Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Day 3 was a larger job but with too many things going on, we left one team to rip up the floor and dig out the mud. We moved onto an old ladies house,here the chest of drawers were still full of sludgy and wet clothes, mold was growing on the backs of pieces of furniture. She wanted the floor taken out, the mud removed, the floor relayed and then all the wet stuff put back where it was. The team left the job that night talking about her needing some kind of counselling. Luckily we returned the next morning to find the husband had been galvanized by our presence and put his foot down; all the wet stuff had to go and the team was more than happy to oblige, we had gained her trust as we cleaned the immaculate porch steps. Last jobs were a vegetable patch and mud at the back of a house that unfortunately we couldn't finish.

So why is it important to to get rid of the sludge? Well for one thing it smells and this is starting to have a psychological effect on residents. One lady we met who lives with her mother had bought her own crowbar and was in the process of ripping up the tatami floor when we arrived (This is unheard of in Japan where D.I.Y is a relatively new concept that has only been embraced by working class men, most handyman jobs about the house are left to paid specialists) Also the sludge isn't drying out properly in the under floor spaces and at almost two months after the tsunami it doesn't have much prospect of doing so before the rainy season in June when the temperature and humidity will shoot up and remains so until September. Once this happens the small patches of mold that we were already seeing will quickly become a runaway health issue that if left unchecked will also eventually affect the integrity of the building.



The meteorological conditions we experienced over the four days were appropiately extreme and odd. Day one, cloud changing to rain. Day two, a spate of medium sized earthquakes offshore that we didn't feel. Day three, gale force winds that kept us awake most of the small hours, and then pelted us with dust all day long. Day four rainbow and sunburn. There were some sore muscles, blisters, headaches and one hammer injury, we also had one guy feeling sick, so I made everyone wear masks with the mud as I had seen some mold. Steel boots or insoles a must, lots of nails!

Most nights were spent driving back to the area where  we were staying and yes I did see the devastation, it will haunt me forever but it was a good reality check and a remainder as to why we were doing what we were doing and that what I felt was irrelevant, they had lived it, there is no comparison. You could feel their loss but they didn't want to talk about it so we didn't ask, just smiled, worked and kept it real.

At the camp ground we exchanged stories, had a fire going on the last 2 nights, a well deserved beer and some laughs, until we could try and get some sleep on the hardest tatami I have ever slept on. We worked for 4 days. It was long enough to get the to know the area well and be effective and productive. It was short enough that we maintained momentum and didn't start to get on each other's nerves too much.

Over the 4 days there had been many tearful moments on the part of the householders but on the last day as we were leaving the main co-ordinator spoke to Toshi, one of our Japanese volunteers. With tears in his eyes he told how the owners of the houses we had cleaned had praised our kindness and how we had worked hard with smiles and a positive energy which they now felt too.

In general terms there are of course cultural differences in the national character, expectation and abilities of Japanese people and Westerners. The Japanese world is very structured with many preconceived ideas of how things should be, often leading to prioritizing form over substance, where as Westerners tend to focus on substance over form and are comfortable ad libbing. I have to say that in the post-disaster Japan where there is little or no convention about what or how things have to be done, with the right communication and assessment of needs, the Western way of focusing on the net result and making it up as we go along came into it's own in a way that I had  not even dared dream of. There is now a small neighbourhood in a small town in northern east Japan where we have won the hearts and under floor spaces of the local residents.

On the 16 hour drive back to our captain's tour, we drove through the mountains and stopped at the lake, it's famous, the edge of the walkways had sunk 1m into the ground due to the earthquake but the cherry blossom were still out and people were enjoying the holiday. It was beautiful. I would love to go back north it still has beautiful places to visit, please continue to be a friend to Japan and visit sometime, you are most welcome.

by Louise Kate Young.









Friday, 27 May 2011


Japan has been a part of my life since I was 5 years old, thanks to my parents I can't imagine my life without Japan in it. My father was my Judo sensei and I shared my mother's passion for Japanese textiles, especially kimono design. I clearly remembered the red sun as I landed at Kansai, it has been over 5 years now and fortunately I was able to witness the same red sun going down over Miyagi last week.

