SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

Mr Rohit Gupta - 17th year winner

During the Hagio award interview process, I remember asking Ms Yukie Marler, who represented Mrs Hagio on the interview panel, what would represent a successful project. Ms Marler answered that the award recipient could grow. I remember the moment because it was something I reflected on at various times of difficulty when implementing my project. And, having completed my time in Japan, I can say that while I am still working on the prize’s stated objective of “promoting international understanding of Japanese culture and society”, the idea of growing from every challenge, mistake or success in your project really was an integral part of the award for me.

I am extremely thankful to Mrs Hagio and the Thomson Reuters foundation for their generosity in providing such an amazing opportunity. I am also very grateful to all the interviewees, my home stay family and strangers for their kindness and help along the way. Finally, I’d like to thank Okajima sensei for his advice and support throughout the whole process.

Challenges and adapting the project

Keen to start the project and use my Japanese as soon as possible after the course, I started contacting in June various organisations and potential interviewees, researched as part of my project proposal. I left for Japan mid July 2015, just a couple of weeks after the exam, with a return date set 2 months later in mid-September. Having prepared an itinerary and budget I had a rough idea of how I wanted to spend the eight weeks but with nothing but an initial home stay confirmed for the first two weeks I was both equally excited and nervous when I left London.

Touryu statue at Zuiganji Temple, Matsushima
Touryu statue made from wood salvaged at Zuiganji Temple, Matsushima

The initial aim of my project was to combine elements of art, reconciliation, and spirituality to explore, and document, the role and prevalence of Buddhist concepts, such as Wabi Sabi (a world view based on an acceptance of transience and imperfection in life), in overcoming disasters such as the Great Eastern Earthquake of Japan (2011, Tohoku region) and more recent earthquake in Kumamoto (April 2015). I hoped to meet with survivors of such disasters and see if they were in possession of any salvaged artefacts that may or may not have been repaired but still served a practical purpose despite their imperfectness, thus adhering to the concept of Wabi Sabi. By photographing such objects and recording how their owners interpreted these objects I hoped also to frame the survivors as artists. Thus my project was entitled Survivors as artists – Imperfect possessions. The outputs of my project, by which I hoped to capture the story of survivors, fell in to two categories: first a collection of interviews with a cross-section of individuals such as survivors, volunteers, and religious leaders in the community; and second, a photography exhibition of the artefacts.

Zuiganji Temple
Zuiganji Temple, Matsushima

During my time in Japan and through my interviews it become evident that meeting people in possession of such artefacts would be difficult for two very different reasons. In Kumamoto the first earthquake was actually smaller than the second (meaning the first was more of a pre-shock as opposed to the second being an aftershock) so before the second had struck many households had secured their possessions. In Tohoku it was sadly a very different story. For most people if their possessions hadn’t been completely destroyed or washed away then they had been befouled to such a state they were thrown away.

Google map - Tohoku
Google map tagging tsunami and earthquake hit locations in Tohoku

I now found myself in a quandary as to what form the creative element and output of the project would take. I had managed to meet a number of people during my trip and documented through video and photography their interviews or scenes related to the earthquake, such as damage to Kumamoto castle. It was not until I moved north to Tohoku however that a new idea for a creative output for the project struck me: writing haikus relating to the stories of interviewees as well as the places I visited.

To be more precise, the idea came about while sitting in the bath (a custom picked up during my initial home stay!) in my Airbnb flat in Matsushima and reading Matsuo Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) which, by chance, was recommended to me by Ms Marler during the interview. The book is a haibun (a mix of prose and haiku) that charts Basho’s journey from his hometown of Edo to the north of Japan and back via different cities. Finding myself travelling to some of the same places, such as Matsushima itself or Ishinomaki, I was in a position to do the same but with the additional lens of impact of earthquakes and the stories of disaster and survival that they brought.

While I certainly don't consider myself as having the same ability and mastery of language as Basho, and my Haiku’s don’t always follow the complex rules they perhaps should, what I did find in common with Basho was the tranquil sense, or distilled calmness that came with writing haiku, or poetry in general. By composing haikus myself I am aware that I became the artist rather than putting survivors in such a position as I had originally planned to. Therefore, for the project’s next stage I intend to create a website to host outputs (such as haikus, interviews and photos) and in keeping with an original theme of the relation between art and reconciliation (or recovery) I plan also to provide a platform (e.g. blog section) for survivors of disasters, or victims of tragedies, to submit their own haikus.

