by Yuka Saito
Although I immediately said “Yes” to Molly Brown when she asked me to write about my experience in co-facilitating a workshop with evacuees from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, it took me a long time to decide what to write. I could have told stories I heard directly from the participants, knitting them together like a big patchwork quilt. I’m sure these stories would be like a great saga and touch your hearts deeply. However, as you will see, I eventually wrote about myself.
The reason was quite simple. When I tried to put their stories together, the liveliness of the originals was somehow lost. You might wonder how such stories could turn stale. I couldn’t believe it either, but they did. I read what I had written over and over again and found myself writing as a mere observer, as if everything that happened to them was happening outside of my world. That killed the life of the stories.
I think taking a position of observer is sort of my habit. Being in front of someone in great pain makes me uncomfortable, so that I usually play a certain role that gives me a clear reason why I am with them–roles such as teacher, coach, counselor, or workshop facilitator. Those professional roles give me permission to put myself outside of their suffering but still enable me to stay close enough to them.
I sometimes wonder why I am so uncomfortable being with someone in pain. Perhaps it is because our modern culture does not teach us how to deal with it. It doesn’t even allow us to take time to reflect on our pain. Instead, it teaches us to be cheerful, uncomplaining, and optimistic all the time. Whether it was a friend with cancer, or whose mother had just died, or whose relative was one of the comfort women, I learned to keep some distance. That’s the way the Industrial Growth Society deals with pain: Don’t look straight at pain, or you are swallowed by it.
So, to begin with, I did the same thing with the pain around the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. This time, however, something happened that changed me completely. What you are reading here is the story of that change, a story from my heart.
As Joanna Macy likes to say, many heroines and heroes are thrown into adventures unexpectedly and unprepared. She was right. My journey too started just like that, with a little message from a Japanese woman who came to a workshop I had co-facilitated with friends two years ago. Her message was: “Despair has been eating me alive. I need to raise myself up from there. Can you help me? Can you help us?”
The woman was Kinue Suzuki, a tiny woman in her sixties, a mother and now soon-to-be-grandmother. I said “tiny” because she is about 4 feet tall, around 65 pounds. She has suffered her whole life with congenital rickets. Big cushions placed behind her back in her wheelchair made her look even smaller. However, in spite of her appearance, her presence is vigorous and glorious to many people, especially young evacuees. She is like a mother to them.
When people first see her, no one would think that she is the one who helped three seriously disabled people and their caretakers escape from Fukushima within three days after the disaster. She organized transport, found places to bring them, made sure that the places had wheelchair accessibility, made many phone calls to get money from her network, packed everything they needed to sustain their lives, and drove away as far as she could from Fukushima Daiichi in the middle of the night in total darkness.
A woman as strong as Kinue is now needing my help… Really? Me? How can I possibly help her?
The Darkness in Me
I was very honored that Kinue contacted me. I just wanted to run to her and hug her small body right away. And yet, I was also terrified by the thought that I was working as a workshop facilitator with evacuees fleeing from radiation. I didn’t know what I could say to them. Just imagining the burdens they have been carrying on their shoulders since the disasters was overwhelming. The pain seemed so big and pervasive that I couldn’t believe I could actually do something with it.
I imagined how I would be if I were one of them. I would be so wary and sensitive. I would not want anyone to touch my wounded heart with their sympathy. I might even take their sympathy as a lie. I would resist people comforting me. I would exclude anyone who did not have the same experience. That’s what I would feel. So then, what could I do for them?
Moreover, the strongest fear I had was the possibility of my hurting them without knowing it. I didn’t want to be someone who comes from outside, knows nothing about their pain and yet talks like an expert. The more I wanted to be helpful to them, the stronger my hesitation became.
A strange cowardice started forming in me. I was struck with the fact that I knew nothing about their reality. Sometime after her first email, Kinue suggested having a pre-meeting with several evacuees before our workshop where I could listen to how they feel about the workshop, what they expect from it, and what has been troubling them. On one beautiful October morning in 2016, eight of us gathered, seven women and one man, at a small meeting space in Kyoto tower.
I must now admit that I was totally wrong in many ways about what I was imagining. When I met them and we talked and listened to each other face to face, I realized that they are ordinary people, just like me. How did I come to think that they are so different from me? They were desperate, sad, angry, tired, courageous, humorous, and bold. Don’t all these characteristics also describe who I am, at least some of the time? Don’t they apply to everyone some of the time? After all, the evacuees are also children of Earth, going through challenges life is presenting, just like me.
In a two day workshop for evacuees affected by the radiation from Fukushima Daiichi (who had moved to western Japan), we talked, cried, and laughed together. We even danced the Elm Dance with two wheelchairs in the circle. That was a beautiful moment in which the weak light from the winter sun coming through the big windows above us silhouetted us swaying on the floor. The music and the silence both embraced us.
