By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata–ken, 2008-10) for JQ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub–Chapter, Rashaad is a graduate of Leeds Beckett University with a master’s degree in responsible tourism management. For more on his life abroad and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.
There are certain moments we remember clearly as if they happened only yesterday, whether they are monumental historical events or natural disasters. But how would you tell stories centering on those moments?
Teiichi Sato has a go at it in The Seed of Hope in the Heart. In the memoir, Sato, an Iwate Prefecture seed shop owner, survives the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami but sees his beloved seed shop crumble. This plunges him into the task of rebuilding his life and livelihood amidst destruction while trying not to sink into depression and despair.
It all started with the disaster that struck on March 11, which didn’t actually come out of the blue. Sato explains that after a strong earthquake hit the Kesen area two days prior, a tsunami advisory was issued, which wasn’t really cause for a cause for concern as “weak” tsunami advisories were frequent around Rikuzentaka (where Sato lived).
But obviously, it should have been as for much of Tohoku, the world changed starting on 2:46 p.m. on March 11. Sato spends much of the early chapters detailing not only his perspective of the earthquake, but more dramatically his escape from the oncoming tsunami. While reading The Seed of Hope, you get the sense of being transported into a movie as it contains no shortage of drama as Rikuzentaka’s citizens make a desperate dash to find shelter—some of whom aren’t able to do so successfully.
Indeed, Sato writes, “I escaped from the tsunami, but I cannot run away from the sadness and the pain.” That sadness includes the deaths of family (his uncle, aunt, and cousin’s parents among others didn’t make it), and friends and neighbors (the teacher of his English conversation class and four other course members) that perish along with the life he knew in Rikuzentaka.
Sato’s escape from the tsunami result in The Seed of Hope’s most gripping moments, which are far more captivating than the actual moment when he realizes the earth is shaking on March 11. You might be amazed at some of the things the author is able to remember despite the likelihood of a million different thoughts that must have been swimming in his head at the time. Sato even describes a spat he has with his wife when he expresses a desire to return to the seed shop to protect his seedlings. (She more or less calls him crazy.)
At times, The Seed of Hope has the feel of a documentary as Sato assumes the role of a storyteller. He includes incidental information that may not be of interest the reader, such as the history of a large cedar tree called the Tenjin Osugi. While it might be fascinating to learn that the tsunami played a large part in the destruction of the ancient tree, Sato’s detailed analysis of numerous attempts to guess its age may cause drowsiness—along with the historical anecdotes he provides about other subjects.
However, a good work of nonfiction has the potential to impart some astonishing information. Sato just might shock you when he reveals that despite the frequency of tsunamis in Iwate Prefecture, records of such disasters there were practically nonexistent. One theory why is that the people of Tohoku were made to submit to the control of the central government who have (in Sato’s opinion) viewed the region as backwater, thus destroying many of the region’s documents after many wars. In addition, the Kesen area has long suffered from a lack of writers and scholars due to its educational struggles.
Meanwhile, most of the second half of The Seed of Hope tells the story of a man and his family trying to survive amidst the destruction (a chapter is devoted to Sato’s concerns about radioactivity emanating from Fukushima). As his seed shop was destroyed, the author writes he has to be resilient and use the “samurai spirit” to overcome the challenges he faces. He perseveres and eventually manages to set up a temporary shop.
As you read about the steps he takes to get his life and career back on track, Sato comes across as a tour guide as well. Just like many of the tours you’ve probably been on, you’ll probably forget a lot of the history Sato expounds on (such as stories about Dokei Murakami, a local legend who committed suicide in an attempt to stop residents of neighboring villages from fighting over salmon fishing rights). While these numerous tangents distract from the pacing, it is easy to visualize the landscape of the Kesen area as Sato draws readers into his world. Despite the destruction, Rikuzentaka comes across as being in a rather beautiful area. The book is enhanced by color photographs, including those of cherry blossoms.
Although The Seed of Hope is a memoir of one man’s experiences during a challenging period in recent Japanese history, it is also a fascinating look into how the people of Tohoku (or more specifically, the Kesen area) struggled but fought to rebuild their lives. While you may think at times, “Why am I reading about all of this?,” you’ll appreciate the opportunity to learn about March 11 and its aftermath in the voice of a local.
For an exclusive video about the book featuring the author, click here.
For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.