March 11th I felt dizzy and my mansion shook, even in Osaka I knew something terrible had happened. I watched the reports and the biblical tsunami live from my computer. You all know about the overwhelming loss of life and the devastation that the earthquake and the tsunami caused, so I would like to dedicate this blog to the positivity that is being created from such bad times. I have finally had the chance to give something back to a country that had given me so much in my life. It was a small effort and a step in the right direction for those affected.

'The Golden Week Tsunami Clean Up' was organized by a great guy who made our volunteering possible with 'Tsunami Lists, Protocols and Info' to communicate all the details including : Schedule & Route, Personal Questionaire, Cost List, Protocols, Kit List, Website List, Bank Details and Volunteer Insurance. This is so important if you want to volunteer as some centres were inundated with people, wanting to help, but they couldn't accommodate them.

There were 30 of us from all the world including 3 Japanese, 7 Americans, 6 Canadians, 6 Brits , 2 Kiwis, an Italian , a Turk, an Irishman, a Frenchman, an Australian and a Romanian. Including the native speakers a third were fluent in Japanese. We were a motley crew including a cosmetic salesman, an artist, a marine corp captain, a retiree, a farmer, a couple of graduates, a sound engineer, a chef, and of course every ilk of langauge teacher you can imagine. Most importantly eighteen of us have building experience.




Friday the 29th of April: The Beginning of Golden Week

We travelled in 7 cars and rented a 1.5 tonne truck, 2 drivers to each vehicle, we had already purchased the important tools for the job  before we set off. It took 13 hours to get there and we stayed in 2 6 berth and 2 10 berth  cabins. The accommadation was cheap, 800 yen a night for simple tatami mats and light only. Of course I was apprehensive about the work we would be doing and hoped nobody got seriously injured.

I woke early the first morning to be greeted by a vista of sakura cherry blossom backed by snow covered peaks. We left our vehicles at the Volunteer Centre which was located at the Japan Agriculture Office in Higashi Matshushima situated in the Miyagi prefecture. We were escorted into our first clean up locations. In this area the tsunami had been a meter or so deep, cars floated away and every house was flooded.

My team's first job was the removal of mud from a car park, moving an abandoned car - how many foreigners does it take to move a car? 8 I think, then we limed it but everyone was getting carried away with lime powder, so masks back on and goggles. Our next job was a bit of a shock actually, it was much more challenging and set a benchmark for how far we were prepared to go. We arrived at  the job to find the owner and two university students in the under floor crawslspace ferrying out the semi-dried sludge on two plastic sleds. The team zipped up, masked up and went in. I went in as I am small but didn't have the man power for what needed to be dug out and felt uncomfortable with only one way in and out. I pulled out and the boys went in. Our organizer arrived to check how we were getting on, I found it reminiscent of a scene from The Great Escape with half a dozen of them under the house and the rest unloading the sleds and bagging the sludge outside.

We were supposed to finish the job at 3.30pm but it was already 4 pm we said we wanted to finish it especially as we were almost done and mudded up to the neck, the co-coordinator of the VC agreed and beamed with a smile that went from ear to ear the whole time we were there. The dad was pretty pleased that it was done as it would have taken him another day or two.

Day 2 required us to work on 4 rental suites, rip up a floor, dig out the mud, wash the bathrooms and kitchen floors, clear the garden and paths and yes move another car. You could still see the water marks on the side of the houses and the slimy mud that was still inside the wet car. The son and owner and wife had the odd joke with us, as he fell to the floor as we pushed the car, the big boys were stronger than he thought, and we laughed. The son helped even though the shovel was too big for him, he joined the team photo and got shouted at by his mum for not studying English enough.



Wednesday, 11 May 2011


Big news for Takashi Miike this week as his latest film Hara-Kiri : Death Of A Samurai  (3D) is in competition for the prestigious Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival. It is the first time a 3D film has ever been nominated for such a prize and I'm sure it's raised a few eyebrows in the process. Ostensibly a remake of the brooding samurai film from Masaki Kobayashi made in 1962 and featuring a stunning performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, bad boy japanese actor Ebizu Ichikawa takes the lead in a more mainstream Miike film than hardcore fans are probably used to:

"Seeking an honourable end, poverty stricken samurai Hanshiro requests to commit hara- kiri in the courtyard of feudal lord Kageyu's estate. Trying to dismiss Hanshiro's wife to save face, Kageyu recounts the tragic story of a similiar plea years ago from young ronin Motome, but the arrogant lord is unaware of vengeful Hanshiro's bond with Motome..."

