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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pecha Kucha: Inspire Japan April 16

Pecha Kucha Chicago will participate in the special Saturday worldwide edition of Pecha Kucha's 20x20 event in support of Japan. Sounds like it will be an afternoon all-ages get-together bringing in the usual suspects in our favorite place, Martyr's. Can't wait!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Our commitment to a place, a people, or a person is tested when something we cherish (our own well-being, for example) is endangered. At these times choice is not a freedom but a burden. Too often this burden is dispensed with, swiftly and efficiently, because the choice for self-preservation (physical, emotional or financial) can be justified, easily explained as being in others' interest, not just our own. The burden: honestly evaluating the alternatives, succumbing neither to mindless self-sacrifice or rationalized retreat. It's a tough test, most recently felt by some in Tokyo and the Kanto region of Japan. None of us should presume to judge others in this regard.
Few films explore this realm with honesty, and it is difficult for directors, writers and actors to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in telling such a story. That is why "Of Gods and Men" must be seen. In a narrative based on a true story, eight Cistercian monks struggle, individually and as a community, with this choice when their north African monastery is caught between a government they believe corrupt, and a mounting tide of murderous religious fundamentalism. One can easily postulate reasons for leaving this situation, but one must see the film to understand the case for remaining.
Christian religious men, their lives are fully integrated with the Muslim community they serve and that has come to depend on them. At one point, when the burden weighs heavily on them, and they are not ready to accept the possible consequences of remaining (their own kidnapping or death not the least), one of the monks tells the village elder that they, the monks, are nothing more than "birds on a branch." The elder's wife, standing in the doorway listening to this conversation, corrects him: "You are the branch and we are the birds."
Understandable fear, along with sincere reflection on the reality of religious vocation, and concern for the villagers all move the monks emotionally as the violence moves closer. We are given a model of leadership in the character of Christian, and we are allowed to observe the dignity of middle-aged and elderly men grappling with the everyday vicissitudes of aging in the midst of larger turmoil. The film is perfectly paced, allowing us time to process the dilemmas faced by these men. Near the film's conclusion, we are allowed a wonderful sequence of closeups as they share a glass of wine and listen to a tape of Swan Lake. Hope you see this movie, there is a reason it won the Cannes Grand Prix. It's at the Landmark Century in Chicago this week.

Hersey and Haruki

Coverage of the events in Japan have made much of the unique Japanese character in response to a crisis. Resilience, orderliness, extraordinary cooperation and stoicism in the face of an unprecedented disaster barely begin to describe it. More than 10,000 confirmed dead, a quarter million living in temporary evacuation centers, the havoc of tsunami inundation, scores of unnerving "aftershocks", and the uncertainty of radiation leaks: it can only be compared to the devastation of war, and yet we see the Japanese bear it with equanimity.

This is but a single facet of the complex humanity of the Japanese; it is well worth the effort to try to gain a better understanding. So for those who like to read, here are a couple of modest suggestions.

In 1946 the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey's 30,000 word essay "Hiroshima"; afterward it was published as a book and amended in 1985 with followups on the people whose experiences were narrated. This is the only time I have finished a book and said, simply, "everyone should read this book."
"Hiroshima" matter-of-factly tells the stories of six people's lives immediately following the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. Without citing statistics or moralizing, Hersey conveys the suffering experienced by these people, and their humanity in coping with it. Discussions of the book don't often address the culture or character of these survivors (not all of them are Japanese), but the tone, the "voice" of their recollections weaves a context for understanding their outlook.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
A half-century later Haruki Murakami followed, as did Hersey, the lives of ordinary people; in this case the victims of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist release of deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. Unlike current media coverage of this month's events, "Underground" does not over-interpret or attempt to draw overt conclusions. Rather, Murakami the novelist and short-story teller, is in this non-fiction book within the best tradition of modern Japanese writers like Natsume Soseki and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki: he allows the characters' words and actions to speak for themselves. In interviews he asked the affected commuters and office workers to tell a bit of their background before getting to the details of March 20, 1995, thus establishing individual personalities that resist generalization. Through the telling of story after story (some of the victims' paths crossed that day), a picture emerges of Japanese people and their response to crisis. It is a more nuanced picture, well worth the time to understand. Murakami also wanted to balance the media's sensational coverage of the terrorist cult, by bringing narrative weight back to the victims. Those who lament today's media focus on radiation issues at the expense of the humanitarian crisis may hear a familiar theme.
Readers of Underground will be reminded of the evolution of technology. Immediate treatment was necessary to minimize nervous system failure. Before smartphones, before internet, email or twitter connectivity the key to effective treatment of the over 5,000 victims of the mysterious symptoms that day was Dr. Nobuo Yanagisawa. One of the few who understood the poison's effect on the nervous system, Dr. Yanagisawa happened to see the unfolding crisis on television and recognized the earmarks of sarin. He then led a team who transmitted the key data for diagnosis and treatment to dozens of Tokyo hospitals via the communication device known as the fax machine

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Red Cross on White Day

Japan traditionally celebrates a cool holiday March 14th, White Day. A month after receiving gifts of chocolate from women on Valentine's Day, men return the favor with white chocolate, lingerie, etc. Dark chocolate is okay now, too. It all started with a marshmallow manufacturer drumming up business, then it was endorsed by the National Confectionery Industry Association about 30 years ago. Sort of a Hallmark Holiday, but what the hell, why not give it some real meaning: If you don't have someone to give chocolate this White Day (or even if you do), why not donate a little something Monday to help the people in Japan? One easy way to give $10 to help the recovery effort: text the keyword REDCROSS to 90999. Read the details on the Red Cross page.

