Girl in the Red Shoes

Among the most well-known statues in Yokohama is the Girl in the Red Shoes. Her statues sits in Yamashita Park.

Now that I am retired, I have more time to enjoy my walks in Yamashita Park. I observe people and watch the children chase the seagulls. I usually gravitate to the statue of the Girl in the Red Shoes. If I were a betting man, I would wager that this statue is one of the most photographed in Yokohama.

Girl in the Red Shoes

Yamashita 0008 Man taking photoInevitably, whenever I walk by the statue, I see all sorts of people taking photos of the girl. No doubt they read the story of the girl and listened to or sang the song in their elementary school days. The words in Japanese are:

赤い靴(くつ) はいてた 女の子異人(いじん)さんに つれられて 行っちゃった横浜の 埠頭(はとば)から 汽船(ふね)に乗って異人さんに つれられて 行っちゃった今では 青い目に なっちゃって異人さんの お国に いるんだろう 赤い靴 見るたび 考える異人さんに 逢(あ)うたび 考える 生まれた 日本が 恋しくば青い海眺めて ゐるんだらう(いるんだろう)異人さんに たのんで 帰って来(こ)

In English the lyrics are

A young girl with red shoes/was taken away by a foreigner. She rode on a ship from Yokohama pier/ taken away by a foreigner/ I imagine right now she has become blue-eyed living in that foreigner’s land./ Every time I see red shoes, I think of her And every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

The story of the Girl in the Red Shoes is clouded in mystery.

I really don’t care about the cloudy background. When I look at the statue I think of my daughters when they were little.I hear their crying, their squealing, their joys.  More poignantly,  I remember listening to their dreams.

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Yokohama Short Stories

I’ve lived in Yokohama a good number of years — long enough to observe a tectonic  transformation. I arrived in Japan at a time when office and factory workers placed their work above family life. They devoted their lives to the company. Their common purpose was to strengthen Japan and restore her back to her pre-war status. Ah, yes, that was forty -fifty years ago.  Fast forward to today. Japan, Japanese society, and individual Japanese have undergone a transformation. Japanese place a greater emphasis on family and private life. No longer willing to devote their lives to the company, they join companies with the idea that in three years or so they will move on to different or even greater opportunities. The focus of their efforts have moved from the company to themselves   In many ways, they are better equipped to cope with transitions than their elders. 

This is the first of the short stories I wrote about Japanese caught in the wake of the bursting of the bubble and faced with the spectre of foreign management taking control of their company. When Carlos Ghosn took control of the management of Nissan Motors, a wave of resentment swept through the entrenched Japanese business community. The old ways of operating business in Japan was coming to an end. The changes were leaving individual workers in a daze. One such person was the character Kosaka in Absurdity.



Takeshi cut two thinly sliced pieces from the block of tuna. With deft hands he rolled rice into oblong shapes, and then he placed the sliced tuna over them.

“Absurd!” Kosaka repeated. “It’s absolutely absurd.”

Takeshi shook his head as he placed the sushi on the wooden tray in front of Kosaka. It was after closing time but he let Kosaka stay. Kosaka had been a regular customer for nearly 15 years. The shop, located in an out of the way spot near a subway station, provided Kosaka with a trysting place for his colleagues and other companions. But the events in the economy and in Kosaka’s life had taken a turn for the worse, and he stopped coming. Then tonight, like a prodigal son, Kosaka showed up. He had looked older and grayer than a man of 40 should look.

“It’s absurd!” Kosaka lifted one tuna sushi with his chopsticks and stared at it, as though he were searching for solutions to his problems. Then he stuffed the entire sushi into his mouth.

Takeshi wiped the wood cutting board with a towel. “What’s absurd?”

Kosaka answered in incomprehensible grunts, the sushi muffling the words in his mouth.

Takeshi laughed. What a sight Kosaka made tonight! Worried brown eyes propped over darkening semicircles, a hairline receding relentlessly toward the middle of his head, and his mouth stuffed full of sushi. Some rice spilled from his mouth and added another stain to his necktie.

Kosaka drank an entire of cup of sake to wash down the sushi. “Everything’s absurd. My life. Everything. I worked hard for that company. And now?”

How things change, Takeshi thought. Kosaka first came into Takeshi’s sushi shop at the height of the bubble economy. Brash, young and foolish, Kosaka announced to Takeshi that he worked for Nakamura Motors, Japan’s second largest auto manufacturer and presented him with a business card. Like many of his generation of recently graduated university students in the bubble period, Kosaka could practically insist on the salary and the working conditions he wanted before he consented to work for the company. Nakamura Motors competed fiercely with other major Japanese companies for new recruits. Nakamura was expanding operations, building new plants, establishing new offices and setting up new dealerships with the aim of increasing market share in overseas markets. Naturally, the company made every effort to entice Kosaka to work for them.

The bubble years gave newly recruited employees a cockiness that irritated older employees. “They think the world owes them a living,” Takeshi’s older customers groused.

Kosaka was first assigned to work in one of Nakamura’s manufacturing plants in the outskirts of Tokyo. “Got to start from the ground up,” he informed Takeshi. “That way I’ll have a shot at a management position in two or three years. And then? Who knows? I might make department head by the time I’m thirty.”

The months passed and Takeshi observed Kosaka evolving into a Nakamura Motors man. He wore tailored blue suits, expensive ties and a gold wristwatch. “Bought a new Nakamura Sports Car!”  He even started dating an office lady that worked in the same section.

“This is Sueko. We’re getting married.” Takeshi still could recall watching Kosaka dote over Sueko as they sat eating their sushi. “Best sushi in Japan,” Kosaka boasted. “Ate sushi in Miyasaki, Aomori, and Niigata. But Takeshi’s is the best.” Sueko merely nodded her head and responded, “Really? That’s nice.”

Sueko had all the prerequisites of a good Nakamura wife. Having graduated from a junior college, she immediately found work at the company.  During her off hours, she studied flower arrangement and practiced playing the koto. She was an ideal catch for any Nakamura salaried man on the way up the corporate ladder. In fact, Kosaka’s section chief encouraged the match.