Only a 30 second teaser trailer is available at the moment and I can't tell you how the 3D has been used, perhaps in a more subtle manner than big budget Hollywood fare. It might be a simple case of enhancing swordfights with actors and swords close to the camera so that the duelling blades protude toward us. Even Quentin Tarantino confesses if he had known 3D would have made a comeback he may have shot Kill Bill as a 3D film - it certainly would have worked well with the "Master of the Flying Guiilotine" inspired weapon that Go Go Yubari wields against the bride at the end of Kill Bill part 1 (as well as the Crazy 88 fight scene of course) Arthouse directors are now utilising 3D in unexpected ways - Werner Herzog has shot a cave painting movie in 3D and Wim Wenders recently released a 3D film about dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. So the stigma of 3D might be over in the same way talkies were considered a gimmick back in the early days of cinema.

Does Miike have a chance of winning? well look who he is up against - Pedro Almodovar, Lars Von Trier, Nicholas Winding Refn, Paolo Sorrentino, The Dardenne Brothers, Nanni Morreti, Aki Kaurismaki, Lynne Ramsey and Terence Malick (with only the fifth movie of his career) and a whole bunch of less well known directors : Bertrand Bonello, Alain Cavelier, Joseph Cedar, Michel Hazanavicius, Julia Leigh, Maiwenn, Radu Mihaileanu, Markus Schleinzer and Naomi Kawase (the other Japanese director in competition) that's a lot of arthouse muscle. If there is more of a political dimension to Hara-Kiri than some of the other films then it's possible the cinema gods may shine their light upon Mr Miike. If it's existential angst that will clinch it, it may still have a chance though if Terence Malick's Tree of Life is the new 2001 then perhaps not.

Should it have taken this long  for Takashi Miike to be universally acknowledged in this way? Should his 1999 film Audition been nominated? that certainly would have raised a few eyebrows even though in it's own way it's as feminist a film as anything made by Claire Denis or Catherine Breillat.
I guess post Hara-Kiri and 13 Assassins (made in 2010, check the five star review on Timeout's film review page and the 8.0 score on IMDB and the 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes.com) Miike could concentrate on chanbara films and just make one film a year or  become even more prolific if he wanted to (84 titles and counting according to IMDB) whatever happens it's great that he's got a bigger audience now thanks to these "traditional" swordplay movies hopefully coming soon to a cinema near you.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


When visiting Japan, one of my favourite walks from my daughter's mansion on Tanimachi Sugi, is to Osaka's largest temple Shitennoji, especially of course on the 21st of the month when they hold the temple market. But on the way is another favorite, Kisshoji Temple, with huge red wooden doors, large Mon known to most Westerners and black and white zigzag pattern, painted walls, it stands out as a memorial to Lord Asano and the 47 Ronin (Chushingura Tale). In fact, as the doors are usually ajar, one can see the kneeling stone statue of Lord Asano with tanto, preparing to commit 'seppuku'.

The temple walls are lined, on the inside, with large cherry trees which makes cherry blossom season the perfect time to visit this memorial. There are 47 stone statues each representing one of the 47 Ronin and Oishi Yuranosuke can be easily recognised beating his drum thus starting the attack on Kira's castle. The original statues were carved from wood but these were destroyed during WW11 In 2002 it was decided to rebuild the statues in stone and on 14th December there is a celebration at the temple and 47 small boys dress-up as the famous 47. 

The graves of Lord Asano and his loyal Ronin lie in Sengaku-ji temple in Tokyo (Edo) but it is thought that the hair and nails were buried here. The reason, Lord Asano was the friend of the Head Buddhist Monk of Kisshoji temple and he often visited on his way home from the court at Edo. After the revenge attack by the 47 on Lord Kira and his castle, these loyal samurai were ordered by the emperor to commit 'seppuku' and afterwards the Monk asked if some part of the bodies could be buried at his temple as a memorial, it is thought his wish was granted. 

There have been many Kabuki plays, Japanese films and TV productions about the  tale of the 47 Ronin known in Japan as Chushingura each with it's own version of events and with such an interest from the West, Hollywood has turned it's attention to the tale. The 47 Ronin (in 3D) is being filmed at the moment, due for release in November 2012 and starring Keanu Reeves. I'm sure it will have it's own slant on the famous story with some fantasy elements.