Sendai, Fukushima, and the narrow road to the ancients

The road to the ancients, this week, is a narrow path to the north. It is composed of the dead, the suffering, the children and the elders and the pregnant women. It began with crushing noise followed by obliterating silence, and now … the return of black rain.

In Port-au-Prince, this week, people shudder, look at one another and whisper, “Nous sommes tous Japonais.” We are all Japanese.

We are not all Japanese, but we are all stunned. What are we to say, to think, to feel, to do as the images continue, as the news worsens, as our heads continue to shake in disbelief and our tears continue to sting?

The evacuation proceeds. Some say the evacuation is too cautious, too reactionary.  When nuclear reactors are threatened, when there is a danger of radiation leakage, as clearly there is in Fukushima, remove the pregnant women, remove the children, remove the elders.  Do it whether or not the reactors have blown, exploded, ignited. Do it in advance. That is a lesson of Chernobyl, especially for pregnant women. That is a lesson of Three Mile Island, especially for children.

The elders suffer particular hardships in the disaster in Sendai. First, Japan is the most rapidly aging country in the world, with the longest life expectancy. Women live to 86 years old, men to 79. More than 20 percent of Japan’s estimated population of 127 million is over 65 years old. 20 percent of Japan’s elders live in poverty. Elder care has been a crisis for some time now.

Second, Sendai is an area with many elders. Some came for the `peaceful’, and less costly, life. Others have lived their lives in the Tohoku region, in the northeast of Japan, and have watched as the younger generations moved south, to better jobs, to the metropole.  The tsunami struck an area with a higher proportion of elders.

The earthquake, the tsunami, the flames and the radioactive leaks struck at the most vulnerable. They came down, and continue to come down, on the deep north of the country, which is also the interior, the inner recesses, even the dead-end.

On the 16 May 1689, at the age of 45, the poet Matsuo Basho set off, with a companion and friend Sora, to walk to Oku, on the island of Honshu. His travel journal, if it can be called that, Oku no Hosomichi, is said to be one of the most revered literary texts in Japanese history. Its title is variously translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Narrow Road to Oku, Narrow Road to the Interior. Upon his return to his home in Edo, Basho spent the next three years editing and revising the journal, which he completed in 1694. Then he died, and the book was published posthumously.

The journey began: “Days and months are travelers of eternity.  So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives, travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road.”

At one point, Basho and Sora arrive at Sendai. It was a day of celebration, in which residents tied blue irises to the eaves and roofs of their homes and prayed for health. The travelers stayed for a few days, prayed, relaxed, sought out a famous painter Kaemon, and then moved on. They followed a map drawn by Kaemon and came to a monument, over a thousand years old, and paused:

“In this ever-changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their courses, roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it was nothing short of a miracle that this monument alone had survived the battering of a thousand years to be the living memory of the ancients. I felt as if I were in the presence of the ancients themselves.”

On the road leading out of Sendai to the deep north, the poet Basho came face to face with time, with timelessness, and with the ancients. And he knew joy.  What would he know today?

This week, the road to the ancients is once again a narrow path to the north.

(Photo Credit: Fukushima `Black Rain” by Soichiro Koriyama)

Nascent Collectivities 2

Everlyn Masha Koya

In my previous posting, I looked at testimony of Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer educator from Isiolo, Kenya. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade led me to reflect upon contradiction between women’s economic contributions to nation-state and the nation-state’s desire to control women’s behavior and women’s sexuality. Yet it is also a story about state efforts to provide women with different economic opportunities and about women’s efforts to negotiate better lives for themselves and for other women. What else could Ms Koya’s story tell us?

Ms Koya’s grant from the state suggests that it, or its agents, have an interest in expanding women’s economic opportunities. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out, the state isn’t a monolithic structure. It is made up of different institutions and individuals who do different, sometimes competing, things. While one arm of the state might be securing its sovereignty by making it possible for sex workers to have access to military bases, another arm of the state might be securing grants to give women training so they have a wider range of economic opportunities. As Sunder Rajan argues, “any understanding of state-citizen relations requires…attention to the microlevel workings of state regimes” (6).

Ms Koya’s testimony suggests that the state might participate in the exploitation and oppression of women’s bodies and lives. But if we look at different branches of the state, and different individuals who work for it, the state also can be used to improve women’s lives. As Ms Koya reports, “Then in July [2009], officials from the [government’s] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit. They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.”

What else can we learn from this story?  Within the situations that she has inherited, Ms Koya’s efforts to transform her own life and the lives of other women, to work for freedom from violence tells us about what women are doing within, and against, epistemic violence. In some locations, because of their economic contributions and their perceived social role of servicing male sexual need, sex workers have been able to emerge as a collective and make demands on the state. As Cynthia Enloe points out, there have been efforts by women in Kenya and in the Philippines to create networks of women in countries that host American military bases. This is a step towards addressing and dismantling the global gender structures on which military bases depend. There are other transnational and local efforts, including daily work of survival by growing gardens and recycling waste, organizing gender forum; occupying leftist organizations which don’t address gender and gendered labor; fighting back through state institutions and on the streets; union organizing; reporting which reframes issues as women’s issues; reporting which reframes issues as more than just women’s issues; story telling; women, and people around them, saying “enough,” and many other activities for dignity and well-being.

If we look closely, we see women actively participating in public life. Women are at the forefront of resistance movements in places like Honduras and South Africa. Women protest the failure of the state to investigate the systematic murder of women in Vancouver and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Women challenge the meaning of public space and public mourning in Argentina and Iran. Women organize feminist media in Costa Rica. And there is the more quiet, everyday work of women to improve the daily conditions and work to enable themselves and their families to survive in the face of everyday poverty or ‘natural’ disasters. This happens just about everywhere and has different contexts but let’s point to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as one place where women struggle to survive.

Paying attention to gendered violence and power, all forms and mixes of it, that work through the family, the community, the state and its institutions, and through economic structures and arrangements is important work. But so is paying attention to women’s individual and collective efforts, in the context of gendered power, all forms and mixes of it, to “transform the conditions of their lives” (Kabeer, 54). Women are not just victims of material forces, state power and cultural patriarchy. Women actively seek to work for the health and well being of their families, their children, other women, and their communities. In the context of structural constraints, we see women like Ms Koya struggling, negotiating, working, and, even, organizing. It’s important to pay attention to what women are doing, their activities and obstacles to their activities, in relation to the gender-structured conditions that they’ve inherited.


(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)