“So she comes with good recommendations, huh?” Takeshi said shortly before Kosaka got married.

Kosaka appeared pensive. “Yeah, I guess.”

Takeshi saw doubt written in Kosaka’s expression.

Kosaka finished off the sake in two gulps. “She does have a kind heart,” he remarked in a sake-induced flush of sentiment.

Kosaka invited Takeshi to their wedding reception. A year later, he showed Takeshi pictures of their newly born son. “Named him after my uncle. Hiroshi. Looks like me, huh?” Kosaka beamed. Before long Kosaka was showing pictures of his newly born daughter. “Michiko! She’ll make someone a great wife.”

Married life seemed to agree with him. Takeshi noticed he was putting on weight around the middle. “All that home cooking,” Kosaka joked, patting his paunch.

At Nakamura, he seemed firmly ensconced on the upward escalator to management. He was made the section chief of the parts purchasing section. His job was to liaise with smaller manufacturers that produced car batteries for Nakamura’s family line of cars. The promotion to section chief before he was thirty signaled a rapid rise to the next level. However, he revised his prediction about becoming division chief. “Maybe by 35. That’s more like it. I need more experience in other divisions.”

Takeshi nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, experience counts for a lot.”

“Yeah, especially in later years when I get into an executive position.”

Takeshi laughed. Kosaka still possessed that same cockiness he had as a newly recruited employee. But he had to agree. Kosaka might very well reach the rarified executive levels.

However, by the time Kosaka celebrated his 32nd birthday, the bubble burst.  Nakamura Motors began cutting back on new hiring and offering older workers in their fifties early retirement packages.

“They put a freeze on promotions!” Kosaka said. “They’re even getting rid of managerial positions.”

Takeshi saw the disappointment and disbelief in Kosaka’s face. He had joined the company when everyone believed the good times would go on forever. Now, he and his cohort of employees faced the prospect of losing their jobs.

Kosaka felt confident that Nakamura would not restructure him out of a job. “Naw, they’re letting older employees go first. Of course if Nakamura goes under . . .”

“No worry about that. Nakamura’s too big a company to go bust.” Takeshi said to allay Kosaka’s unspoken fear.

“Yeah, that’s right. Nakamura’s too big to go under.”

Kosaka came to Takeshi’s shop less frequently after that encounter. “Got to work longer hours!”  Takeshi noticed that the jauntiness had gone out of Kosaka and that his conversations centered on company losses and future cutbacks. “But the company will survive!” Kosaka said with an optimism bolstered by copious cups of sake. He was confident that the banks would continue lending money to help the company stay afloat until the economy improved.

As far as Kosaka’s private life was concerned, however, Takeshi suspected that Kosaka’s marriage was heading toward a breakup. Whenever the topic of his family came up, he would grow sullen. “Sueko and I have nothing in common. She’s got no idea of what I’m going through at work. All she talks about is needing more money for the kids. Extra lessons. She wants the kids to study English, and they’re not even in junior high school yet.”

Then one summer night Kosaka came to the shop with a young girl who wore a T-shirt tucked into a black mini-skirt. The T-shirt had a message printed on it. “Take me!” Obviously, Kosaka was taking the message literally.

“Mieko, this is Takeshi!” Some of Kosaka’s jauntiness had returned. “He serves the most delicious sushi in town.” Mieko could not have been older than 20 years. “She works in a little pub in Shinjuku. Mixes the best gin and tonics!”

Takeshi kept his comments polite but guarded. He averted his eyes as Kosaka’s hand stroked Mieko’s exposed thigh. “Takeshi, this beautiful creature is wise beyond her years.” Mieko giggled and lit a king-sized cigarette. “She understands what I’m going through at the office. I can tell her all my problems. She’s a good listener. Isn’t that right?”

Mieko blew out a stream of cigarette smoke and said. “Yeah.”

Kosaka’s affair with the understanding Mieko ended two weeks later. It turned out, Kosaka informed Takeshi, that Mieko had grown tired of being wise beyond her years and ran off with a high school dropout. Together, they took off on his motorcycle and to parts unknown. “A punk on a motorcycle. What could she see in him?” a visibly saddened and perplexed Kosaka asked.

Takeshi merely shrugged. “Who knows about the young people today?”  He saw that Kosaka’s face had grown pudgier – the result of a steady alcoholic intake. “Looks like you’ve been working overtime. Better go home and get some rest.”

Kosaka looked over at Takeshi with blurry eyes. “Home?” he asked and his face turned hard and cold. “Oh, yeah. Home.” He got up and threw down some money. Then he stormed out the door before Takeshi could count out the change. Takeshi put the change in an envelope and wrote Kosaka’s name on it. For two years, Takeshi waited for Kosaka to come and collect his change, but he eventually forgot about Kosaka and the envelope gathering dust in a drawer.

Times were growing worse. Takeshi’s regular customers stopped by less frequently and ordered fewer drinks. To entice customers, he began offering customers set lunches and dinners at prices that barely covered his overhead. The set meals attracted a different type of clientele – single working people and young married couples living in the neighborhood. Foreign customers also came to enjoy the ambience of a Japanese sushi shop. None of them on company expense accounts, however.

One customer, an attractive French woman in her late twenties whose name was Marie, told him that she would like to open a sushi shop in Paris.

“You mean, you want to make sushi?”

“Sure, why not?” the French woman replied in heavily accented Japanese.

Takeshi pointed out that Japanese women could never make sushi. “It’s a man’s profession.”

“But I’m a French woman.”

Takeshi could not argue that point.

“Will you teach me? All about sushi? And about the sushi business?”

Takeshi replied that he would think about it.

“I shall come here until you say yes,” Marie said.

One night, a group of employees from Nakamura Motors dropped in for drinks and conversation. Takeshi learned from one harried middle-aged employee that Kosaka had gotten a divorce and was living alone in a small apartment somewhere in Tokyo.

