Remembering March 11

Several years ago, in a drunken conversation with a friend who wanted to know why Tokyo had such a pull on me, I told her that I had, for years, felt that I was meant to be here for the "Big One" — that whether I lived or died, the quake that is meant to destroy Tokyo is something I needed to see through. I can't explain why I felt that way. Or why I still feel it.

A year ago today, though, part of that fatalistic sense of destiny evaporated.

At 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, when the building I was working in began to shudder, I felt the kind of fear that causes a person to lose all sense of reality. The thoughts rushing through my mind were a mix of disbelief, terror, and wonder. Was this what I had been waiting for all these years? Was everything about to crumble around me? As I ran down the fire escape onto the street, I had truly bizarre flashes of people on similar stairs in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 — that event being such a part of global consciousness. Was this building about to fall down upon me?

Yet, as shit-scared as I was, I can say now, that I lost my fear of earthquakes that day. I realized that if I am to be anywhere in the world during a quake of that magnitude, or larger, then inside a modern building in Tokyo is where I want to be. The quake-proofing works. Next time a quake hits I won't run. That is, not until the tsunami alarms sound.

For, while I lost one fear a year ago, I gained another. Nothing now scares me more than a tsunami.

I have seen first-hand the destruction wrought by the wave that day, and I can't shake those images from my mind. Even now as I walk through Tokyo I often stop to think, "How far am I from Tokyo Bay?"

The "Big One" will come to Tokyo, and I will probably be here. But it doesn't scare me as much anymore — as long as I can get to high ground soon after.

Today my thoughts are with all the people swallowed up by the March 11 tsunami, and my heart goes out to the survivors left behind.


Volunteering in the tsunami zone

It's been over a year since I wrote anything here. I guess I felt that I'd nothing much to say. But the March 11 megaquake and tsunami in eastern Japan was, to say the least, a life changing experience. Not that my day to day life has changed all that much, and I was never really in any harm, but the way I view life has changed. When I had the choice to leave Tokyo I realized that my home now is here, so there never really was any question of leaving. Instead, I decided to lend a hand and joined the many people volunteering in the tsunami zone. Below is an article/journal I wrote for The Japan Times newspaper about my week as a volunteer.

A volunteer's journal of hope for Tohoku
Many willing hands in organized groups are aiding
in the massive post-March 11 clean-up
Special to The Japan Times

When the magnitude 9 megaquake hit northeastern Japan in the early afternoon of Friday, March 11, I was at work in The Japan Times office some 250 km to the south in Tokyo.

As the building here shook, I ran down the emergency stairs fearing for my life and then stood outside watching the high-rises around us swaying. I was absolutely terrified — and it didn't get any better when the tsunami warning screeched out of speakers in the neighborhood.

After running back inside — because the JT office is at sea level on Tokyo Bay — I found the newsroom was in chaos, with quake alarms sounding constantly on people's cellphones and the radio as the first aftershocks started to rattle the country, and TVs all showing horrific live images of the tsunami as our reporters scrambled to make sense of what was happening and get the story out.

I admit I was so scared that I left work early to head home on foot, as all public transport seemed to be halted.

In the days that followed, as the full impact of what had happened in the Tohoku region began to be revealed, I felt a little ashamed of my behavior. I had never actually been in any danger in Tokyo, and as I saw and heard what the people up in the tsunami zone were going through I wanted to help in any way I could.

Then, after a colleague wrote a story about the nonprofit Peace Boat organization's disaster-relief work in the devastated coastal city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, I decided that I would take a week off work and volunteer. After attending a couple of orientation meetings, I was told I could join a Peace Boat group leaving for Tohoku on Friday, April 22.

So, six weeks to the day after the quake hit, I boarded a Peace Boat bus in Tokyo, loaded with everything I would need to survive a week in the disaster zone — camping equipment, seven days' food and water, a dust mask, heavy-duty rubber gloves and boots, a helmet and goggles. We arrived on a rainy Saturday morning and set up camp in the grounds of Ishinomaki Senshu University university — but the real work didn't start until Sunday.

What follows is an only slightly edited copy of the diary I kept at the time, fastidiously keying each day's experiences into my iPhone before curling up exhausted in my sleeping bag.


Why I like Japan is a bit odd.

