Last days in Ofunato. Tsunami relief.

by | Sep 14, 2011 | Clowns Without Borders

Ofunato Day 5

Japanese tradition dictates the form for our school shows and workshops, more so in the elementary schools than the child care centers. We are often received at the door by the vice principal, who then brings us up to the principal’s office where we have a brief formal meeting, bows and all. Then we are invited to go and perform. After our time with the children, we are again accompanied by the vice principal to the principal’s office where we are offered coffee or tea, and a little snack. The principal often comes to see us in action, and they usually have a big beaming smile as they watch the kids’ exuberant response to the shows.

Today is day 5 up here in Ofunato.  I’ve lost count of how many shows and workshops we have done, about 10 or 12 so far. Our audiences range from small groups of 30 preschoolers to yesterday’s very excited 200 plus elementary school kids. Often we have an hour time slot in which Guy and I perform and then offer a short workshop, or what we are calling playtime (depending on the age range).  During those times it is quite easy to forget what has brought us here, and that is a good thing. The kids are transported, and so are we. As I type an earthquake rumble startles me. It is just a rumble that lasts about 20 seconds. It is the first I have felt here, yet it is leaves me with a strong unsettled feeling.  It is not nearly as strong as the shaking I felt in the earthquake the day before we left Tokyo.  One can’t help but assume that the rumble stirs up much more powerful feelings in the people living here.

It brings me back to what put my hands to the keyboard, a comment by the school principal yesterday, during our after show talk.  During our extended discussion he explained the schools situation: 4 schools were sharing his campus, a lot of the kids traveling from outlying areas. Indeed as we talk I see 4 or 5 big buses arriving in the parking lot below as the school day is about over. The topic of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is brought up.  It was suggested early on when we arrived (I can’t remember by whom) that PTSD was not part of the recovery conversation in the schools.  Yet in every school principal meeting, when the topic is brought up by Guy or Keiko, it is clear that everyone is very aware of it, and they unfortunately are often remarking that they are observing it’s behavioral effects on the children.  If the schools are equipped, or have capacity to resolve these issues is another matter.

It is about then that the principal says, “A lot of children are still waiting for their parents to come home.” He continues on talking in Japanese as Guy translates this comment to me before returning his attention to the conversation. I am quite stunned.  The breadth of this event continues to expand its reach beyond the physical destruction and devastation. In my rational mind, I know it is part of the human fabric of life, and that similar tragedies are strewn around our world.  But no amount of logic can explain it away, or dissolve these children’s’ wishes.  My respect for the principal, not to mention all the teachers grows one thousand fold as he continues to discuss how they are coping and moving forward with life.  Not only are they undoubtedly dealing with personal tragedies (this is the hardest hit area, and most have lost immediate family members as well as countless friends) but their powerful resolve to care and carry the children forward is true testimony to how high and deep we can reach in our daily lives.

Ofunato Day 6 or is it 7

Losing count of the days, which isn’t a bad thing.  Really it feels like a few weeks of being immersed in this reality.  Yesterday we had only one show and workshop, but oh what a time it was.  It was the first time that there were adults (beyond school staff) in the audience. Along with about 50 students (3 rd grade) there were an equal number of grandparents!  The show took place in the huge beautiful gymnasium of the Ofunato Elementary School. As usual we are on a strict time schedule. Guy and I look at the clock at the end of the show, we have 12 minutes for workshop time. Just enough time for a little fun and games with juggling scarves, working both challenging their skills and looking to open up their funny.

The Gymnasium takes on a lot of beauty as elders and youth mix it up with colorful scarves flying everywhere, kids in complete delight, grandparents after initial hesitations, joining in the fun. Guy and I are improvising what we ask them to do.  We haven’t had the opportunity to work with such a group before. We ask them to take partners, grandparents and grandkids, and ask them to pass scarves between them. Big excitement, lots of loving fun.  With only a few minutes to go,  Keiko comes by to tell us that they are giving us more time but she doesn’t know how much.  A little bit of confusion in the mix as Guy and I agree that I should lead them into some mime exercises. Soon they are all playing with their hand being stuck as they try to walk away. I am asking them to play their funny, tanoshkata.  Indeed a good number dig into it, as one might expect the kids more than the elders. However in some cases I see the grandparents offering the example to the kids.

In our meeting with the principal afterwards, his body language is completely open and excited. He shares a clapping game with us. It turns out that he is a specialist in recreation His shining smile is quite a contrast to the more somber looking black and white photos lining the walls of all the past principals. In every principal’s office there is a line of photos along the top of the wall, often circumnavigating the room, depicting the lineage. Although they are formal posed portraits most with stern faces, there are always at least a few with bright shining eyes.  With each visit, we continually witness the love and care that the staff feels for their students. A reminder of what is cherished and shared by so many, not just here, but I imagine everywhere.