“How’s he doing?” Takeshi asked.

“How’s anybody doing?” the harried employee snapped back. “You heard the latest?”

Takeshi shook his head.

“Three banks went belly up!”

Takeshi had read about the bankruptcies. They had come on the heels on the bankruptcy of Japan’s third largest securities company. “The banks are in deep trouble all right. Too much red ink.”

“If banks go under, then companies like Nakamura will be next.”

“Nakamura’s too big to take a fall,” Takeshi said, but he saw that his words failed to convince the harried employee.

Takeshi doubted Nakamura could reduce the huge debt it was accumulating, which was totaling into the billions. The total amount of debt staggered Takeshi’s imagination. It was the size of the debt of a small country. No business, he knew only too well, could continue operating at a loss year after year. Something drastic had to take place.

Takeshi, however, had little time to worry about Nakamura’s financial woes.

“I’ve got to do something drastic!” he told Marie, who came to eat and to observe Takeshi’s technique as often as she could.

“Hire me and I guarantee you that you will build up your business.”

Takeshi pooh-poohed the idea. “I’d lose all of my customers.”

Marie was insistent. “You tell people that I am your apprentice and that I am opening a shop in Paris.”

Takeshi finally gave in and took Marie on as an apprentice.

At first customers were put off by seeing a gaijin woman standing behind the counter. But her charming personality added a cosmopolitan atmosphere to the shop and customers grew accustomed to watching her make the sushi under the watchful eyes of her sensei.

Marie added little European touches to the standard sushi dishes. Deviled tuna spread for appetizers, and a selection of French wines. She decorated the shop with paintings and posters that gave it a quasi-French appearance.

Customers learned by word of mouth about the foreign sushi apprentice. Soon the word reached the editor of New Trends Magazine. The magazine targeted the hip young generation of Japanese looking to keep on top of current fashions and lifestyles. The editor sent a reporter and photographer to do a feature story on Takeshi’s restaurant.

“Foreigner charms way into the sushi world!” read the headline on the front cover featuring Marie and Takeshi. The headline and feature story drew customers in from all over Tokyo. On weekends, Takeshi had to turn customers away.

Many older Japanese shook their heads in dismay. “Foreigners making sushi!” Marie represented one more example of how foreigners were diluting Japanese culture and values. “What next?” They saw the world crowding around Japan, like Hannibal with his army of barbarians at the gates of Rome ready to destroy Japanese culture and institutions.

Two months after Takeshi’s shop made the news, an event so devastating hit Japan with the impact of a gigantic typhoon. Apollonius Motors, Italy’s largest auto manufacturer bought a controlling interest in Nakamura Motors. That news alone was enough to send staunchly conservative Japanese into fits of shock and anger. “We’re being invaded! The Black Ships are being deployed in Edo Bay!” The barbarians indeed have crashed through the gates.

“Looks like we going to get another General MacArthur,” Takeshi remarked to Marie. They were both working in the kitchen getting food prepared for the lunchtime customers. News of the Apollonius-Nakamura Alliance streamed from the portable TV Takeshi had placed on the refrigerator.

Marie was cubing the potatoes for the sushi and potato salad dish she had created for the lunchtime service. “MacArthur? Who is this MacArthur?”

Takeshi shook his head. Young people today, he thought. They have no concept of history.”

“Apollonius is sending its Executive Vice President to take over the management of Nakamura.” Takeshi turned the volume down on the TV.

“You mean they are sending the slasher!” Marie responded. “Uh la la.”

“The slasher?”

“He is known as the slasher in my village.” Marie started washing the mayonnaise and potato from her hands under the kitchen faucet. “His name is Antonio Benedicio Aiello.”

The name sounded like a mouthful of syllables in Takeshi’s ears.

“He was responsible for closing down the Apollonius factory. My father and other villagers lost their jobs. Shops closed down because there was no more business. That slasher has ice water running through his veins.”

At that moment, the TV news showed a close-up photograph of Antonio Benedicio Aiello. The photograph revealed a demoniacally determined foreigner with close-set piercing brown eyes under one black eyebrow that stretched across both eyes like a prickly caterpillar.

The piercing eyes glared down at Takeshi. Thank goodness he was not working for Nakamura, Takeshi thought and cut the head from a fish. Then the cocky face of Kosaka as a new recruit appeared in his mind.

“Poor Kosaka-san! I wonder how he is doing?”

The End.

Yokohama Statues and Childhood Memories

H2028 Statue

Yokohama for me is a city of lights, sights, sounds, memories and statues. One day I decided to pick up my camera and walk around the city to take shots of the statues I spied through the lenses of my prescription glasses. Like many cities in the world, Yokohama possesses a treasure trove of statues — avant-garde, military heroes of forgotten wars, founders of universities and medical facilities — and those from the entertainment world. I chose the first statue to photograph for sentimental reasons. Misora Hibari — who was born in Yokohama and whose parents owned a fish market in Takigashira in the Isogu Ward of Yokohama. Long before she became well-known nationwide, Misora Hibari’s mother took her around the neighborhood nearby their fish market and had her perform on improvised stages at markets and neighborhood events.


The statue is located in the Noge district of Yokohama. It depicts her in her debut film Kanashiki Kuchibue (The Sad Whistle 1949)

I’ve watched the movie many times because it shows the districts of Yokohama I often meander through during my daily walks in the city. Quite a contrast between the city during the early postwar years and today. To give a flavor of what life was like in those long ago years, John Carroll, a long-time observer of Japan and the Japanese in his book Trails of Two Cities encapsulated the atmosphere and color of the Noge district in which Misora Hibari gained recognition as a singer and entertainer.

