11 March ~ 16 March
Project Yume, it all started from the biggest earthquake, the costliest natural disaster that ever happened to Japan on 11 March 2011. I was sitting in a café when the earthquake shook the entire northeastern part of Japan, pummelled gigantic tsunami waves that swallowed up the coastal towns of Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures. Just as we were watching the news in disbelief, little did we know that more drama were to be unfolded as the nuclear plants at Fukushima Prefecture became dysfunctional due to the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the cooling systems. Within a few days, suspicions of a nuclear leakage created mayhem and paranoia in people’s minds. To add insult to injury, food and gasoline were running low on supplies, as water was later found to be contaminated by radiation. Convenience stores were gradually emptied day by day as the future looked bleaker as every day passed. Foreigners living in Japan fled in throngs, in paranoia, or by order of their countries.
I was one of them, though I had something else in mind. I wanted to stay and do my part to help in this disaster (as a translator or something), but the situation was worse than I had expected. Even the rescue teams from foreign countries were struggling to stabilize the situation. The wreckage born from this disaster was too much for any proper base to be set up for volunteers and so all applications for volunteers were turned down. Since I could do nothing about it, and I had my own life to protect, I decided to leave the country for the time being.
I arrived back in Singapore, with a mixture of emotions- relief, but discomfort of not being able to do anything took up the bulk of my feelings. I had contacted Peter Draw, a Singaporean artist who draws for charity who happens to be a friend of mine, a few days before. He arrived back in Singapore on the same day from South Africa, and we agreed to meet up and come up with a project. We know we are not heroes and I, especially, am largely limited in doing anything significant. What we need is support from people, lots of people, and so we tried to contact various people who might be willing to help us out. Peter has a long list of contacts whereas I looked up my little list and this was where it all began.
On the first day, we visited the Japanese Association of Singapore to look for any contacts to kickstart the project. I know Japan all too well. We cannot just enter the country and start a project without any connections. To my surprise, Ms. Mitsuyasu at the Japanese Association recognized me from five years ago because I used to take part in various activities at the association in my high school years. We did not manage to get much information, since the situation then was still as chaotic, and the Japanese Association probably was not the right place at all. We then discussed at a cafeteria what to do. Peter showed me a newspaper article of the massive destruction of Rikuzentakata town of Iwate Prefecture and how almost 40% of the entire population of the town had perished or gone missing. The mayor had lost his wife too. Instead of getting depressed over what happened to the little town, the following line that came out of Peter’s mouth broke my train of thoughts, “We are going to this place.” I checked out the number for the town council and called them, with the lingering uncertainty of what and why I was doing so. In the end, the line was cut off and we could not call through. Not surprising, considering how they can hardly manage themselves currently, let alone entertain foreigners like us. We then dialled several other organizations and embassy but the only conclusion we arrived at that day was, there was no way we could get into the affected regions, both for legal reasons and for our own safety reasons. We have to do with what we have in hand, but not delay any further. The Japanese proverb, “Zen wa isoge” (Rush when you are doing charity) explains it all. We were all ready to fly back to Tokyo.
With support from professors, friends and fellow believers in this project, we will go around elementary schools in Tokyo, gathering children to draw pictures and well-wishing messages for the children in Miyagi Prefecture. After gathering all these drawings and messages, we would head to Miyagi Prefecture, show them the support from their country and the world. After being inspired and encouraged, we would like the children in Miyagi Prefecture to draw pictures of their dreams, as an encouragement for them not to give up on their dreams. All these pictures and well-wishing messages will be compiled into a book, which will be published in Singapore and Japan. All proceeds will go a long way to the rebuilding of Miyagi Prefecture and more importantly, the lives of the affected children.
On the first day I arrived back in Japan, with the faintest of hopes, I mailed two professors whom I hardly know. Professor Baba, a senior researcher of education in the Ministry of Education, and Professor Kanamori, a professor at Hokuriku Gakuin University, who is famous for his unique style of children education.
Surprise, surprise. Within five hours, Professor Baba replied an email full of zest and enthusiasm, saying he was touched by our project, and was willing to do his best to help us. I was touched too. I met Professor Baba through a volunteer trip with Singapore Kindness movement when they came to Japan. I was not paid for it, so I could have chosen not to take part. Partly because I was free, and partly because I was interested on what they were researching on, I took my time off and joined Singapore Kindness Movement, and there I met Professor Baba, the first and last time. Never did I expect to meet him again then, but after two correspondences of emails, we were set to meet up in two hours. Zen wa isoge…
More surprise unfolded in front of my eyes when Professor Baba revealed his true identity. He used to be a school principal and had connections with elementary schools all over Tokyo, and other parts of Japan. Our project got off to a flying start. After hearing our proposal and plans, he added some comments and advices, before naming us several elementary schools that we could visit. That night, he invited us to a small bar opened by his son, and spent the night chatting with his son, wife and daughter, while indulging in Japanese izakaya food, Japanese wine and beer.
Thanks to Mika, a friend of Peter, we received information about Saitama Super Arena, that was converted into an evacuation centre for refugees who fled their homes in Fukushima. There had been reports about buskers and volunteers helping out at Super Arena in the papers, so we decided to take a trip down.
At the headquarters at Super Arena, the in-charge told me we were not allowed to enter the evacuation centre but we were free to do our activities outside, and so without further delay, we set up our little corner, took out some drawing boards and crayons and started looking for children to draw. It had not started well, as we did not know how to approach the families, and also we could not differentiate the volunteers from the refugees. However, thanks to the help of several fellow volunteers at the evacuation centre, we managed to settle down quickly and kickstart our little project. Once a kid joins us, other kids start to lose their battle against curiosity. More children came.
We met a German reporter, a Japanese Nikkan Sports reporter, massage therapist volunteers, unicycle stuntment, clowns and many more. The Nikkan Sports reporter, Sawano, was especially interested in what we were doing. He stayed close to us and asked us many questions and I was kept occupied translating for Peter and Sawano. But our efforts were not going to waste. We appeared in a small column of Nikkan Sports the following day. And he invited us to his house in Kamakura the following week.
Like I said, in Japan, we need connections. We were building up a small network.
We visited a kindergarden opened by the wife of Professor Baba, and an elementary school introduced by him. We met children for the first time in this trip and had a good time playing with the children. These children had little or no direct effects from the earthquake or tsunami, but merely children of families living in Tokyo. Nonetheless, we taught them the importance of caring and kindness. Their little cute drawings made our day.
31 March ~ 3 April
The next few days were spent visiting schools and talking to teachers and principals about our project, all introduced by Professor Baba. Without him, our project might still have stayed at status quo from the start. Gratitude accumulated in our hearts.
We also visited Tokyo Big Site evacuation centre and Tokyo Budokan evacuation centre but in both scenarios, they had a different policy from Saitama Super Arena, so we could not carry out our plans. However, the day after we were chased out of Tokyo Budokan for carrying out our activities even after being rejected, we headed off to Ueno Park in pursuit of the little glimpse of hope of getting even a little artpiece from children. To our surprise, Ueno Park was bustling with hanami-lovers. An awkwardly joyous mood in the midst of huge disasters just a few hundred kilometres away. Life goes on. We managed to get several drawings at Ueno Park and that marked the temporary end to the first phase of our project, as Peter has to head back to Singapore for reservist for the next two weeks.
Still a long way to go, but we are garnering more and more support from various people- professors and friends. Professor Kanamori replied a few days later, saying he would help us. Friends from Taiwan and Japan who share the same belief and driven by the same motivation came to us.
Step by step, let’s make this a success.