Meet Caroline, one of the titans working behind the scenes to help with rebuilding the Tohoku area in the aftermath of the March 11th 2011 Great East Japan Eartquake and Tsunami. Contrary to what you might expect, she forged her bond with Tohoku only after the disaster and eversince her enterpreneurial spirit has led her to raise around £170,000 in donations! Caroline moved to Japan in the 90s in search of adventure and we can confirm that she has found plenty of it during the 15 years she had lived there. We talked with Caroline about the Oshika Peninsula region - Tohoku's unknown gem and her new book ‘One Month in Tohoku: An Englishwoman's memoir on life after the Japanese tsunami’ you can take a look at on her website. She wrote it to mark the tenth anniversary but it has been a great comfort to many as it shows how to find love and laughter in difficult times.
Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you give us a quick self-introduction?
I grew up in the UK, qualified as a teacher, and travelled to Japan when I was 24, in 1996, in search of adventure. I started my first business six months after moving there — it was a community magazine for women, which led to me writing my first book, and eventually establishing a publishing company. I was a serial entrepreneur in Tokyo until March 11th, 2011, when my focus changed to supporting the people I met when delivering donations to the Tohoku area. I then became very attached to a remote fishing peninsula called Oshika, and even though I live in the UK now (where I set up a new business, this time not publishing but pickling!) I return to Oshika every year for at least a month. In the past ten years I have raised about ¥25 million for them (that’s about £170,000) and voluntarily managed about forty different projects there to help them rebuild. They have become like family to me, and my book is about their recovery but also about our relationship — I always say that it is my memoir, but it’s their story.
What drew you to working and living in Japan? How did you find it?
I initially decided to go there because it was really far away from England and I knew nothing about it! I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t know anything about the culture. I thought that sounded as adventurous as you could get. A friend had travelled there for a year after university and she said that I could get a good job teaching there. But she warned me not to stay longer than a year because she said all the foreigners were crazy! I stayed for fifteen years … I’m not sure what that says about me!
In all seriousness, I stayed because I fell in love with the country. Not at first … at first it was very, very difficult being a foreign woman there. This was in the nineties, and way before any kind of social media, so it was very difficult to get information, difficult to make friends, and difficult to feel connected in general. It could be very lonely at times. But something just kept telling me that I should be there, and after about two years, that was it. I was hooked, and Japan became home.
I found living in Japan to be one long adventure. I loved the 24-hour nature of life in Tokyo, I enjoyed the networking opportunities that the Tokyo business community presented, and the friends I made there are friends for life. The bond that you can make with the people you meet in Japan is something quite special.
I loved the seasons — Japan is such a beautiful country any time of year. And the people are so friendly (on the whole). Really happy to help you out if you’re lost, or explain elements of Japanese culture or tradition.
Do you have any tips for people looking to move to Japan?
It might sound obvious but learn Japanese. You’d be surprised the number of people who live there long-term and don’t — I was one of them. Life was just too busy as an entrepreneur in Tokyo so there wasn’t time to study, and with all my clients and employees speaking English so well, there genuinely wasn’t any opportunity to practice. It was only after the disaster, when I regularly found myself immersed in an environment where nobody spoke English that I started speaking it properly. AND, it’s only now, 25 years AFTER moving to Japan, and now being based in the UK, that I’m actually finding the time to sit down and study Japanese. I’d encourage anyone to study Japanese BUT at the same time, if you don’t speak Japanese, don’t let it stop you from moving to Japan, visiting or exploring the country, or making connections with Japanese people. Don’t let your lack of Japanese skills put you off enjoying everything Japan has to offer.
How did you come to be so closely connected to the Tohoku region?
It was after the disaster. I went there for the first time in May 2011, to distribute emergency supplies I had collected in the UK. That trip had a huge impact on me, and I couldn’t NOT return, so I went back in January 2012 to spend one month there. Then again later that year, for another month, then again and again. The people there got in my heart and stayed. So I keep going back!
We hear you’ve spent a lot of time in the Oshika Peninsula region. What is the area like and what is there to do?