“At the height of the black market there were 445 stalls on the main road alone, each of which had to pay a fee to the local oyabun, Higo Morizo. They offered black market food that had made its way there from Occupation warehouses and trash cans. Koreans and Chinese who had their own sources of food and the power that stemmed from it sometimes threw their weight around, although gang warfare such as developed in Kobe between Korean and Japan yakuza never really became a problem in Yokohama, perhaps because it was the center of the Occupation and there were too many MPs around. That does not mean Noge could not get rough at times. Kujira Yoko-cho (Whale Alley) near Sakuragi-cho was a killing grounds reminiscent of Bloodtown and other rough quarters of Yokohama’s wild early days. MPs came here every morning to check for dead bodies. Higo himself was knifed to death in 1954 just after the Occupation had come to an end. But Noge was also the place where the Japanese came to enjoy an apres guerre culture characterised by pornography, violence, and a desire to get by without Hibari Misoraregrets. Here a young Times aint like they used to besinger named Kato Kazue made her debut at eight and soon was wowing standing room-only audiences at Noge’s Yokohama Kokusai Gekijo and big clubs in Isezaki-cho. By the age of twelve she had become nationally famous under the name Misora Hibari.
Japan’s answer to Edith Piaff later built a huge a mansion with swimming pool in Isogo, where she grew up.”John Carroll, Trails of Two Cities, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1994 pp.78-79

Of the many songs she recorded the one that struck a chord in my father’s heart was Shina no Yoru (China Nights)

My father along with many other GIs stationed in Japan during the Occupation Period remember the haunting melody even though they could not understand the words. (For an interesting insight to the song refer to the blog:)

The statue is my favorite of all the statues I come across during my walks. When I look at her dressed in the costume, I recall my father saying, “Some day, Kermit, you should come to Japan.” “Well, I’m here now, Dad.”

Dad10009 Dad and Kermit-1

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Fresh Works from a Greying Mind 

Sixty-six years ago I was a boy of six and I loved pretending I was an explorer. One summer day my explorations took me into the dark interior of the basement. At the time my parents and two brothers and I lived in a house known as Trimmer Hill in Pacific Grove.
In my boyish imagination, the basement resembled an unexplored cave — a place where pirates buried their treasures in chests.

Brownie Camera

The very first camera I took pictures with.

Sure enough I discovered an old fashioned trunk stored among old furniture and stacks of magazines dating back to the 1930s.
I opened the trunk expecting to find pieces of eight, jewels, and gold necklaces. To my disappointment I unearthed musty smelling clothes and old photo albums. Nestled under the albums in one corner at the bottom of the trunk I discovered an old Eastman Kodak Brownie camera.

With my discovery firmly gripped in my hands, I dashed upstairs to show my mother. She took the camera in her hands as though it were a long lost childhood memento. She took it apart and inspected the inside. After putting it together, she aimed the camera at our pet cat and clicked the shutter. “Still works,” she said and smiled.

Camera FilmLater she took me to the drugstore and bought film for the camera. ISO 120 8 exposures Black and White. In those days color film required an upscale camera model. Developing costs also made amateurs think twice before snapping a casually thought out color photo.

That little boxed shape camera introduced me to the world of photography. I took photos of pets, flowers and the ocean. Through trial and error I gained an inkling about lighting and framing. I couldn’t wait for the photos to be developed so I could show my parents and friends.

But alas, as I grew older, the vagaries of life dampened my enthusiasm for picture taking. Other hobbies and inevitably girls took up most of my free time. The old brownie camera was packed away once again down in the basement.

Sixty-six years later, I am a man of 72 who has allowed the boy inside him free rein on his enthusiasm. I bought three Panasonic digital cameras — the GF5, the FZ1000 and the GH4. An extravagance, I know. But as a man twice divorced and living a carefree bachelor life, I have no one to splash cold water on my imagination. Framing a shot and manipulating the function buttons on the GH4 makes me feel as if I were a professional photographer on assignment for National Geographic.

I took pictures with abandonment and out of the thousands I selected the ones I feel happy about.

Recent Photographic and Video Endeavors

Steve Gardner is an American Roots and Blues musician and former photojournalist. He has also become my ad hoc teacher of photographic techniques. When I asked him which camera I should buy, he said, “It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have.”

“So in other words . . . .”

“In other words it’s not what you have . . . ”

SG reading

My mentor and good friend — Steve Gardner

Nahar Amrit Shakti

Mumbai Mobile Crèches In March I took a trip to Mumbai, India, my second trip to visit my daughter and her family. Her husband works for Deutsche  Bank was expecting a transfer to another post in Hong Kong. “Better come before we are transferred,” my daughter coaxed in her emails and Face Time communications. I jumped at the opportunity to visit them and to see the city. One day she took me to the school where she teaches children of construction workers English. The school is part of a Mumbai Mobile Crèches NPO program to provide the children left at home by parents working on construction site. Boys My daughter had often mentioned in her correspondence to me that she did volunteer work at a school for the children of construction workers. The workers came from different villages and districts throughout India. With no place to stay, they moved into empty lots and built makeshift huts from whatever materials they could find. The huts are small, cramped and supplied with limited utilities. The children are left behind to fend for themselves while the parents go the construction sites. Seeing the need to provide a semblance of constructive activities for the children, the NPO Mumbai Mobile Crèches opened schools on the grounds. Indian and non-Indian teachers give the children a rudimentary education. My daughter teaches at the  school in the  Nahar Amrit Shakti development. On the day she took me to the school, I was amazed and inspired by what I observed. Makeshift huts ringed the perimeter of the development. In those ramshackle homes lived families whose numbers might have included five or six family members. The school building was in the center. The students ranged in age from preschool to fifth or sixth grade. They were bursting with energy and smiles. And they all looked as though they scrubbed behind their ears. Clean and neat. Were it not for the NPO, these children would be scavenging the streets for something to eat and for something to do to kill the time while waiting for their parents to return home. I took photos and videos of the site.  They hardly do justice to the joy, the enthusiasm and the energy I experienced on that hot day in that community located in a backroad of Mumbai. Also check out my website for upcoming photo exhibitions.

