Review: Stories from Tohoku (Fukami & Olson, 2013) – CAAMFest San Jose 2014

Still from the movie Stories from Tohoku

I was in grad school when the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster struck eastern Japan. It was then that a close friend and schoolmate of mine (Japanese American from Hawaii) first demonstrated to me the strength of the bond between the Japanese American community and Japan, even several generations removed. We were partners in complaining about our program’s heavy workload, so I could only shake my head in wonder as she killed herself taking on the extra burden of organizing a campus event to raise money for rebuilding the disaster area. In addition to fundraising, the event brought us volunteers together to fold hundreds of origami cranes that would then be sent to the tsunami survivors.

The documentary Stories from Tohoku, directed by local Bay Area filmmakers Dianne Fukami and Eli Olson, provides another such glimpse of that dedication, and perhaps a clue as to why it exists. The film contains two distinct threads: One follows various Japanese American groups as they visit the devastation in Tohoku. The groups appear to be ambassadors of optimism, bringing with them, of course, their ardent desire to help, but perhaps more importantly, as the film suggests, a listening ear. The other thread tells the stories of several residents in the area, survivors themselves, who have helped and are still helping their communities recover, two years after the disaster and after much of the world has forgotten the event. The unifying theme connecting these two elements is the Japanese concept of gaman, explained as the ability to endure the unendurable with patience and dignity. The film draws parallels between the current suffering in Tohoku and that of Japanese Americans during their World War II internment, showing how, in both instances, gaman was an important component of the Japanese response. But it also strikes me, as a Chinese American, that gaman was not an unfamiliar concept in my upbringing as well, though it is a rather alien and unappreciated perspective in the U.S. as a whole. What we see as grace, stoicism, and acceptance, mainstream American culture reads as weakness. Why not when it is a country build on protest, activisim, individualism, and fight? In that regard, Stories from Tohoku is heartening to watch: the disaster victims survive in such a Japanese way–through order, hard work, sacrifice, and optimism. Gaman. The film conveys a sense of unity, of togetherness, of community suffering and communities overcoming, of quiet respect, of, yes, endurance.

The documentary also turns on its head the widely held view that money is the most important resource in disaster recovery. It is true that money is material and requisite, but the Japanese American groups also insist that what they hear from survivors over and over again is, “Don’t forget us. Keep visiting.” It is impossible to know whether or not this is simply wish fulfillment on the part of the Japanese Americans, if devastated areas in affluent nations are higher up on  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or if psychic wounds are as important as physical ones, only less well-attended to. At any rate, it is the mission of this film not to allow the stories of Tohoku to be forgotten. And, in its quiet way, it does the Japanese (American) community proud.

I was lucky enough to catch and record the Q&A with the directors at CAAMFest San Jose. It is well worth watching (see below).