People, places and haikus

Home stay (Miyakonojo, Miyazaki ken)

I chose to do a home stay at the beginning for a two main reasons. The first was that as it would be with the family of a Japanese friend in London I would be able to assimilate to my surroundings and feel confident in using my Japanese much quicker than staying alone. Secondly, they were based in Miyazaki ken (Kyushu) next to Kumamoto ken and thus provided a base from which to reach out to local people affected by the Kumamoto earthquake.

Interviews

My journey from south to the north Japan incorporated 6 earthquake afflicted cities or towns. In total I conducted ten interviews: One with a Buddhist lay-priest in Miyazaki; and nine with survivors or volunteers in Kumamoto (six) and Tohoku (three).

Region Town / City Interviewee Role / Affiliation
Kyushu Miyakonojo Ryo NOGUCHI Buddhist lay priest of True Essence of the Pure Land School (Jodo-Shinshu)
Kyushu Kumamoto Hiromitsu YAGI Secretary-General, Kumamoto International Foundation
Kyushu Kumamoto Kazuko MIYAZAKI Administrative Coordinator, Kumamoto City International Center
Kyushu Kumamoto Marlo SISWAHYU (Indonesia) Director, Kumamoto Muslim Association
Kyushu Kumamoto Mituo HONDA Director, Intry Kashima NPO
Kyushu Kumamoto Andrew MITCHELL (UK) PhD student of Japanese Politics, Kumamoto University
Kyushu Kumamoto Dibya JIVAN-PATI (India) PhD student of Architecture & Environmental Planning, Kumamoto University
Kyushu Fukuoka na
Kansai Koya san na
Tohoku Matsushima* na
Tohoku Ishinomaki* Richard HALBERSTADT(UK) Director, Ishinomaki Community & Info Center (and SOAS Alumn)
Tohoku Sendai* Akiyoshi KIKUCHI Sendai Tourism, Convention and International Association
Tohoku Sendai* Steve Corbett (USA) Miyagi International Association
Tohoku Shiogama* na
Tohoku Takajima na
Kanto Nikko* na
Kanto Tokyo na


* places also visited by Basho as recorded in The Narrow Road to the Deep North

A number of themes came out of the interviews that I found particularly interesting.

1. Cross-cultural cooperation and the necessity for it

Speaking to both Japanese and non-Japanese survivors it was interesting how views among both groups changed before and after the earthquake. For example, in Sendai Akiyoshi Kikuchi discussed how before the earthquake foreigners were not considered part of the community and as such they weren’t asked to join committees or be greatly involved in any decision making. Post 2011 however the city recognised the needed to reach out more and that foreigners made up part of their community.

Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle

Similarly, non-Japanese students at Kumamoto University discussed the challenge they faced when trying to understand instructions in Japanese of what to do following the earthquake. While praising the kindness of many local people in trying to advise or help them, they realised the necessity of learning the language and trying to integrate more than before in to the local community.

Kumamoto Castle

Hiromitsu Yagi, Director of the Kumamoto International Foundation told many heart-warming stories of how different communities such as Filipino or Pakistani or Russian would come together to prepare food for all the survivors taking shelter together in the Foundation’s building or lend each other their possessions as needed.

2. Differing attitudes towards earthquakes between Japanese and non-Japanese people
Tsunami monument
Tsunami monument in Shiogama, Tohoku

In Kumamoto a recurring theme raised by foreigners was the different reaction by the Japanese to the earthquake. Interviewees spoke of the disciplined reaction: heading to designated evacuation points such as schools; self-organising in to groups responsible for activities such as cleaning or cooking; and quite often going in to work the next day! In contrast foreigners spoke, unsurprisingly, of being in a state of shock or panic and wanting to leave the city as soon as possible, in some cases returning to their home country. When I asked why this was the case a couple of reasons were posited: first, that the Japanese were well trained on what to do in the event of an earthquake whereas most foreigners don't even consider the possibility of an earthquake; and second, a sense of impermanence and the realisation of inevitability that comes with it lends to more of a ‘realist’ and pragmatic reaction.