Last Day in Ofunato

The shinkansen super fast train is speeding down the tracks back towards Tokyo.  On the i-pod headphones John Coltrane is taking giant steps as beyond the window the density of big city lights is increasing.  It seems like just moments ago we were driving over the coastal mountains in pitch black on hair pin turns with the occasional farm house sending dim flares into the sky. The day’s shows and workshops still resonate strongly as the city lights of Sendai seem like some futuristic movie set. It’s the small fishing towns, the coves and harbors of Iwate that remain as cinematic images, slowly fading into the past.  There is no way that the mountains of debris; the fields of pummeled cars or the countless damaged dwellings can be so easily chased away.

Nor can the beautiful smiles of the children or their giddy laughter fade from view. On the contrary they will fuel a sense of joy inside, just knowing that I have touched one or two. How could I ever forget the shared complicity with that one tall 11 year old girl in purple, straight faced through the entire show, and half a workshop, who finally broke into a smile and small laugh when her classmate totally goofed crashing into an imaginary wall.  She quickly covered her mouth with her hands as our eyes met, and though she could cover her mouth, her shining eyes did not dim. Her too quiet adult like demeanor finally broken by a short spurt of joyous delight and as our eyes met, together we smiled. I have no clue as to the reasons behind her reserve nor do I have any delusions thinking that I may have healed some deep pain. However I feel good knowing that her inner light flashed bright nor will I underestimate the offerings we bring.  I know that their laughter resonating through the school hallways carries wisps of better days to come.

Guy and I chased away any sense of exhaustion from our string of Tohoku days as we dove into two shows and two workshops. The first for the youngest audience yet, some 30 1 to 3 year olds in a pre-school temporarily housed on the ground floor of a dim grey concrete apartment building.  We offered our most gentle side with slight tinges of slapstick and foolishness in our play. The older kids took to us with great curiosity, and when they recognized our intent in our play they fully joined into our fun. The youngest were far more cautious in their embrace yet they stayed focused with wide-eyed gazes of curiosity taking in the strange new sights.

In the afternoon we play for an entire elementary school, yet again in a large gymnasium. The laughter, if not as explosive as they day before, is still quite generous as the kids embrace our every suggestion of funny.  We follow it with two back-to-back 45-minute workshops opening up the kids’ sense of funny.  The school principal, and several vice principals keep dropping by the workshops to check in on the action. Their reactions leave no doubt about the success of our activities. When one of the vice principals joins in, interacting with the kids helping them to explore our mime and scarf juggling games, I know that we have broken through another barrier.

The train stops in the middle of a sea of bright streetlights.  The train station is Fukushima. The day’s fun evaporates into the present reality.  The city is well inland from the troubled coastal nuclear plants. Still it forces me to leave the town of Ofunato behind, to close my eyes and wish for better days ahead.  This story is quickly coming to a close, Tokyo less than an hour away.  We pass a shopping center where one the storefronts has a big purple sign, with white lettering stating the store’s name-“Love, Love.”  Ah Japan, no clue what they sell there but I doubt it is truly anything like the love I hold in my heart as I move further into life.

Any illusion of a poetic ending to the Tohoku experience is quickly broken as Tokyo nears. I can’t say when it begins but suddenly the train has plunged into a never ending city of late night lights spread out deep into the night; skyscraper towers adorned with every conceivable kind of electric and electronic color signs, sometimes seemingly scaling tall buildings. The Tohoku reality is truly shattered after taking a forever escalator down into the bowels of Tokyo station.

At the electronic ticket gates, a grey uniformed woman is screaming almost non stop full of verve down the empty hallways, something in Japanese along the lines of “Hurry up the Shinkansen bound for Shinjiku is about to leave.” She keeps repeating her message addressing non-existent travelers obviously worried about missing their train. The real shocker though comes when we enter the subway area which is full of late night business men and women loudly and gaily chattering away as they get ready to head home after their post work drinking sessions. Many faces show palpable signs of alcohol consumption, and their voices cadence is full and excited. Compared to the quiet of our late night shinkansen, the contrast is once again stark.

When I think back to the last 10 days of Ofunato time, our little bungalow high over the cliffs looking down on the ocean, our daily rides past never ending mountains of debris of lost lives, homes and livelihoods, it is truly hard to believe that this place is on the same planet, let alone the same country.  Tired eyes as I type at the kitchen table of Guy’s house. It’s 1 am and Suzuyo, and 5 year old Tanochan will be opening the sliding door at 6:30 in the morning. I have good reason to hope that Tano won’t be going to pound on his small size drum kit set up right behind me, but you never know, it might be just what I need to plant my feet back on the ground.

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