In the pitch black, early-morning hours of March 11, 2011, my phone rang. Startled, I answered and heard my daughter Annie’s frantic voice calling from New Zealand. “Are they okay? Have you heard from Obaachan and Ojiichan? Are they okay?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. The news hadn’t reached my home in Spokane, Washington. My heart sank and my fears rose as I listened to Annie tell me what little she knew.
Hours before, at 2:46 in the afternoon Japan Time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean just off of the northeast coast of Japan. Forty-five minutes later, a 50-foot high tsunami wave, traveling at more than 50 miles an hour, hit the shoreline, laying waste to all in its path. The next day, the Fukushima nuclear reactors began to explode.
Annie was worried about the Nakatsugawas, our host family and dear friends, who live in Kyoto, near Osaka in the southwest and 500 miles away from the Tohoku region where the disasters struck. News was sketchy and for hours it was impossible to get through to the Nakatsugawas. Eventually, we discovered they were safe, but for the people in Tohoku, life would never be the same.
The morning before the disasters struck, most people in the area were leading full lives. Connected, interdependent and reasonably content, spending their days nestled in a familiar normalcy. That afternoon, everything changed. The Triple Disasters — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosions — would be the greatest environmental catastrophe to hit a country in living memory.
By the time the waters receded, nearly 20,000 people had lost their lives and another 500,000 lost their homes, jobs or both. Businesses, hospitals, schools, and homes — destroyed. Gas lines ruptured, train tracks gone, roadways missing. Everywhere they looked, their world was in ruins. In Fukushima, the disaster from the exploding reactors was largely imperceptible, yet harder to comprehend with a devastating impact that will last for lifetimes. Strong, self-reliant people now found themselves sleeping on school floors with hundreds and sometimes thousands of strangers, depending on others to bring them rice-balls three times a day for meals. Days turned into weeks and months with almost all sense of purpose in life destroyed. For those in the disaster area, it was being in a nightmare that would not end. Those outside the disaster zones felt a sense of helplessness. They did not know how to support the people of Tohoku but knew everything had changed. Beyond the personal loss, the physical devastation and the disturbing uncertainties about the nuclear explosions, the disasters struck at a deep psychological level. Such tragedies not only obliterate the present, they also destroy any pretense of a knowable future. Japan faced a tremendous challenge to not only clean up from the Triple Disasters — but to find a new future.
What was possible?
Where to begin?
How to make a new path forward?
These were the questions facing Japan. Over the coming years, as I worked with the people of Japan, they became my own.
I first arrived in Japan as a student at Waseda University in 1970. Forty years later, in 2010, I was invited to Japan to introduce work on dialogue, leadership and building healthy and resilient communities. On March 11, 2011, the Triple Disasters struck and on April 5th I flew to Japan. I would devote much of the next six years of my life to service in Japan.
This book is about my journey in Japan before and after the disasters. This book is about what I have seen and experienced and wondered in a lifetime dedicated to building resilient communities. While this is my personal story, it is also the story of the people I know and worked with in Japan. It is a story of what is arising in Tohoku — the disaster region — as well as in the rest of Japan and in places throughout the world. It is a universal story of people everywhere who are gaining insight into their own lives in a world where the future is obscure. It is the story of people who are calling together others in their communities and organizations to find a new way forward — realizing that they first need to rediscover where forward may be. It is our story — yours and mine. The question, of course, is what story will we each tell? How will we stand up? What will help us find our way forward?
For 2011-2014, I spent 4-5 months a year in Japan. My time has decreased since then, but I still return regularly. During those first years, I worked with people up and down the coast, from Iwaki south of the reactors to Otsuchi, just south of Miyako, in the north.
I wrote MIRAI GA MIE NAKU NATTA TOKI, BOKU TACHI WA NANI O KATARE BA II NO DAROU (When We Cannot See the Future, Where Do We Begin) to share my story with the people of Japan. It was published by Eiji Press in Tokyo in June of 2015 and has been well received in Japan, serving as a mirror and as a spotlight as people remember what we’ve been learning from the disasters.
In early 2015, my Japanese publisher told me the title they had chosen for my book — When We Cannot See the Future. Where Do We Begin? The brilliance of the title is all theirs. In Japan, the publisher decides the title, not the author, and they do so by going into deep discernment about the essence of the book. At Eiji Press, they concluded that this book really wasn’t about disaster, nor was it about building communities — it was about how we move forward when the future disappears. In Japanese, the title is subtle and brilliant and its question is the core of that book and this one as well. From the moment I heard it, the title started to work on me. Through the writing and my work, I’ve lived into that question, and I’ve realized that in these moments of blinding uncertainty, we must bring our attention to the present moment. Right here. Right now. We bring our attention to the people we are with and the resources we already have and to what’s really important.
I knew when I wrote the first book that there would be an English edition someday and that it would be different from the Japanese version. Though many readers might have experienced disasters, I would be writing to people who had not experienced and may not know a lot about the Japanese Triple Disasters. It has taken some stepping back to see what story this book has to tell. After many discussions with my friends and colleagues, I turned to this English edition on the morning of March 11, 2016, sitting in my host family’s home in Kyoto on the fifth anniversary of the Triple Disasters, known in Japan, simply, as 3.11.