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Miracle Pine

The Final observations

The computer monitor was as blank as my mind. My thoughts strayed. “Funny, I spend a bundle on word processing software and I can’t find the thread I need. The thread to tie together the sights and sounds I collected during my two trips to Rikuzentakata.” For five nights I wrestled with opening statements. None sprang to mind. Finally, I remembered my former editor’s advice. “Simplicity is the key that opens the door to incisiveness.” Simply stated, during my two trips I was observing a work in progress.  I recorded the construction work taking place in nearly every disaster-stricken sector of Rikuzentakata. The construction work indicated to me the city’s determination to replace the infrastructure and to rebuild a community. I was impressed by the energy I experienced as I watched heavy equipment and workmen  repair roads, elevate the level of the former downtown district, transport tons of earth, build high schools and other public buildings, and raise new neighborhoods of temporary and permanent housing. My observations combined with the information from the Rikuzentakata Facebook and other sources indicated that the rebuilding is necessary before people can return to their normal patterns of life. As Amya Miller stated in a March 7, 2015 Japan Times article, “Rikuzentakata isn’t just rebuilding in terms of infrastructure. It is aiming to become a new kind of inclusive and open community that welcomes people from all walks of life, including single parents, foreign nationals and those with handicaps. Our message is simple: Come and visit and get to know us.” Simply stated, the city officials and residents of Rikuzentakata need to face challenges posed by the demographics. One of the most obvious challenges struck me as I was shopping in the EON Supermarket near Yonesaki Post Office. The supermarket was about a thirty minute walk from the Capital Hotel 1000 where I was staying. In Yokohama, I take the bus to the EON Supermarket near Higashi Kanagawa JR Station. In the supermarket, I am often assaulted by the screams and cries of tiny children in the aisles. My septuagenarian ears are particularly sensitive to children’s squeals. In Rikuzentakata, I could have called a taxi, but I preferred to walk along the unpaved roads among the rice fields to the store. In the Rikuzentakata supermarket, I was struck by the sound of cash registers, people talking to clerks, and announcements of sales items over the PA system. But no sounds of bawling children. I did see two or three mothers with babies wrapped under their coats and pushing strollers with sleeping toddlers. But they were the exceptions. Elderly people fingered the vegetables and squinted at the ingredients of packaged foods. The employees appeared middle-aged in their thirties and forties — similar in age to those working in the Yokohama supermarket. The observation reminded me of the demographic statistics about Rikuzentakata. Over one-third of the population of nearly 20,000 is 65 or over. The statistics mirrors population trends nationwide. Japan’s population pyramid is progressively teetering on a pivotal point. The population of those 65 and over overshadows that of 14 and under. In rural communities, the problem is acute. Young people leave for the cities to attend universities, or to explore greater opportunities for employment than what they can find in their hometowns. In the primary industries, children leave farms and fishing boats to find work more rewarding financially and less arduous. After the tsunami ravaged the city, Rikuzentakata witnessed an exodus of residents to other locations. Rikuzentakata Population The challenge facing Rikuzentakata is two-fold:  (1) how to attract young people to return from the cities and (2) how to entice people who desire to live away from the hustle and bustle of the cities and to relocate to their coastal city. In his book, Mayor Futoshi Toba wrote that few people ever heard of Rikuzentakata before March 11, 2011. Immediately after March 11, the media focused on the damage, the plight of the survivors, and debris clean up. The mayor pushed forward the plan to create a monument of the Miracle Pine paid by special donations separate from the money specified for the rebuilding of the city. Today, the Miracle Pine has become a tourist attraction. An attraction that creates a positive image — a symbol of recovery and hope for the future. Among the other steps the mayor, vice mayor and other Rikuzentakata residents have taken to demonstrate a dynamic and forward looking posture  include the Facebook postings and the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project. The purpose of the project, as reported in the same March 7, 2015 Japan Times article, is to create a unique tourism venture “with the aim of letting visitors and residents interact  in a way that brings tangible benefits to both sides. The Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project offers visitors the opportunity to work alongside local farmers, fishermen or craftspeople to get a taste of their daily activities. . . ‘Marugoto’ roughly equates with ‘entire’ or ‘whole’ in English, conveying the hope that participants in the program will get to know Rikuzentakata on a deeper level.” (Contact the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project by calling 0192-22-7410 or emailing English or Japanese) Simply stated, Rikuzentakata must find answers to questions plaguing residents whose businesses and residences remain in limbo. If I were a shopkeeper or homeowner, I might ask questions that include the following.

  1. As the level of the downtown land area elevates, the surface areas on top is reduced. How much smaller will my property become? Will I receive compensation for the loss of property?
  2. The government will pay for half of the cost of reopening my business. At my age, should I take out a loan to pay for the other half?
  3. And even if I take out the loan and reopen the business, considering the demographics will there be enough customers to cover the overhead costs?
  4. When will I be able to move into a house of my own again?

I could write more questions, but I suppose the residents of Rikuzentakata have asked them in public meetings and in conferences with city planners. Simply stated, Rikuzentaka holds a lot of attraction for me as an individual. I could write an op-ed piece about the tug of war between the localities in the Tohoku Region and the central government in Tokyo for funds. And I could ruminate about the resources diverted from the Tohoku recovery projects to the construction of facilities in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But those are issues I have no control over. I do have control, however, over how I will contribute in a small way to Rikuzentakata’s recovery. Now what was that email address again? Ah, here it is:

The End of Observations

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Amya Miller, Director of Global Public Relations City of Rikuzentakata,Book Cover -2 sent me a book entitled For Our Children: Life in Rikuzentakata. The book, translated by Ms. Miller, gives a pictorial contrast of the life and activities of the city and its inhabitants before and after the tsunami completely laid waste to the entire community. The pictures and text provided me with reference points.

As I walked around the empty expanses of land, I observed the cement foundations of houses and businesses that once formed homes and shops.  The tsunami had literally razed the city to the ground. By the time I arrived in Rikuzentakata, the debris and the remains of destroyed buildings had long since been cleared away.

