ensuring this second process is equitable, the Red Cross takes time to understand the situations of individuals. Do they do the second task quickly enough? A discussion can be found in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.
The GiveWell Blog has published an in-depth study of the relative merits of giving to various agencies, and concludes giving to Doctors without Borders is one of the best ways to ensure funds result in direct benefits to victims.
Peace Boat is a Tokyo-based nonprofit that has experience in organizing relief efforts, and is accepting donations as well as volunteers in support of its work in Miyagi prefecture.
Rebuilding and recovery will take years. Architecture for Humanity focuses on long-term, carefully considered design and construction, and publishes its objectives and plans, so it can be shaped and perfected over time by comments and suggestions. AFH has a team and a preliminary plan in place. If you are in this for the long haul, this is a great place to consider donating.