On a plane ride to Japan in the fall of 2015, I had been thinking about the title of the English edition. I knew it needed to incorporate this sense of NOW as a point of departure. AfterNOW popped into view and I got off the airplane in Tokyo and immediately did a domain search. AfterNOW.org, .net, and .com were all taken. But there was a new domain extension — “.today” — which I immediately grabbed. It was perfect. It said it all. What’s important is what we do after now, after this present moment. And we need to begin TODAY.
Now as I finish writing this edition, in the early months of 2017, disasters in many forms are taking place around the world: cascading wars in the Middle East; millions of migrants desperately seeking safety; host countries being overwhelmed by the influx of people; economies collapsing in Greece, Zimbabwe and elsewhere around the world; random mass killings happening on our streets and in our schools and factories; and natural disasters destroying lives and property across the globe. Add to this list the systemic consequences of climate change, income inequality, brittle infrastructures, hate mongering and numerous other issues. Some might object if I called the election of Donald Trump a disaster, so I’ll settle for calling it a precursor of unpredictable disruptive change, which, of course, is what disaster is. And let’s not forget the more immediate personal disasters that come when a loved one dies, when a partner says, “I want a divorce” or we arrive at work and are told to clean out our desk and go home.
We live in a time that signals unimaginable shifts in our lives. Scientists say these are moments of “punctuated equilibrium” when systems shift suddenly and unpredictably. Popular language sometimes refers to this as the transition from old to new paradigms. In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter offers a compelling analysis of how the very complexity that societies generate as part of their growth contains the seeds of their collapse. Meg Wheatley’s new book Who Do We Choose To Be offers vivid insight into patterns of social disintegration.
We have done enough damage to our global ecology that we can depend on more and more hurricanes, forest fires, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes, crippling snow and ice storms and the like. In addition, many of our structures and systems in areas ranging from healthcare to education, from transportation infrastructure to sanitation, are overloaded, overwhelmed, brittle and collapsing. We will continue to have disasters: natural and man-made, structural and physical, systemic a d psychological, smaller and larger.
Whatever the cause, our lives and the world are steeping in disaster.
Disasters Shake Us Awake
Disasters end the lives of some and cause trauma and grief for many. They turn cities and countries upside down. They smack us on the side of the head, making us open our eyes and see the world and stories we are living in.
Disasters demolish our carefully constructed lives and dreams. They dissolve the ways in which we find meaning and make sense in our lives. They reveal how our lives are sometimes like a house of cards held together by stress and inertia. In disasters, the cards collapse, our present falls apart, and our future — the one we envisioned, the one we counted on — is gone.
Disasters wake us up. We live in times of both trauma and possibility. Even after great tragedy and pain, we have a deep human capacity to create something new. Disasters are also a huge wake-up call that release us from the trance of our old normal and the future that was laid out in front of us. Disasters can be the springboard to create the lives we actually want. In these times, we are invited to look closely at how we want to live our lives. Important questions become visible:
- What happens after now, today? What do we do when we can’t see the future anymore?
- How do we proceed when our normal vanishes overnight? How do we open our eyes, see our world as it is, find those we need to be with and ask what is possible now?
- How do we live well in this breath-taking moment, between the old and the new, surrounded by what’s dying and what’s being born? How do we keep from closing down, turning from chaos to fear and control?
- How can we respond to these disasters so that we can discover and unleash our creativity? How can we take advantage of these times to turn to each other to build something new?
When the future is unknowable, we bring our attention to now, to the present moment. We bring our attention to ourselves and to each other as we welcome in the unseen and create together that which brings us joy. And we join together to build a new future.
For me, this is the underlying lesson of the aftermath of the Triple Disasters. It is also what led me to first write the Japanese version of this book and now this English version.
In Japan, the Triple Disasters created a space and a necessity for change. In Japan, a deeply collective culture, this space is both individual and widespread. The birth of the new is taking place everywhere. Especially in Fukushima and in the coastal areas hit hardest by the disasters, where the old normal is gone. There is no going back.
This book weaves together my experience of how disaster dissolves any knowledge of the future with the stories of how people in Japan found their way forward. The stories in this book offer insights about how they have begun to transform their lives.
On a personal level, I write about the journey I took as I fell into service in Japan. It also represents the chaotic, complex, confusing and uncertain journey each of us undertakes when we follow life’s calling and step into the unknown. I hope that reading about my journey will give you insights about your own.
I share stories from many people in Japan and from other places in the world because I believe they are inspiring as well as informative. They give us a chance to take a step back and look in on the immensely rich journey of grief at the disappearance of the old, combined with excitement about the emergence of the new.
I offer some of the approaches I used working in communities in Japan as they stepped together into new possibilities — tools, methodologies, approaches, and views that sustained me as I worked with people across Japan to make sense out of what was happening. These were my starting points. I hope they will help you find yours.
There are many stories, voices, and lessons in this book. You can read it from cover to cover or you can pick up the book at any point that speaks to you, read it and put it down. I suggest you follow the principle of start anywhere, follow it everywhere. You’ll also find that I repeat certain core ideas throughout the book, sometimes using different phrasing to give a different access. Grab what works for you and build on it. Let go of the rest. There’s a lot here. This book is not written around a single big idea. It is written around the big question of how to live when our past is obliterated, our present chaotic and our future cocooned.