Geshe Dorjee, Tibetan Monk, Razorback

This week the Dalai Lama confirmed that he was relinquishing his political role as leader of the Tibetan people. Analysts, according to the New York Times, said that "by formally giving up political power, the Dalai Lama, 75, was trying to deepen the authority of the movement’s democratic government, which is based in Dharamsala. This month, Tibetan exiles are expected to elect a new prime minister." On May 11 the Dalai Lama will be the guest of another Lama, Geshe Dorjee, at the University of Arkansas. Geshe Thupten Dorjee was in Chicago last week, speaking at Wright College and Northwestern University. I was fortunate last week to attend his lecture at Northwestern and to join a small group dining with him the following evening. Geshe Dorjee was ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1986 and currently teaches at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Teaching, as a Lama in the United States especially, means addressing all topics, spiritual to smartphones. How does one handle being treated as a sort of oracle, in large groups and small? It's a big responsibility. As someone who probably has much more to say than can ever be expressed in the time allotted, Geshe speaks very rapidly; sometimes adjacent words are conjoined as one, and occasionally syllable order is compromised ("baleebie", we figured out, meant Libya). But he was thrilling to listen to, start to finish. One simple message I took away from the lecture is that we are intended to be happy. Clearly Geshe is, living simply (all-purpose sleeveless crimson robe and sandals) and always "on" in every setting. While this takes a lot of energy, I am guessing it supplies him with an equal measure. The clarity of vision exemplified by Geshe Dorjee and the Dalai Lama, and its meaning for people worldwide, are a big part of the continuing idea of Tibet in the face of intense Chinese government pressure.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Illicit Permitted, or Happy New Year Again

The marking of the lunar new year concludes today with the Lantern Festival, celebrating the brightness of the first full moon of the Year of the Rabbit. Chicago skies will be overcast tonight, so if you can't see the moon, a good second choice would be your favorite Chinese restaurant, right?
For some forbidden new year's aesthetic pleasure, check out the egoyomi - Japanese calendar prints - at the Art Institute through April 3. Why forbidden? See the AI page but the short answer is the 18th century shogunate permitted only a few publishers to print calendars. Educated elites illicitly commissioned their own woodblock prints to exchange with friends, requiring masters like Harunobu to furtively conceal the names of the months within the composition, for example, in the drapery folds of a courtesan's kimono.
Okay, you're thinking, this is the kind of infraction that's easily detected and prosecuted. Why did it go on? More generally, why do we so often allow things which we've specifically prohibited? The phenomenon extends well beyond parents of strong-willed toddlers. This week the New York Times recounts the withdrawal of a prohibitive NC-17 rating from the film "Blue Valentine" in favor of a more socially acceptable R, without any change in content. Daniel Pink, in the Wired magazine article Japan Ink, describes the flagrant copyright infringements tolerated by the manga publishing industry, where fans create and distribute their own derivative work. Maybe it was a little unfair and downright silly of the Tokugawa rulers to allow only a few publishers to control a monopoly on calendars, and perhaps they ultimately chose the wiser course by failing to enforce their own policy. The scholars and aesthetes who skirted the rules were playing a cultural game, not a political or financial one, so perhaps the stakes were perceived as sufficiently low. What can we learn and apply to other areas of our public and private lives? Is the first signal of an untenable policy its permitted subversion?

Monday, February 14, 2011


When you spend a lot of time thinking about how spaces and places work, it's fun to see how they're depicted in movies, too. Sometimes they're claustrophobic, the getting-out-of-which is the goal. Last night I saw a new film, "Loveless," (not the Willem Dafoe biker movie) where any space with people - a club, a party, a bedroom - compelled the main character to seek an exit. The Gene Siskel Film Center hosted the premiere of this second film from a Chicago-connected director, Ramin Serry. "Loveless" (presented on the eve of the feast of St. Valentine) is an indie film set in the Manhattan that pushes me to wonder, as your typical hard-working Midwesterner: Who are these people who work at jobs that draw a little of their time but none of their angst, leaving all of the latter for their personal lives? Professionals, we think, are a bit wrapped in what they do for a living; writer-director Serry emphasizes the hollowness of his characters, especially the protagonist, Andrew, an aspiring indie film director (write what you know) who works, for the time being, in a cubicle. In a movie composed mostly of closeups, the cubicle was a hollow at the center of the city landscape, just as a Long Island share house early in the film resonates emptiness (Andrew's sometime-girlfriend imagines it as the scene of countless failed date-rapes). 
Andrew (Andrew von Urtz) takes his girlfriend and his friends for granted and seeks escape in the next pick-up. Since Andrew isn't very likable, and he is truly the center of this film, I was looking for someone to like and settled on the character played by Scott Cohen: Ricky, the "off" brother of Ava, the woman Andrew impulsively follows out of a club and into a party in the claustrophobic apartment housing her extended family. Andrew wakes up in bed with Ava (Genevieve Hudson-Price) to see Ricky in a chair, bedside, wide-eyed asking "How was it?" The look, however, is without affect and is reprised when Ricky inexplicably shows up outside Andrew's office cubicle. Ricky paints, badly, and is hung up on the memory of his dead father. Ava is a little shallow, Ricky is mostly nutty, but somehow this ensemble plays an increasing role in Andrew's smallish life, to the point where we get to see the bunch of them attempting to shoot a scene (film within a film!) on a chilly streetcorner, enacting an incident from the life of Ricky and Ava's father. Fun. Later, when Andrew is left in charge of a small girl on an empty city playlot, we worry he is going to leave her there.  Director and lead actor took questions at the end from a full house, which revealed that the couple sitting next to me was the director's mother and father. I told them they should be proud, and they should.