Belt Length-5The sights that greeted me during my first trip to Rikuzentakata were those of reconstruction. From the taxi window on that rain soaked first day of my trip, I could see the sleek conveyor belt wind its way over the land. On the following days, I saw all sorts of heavy equipment in the fields and in Hirota Bay:  backhoe loaders, bulldozers, compactors, cranes, and excavators. On the roads dump trucks in a continuous succession delivered dirt to different parts of the city. All of them formed an image in my mind — of a city undergoing  a rebirth.

I arrived as a tourist. I was a stranger in an unexplored land. Getting to know the residents, I knew, would take time. First, I had to learn about the environment in which they lived. I knew that people who worked in the primary industrial activities of agriculture and fishing would be wary of a city slicker from Yokohama by way of California. Also the operators of  small businesses would need time to accept a foreigner as a confidant before they opened up with their stories of coping with uncertain futures.

In my encounters with residents, I discovered they were more interested about me. Where did I come from? Why did I come?

Four Women

Four gracious women who served a delicious hot meal to a hungry traveler

Four Men 80014 Married? These and other questions permeated the fabric of our conversations. I suppose as an anthropologist, or a social worker, or a professional photojournalist working on an insightful story for National Geographic, I might have asked probing questions to get them to reveal their stories. However, at my age, I have softened my approach to people. Besides, I am not working against a deadline. Everyone has a story to tell, but they have to be ready to tell it at the right time — and to the right person.

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

03/11 — A Day of Remembering and Reflection

The Conveyor Belt

The wind was bitingly cold as I stepped into the taxi for the ride to the entrance to the Miracle Pine Ippon Matsu. Had it been a normal day, I would have stayed inside my hotel room with the heater set at a comfortable 26 degree C. But today was no ordinary day. At exactly 2:48 in the afternoon on this date in March 2011,  the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed wide swaths of the Tohoku Region of Japan.

The conveyor belt loomed large overhead as I walked toward the Miracle Pine. The belt stretches for 3 kilometres in length from a nearby mountain to its dumping location. The pillars at their highest reach 42 meters in height. The belt transports enough earth each hour from a nearby mountain to  fill 600 ten-ton dump trucks. The earth is being used to raise the level of the former downtown commercial and residential areas by 11 meters. The extra 11 meters in height could minimize the damage to lives and property in the event of another major tsunami.

On the way I climbed the steps to the observation platform built on an elevated mound overlooking the land and coastline undergoing construction. From that height I was able to capture a panoramic view of the conveyor belt. An engineering wonder of mammoth proportions and a testament to the commitment to rebuild.

The Miracle Pine

This was my second trip to the Miracle Pine Ippon Matsu. This time the sun came out from behind the clouds and I was able to shot some clear shots of the tree and its surrounding areas. Media people at first outnumbered the people who came to pay their respects or to take pictures of the tree. Some prayed in front of the tree. I experienced a strange sensation as I heard the warning siren sounding in the distance. It was barely audible as gusts of cold wind blew intermittently forcing me to pull my knit hat tighter over my ears.For one minute people bowed their heads in silent prayer. Out of respect, I stopped taking photos.  Even the workmen on the conveyor belt switched off its motor. A solemn one minute.


The following day while I was waiting for my room to be cleaned, I sat in the hotel lobby at a table with the laptop in front of me. For the longest time, I thought about the events of yesterday. I struggled to put them into words. Sitting at tables nearby was a group of two men and two women guests. I assumed they worked for a news media organization. One man had set down a large professional video camera on the floor next to him.  Yesterday, I observed large numbers of camera operators and news reporters. I envied them for the equipment they were using to capture the news event at 2:48 p.m.

So many cameras and so many media people clustered in groups in different locations — an unusual high level of coverage, I thought, for an event that took no longer than one minute.

Today, the event has become yesterday’s news. A van drove up to the entrance to the hotel. The group hefted their bags and camera and went outside. I watched as they loaded their baggage and equipment and then climbed inside. The van drove off — perhaps taking them to their next assignment.

From the hotel lobby window, I could see the conveyor belt and the dump trucks driving along the main roads.   Construction was proceeding as scheduled. And no doubt many Rikuzentakata residents had woken up earlier in the morning to face yet another day of uncertainty.

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Observation  and More Observations

Saturday, December 6 0830: I waited outside the hotel for my taxi to take me to the bus stop near the Rikuzentakata City Office for the first leg of my trip back to Yokohama. I took a final few photos of the view of Hirota Bay and the empty landscape below.

A middle-aged woman who was part of a tour group that had checked in the night before was standing next to me. “Looking cleaner,” she remarked in English. “Before the debris was piled up high everywhere you could see. And a lot of buildings remained half destroyed. A sad sight. When I first came, I cried. A lot of businesses and homes were destroyed. And a lot of people were killed.”

She lived in Tokyo and, like many Japanese, wondered how she could do her part in contributing to the recovery of the disaster areas. She said she had no particular skills. “I like to travel. I wanted to see with my own eyes the destruction. As a tourist I thought I could contribute something.”

Her story encapsulated one of the motivations for my trip to Rikuzentakata. I, too,  wanted to see ‘with my own eyes.’

The Chrysalis


In the first chapter of his book, Muneyuki Nakazawa, the violin maker who crafted two violins from the pine tree debris, described incidents from his early childhood growing up in a forest in the mountains in Hyogo Prefecture. His father played a profound role in his life and gave him a deep appreciation of  the natural environment in which they lived. One day his father told him about caterpillars. They were standing in a cabbage patch and his father held up a leaf filled with holes  — the result of caterpillars feasting on the cruciferous vegetable.

“The caterpillar is a remarkable insect,” his father explained. “When it is ready to be transformed into a butterfly, it creates a chrysalis. From the outside, it looks as if nothing is happening. In reality a transformation is taking place. From the chrysalis, a butterfly will emerge.”

I arrived in Rikuzentakata at a time while it is still undergoing a transformation.On December 1, 2014,  I stepped off at the bus stop near the Rikuzentakata City Offices in the rain. I looked around and saw the temporary structure the offices were housed in and then across the street at the Seven Eleven Convenience Store in what seemed like a recently constructed building.