It is quiet. I know how that sounds. Silent? It's not exactly the first thought that comes to mind when you think of Japan, especially of Tokyo. With its constant din of announcements, crowded streets, packed trains, jingles, chimes, and high school girls squealing "kawaii". But it is. Quiet.

Ride a packed rush hour train and you'll understand. Every morning I squeeze onto the same train, the 8:37, or perhaps the 8:42 if I'm late. And it is a squeeze. There really are men with white gloves politely cramming you inside. Sometimes you are compressed so hard into the train carriage that your spine pops because someone's shoulder is pushing into your back. Especially if you're tall.

But once the doors have closed and your locked into that space. It's silent. Nobody talks. Each individual unit of humanity in there exists as a bubble of isolation. Heads wrapped in the data emitted from mobile phone screens, or surrounded by the world inside game devices, manga, and books, or within the soundscape of their headphones. Everyone withdraws into themselves. But we're all connected, touching. In fact, this is probably the most intimate many of us will be with another human that day. Yet each of us is quiet. And it's peaceful. Safe. Nice. Comforting. There are no loud people talking on their phones, subjecting all around them to their inane apparently one-sided conversations. No one is telling the person next to them to just stop fucking pushing. No one is angry. No one is scared. It's fearless. It's polite. It's a little shy. It's a mood that suits me. Because I'm a fairly quiet guy. And I belong here.


Remembering Emil Goh

I last met my friend Emil in Tokyo on 15th February 2008, when he was making a visa run from Seoul were he lived. I'd arranged to meet him outside the Starbucks at Scramble Crossing in front of Shibuya station. I remember spotting him in the crowd giving me a wave and a smile as he crossed the road. He was wearing jeans and a black V-necked sweater over a white collared shirt. His hair was longer than it had been when we knew each in Sydney. But that had been several years before. It was great to see him and we gave each other a big hug.

I remember he told me he'd been making trips to update his visa every three months for the many years he'd been living in Seoul. I thought that showed how determined he was to keep working there as an artist. He said he usually went to Hong Kong but had left it too late this time and could only get a ticket to Tokyo. I'm glad he did, because I got to see him. He laughed and told me he reckoned the customs guys in Seoul never gave him a hard time because they thought he was a second generation Korean who kept coming back to visit his relatives. He wasn't. He was Malaysian. I think we once talked about how I lived in Malaysia as a kid. I wish I could remember more about that conversation, I think he knew the school I went to, but that may have been someone else.

When we met in Tokyo he was determined to go to a ramen (noodle) restaurant he had read about on the web. It was late and I remember standing with him outside the closed Apple store in Shibuya, he was able to get WiFi on his iPhone and looked up the address on Google maps. It was just down the street, Ichi-Ban Ramen, I think it's called. I'd never heard of the place even though I live here. Each person sits in a private, box-like cubicle and orders their noodles anonymously. The servers are hidden behind curtains. It was typical of Emil to track something fun like that down and share it. We leant out from our cubicles and between slurps of ramen and sips of beer we spoke of the things we'd been doing over the years. His work as an artist and lecturer sounded fascinating, and I swore I would go visit him in Seoul.

I remember after we ate ramen we headed to Combine in Naka Meguro where we met a few people I know for drinks. I wish I could remember more, but the evening kind of fades into the distance after that. I'm sure Emil would have remembered. I wish I could ask him.

Sadly Emil died the other day in Seoul. Much too young and much too soon. As a mutual friend said, Emil was a doer. I hope that is something I can learn from him.
Rest in Peace Emil, I will miss you.

More about Emil:

Emil's OzArt profile

Emil's page in the Face to Face exhibit

An interview with Emil about his CyWorld project


Otaku Encyclopedia Launch Party

From left: Akiyama Masumi (designer), Asaki Katsuhide (photographer), Patrick W. Galbraith (author), Andrew Lee (editor), and Akashiro Miyu (illustrator).

We had a great turn out for the launch party of The Otaku Encyclopedia last Friday. The party was held at a maid café in Akihabara, called Café Schatzkiste. The poor maids were only expecting around thirty people to show up so didn't know what hit them when the hordes of otaku-bloggers, media, and minor celebrities started to poor through the doors. At least fifty people must have shown up and the place was packed.