Some Haikus

1. Nikko

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North Basho climbed Mount Nikko to pay homage to a holy shrine and noted how, after building a temple on it, the priest Kukai changed the name of Mount Niko (also read as futa ara orふたあら、二荒) to Nikko (にっこ、日光) which means the “bright beams of the sun”. Basho composed the following Haiku (translated version by Yuasa*):

It was with awe
That I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sun

* Yuasa opts for a four line stanza to translate Basho’s haiku’s because the language of Haiku is based on colloquialism and, in his opinion, the natural rhythm of conversation can’t be achieved by a constrained three line stanza.

Based on this interpretation and the picture I took below, along with the region’s strong Buddhist influence, of which compassion is a major tenet, I composed the following:

Tosho-gu shrine

Bright beams of the sun

burn even brighter inside

let others bask

where you dare to shine


2. Interview with Kazuo Miyazaki (Administrative Coordinator, Kumamoto City International Center)

During my interview with Miyazaki san, a Soka Gakkai youth group member and former Masters student at Kings College London, she described how her local Buddhist centre became a place of refuge for up to 800 people of all faiths. I was particularly interested in her comment that, after having had no time to pray for two weeks after the earthquake, the first prayer felt “really joyful”. This haiku (fitting the traditional three line stanza) is about the role of prayer.

Skillful means adopted
to seek within, or afar
escape to freedom

The term ‘skillful means’ comes from the Buddhist term ‘upaya’. The term “is used in Mahayana Buddhism to refer to an aspect of guidance along the Buddhist Paths to liberation where a conscious, voluntary action is driven by an incomplete reasoning about its direction. Upaya is often used with ‘kaushalya’ (Sanskrit for "cleverness"), upaya-kaushalya meaning "skill in means". Upaya-kaushalya is a concept emphasizing that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to gain enlightenment. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately "true" in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to the true realization in a similar way… The most important concept in skill in means is the use, guided by wisdom and compassion, of a specific teaching (means) geared to the particular audience taught". (source: Wikipedia).

Considering the above passage I think of prayer to God as a technique that might not be true but still an expedient practice that may bring the practitioner closer to their true realisation – in other words while I don't believe in God I do believe in the importance and power of faith. ‘To seek within, or afar’ refers to seeking – guided by wisdom and compassion - true realisation, or what I would call authenticity and perhaps Basho would call true identity, either within oneself (a form of humanism) or afar i.e. God. Seeking and finding this authenticity offers us an ‘escape to freedom’ which is a reference to social psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s book of the same title about emancipation from restrictions such as social conventions placed on individuals by other people or institutions.

Conclusion

While I didn't find salvaged artefacts representing wabi-sabi, the concept seemed to exist, often at an unconscious level, within the psyche and behaviour of many Japanese people I spoke to. This perhaps explains the often ‘realist’ and pragmatic reaction of the Japanese to disasters, as discussed earlier, which could be derived from a sense of impermanence and realisation of inevitability.

Candle Garden Tohoku
Candle Garden Tohoku: a display of 3,000 washi paper lanterns made by school children from Tohoku

In addition to my home stay family and interviewees, I met a number of people that showed me great kindness while I travelled across Japan. From my Airbnb host in Kumamoto to the no longer strangers in Matsushima and Nikko), I heard a number of personal stories of recovery and reconciliation. Stories shared for nothing more than wanting to help me in my work but also in appreciation of my work. I felt strange in that I should be the one showing appreciation for their time not the other way around. This spirit of appreciation (kansha, かんしゃ、感謝in Japanese), which is deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy, along with the acts of kindness and compassion between different groups during and after the earthquakes, resonated with the following passage in Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Yuasa writes of the signs of spiritual suffering in some of Basho’s poems and how he practised Zen meditation under the guidance of a Buddhist priest. However those years of meditation and self-scrutiny developed his awareness of an important truth, described below, that I think can also be related to the concept of wabi-sabi. What Basho calls the everlasting self which is poetry refers to one’s true identity which Basho thought could be restored by casting away the self, in addition to earthly attachments.

Candle Garden Tohoku

What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek theirin the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.