Many things were said in those two days. One by one people started sharing their stories:
“I’m tired of myself,” I remember one woman saying. “I have been angry all the time for the past five years. But I don’t know how long I can continue to be this way. Anger tires me a lot. So last year I started learning massage because of my sons who are still living near Fukushima. They decided to stay there because of their jobs. Although I am worried to death about their health, they wouldn’t leave there. Now I am preparing myself for the possibility of something bad happening to their health. That’s why I am seriously learning a hands-on healing practice.”
“I am worrying about my father who still lives in Fukushima. I insisted on him leaving there with me but he didn’t listen to me. I felt so bad that I had to leave him behind alone but I just could not stay in Fukushima with the intense and endless anxiety I felt every day. However, there is no day I don’t feel guilty or worry about him. What hurts me the most is not the contamination per se, but separating from him, feeling guilty all the time, and the indifference of others. That’s why I am now working so hard collecting signatures to sue the Government, Fukushima prefecture, and TEPCO. I have never done such a thing before, or even thought of it. I am a totally different person now. I was just an ordinary woman, no experience or interest in either law or courts. Now I am pushing myself hard to study about International Nuclear Law in the Post Chernobyl Period so that I can do something for my father and myself.”
“I don’t know what I can say to my kids. I can’t explain why they can’t go back to Fukushima where their father still lives for his work. I don’t want to scare them so I don’t know how much I should tell them. Five years is long for all of us and sometimes, in a flash, the idea shows up in my mind–to go back to Fukushima and live how we used to live. But of course my mind is clear. I can’t bear to worry about my kids getting exposed to radiation everyday. How I wish the radiation had color so that we could see it clearly and fear appropriately. Now I need to replenish my spirit everyday and tell my kids to be patient while I am working hard as one of the plaintiffs suing the groups responsible for the disaster.”
As I was listening to them, my fear and anxiety melted like ice. I felt myself resonating with their love, sadness, confusion, and guilt about kids or family members who remain in Fukushima. I can know how it feels because I have experienced all these feelings in my own way. The resonance was like ripples. They touched my heart naturally. What I needed in order to be with their pain was just to be open as who I am so that I could feel the recurring ripples. It was that simple. It seemed their truth-telling cracked the shell of my fear.
A Touchstone for Facilitators
In Active Hope, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone wrote:
“Whenever there is a clear path to follow, there is always some kind of monster or other enemy about to appear on it. The hero or heroine then rises to the challenge by confronting, tricking, befriending, or bypassing the blocking entity in a way that allows the journey to continue. When I stood in front of enormous collective pain, the monsters were my own fear, prejudice, not-knowing, and doubt about myself. In my case, when I stood in front of enormous collective pain, the monsters were my own fear, prejudice, not-knowing, and doubt about myself. However, once I was thrown into the adventure, a friend (Kazumi Atsuta, who designed a beautiful flyer for the workshop), colleagues (my co-facilitators, Maki Tajima and Izumi Shimazaki), and even wizards (in the form of Joanna Macy and my husband and partner in the work, Sean Kelly) appeared and helped me realize that these monsters are all part of me, and my own creation. Once I accepted them, there were no monsters to be afraid of or to beat. The monsters became flashlights helping to explore the darkness in me.
“I don’t know if I am good enough to facilitate The Work That Reconnects in Japan. I am not smart like you, and I am not a good speaker like you. Actually I am not like you at all!,” I said to Joanna over the dinner table in her kitchen. This was three years ago, right before my very first workshop in Japan.
“You know what, Yuka? You don’t have to be me,” Joanna said.
I know that. But what if my performance is really bad… What if their pain explodes like a volcano and I can’t do anything with it? What if nobody says anything in the Truth Mandala? What if I can’t generate the energy you always draw out so beautifully from participants? ”
Joanna listened to me patiently and when I finished she put her fork down on the table decisively, looking straight at me with a hint of frustration, and said, “Yuka, you don’t have to be smarter than everybody. You don’t have to know all the answers. They already have their answers. What you have to do is to be loved by them.”
“Be loved? How?” I asked, puzzled.
“You are loved not because you are smart or whatever. People love you because they feel they can tell you the truth. That’s what you have to do when you facilitate The Work That Reconnects: create a space where people can speak their truth, and people will love you because of that. Understand?”
“Go and create a space for people to speak their truth.” These words have stayed with me since that night and became my marching orders.
This is what came up from my heart to tell you. I hope it encourages you to embark on your own journey no matter how many monsters you already see on your path. Even now I hear the marching orders again in my heart-mind and sense my next journey is waiting for me.
Memoirs by two women refugees from the Fukushima disaster are available below. The Red Kimono website features other memoirs as well. Akiko Morimatsu attended Yuka’s workshop.
Yuka Saito is a Japanese activist currently living in Berkeley. Yuka encountered Joanna Macy’s work a couple of weeks after the Tsunami hit Japan, and since then she has been studying with Joanna intensively, offering The Work That Reconnects workshops in Japan. Before moving to California, Yuka worked as pharmacist at a Traditional Japanese Medicine Clinic and at the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine at Kansai Medical University Hospital as an Eastern medicine health coach.