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."

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