Nakamura Tetsu

Cover for the book “Providence was with us”

I wrote a review of the recently published English translation of Nakamura Tetsu’s book Providence Was with Us: How a Japanese Doctor Turned the Afghan Desert Green. You can read the review on BooksOnAsia.net here, but I just wanted to say a few more things on a more personal note about this book.

I knew about Dr Nakamura peripherally since he is just such a famous person in Japan. I could recognize his face (and his pakol) and knew that he was building canals in Afghanistan. I had no idea how much more he did there and in Pakistan until I read Providence Was with Us. The book really touched me. I drove across Kyushu to see his memorial before I wrote the book review.

Dr Nakamura is a hero here in Japan, and also in Afghanistan — maybe moreso there. He has very admirable qualities, which come across readily in the book. But the thing that struck me the most is how much he thought about his impact on the world, and strategically made choices to increase that impact. He started out as a psychologist, but by listening carefully to needs on the ground he transitioned to a medical doctor, and finally to a civil engineer, staying up late into the night studying books on well-digging, irrigation, and canal design.

During my (what seems bi-annual at this point) mid-life crises (yes, plural) I grapple with the question of impact, too. We probably all do. Nakamura is special because he was able to analyze and actually execute on it, making a massive impact. In this he is an example for use all. The interesting thing, is he was able to do it by keeping things simple and focusing on the needs around him.

In reading more about Nakamura’s life, probably the biggest lesson I drew was to listen. Quit trying to run around and “be useful.” Often you just end up a nuisance. Stay still and listen carefully. I suppose that is why it is called a “calling.”

Anyways, I encourage everyone in the English-speaking world to learn more about Dr Nakamura. Check out my review of the book and give it a read. You can also check out the NHK documentary “Water, not weapons” to learn more.

Around Iki by video

Last weekend was the first time I left Ikijima for four months. But it isn’t like we have been spending the whole time huddled in our house against the snowpocalypse. The weather was really crappy, and we did have a couple of weeks where coronavirus flared up on the island for the first time since April (56 cases in total during Dec and Jan, everyone got better), but I still got out and made some videos that I would like to share with you now.

Most of these videos are 4K and/or 60fps, so you might want to watch them on fullscreen to get the full effect.

See the Video List

Yufuin: Driving across Kyushu

You can drive from one end of Ikijima to the other in about twenty minutes. The narrow roads twist either along the coastline, between fishing villages, or bend back upon themselves into the hills, connecting farms in the interior. I don’t think there is a road on this island that is more than two lanes. Many are single, meaning you need to keep your eyes on the roadside mirrors to watch for oncoming traffic around the corner. I estimate about 90 percent of the vehicles on the island are kei cars.

So, after four months of not going anywhere I was a little freaked at the thought of driving a few hours across Kyushu in a seven seater van!

map of northern Kyushu
Map of our route across the major island of Kyushu
Continue reading “Yufuin: Driving across Kyushu”

Raising kids in multiple languages

A recent episode Japan By River Cruise (Woke Dad Japan) featured Daniel Yoder, one of the hosts of the Konnichiwa Podcast (コニポ). They spoke about the challenges of raising kids in Japan as foreigners. It’s a fun episode, and I can identify with a lot. One of the challenges they spoke of was their kids’ language abilities. My kids’ (aged 8 and 11) situation is different to theirs since we are a family who has been back and forth between Canada and Japan. But the episode made me reflect on how my thinking on child language acquisition has evolved over the years. Generally, it has gone through three stages: bilingualism, heritage language, plurilingualism.

Continue reading “Raising kids in multiple languages”

Journaling Part 2: The Daily Note and Morning Pages

A quick review of my journaling setup as per my previous post:

  1. A simple bullet journal for daily habit tracking
  2. Morning Pages
  3. Keeping a Daily Note

I detailed my BuJo approach in the last post. That is the quickest part of the routine. You could just keep a BuJo and gain lots of benefit. Since I wanted to also boost my creativity and productivity I adopted the two other practices.

Continue reading “Journaling Part 2: The Daily Note and Morning Pages”

Getting started with a journal

I have always been a sporadic journal writer, only regularly documenting daily experiences while traveling, winding down during the end-of-day decompression in my room. Many years ago I made it 1/5 the way through a 5-Year Journal. This year, I’m giving journaling a serious try, and have found it to be like a delayed mindfulness practice. Each day you set aside time to self-reflect after the fact. In just one month I have already learned a lot about my regular day-to-day self. Here are some things I have learned about the practice in general, and how I am applying it.