If I had relied on  my creative faculties to come up with an opening sentence in a fictional story, I might have dredged up a statement out of a sci-fi B-movie script.

“Charles Borromeo stepped off the bus into the interior of the chrysalis.”


Rikuzentakata Trek Redux

 On March 9, 2015, three months after my first trip to Rikuzentakata, I stepped off the bus at the Rikuzentakata City Office bus stop — again in the rain. But this time I sensed something different — something exciting — something dynamic. Across the street behind the fire department I saw two new buildings. I made a note to learn more about them later. First, I needed to pick up odds and ends at the store before asking the clerk to call a taxi. Inside the store, I was surprised by the number of customers. On my first trip I was the only customer.

During the taxi ride to the hotel, I observed the progress the construction workers were making in elevating the land by 11 meters and landscaping the surface and sides to prevent erosion: their work no doubt complicated by the heavy rainfall and the blustery wind.

In the hotel, I was surprised to see the lobby filled with people. At every table people sat drinking coffee and seemed rapt in conversations.  One woman at a corner table was pounding the keys of her laptop with inspired fingers.

In my hotel room, I shed my clothes, changed into the pyjamas provided in each room, and practically sprinted to the hotel’s spa. Ah, the spa. The hot shower. The soak in the hot tub. And yes, even the looped Carpenter tunes were music to my ear. Somehow I felt as if I was back visiting a good friend.  I sang along with the Carpenter’s tune : “We’ve only just begun . . .”


Morning Walk

I decided to stay indoors on the first night. The rain and the blustery wind dampened my spirit to get out and explore. A good decision. That night NHK aired a documentary about Rikuzentakata. The program deepened my understanding of what I have been observing during my walks around the different districts of the city.

03/10 AM: After a solid breakfast, I decided to take a walk up the hill toward the Sports Dome in the Takata Machi section of Rikuzentakata. The rain had transformed rice fields into lakes, and the wind blew angrily through tree branches.

The fields inundated by heavy rain.

The fields inundated by heavy rain.

During my walk I came across houses with a variety of architectural styles.

The weather was getting chillier, so I decided to head back to the hotel. On the way, I spotted an unusual building that stood out from the earthen colors of rice fields and muddy roads. The building turned out to be a coffee shop and restaurant. I stopped in for a coffee and sat by the wood fire stove.  A relaxing atmosphere and I made up my mind to return here for my mid-morning coffee in the following days. The name of the coffee shop is Punenuma.

03/10 PM: Around 1:15 I took a taxi from the hotel to the NOKA Cafe Frying Pan for lunch. On the way, I asked the driver, a young man with an easy-going personality, questions about the buildings I saw as we drove along the road.I pointed to the old apartment building I could see from the hotel.

He explained the height of the tsunami reached the top of the building and continued inland until it started to lose its forward momentum around the vicinity where the EON Supermarket is located, which is approximately 3 or 4 kilometres from the sea.

Later in the afternoon on my way back to the hotel, I climbed up a hill and took photos of the land below. No wonder the tsunami could push inland with such unobstructed force. The land was practically level with the sea.

The land and sea seem to form one level lowland.

The land and sea seem to form one level lowland.

To be continued — March 11, 2015 at 2:48 in the afternoon

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Rikuzentakata Diary — Continued Day 4

0800: I was eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant when a Japanese couple stopped to talk on their way out.  The wife commented that I handled the chopsticks with dexterity. At which point a morsel of tofu slipped from the chopsticks’ iron grip. “Only if the food is not slippery,” I joked in embarrassment. They told me they had driven up from Saitama Prefecture. “Our third trip,” the wife said. “A lot of changes. You should have seen it when they were clearing away the debris.” “Did you come here shortly after the disaster?” I asked. “No, we couldn’t because the roads were blocked and only people with special passes could drive through. But after the roads opened up to regular traffic we took a trip through Rikuzentakata. There were still mountains of debris and they were tearing down buildings.” Eager to learn more, I invited them to join me, but the husband reminded his wife they still had packing to do before checking out. Too bad, I thought. They had seen Rikuzentakata in different stages of clean up and reconstruction. I arrived and have seen Rikuzentakata without any reference points to record the progress of reconstruction. My only reference points were YouTube photos and video clips.

0845: I decided to walk toward Yonegasaki, a direction I could see from my hotel room window.

The roads were muddy and I had to walk around puddles on sides of the road. I also had to watch out for the dump trucks driving over puddles on the road. Twice I was forced to step into soggy fields to avoid the splash of water. Though waterproof, my shoes somehow seeped water and dampened my heavy socks. But I was determined to squish my way forward.

0920:  I found a dirt road leading up to a clearing.Part 4 20003 Ladder up the Hill

On the left, I saw two houses with vegetable gardens and plants.  Farther upward the road led to another group of houses nestled among the trees. On the right I saw an old storage shed and a ladder leaning against an embankment.  I climbed up the ladder and discovered a sc50001 Two Housesenic view of Hirota Bay. As I shot videos and photos from this vantage point, I wondered if the people living in this isolated neighborhood clamoured up here to watch the tsunami surge inland.

I packed up the camera gear and climbed back down the ladder. Little did I know that a deer was observing my awkward descent. I must have interrupted her morning snack of garden grown fresh vegetables.  She looked at me, more perturbed than wary, before scampering off .

Deer perturbed

The perturbed deer

1030:  On the way back in the direction of the hotel, I saw a monument in a field near the road. As I trudged over the rain-soaked ground, a construction worker on his way to an excavator saw me and shouted, “Where you from?” He had a sun brown, wrinkled face encased in a hood covered by a hard hat. He looked to be in his early sixties. I told him and answered his follow up question of where I lived.  “Yokohama.”

“Thank you for coming.” A smile smoothed away a few of the his facial wrinkles. Obviously, he spent most of his working life outdoors. This was the second time someone had thanked me for coming up to Rikuzentakata — the taxi driver on the first day and now this construction worker.  He was about to continue walking toward the excavator when I asked him if I could take his picture. “Wait,” he said and ran to get his workmates.

