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Foreign Volunteers Japan – Thoughts on Leaving or Staying in Japan – One Year Later

Thoughts on Leaving or Staying in Japan – One Year Later

by Shaun ODwyer on Sunday, 11 March 2012 at 10:17

A portable shrine made of tsunami debris, carried by On The Road NPO volunteers during the Kawabiraki Festival in Ishinomaki, August 1st 2011.

A portable shrine made of tsunami debris, carried by On The Road NPO volunteers during the Kawabiraki Festival in Ishinomaki, August 1st 2011.

Almost a year ago, a few days after the tsunami hit Tohoku and the Fukushima Daiichi Plant started to go into meltdown, I quoted to my friends and family part of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in Germany in the years following the First World War:

The sap is mounting back from that unseenness

Darkly renewing in the common deep

Back to the light and feeding that pure greenness

Hiding in rinds round which the winds still weep.

The inner side of nature is turning

Another sursum corda will resound;

Invisibly, a whole year’s youth is striving

To climb those limbs that looked so iron bound.

I first read that part of the poem as a student. Turning those words over in my mind in the days following 03/11, I felt I could keep at bay the horrifying images of destruction being broadcast from the north, and the frightening news from Fukushima. And I was even more moved by the poem’s message of hope and renewal after desolation. However, I knew there was one more stanza in that poem, and I have been thinking about it lately as well:

Preserving still that grey and cool expression,

The ancient walnut’s filling with event;

While the sapling trembles with repression

Under the perching bird’s presentiment.

Those last two enigmatic lines strike a discordant note, even souring the emotional tone of the poem. How to reconcile the growing exultation of its first two stanzas with the comedown of its last lines? Over the years I wondered what they meant. That even in nature’s renewal we have to expect suffering and loss? Or – and this was a more literal interpretation that occurred to me in the past year – that in the renewal of the old and firmly established, genuine youth can be overshadowed?

Like many foreigners and Japanese, I hoped a year ago that in the wake of the tsunami’s devastation there was a chance to reform Japan’s society and economy, beginning with the rebuilding of Tohoku. During my times as a volunteer in Ishinomaki City working alongside students from my university, I have been proud to play a small role in activities which will bring about local renewal. I have seen Japanese and international NPO’s working together with the citizens of devastated communities to clean and rebuild their towns, and to lay out strategies for their economic and civic future. And as long as I keep my thoughts fixed on the tremendous work being done by people I have come to know and respect, then I can believe “another sursum corda will resound”. But I can’t wish away the disconnect between those local activities and the lack of a national vision for reconstruction. The Japanese government is too weakened by factional troubles and a petty zero-sum struggle for power with the opposition to do much more than offer large sums of money for reconstruction. At the same time, prefectural and local governments cannot arrive at a consensus about where and how to spend that money rebuilding their communities. So for the foreseeable future, hundreds of thousands of Tohoku people will remain in cramped, uncomfortable temporary housing, often far from their home towns and friends.

One of the saddest dilemmas for reconstruction is presented by the traumatized, mostly elderly residents of the wrecked rural and fishing towns along the coast of Tohoku. Many quite naturally want to preserve as much as possible of their traditional way of life. They have had the numbers to vote down urban consolidation measures that would see dying villages abandoned and they oppose liberalizing reforms to the heavily protected but declining agriculture and fisheries sectors. The dilemma is that in exercising their democratic rights they are trying to restore a status quo that was already demographically and economically unviable before 03/11. Even worse, their choices will help speed up the migration of young people from Tohoku for better opportunities in the south. This is a microcosm of what some of my students have called Japan’s silver democracy: that the conservatism of elderly voters hoping to renew the “old and firmly established” will overshadow economic reforms needed to secure the future for Japanese youth. So yes, there are those words from that last stanza of Rilke’s poem turning over in my mind.

That overshadowed future is what I worry about when I think of my daughter’s life in this country. A year ago I was preoccupied by other thoughts  – that she would be poisoned in utero by iodine 131 blown out from Fukushima Daiichi. Given what we now know of Tokyo Electric’s unbelievable proposal to evacuate its staff from that plant on the 14th of March, and of then secret government fears of what was likely to happen following such an evacuation, my anxiety was not irrational. However, my fear for Japan’s society now is that, even after experiencing the terrible shocks of the tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, it will remain too wedded to an inflexible economic nationalism to accept readily “foreign-looking” reform ideas; that its political classes are too factionalized to make a forceful case for such reforms; and that at a deeper level, habits of excessive loyalty and deference to authority will remain fixed in its civic, educational and business life.