Continue reading “Getting started with a journal”

Island emergency broadcast system

Often on Twitter I will mention hearing about some local happening on the island like new coronavirus cases or massive snowfall stalling bus service. These updates come across the emergency broadcast system, or 告知放送 kokuchi hōsō. We are all familiar with speakers mounted on towers and buildings in every neighbourhood in Japan. But this is the first time I have ever had one in my house!

On a wall there is a home receiver on the left and a standard clock on the right
Emergency broadcast receiver mounted on my kitchen wall, right by the clock. (You can see the old on in the reflection on the clock)

Mounted on the wall in my kitchen is a wireless radio that beams messages from the city directly into my home. Day to day, this includes a simple time alarm: a chime played at 7am, noon, and 5pm every day (including Sundays!). Islander children are told by teachers and parents that they should always hear the 5 o’clock chime from home.

I recorded a sampling of each so you could hear:

The songs are:

  • 07:00 恋は水色 Koi ha mizuiro or “L’amour est bleu”
  • 12:00 壱岐市民歌 Iki City Song
  • 17:00 夕焼け小焼け Yūyake Koyake

The last one is particularly famous, and used as a time alarm in many places in Japan.

It has been kind of strange to have this receiver in my house. Apparently they are in every house in Iki. There are no fees associated and they are maintained by the city Crisis Management Department (危機管理課) as part of Iki’s disaster plan. They have a manual you can read. The system has been in place for a while, since on the other wall there is an older version that doesn’t work anymore:

A radio-like object with metal antennae on the wall above a fridge with Nutella jars on it.
An older home receiver above my fridge

It is up near the ceiling by my fridge. The new one was installed in 2010, but that might have been when this house was built.

They have a manual posted online for operating the device. You can even get FM radio on it. There is a volume control, and you can turn them completely off, but that would defeat the purpose.

The reason for these home receivers is for public service announcements, especially in emergencies. Common ones I have heard include:

  • natural disasters: typhoon, wind, freezing warnings (pipes)
  • emergencies: fires (when they start, the location, and when they are put out), missing persons, coronavirus updates
  • marketing: events run by various city-related organizations (eg. Museum lectures), cancellations of events (eg. due to coronavirus)

I believe these are linked to the J-Alert network so we should get earthquake warnings. I would also expect we would get nuclear disaster warnings since there is a reactor nearby. I don’t know if we would get any type of air raid warning in case of a North Korean missile. 🤷‍♂️

On almost our first day I was shocked to hear a broadcast from the Iki police directly into my house! It was only a reminder to everyone to wear their seatbelt, but it felt a little Orwellian (I don’t think these things have a mic on them, believe me, I checked right away).

On the city website you can request a broadcast. It must use a specific template and be filed at least three days in advance. Broadcasts can be to one or more of the four towns on Iki, or the entire island. I am not sure who clears these messages, but I seriously doubt they will let me send an island-wide Happy Anniversary! to my wife next month. 😂

Emergency broadcast systems are extremely common in Japan, but this is the first time I have seen them inside of a house. Is this common on other islands, or rural areas? If you have seen this before, comment below!

Pros and cons of waiting out the pandemic on a remote island

During the first wave of coronavirus cases in Japan we moved to Iki island thinking it would be safer than waiting out the pandemic wave in Kyoto. It was a good move. Since we came here last May, we have been lucky to lead a very normal life. The kids go to school, we ate out, visited beaches, made new friends.

Life has ground to a halt since the New Year’s holiday. Our kids have not left the house to play with friends since a new case of coronavirus, the first for months, was discovered on Iki on December 28th.

A ferry boat worker, and resident of Fukuoka, felt a little sick but still went to work. On the way to Tsushima he collapsed in the mess while eating a meal. The crew dropped him off in Ashibe, here on Iki before going on to Tsushima. He was taken to the hospital and tested positive. Four other crew members he interacted with also tested positive. But it didn’t stop there. A group of city officials had a year end party with out-of-towners: six out of twenty attendees came down with coronavirus. Then another case amongst ship workers. In a matter of days, we went from historically 7 cases to 57.

New Coronovirus cases per day on Ikijima to Jan 7
New Coronovirus cases per day on Ikijima to Jan 7

Are remote islands havens from pandemics?

Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko explaining the 3 C’s with a placard.
Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko explaining the 3 C’s with a placard. Image source Nippon.com

Rural areas are natural places to avoid the 3 C’s:

  1. Closed spaces
  2. Crowded places
  3. Close-contact settings

It is very easy to social distance out here, and most of our daily life outside the home is conducted in a private vehicle. There are lots of natural places to hike and get outdoors without being around people.

Being on an island, travel here is restricted to boat or plane, both of which require temperature checks to board. Also, since you have to register to board either, it makes contact tracing a little easier if a breakout happens. And if a breakout does happen, it is easier to contain the population of a small island and wait it out.