I managed to convince Patrick to show up in costume, and it was great to finally have the team who made the book together in one room. Akashiro Miyu, who created "Moé-chan" the book's cute character, made a special trip from Osaka, and it was great to finally meet her. Asaki, who took most of the portraits in the book, and Akiyama Masumi who designed it, were also there.

Some of the other people who showed up included Danny Choo, who showed up in his Stormtrooper outfit, and Anno Haruna the game idol who is interviewed in the book.

Quite a few people were snapping away throughout the event and you can see their pix here:

Photos by Steven Nagata
Photos by Pietro Zuco
Photos by Jonny Li

And here's what people have said about the event or the book on other blogs so far:

Danny Choo
Anno Haruna (she's the game idol interviewed on page 86 of the book - Japanese only):
Paul Papadimitriou
The Western World
Akiba blog (Japanese only)
Hobby Blog
Anime Vice


The Otaku Encyclopedia!

I am finally emerging from under the mountain of moé* I have been buried under for the past six months, to tell you that finally The Otaku Encyclopedia is on sale in Japan! This photo of it on display at Kinokunia in Shinjuku was sent to me just now (thanks Haru!) proving that the book has gone on sale about a week earlier than I'd been told it would be! I guess I better hurry up with the website design... but until then you can see what Danny Choo (see previous posts) had to say about the book.

* moé is the latest otaku buzz word, and basically means to get all hot and sweaty over some budding 2D cutie. But you can buy the book for a better definition ;)


Afro Samurai vs Danny Choo

I had a fun night at Danny Choo's place the other evening when he invited me over to have dinner with our mutual friend Takashi "Bob" Okazaki, and a few of his Afro Samurai colleagues. Turned out to be quite the otaku gathering, with Bob dressing up as Darth Vader and all us lads going gaga over Danny's figure collection. I'm not sure what kind of expression I was trying to pull in this photo, but you've gotta at least try and look a bit tough when you're standing next to Vader! In the photo are:

From left to right:
Fuminori Kizaki (Director of Afro Samurai)
Mrs Bob Vader, Minna (hiding in Vader's cloak!)
Danny Choo
Takashi Okazaki (Original creator of Afro Samurai) as Darth Vader
Hiroya Iijima (Afro Samurai Character Design/Animation Director)
Will Feng

You can see more pix over at dannychoo.com


Seijin no hi

Yesterday was the Seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day) holiday in Japan. It was beautiful weather and I headed out with my new mate Danny Choo to take a few pix for his blog. The plan was to get photos of him in his Storm Trooper costume with as many cute twenty-year-old girls we could grab.

The official age for adults in Japan is twenty and on this day each year, young men and women gather at their local city halls (or somewhere else if the hall is too small) to be officially welcomed into adulthood. The new grown-ups dress in their best formal wear, which for girls means beautiful kimonos, called furisode, and fluffy fur stoles. This style of kimono is distinctive because of the bright colours and long flowing sleeves that signify a girl is both an adult and single, which is a handy thing to know ;)

Danny and I visited the CC Lemon Hall in Shibuya where gaggles of giggling Shibuya gals wore a sensational mix of their normal "gyaru" hair-styles, makeup and traditional kimonos. The addition of "decora" accessories and outrageous nail fashion completed the look.


Arcade Mania! on Japanese TV!

I woke up early this morning to watch Brian Ashcraft on NTV's morning show "Zoom in Super." He was interviewed a few days ago about Arcade Mania! and all of us involved in the book have been dying to see how it'd turn out. And it was fantastic!

The show had basically decided to do the story because they'd seen Arcade Mania!, and ran a 10 minute segment about foreign tourists flocking to Japanese game centres. They spoke to lots of people about what they thought of the arcades and opened with a shot of the book's cover. Then they spoke to Brian (who I gotta say came across really well despite being scared shitless) and showed the book again inside and out. It was really nice to see the book getting such good exposure.

Here are a few more pix Brian and I took off the screen:


Arcade Mania! vs Pingmag

I swear it's a total coincidence that the last post was also about something up on PingMag. No, really! If I wasn't so lazy I might have posted something in between, but no... Anyway, Ping had nice long chat with Brian Ashcraft the author of Arcade Mania! Hopefully this is the start of lots of press on the book and we'll sell lots of copies!
Read the interview here...