In the next few decades this society might just waste its tremendous economic and intellectual capital, muddle through without taking on the risks of reform, and gradually expose its poor, its unemployed youth and its frail elderly to greater poverty and social isolation as it runs down the revenue needed to fund their welfare needs. Beginning, I am afraid, with Tohoku, where the tsunami shattered the community life of its elderly people and blighted the already narrow employment and life opportunities of its youth. In my volunteer work in Ishinomaki I have tried to give something back to a society which, for all the faults I have listed, has still been very good to me. I don’t feel confident that it will be as good for my daughter and her generation.

I don’t want to finish on such a negative note. I began with a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke, and I will finish with some words from Maruyama Masao, Japan’s greatest post-war political thinker, who as it turns out was a lover of German poetry and literature. A critic of Japan’s wartime political system and an advocate of individualism, his thought went out of fashion during the heyday of Japan’s economic nationalism after 1960. What he wrote in his essay “Being and Doing” just before 1960 still reads like a promise awaiting fulfillment, and points to the renewal of a civic activism that I believe is the way forward for Japan’s recovery: “The application of the standard of democratization as “doing” is, that leaders will provide unstinting service to citizens and society, and citizens will check their leaders for rights abuses and critically monitor their conduct”.


Shaun O’Dwyer is a research associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, Tokyo.  He has a DPhil in philosophy and womens studies, University of New South Wales, Sydney.  He has been added to the FVJ blog as a guest editor, so please feel to write questions directly to him. 


  1. Clive France says:

    Thank you for articulating very well the concerns that many people in this country have about the ineffectiveness of government, both national and local, and the problems that Japan’s ageing society face.

  2. Andrew says:


  3. Herbert says:

    Excellent prose and poetry. It is somewhat saddening to think that although volunteers and locals are putting in a lot of effort in now to rebuild the lives of the Tohoku residents, it may all be for naught later down the line if the “silver” generation won’t compromise on their vision of the future. Are we building structures that will later be part of a massive ghost town when there’s no young generation left to replace the last?

    What can NPOs and other volunteer organizations do to influence the politics of the region, or will there be no official stance until more progress has been achieved?

    • Shaun O'Dwyer says:

      Herbert – I’m sure there are NPO leaders and experienced hands who can answer your question better than me. I’ll put in my 2 cents and try and answer your question anyway! I think there is scope for NPO’s and other volunteer groups to work for and publicize rebuilding projects and local business initiatives, and to advocate on behalf of evacuees and survivors overlooked by government agencies. But when disputes arise, as I’ve heard has been the case between residents’ groups and local governments over rebuilding plans and locations…well it could be tricky. Emotionally, I’m on side with ordinary people wanting to rebuild their lives the way they want, but there are complicating wider issues like the ones I mentioned above. I imagine foreign NPO’s and volunteers need to think carefully and make sure they’re very embedded locally before they start getting mixed up in these disputes.

      Then there are the bigger political issues to do with competing “visions for the future”. Rebuilt infrastructure apart, I think one part of that vision everyone can agree on is a better demographic balance, with more young families and more wealth generating and tax paying workers who can also provide community and financial support for the elderly people of Tohoku. Even before the tsunami, the prospects for the latter were getting pretty grim. But how to achieve that balance?

      There are some ideas on how this could be achieved long term, but they are very controversial and I think NPO’s and volunteer groups who advocate them in Tohoku right now will be committing reputational suicide. I mean, agricultural and fisheries reform tied in with free trade agreements like the TPP to encourage more efficient, export-oriented and employment generating local business, and immigration. Right now, with local people already so traumatized after 03/11, I think they’re going to be pretty inhospitable to talk of radical economic and social change. And JA can always play the tsunami card as it rallies its Tohoku membership against the TPP. Maybe further down the track there might be a readier audience for Japanese and foreign NPO’s who propose these ideas. I hope so.

  4. fitzpatrick says:

    Shaun, would like to interview you for your thoughts on Olympus scandal for US magazine. Rather urgent. Thanks. Please email me.

  5. ConfucianGirl says:

    i was reading Shaun’s article on Democracy and Confucian values, he offers pretty much insightful arguments but i wish i could find other sources written by him in the same field