Sunday, 18 April 2021

Julian Sedgwick on Tsunami Girl

Julian Sedgwick is the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including the Mysterium and Ghosts of Shanghai trilogies, and co-author of the Carnegie shortlisted  Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black. He combines writing with his work as a Zen shiatsu therapist, and has a lifelong interest in the cultures and folklore of East Asia. Tsunami Girl is the product of a four year long engagement with communities in Fukushima prefecture affected by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake, tsunami and radiation disaster.

Tsunami Girl is a part prose, part manga novel for young adults (and above!) telling the story of Yūki Hara-Jones, a 15 year old girl caught up in the 2011 disaster. Yūki is only a quarter Japanese, but lives for her annual trips to Japan to spend time with her award-winning manga artist grandfather. Grandpa Jiro has long since stopped drawing his manga, but he still encourages Yūki in her own creative imagination. As the events of the tsunami and radiation disaster unfold, Yūki has to use those inner creative resources to survive and rediscover a way to live. The manga and prose intertwine two different ways of telling that story.

So, over to Julian...

We have just passed the tenth anniversary of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami disaster. Up and down the North East Japan coast the survivors and bereaved of this colossal natural disaster have been thinking, memorialising and processing the events of March 11th 2011. For some, there has been healing and forward movement, while others are still held by the shock and trauma of the disaster that killed almost 20,000 people. 

But for the residents of towns around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant there is yet another, third, dimension to the disaster: the nuclear radiation fallout that followed three partial meltdowns at the power station. Some towns and villages remain inside the evacuation or ‘difficult-to-return’ zone set up after the accident, whilst others are slowly starting to re-open to returning residents. Processing and recovery here have taken a lot longer due to the practical problems of the contamination of the land.

And yet . . .

What has inspired me over and over again to continue the researching and writing of Tsunami Girl is the extraordinary optimism and forward-looking nature of the people of these communities. The people of Odaka, Fukushima - who I have been visiting and corresponding with over the last three years - have never tried to hide the pain and difficulties of their lives, but also have been keen to champion the hope that they feel for the future. There is as much laughter as pain, as much joy as heart-searching. Whilst there is still anger, that has never descended in my friends into self-pity. How have they managed this optimism and hope in the face of such odds? And are there any takeaway lessons for how we manage the current global pandemic? 

It was a cold March day shortly after the 7th anniversary of the disaster when I arrived in Odaka for the first time. My contact took me to meet returning residents in the improvised pop-up social hub in the middle of town. Immediately the bleakness of the empty roads of the exclusion zone gave way to warmth, and laughter and a sense of home. We sipped green tea, and I asked my first tentative questions about what life was like now.  Almost the first answer I got from Yuko-san – the driving force behind the pop-up hub – was the fact that they she and the other returnees were not trying to rebuild the old community, but rather to construct a new one. Perhaps even a better one: more interconnected, social, greener and flexible in ways of doing things. And indeed, over the following three years, I have seen how life in the town has focussed around new start-up businesses, events, community activity. Tomoko Kobayashi – who is the fourth-generation owner of a nearby  Japanese style inn – is as much skilled now at community radiation monitoring and nuclear science, as she always was in hosting and feeding visitors to her ryokan. New skills, new experiences, new incomers to the town have enriched lives, as much as the trauma and loss of 2011 have damaged it. 

Another thing that struck me on my very first chilly day in Odaka: how unique each person’s experience of the disaster was. For every survivor there is a different experience and set of memories. Tomoko-san, for example, still felt OK about looking out at the Pacific Ocean, whereas Yuko-san – who took me to the low hill she ran to escaping the tsunami – could hardly bear to look in the direction of the waves. Whilst everybody’s confidence has been shaken to some degree, it is different for every person who experienced the quake, wave and meltdown. And, for some, creative and imaginative responses have been vital, from poetry to art to writing ghost stories . . . 

The North East of Japan – a region known as Tōhoku – has long been an area rich in ghost stories and yōkai monsters. Often seen as a rural and poorer part of the country, its development lagged behind the modernization of the late 19th and 20th centuries. But its rich culture and folklore has remained distinct, and the intensity of its ‘otherworldly-ness’ still to be found. The Tales of Tono – collected and retold by Kunio Yanagita – remain a Grimm’s Fairy Tales equivalent for Japan, depicting strange and bizarre events in Tono, Iwate. Further north, sulphurous and volcanic Osorezan – or Mount Fear – marks the point where souls cross over to the other world after death. A handful of blind mediums can still be found there, as can thousands of Jizo statues placed to help those souls find peace. It is perhaps not surprising that such a haunted place as Tohoku should sprout so many ghost stories after a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. 

Soon after the tsunami dozens of reports started to surface of taxis picking up passengers who wanted to be taken to areas destroyed by the wave. When the driver started to feel there was something strange going on, they looked round to find the back seat empty. Spectral figures were spotted walking the damaged roads at night. Firefighters were repeatedly called to houses that were no longer there – they offered prayers and the calls ceased. So startling was the number of stories that a local university professor of sociology and his graduate students started to collect and study them. Some survivors have taken part in ghost story writing clubs, turning their own experiences into short stories as a kind of group therapy.

I tried to imagine Yūki’s experience as fully as I could, working in as much first and second hand testimony as possible, until she came to life in my mind. Together with my Japanese sensitivity reader (who had done listening volunteering with survivors immediately after the disaster), and Chie Kutsuwada, who brilliantly has brought the manga portions of the novel to life, we tried to create a story that did justice to the disaster and its aftermath. Yūki’s deep imagination, her collection of cultural fragments of East and West, her friendships and family and hopes and fears all work together to summon the world of Tsunami Girl, and her own creative vision of a small, but indomitable super hero called Half Wave.

I hope the book does justice to its background and inspirations. There is always complexity and nuance behind the headlines and cliches in any news event. Even with ghosts . . .

In Tomoko’s case I asked her if she had seen any of the ghosts after the disaster. We were sitting in the warmth of the recently reconstructed and re-opened sushi restaurant in Odaka as the cold and darkness swirled around the still largely uninhabited town. She laughed and shook her head. ‘No, but it’s funny. We used to have ghost in the inn. We could hear him walking around upstairs often when there was no-one up there.’ She looked up as if listening and mimed the walking action. ‘But ever since the tsunami we haven’t heard him once. Maybe the disaster frightened him away.’ 

That moment – and many other conversations which combined down-to-earth humour, flexibility, playfulness, warmth and a sense of togetherness – showed me how these communities have coped with the disaster, and maybe offer a strategy for us all now.