Four Men 80014

Five Workmen welcoming a break for a photo op

1040: I took photos of the memorial stone.The inscription in brief stated that originally a 4.5 meter high statue of a Buddhist  Memorial Stonebodhisattva (who looked after children and travellers), had been erected in honor of Sandayu Niinuma, the sixth generation owner of the  Manninseshuku Inn located on this particular field. During the frequent famines that took place between 1830 and 1844, he opened the inn to the those who were suffering from hunger and deprivation and to travellers. The tsunami destroyed the bodhisattva statue. In its place, the Tokyo Association of Architectural Firms erected the memorial stone in support of the restoration of the memorial and the city.

1115: I reached a cross street where I found a sign with the familiar logo of a supermarket chain with stores nationwide including the one near my apartment in Yokohama. I could do a little shopping there and buy fruit and snacks for those in between meal hunger pangs.  I picked a narrow dirt road that paralleled the main highway on the way to the supermarket and the other shops. Quite a contrast! SupermarketSauntering along the dirt road I saw fields and heard the rippling flow of water. I had an unobstructed view of distant hills and mountains and I stopped from time to time to take in scenery.

In Yokohama, I often take the train to the supermarket. Outside the train windows, I see only densely packed buildings interrupted by a park and then more densely packed buildings. The buildings block the view beyond. Only the sky is visible above the roofs. In an urban environment, the view seems barely to extend beyond the nose.

Of course, sights not prevalent in Yokohama were the remains of the foundations of homes that once occupied the open fields. Somber scenes left in the wake of a wave that destroyed the lives and happiness of residents who had lived this neighborhood. Would they ever return to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives?

1230: I arrived at the supermarket, exhausted and ready to take a rest. Inside, the supermarket took on a familiarity. The meat counter was where it should be. The vegetables and fruits were easily found. I loaded a shopping basket with bananas, snacks, and sandwich meat. I was about amble over to the cashier when I heard a woman’s voice call out in English. “Do you like mikan?” In her hand covered with a disposable glove, she held out  peeled slices. “Try  one. It’s sweet.” She must have been in her late thirties or early forties. Dressed in the supermarket’s uniform, she had a smile that filled her entire face. Slightly bewildered by her exuberance and naturalness of the English language, I accepted one slice and bit into it. “Delicious,” I said. “On sale!” she said and proffered a net filled with mikans. I put the net into my basket and asked her a series of questions. “Where did you learn English?” “In school.” “Ever travelled overseas?” “I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston.” The ring on her finger indicated she was married. However, I didn’t get much chance to pursue forward with more questions. Other customers stopped and she went into her spiel in Japanese. And then an elderly woman hard of hearing asked her where she could find curry powder. The sales lady took the elderly woman by the arm to guide her to the spice counter. I walked to the checkout counter to pay for my groceries, after which  I went to the alcoholic beverage section to pick up a few cans of my favorite beer. When I hefted the rucksack filled with camera equipment and provisions on my back for the hike to the hotel, I regretted my enthusiasm to load up with the in-between-meal drinks and snacks. At the exit, the electric doors opened and I was about to step outside when the sales lady cried out: “Thank you for coming. Come again!” I turned and waved a goodbye to her. She beamed back a smile, and somehow my rucksack did not feel quite as heavy. I left the store and hiked back to the hotel.

Part 4 20039 Tangerines

Mikan that remind me of the beaming smile of the woman in the supermarket

1430:  In my hotel room, I dropped my rucksack on my bed and plopped down beside it. I unlaced my shoes and removed my wet socks.  The plan for the rest of the day was to soak in the hotel spa and to take a lengthy nap before dinner.  I wanted to make sure I recharged my  batteries to write up later that night the draft of an outline for my observations and conclusions.

2300: I read the words to the methodology I would follow in the iBook version of my first trip to Rikuzentakata. I based the  storyline on the lessons I gleaned from Muneyuki Nakazawa’s book.

Nakazawa was born in 1940 in a forest  in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture. As a boy growing up, he woke up and saw the morning sun shining through the tree leaves. He could hear the river flowing nearby his home — the river where he and his friends fished and swam. Like many children growing up in a natural environment, he was curious about and familiar with the animals and insects he observed in his daily boyhood life. His father, who worked as a tree farmer, exerted a profound influence on him.  While helping his father care for and cut the trees, he gained the knowledge to evaluate the texture and quality of trees that would help him later in life as a violin maker.

Inspiration for the Rikuzentaka storyline Three incidents from Nakazawa’s book provided the model for the storyline.

Violinmaker1. His father explained the transformation of a caterpillar inside the chrysalis into a butterfly. Lesson: What appears to have died is merely transforming into something new

2. His father acted as a guarantor for a loan made by a friend. However, the friend was unable to pay back the loan and Nakazawa’s father in paying back the loan lost his property and money forcing him and his family into a poverty-stricken life. Depressed, his father considered murdering his wife and 8 children and then committing suicide. But when he saw the sleeping face of his son, he changed his mind. Instead, he hit upon the idea of constructing a water wheel. Once constructed he could build a lumber mill and thus create a new business that would help support him and his family. Lesson: With determination, people can rebuild something new from the wreckage in their lives.

3. After the finishing the construction of the water wheel, his father often played the violin at nights after dinner. The young Nakazawa and his siblings joined in by singing the songs he father played. Significant in this scenario is that his father made the violin himself. This encouraged the eight-year old Nakazawa to learn from his father and make his first violin. Lesson: Parents through their care and nurturing lay the foundation for the future of their children.

2315: Exhausted, I reviewed in my mind what I needed to accomplish on Day 5. 1) To collate the photos and videos and 2) to write a storyline based on the three points from Nakazawa’s book. There must have been something else, but I was too tired to force my mind to keep functioning. I fell asleep without turning out the light.

To be concluded (Observations and Conclusions)