Power of poetry penned by survivors of 3/11 is showcased by ASIJ project

Collaboration by over 150 staff and students presents works through medium of tanka

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Kathy Krauth, a social studies teacher at the American School in Japan, admits she was never a huge fan of tanka, traditional Japanese poetry. “Tanka never really spoke to me. I dismissed it as early Japanese history with cherry blossoms.” That all changed when Krauth sat in a classroom at the University of Colorado, Boulder, last July, inspired by the power of poetry penned by survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

Krauth and three colleagues, Kyoko Inahara (teacher of Japanese language), Karen Noll (literature) and Sarah Sutter (photography), together have organized a special tanka exhibition commemorating the second anniversary of 3/11. Supported by the nonprofit group Studio for Cultural Exchange, and drawing on the efforts of over 150 students and staff of ASIJ, the free exhibition runs through March 16 at the Ricketson Theater Lobby on the school campus, and reveals seven months of experiential learning and community collaboration.

Noll summarizes their thoughts as educators: “As a group we decided early on that we really wanted to move beyond the images of destruction, the boats on top of buildings that we’ve all seen. That’s what the poems did for us. Then, it was our connections with each other, our really deep connections with the students and the community in Tohoku that became most important.”

Krauth, a 13-year veteran at ASIJ, was in Boulder last summer for the Teaching East Asia Program when she heard a fellow participant, Laurel R. Rodd, present selections from the Studio for Cultural Exchange’s “Voices from Japan,” an exhibition featuring 75 tanka penned by survivors of the 2011 disasters. The exhibition had just debuted in New York City and Rodd was one of the main translators of the poems, mostly taken from the poetry section of the daily Asahi Shimbun.

Krauth recalls, “By the end of the session, everyone in the room was crying and incredibly moved. I turned to Laurel and asked why she didn’t read the poems herself — she had other teachers in the room read them aloud — and she admitted she couldn’t get through them. Still, even as one of the translators, she was continually moved by them. I wanted to bring that feeling back to ASIJ.”

As soon as Krauth returned to Tokyo, she contacted Isao and Kyoko Tsujimoto, organizers of the New York event and acting heads of the Studio for Cultural Exchange. The Tsujimotos gave their blessing, and Krauth then turned to the school: “Immediately when I got back I asked my three colleagues if they wanted to join. We were not quite sure what we were joining yet, but we all took the leap of faith and said yes. I talked to our deputy headmaster, Dr. Tim Thornton, and he was overwhelmingly positive and just said, ‘Go.’ ”

The teachers decided to create a “sibling” exhibition to the original, adding interviews with the poets themselves and photographic portraits to add “more context and understanding to the poems.” The four educators took two sets of students up to Tohoku to conduct the interviews and take photos during the fall and early winter, also interviewing one evacuated Fukushima resident now living in Tokyo.

“Our basic objective was to make these poems sing a little more clearly and more fully for everyone,” explains Krauth. “For me, one of the greatest parts of the projects has been the collaboration, because you don’t get that often as a teacher, to be able to collaborate with colleagues.”

“Right after 3/11, efforts and money came in from all over the world to ASIJ to help Tohoku from alumni or other international schools, so we established a Japan relief program as a school,” Noll adds. “We’ve done a number of activities related to Tohoku both short-term and long-term. This project is a continuation of that community collaboration, a way to focus on the positive, on what is happening now.”

Inahara relates how the project affected her on both a personal and professional level. In charge of the interviews and translations, Inahara says, “As a Japanese teacher, I was nervous, because I knew the Tohoku people would have a strong dialect or different expressions than what my students were used to. But when we took them out there, the students were open-minded and connected instantly and that impressed me the most. I could see a different side of the students. I could see their sympathy and care. Not only did they use Japanese properly, but also very culturally appropriate.”

“There’s a stereotype that Japanese people don’t express themselves well — yet when I heard all those interviews, I really felt I found myself,” Inahara says. “I am part of Tohoku, because my parents are from Fukushima. I grew up in Kanagawa, but we visited relatives in Tohoku every summer. It was really hard for me to face things in Tohoku (with the lagging reconstruction work by the government). So this project really touched me, who I am, where I am coming from. Through the communication with my colleagues and the students, I could revisit what Tohoku is and what it should be. Focusing on the people themselves is really critical, because that is what makes community.”

Sutter, a newcomer to Japan in her second year at ASIJ, embraced the chance to connect: “It was an interesting challenge, because the ideas that we had at the beginning changed over the course of shooting and after actually traveling there.

“We originally thought we would primarily photograph the poets themselves and do really formal portraits, like what you see on the back cover of a book. But as we went through the process and met people, spoke with them and saw their environments, when we saw the lingering devastation but also the rebuilding and the intention behind that to recover in a positive way, I think our images shifted over time,” she says.

“We saw the landscape and what was being done, we heard the townspeople talk about what was next and how to move forward. Also the sheer beauty of the area lent itself very much to a pictorial presentation that would show the positive energy moving forward, to show that there is a lot in Tohoku that is still absolutely gorgeous.”

After seven months of effort, the original New York exhibition of 75 tanka has grown to 100, 25 more collected in the fall and winter of last year. It has grown to include a wider community: Kanji Chiba, a calligrapher from Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, provided scrolls and artwork and Sutter’s web design class developed a website to help advertise the event. Noll worked closely with three senior literary magazine students to create a 64-page booklet to showcase the tanka alongside the interviews and portraits.

The exhibit will also feature two large canvas collages of recovered photos unclaimed from the disaster, in addition to artworks from students from art and drawing classes. The junior high school students have been busy composing their own tanka, while the literature classes penned essays detailing their own personal reactions to 3/11 or to volunteer efforts made afterward.

To end their two weeks of commemoration, ASIJ will also host 200 high school students from the U.S., part of the Japan Foundation’s ongoing Kizuna Project sponsoring cultural exchanges between American and Tohoku students. On their return from Tohoku, the students will stop by at ASIJ and the visit the exhibition.

It has been a mountain of preparation, but the teachers agree on its value for the students: “It fits right into what we have been doing as educators and what we want to do. We’re in a unique position right now in Japan,” Noll says.

“Of course you have the government narratives of the disaster, but we really wanted to get individual people’s narratives,” Krauth says. “The tanka for us are moving examples of this particular form of Japanese literature, but more importantly, they are historical texts from people and their actual experiences of a particular time. We can enjoy the poems individually, but when you put them together, it gives us much more of a sense of what it was like on the ground, then and now. The poems are really important historical texts.”

Voices From Japan will be displayed free of charge until March 16 on the ASIJ campus in Chofu, Tokyo. For more information, see the Voices in Japan ASIJ website sites.google.com/a/asij.ac.jp/voices-from-japan/.