It is an absolutely beautiful part of Japan that many people — even Japanese people — haven’t heard of. It has a very interesting history, having originally been populated by samurai that were hiding away from Date Masamune. He discovered them in the mountains and also fell in love with the place, so spared their lives on the condition that they would protect the new home he would build there. Descendants of those samurai still live there!
There’s still a lot of reconstruction work going on throughout the peninsula, which was very badly affected by 311. But the people maintain their sense of humour, and are so welcoming to visitors. The food is amazing — and made by little family-owned businesses that have been in the area for generations.
You can take a boat over to Kinkasan, which is one of the three most sacred places in Tohoku. It is a shrine island, where nobody lives unless they are working at the shrines. It is believed that if you visit there for three consecutive years, you will never have money worries again. Deer roam everywhere on the peninsula (the “shika” part of “Oshika” means “deer”) and on Kinkasan, they are so tame that they will eat out of your hand.
The peninsula’s memorial to 311 is in Ohara, and it is a beautiful work of art. It has the names of all the peninsula’s lives lost engraved, and at 2:46pm on 11th March every year, the sun shines through a specific part of the memorial. It’s quite spectacular.
And no visit to Oshika is complete without going to Gobanshoukoen — the highest part of the peninsula, from which you can get an incredible panoramic view.
You’ve just released a book called ‘One Month in Tohoku: An Englishwoman's memoir on life after the Japanese tsunami’. Can you tell us a bit about it and why you chose to release it now?
I wrote it to mark the ten-year anniversary. It is called “One Month in Tohoku” after that first month that I went to stay there but those “just one months” turned into years and years! The book actually spans a decade, and tells the story of how the people on Oshika have recovered after 311, and how they are still recovering now. It is the story of all the people throughout the world that have supported these little fishing communities in their recovery. And it is the story of our rather special friendship. I wrote the book before Covid, so I couldn’t have anticipated this, but a lot of people have said that the book has restored their faith in humanity while everything around us seems to be in turmoil. I refer to the book as showing that it is possible to find love and laughter through disaster. There’s a lot of unexpected humour in it!
You talk a lot about the people of Oshika and their sense of humour. Could you share one of your favourite anecdotes from the book?
Some of them are perhaps a little too rude to share here! BUT one of my favourites is when I did my laundry there for the first time. I was staying in a community centre — one of the few buildings that survived in the village of Ohara, and I saw lengths of rope hung up outside the centre with pegs on them, so I assumed that it was OK for me to hang my washing out. As I was hanging out my washing, a (non-local) Japanese man started freaking out and telling me that Japanese people never hung their washing outside. I got really worried about upsetting people, but then the head of the village thought it was hilarious and told me to continue hanging it up because it would cheer everyone up. So this little community centre in the middle of nowhere had all my clothes hanging outside it, including some very brightly coloured and patterned (and some rather skimpy) underwear. They loved it! The head of the village said that my laundry should be treated like a shrine, and all the single men should pray to it, in the hope that it would bring them wives. People still laugh about that memory now.
How can people continue to support the people of Tohoku on their journey of recovery?
Don’t forget them. Visit Tohoku. Spend money there. Stay in the hotels. Eat the local food. Leave some money at the shrines. Buy souvenirs. Order goods from Tohoku online. And look out for any projects there that directly impact the communities there in a positive way, and support and promote them. And if you do manage to go there, don’t go feeling sad and sympathetic … go with a huge smile. You’ll get so many back.
The past months have been long and tough, but hopefully we can take the broken pieces and make something beautiful.
What is your favourite example of the kintsugi philosophy in Japan? (ie taking something that was broken and improving it, giving it a new lease of life)
This is so interesting that you would ask that question. I have been doing daily readings from my book, live on Facebook — I only read the uplifting or funny stories, as an attempt to cheer people up a little bit. Sometimes I make a little comment afterwards about something I take away from that extract. And a few days ago, I read a story that made me then ask people this question … In thinking about times when we have to rebuild our lives again — from whatever trauma life might have presented to us, whether it be loss, ill health, abuse, or disaster — is it possible that that new life can be even more beautiful than the life we had before, because the new life has been made with so much love, kindness, and compassion from others? I like to think of the gold in kintsugi is all that love and kindness from all over the world, that has helped make Tohoku an even more beautiful place than it was before.