So, islands are a pretty good place to isolate oneself from a pandemic raging on the mainland. Of course, if the virus makes it to the island, it can get pretty scary.

Rural areas like Iki have been depopulating over the past few decades. We have 26,000 people here, half of what was here at the island’s peak in the late 1950s. Depopulation does not affect all population groups equally. Usually it is the younger, college-aged people leaving for the city to find education and job opportunities. Thus, rural areas have a lot of elderly, people who are particularly vulnerable to a virus like COVID-19.

What’s more, we have a small population. Even just a few cases can be a serious problem. Back in Kyoto there are about 1300 active cases. For Iki to have the same caseload for our amount of population we need just 13 sick. We are currently at 45, hence why our situation has been upgraded to Phase 4. This makes one wonder if it is safer to go back to the city.

Chart showing bed usage (Iki highlighted) 15/20. Iki is designated Phase 4. Other island groups are still Phase 1.
Chart showing bed usage (Iki highlighted) 15/20. Iki is designated Phase 4. Other island groups are still Phase 1.

Rural areas tend not to have large medical capacity. Iki only has 20 beds for coronavirus patients at the hospital. There are two facilities with 25 rooms for people to quarantine.

Rural areas usually also have limited shopping options. For example, we only have two FamilyMarts on the island, and people travel from all over to come to the Aeon shopping center near my house. These can act as bottlenecks, potential nodes for virus transmission.

Speaking of bottlenecks, if you do want to get off the island to a “safer” city, you have to either a boat or a plane. The boats have already been the source of a number of cases.

Despite being densely populated, cities do spread out the risk to individuals, as long as they are being responsible.

The curve on Iki seems to be flattening, so we aren’t going to risk moving just yet. Many public facilities have been closed. The hospital is closed to non-emergencies until the 15th. The city cancelled the annual Coming of Age ceremony (成人式). My kids’ Judo club quickly shut down for all of January. It was announced earlier today over the island broadcast system that the first day of school is being pushed back. We have been holed up and taking extra precautions on our own and will continue to do so as we watch the numbers.

Yesterday Nagasaki upgraded the prefectural emergency status to Stage 4, matching that of Iki, and requested residents not to eat in large groups or travel out of the prefecture. The central government will initiate another “soft lockdown” today, but limited only to Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures. But the situation is a lot more serious on small islands like ours. Japan has 257 inhabited remote islands, but their situations won’t make the nightly news.

Greeting the sun and moon for 2021

We turned in at about 1AM after watching 紅白 and ゆく年くる年 I roused the kids out of bed at 6am so we could drive to a spot for a view of the first sunrise of 2021. Shivering in the car we ended up at the cliffs by Sakyōbana, the crumbling heavenly pillar and well-known “power spot” on Iki. From high up on the cliff about 20 people were spread out watching across the sea to see the sun rise from behind the taller mountains of the Kyushu mainland. It was pretty cloudy, so we could only see a blotch of pink. But as the morning light brightened up we watched the wind lash waves against the rock formation known as Sakyōbana.

Shrine of the Moon God

Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun, and divine ancestor of the Emperor of Japan. We greeted her last year on a visit to Ise. She has many famous stories about her and her jerk brother Susano’o, the god of the wind. She also has a lesser known brother, who has been kind of written out of the old stories: Tsukiyomi, the moon god. Between Japan and Korea, the island of Tsushima is known as the “Sun” and Iki as the “Moon.” There are not a lot of shrines to Tsukiyomi in Japan, but Iki has an important one. In fact, the Tsukiyomi Shrine here has a sub-shrine on the grounds of Matsuo-taisha in Kyoto. We climbed the stairs to the shrine and were the only ones there as we hammered a wooden plaque number of times of our age for good luck in 2021. Here we dropped off all of our older charms from last year for burning, and bought new fuda for the kamidana in our house.

On the way back home we stopped by Sumiyoshi Shrine, our ujigami to pick up a fuda from there too. You have to have the full set stacked in the right order to protect your household. I also picked up an omikuji and got a wonderful fortune for 2021! I also got a little daruma charm for my wallet (nice mixing of Buddhism there!). Up at Tsukiyomi a few bits of snow and hail fell. While at Sumiyoshi it really started coming down!

Hail in Chad's hair
How many of those wrinkles were put there by 2020?

Back home we set up the house shrine for 2021, busted open the money envelopes with the kids, and then sat down for some osechi. Originally we had planned on being in Kyoto for New Years. As coronavirus cases started to explode, we cancelled all of our plans and just stuck to the island. Too late to make an order, my wife decided to try and make osechi from scratch. She is too embarrassed to let me show pics of the inside, but I think she did an amazing job. 

あけましておめでとうございます。

今年もよろしくお願いします!