So It Goes

My third and final story from my Pulitzer Center-supported trip to Japan last year published on Monday. It was the eight-year anniversary of 3/11 and the death of my Japanese grandmother as a result of the tsunami. And I have to say that “After the Tsunami,” the essay title my editor and I settled on, was in the works for the duration of those eight years.

Those of you who’ve hung around this humble blog for a while know that I started writing about the tsunami in 2012 in a series of posts called “Tsunami Debris.” It was winter here in AK, and it had been a year since I’d deployed to Japan. I recall reading about the arrival of tsunami debris on Alaska shores, and making the mistake of reading the comments on one story in particular about the cost of removing the detritus arriving on Alaska’s remote shores. The comment was something to the effect of “make Japan pay for it.”

I was pissed. I’d lost my grandmother, seen the devastation for myself, and still left Japan without a sense of having really participated from and confused about who I was as someone of Japanese descent. So I started writing.

I never finished the posts, by which I meant that I never completely documented my deployment. But when, a year later and facing a requirement to produce several essay manuscripts for my first MFA workshop, I went back to the blog posts. There was some good stuff in there. So, I grabbed it all, mashed it up with a bunch of other fragments pulled from memory and research, and called it good. Over the course of the MFA program (three years) I resurrected the essay every year, worked on it, and then ultimately put it away in favor of other projects. Every year, I pored back over it, trying to figure out what was at its core even as I poured more material into it.

It was good. But something was missing. For all the research, all the memories, I felt I still didn’t understand the nature of what happened in 2011. I lacked basic facts. Like exactly what happened to my grandmother. And how the people of Tōhoku had recovered since then. I needed texture.

Landing a Pulitzer Center grant, and a pitch to re-shape “Tsunami Debris” into something that wasn’t just memories and things I found on the internet meant that I’d have the chance to go and see for myself. And that’s exactly what I did last summer.

“How was Japan?” friends asked when I got back. Never a particularly eloquent conversationalist, I instead poured the experience into the three stories I wrote. Hopefully, you see that.

Happily, “After the Tsunami” has made it out into the world enough for me to receive very kind notes from strangers, a handful of whom have encouraged me to continue to look at the 2011 Japan tsunami. So while I feel like publishing the essay put a coda on one chapter, there are more stories I want to tell. Hopefully I get a chance to do that. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of the journey so far. Stick around.

The Drowned and Rubbled Land


A building that survived the 3/11 tsunami in Kesennuma. If it looks strange, it’s because the quake dropped the land in this area by a full meter+. Reconstruction has required filling the area back in to bring it up to sea level.

For those who were following my posts from Japan earlier this year but don’t follow me on social media, my first two stories have posted. The first is a feature for VICE that looks at human fallibility in the face of disaster, and the second is the story of that peculiar stone in Yoshihama I blogged about during the trip. Of course, if you want to see both in one place, you can just visit my Pulitzer page.

It’s of course gratifying to see the stories publish and I remain indebted to the folks who got me to this place. But as a writer, it’s also hard to know what the impact of your stories is. You don’t really know who’s reading them, or whether they make a difference. Even knowing if they rise above the constant deluge of information is impossible. It would honestly be lovely to know, but that’s not why we write. At least, that’s what I remind myself once a story is published. I wrote these stories not because I felt like there was anything in the here and now that pegged their importance, but because they gnawed at me personally and caused me to dwell on one sliver of the human condition.

The crazy thing about these stories is that in the sixty days that have elapsed since I left Japan, two more disasters have struck Japan: a torrential downpour that caused landslides and flooding, and a deadly earthquake near Hokkaidō.

So, I suppose there is a bit of timeliness to what I’m writing after all. I’m wrapping up a third, and maybe final story from my Japan trip. Onward, as they say.

So Many Words

Today was my last day in Japan. Yu and I wrapped up one last interview of a scientist this morning in Tōkyo and that, as they say, was it. With a few hours to kill, I went to Ueno to check out the National Museum. And as usual, I found inspiration in yet another unexpected place.

This is a photo of a Buddhist text written a godawful long time ago. It’s long, as you can see, but what you don’t know is that the scroll still has several yards way down there at the end. Look at that text. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? It looks like it was shot off a laser printer, the lines are so crisp, the black so deep. The crazy thing is, we’re looking at the end of the text right here. The beginning is rolled up and tucked away. Couldn’t see it if you wanted to.

Last count, I’ve got 100 pages of fairly small print of my own scrawl in a black Moleskine. It’s solely from the last two weeks. Sitting in my backpack, just begging to be put to use. And so the work begins, I suppose. Of finding beginnings and endings and middles and all the parts that belong, and the so many that do not.

Thank you to everyone who followed along over the past fourteen days. To the folks who left comments on Facebook, retweeted me on Twitter, or had just enough time to thumbs-up an Instagram photo: thank you, and I hope you stay tuned for the stories as they publish. It’s been a hell of a trip. Thanks for joining.

All My Best,