Saturday, October 7, 2006

Takeharu Watai's Little Birds provides sensitive window into human consequences of the Iraq War

"Don't cry, Daddy, we've become birds in heaven."- Takeharu Watai's Little Birds
The best and most empathetic global visual window on the American and British led war in Iraq has not been the work of an American or a British journalist, but a film by an award-winning thirty-five-year-old Japanese video journalist Watai Takeharu.

Watai, who wrote a book in Japanese with the same title, spent over a year filming his 2005 documentary film, Little Birds.

One of the Iraqis he follows in his narrative is Ali Saqban, whose three children died since the American invasion of Iraq. The title of Watai's film comes from the words on the gravestone, written by people who helped Saqban bury his children: "Don't cry, Daddy, we've become birds in heaven."

Watai allows the faces and voices of Iraqis, devastated by the war, and American soldiers, many whom are very young, poor, and don't know why they are in Iraq, to speak for themselves:
March 2003, before air-raids started, life in Baghdad was graced with the smiling faces and laughter of children.

Soon, the bombings started and have resulted in many deaths and injuries.

Takeharu Watai, the director was there when the U.S. Army entered Baghdad, and witnessed a woman standing in front of a U.S. tank and shouting, "How many children have you killed? Go to the hospital and see the people dying!"

At these words, Watai visited Thawra Hospital in Baghdad. There in the middle of the tragic mess, he met Ali Saqban, 32, whose daughter was dying. Saqban lost two elder brothers during the Iran-Iraq War, and was himself injured during the Kuwait invasion. Now he has lost three of his children by the U.S. entry into Iraq.

"I don't think people were created to kill people," he says as he kneels in front of his children's graves.

Hadeel, 12, lost her right eye by the cluster bomb, an inhuman weapon used by the U.S.A, and Ahmad his right hand.

By showing these families who are torn apart and hurt by the war, Watai questions the audiences in Japan and in the world as to the "significance" of the war.
"War is a disgusting word," Ali Saqban says at the end of the film.

Little Birds won the Human Rights Award at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival and the 2005 Japan Conference of Journalists Grand Prize. The film was screened earlier this week at the Raindance Film Festival in London, and earlier this year at the Singapore International Film Festival and the Global Peace Film Festival in Beppu City, Japan. Last year, it was screened at the EBS International Documentary Festival (EIDF) in Seoul.

Watai has worked with Asia Press International, a news agency consisting of a group of independent video journalists, since 1998.

In February 2005, the journalist traveled on the 48th voyage of Peace Boat, a Japan-based international NGO that promotes peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.

The Peace Boat website has an interview which reflects Watai's clear-sighted and human-centered perspective on Iraq and war, focusing on those, including U.S. soldiers, caught in the middle of and paying the price of whatever this war was about:
I asked so many people, “When the air raids started, what did you do?”

They said that they couldn’t do anything. I really sympathized with them. At that time, if they opposed the war, it meant that they were fighting for Saddam. They didn’t like that.

One taxi driver said “I don’t want war, but I will not help Saddam, this is why I didn’t do anything”. During the Saddam regime, the people did not have a choice. Even now, they don’t have a choice. Two weeks before the war started, I entered Baghdad and I was very surprised at their lives. They were going to school, children were playing football, and people were in the markets. They were very optimistic. Now, they just pretend to be optimistic.

In Iraq, I think it is very difficult to generalize, because there are so many ethnic groups and ways of thinking. At that time, the people couldn’t do anything. If someone criticized Saddam, he would go to jail or be executed. But they don’t want war. They wanted the Saddam regime to be over, because he couldn’t do anything. Then the war started...

I met so many American soldiers in Iraq - Korean Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans. They were very young. There were a lot of students there, because in America, they can get scholarships if they enter the Army. Also, they can get green cards. That’s why a lot of young and poor people enter the army. I think there were few rich people – they’re very poor in the US army.

Also, they don’t understand why they are in Iraq. They say “to liberate the Iraqi people or help them”, but they are just saying that. It’s not from deep in their minds. I asked one guy, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Why can’t you find them?” He couldn’t answer. He said “you can find them with your camera”. What does that mean? They don’t understand the reason for the war.

I believe they also are victims. The army is like a bridge. One side is killing people, the other is being killed.
Watai adds unexpected information about the relationship between Iraq and Japan:
I was surprised that before, the Iraqi people loved Japan very much – more than any other country.

I have been to many countries and many people have knowledge of Japanese companies, but the Iraq people are very friendly to Japanese and trust them. That was before. But now, the impression of Japanese people is getting worse.

We have lost our good friends in Iraq because of this. Iraq is a very rich country, with rich culture, education and resources, but it has been destroyed by war.

Friday, July 28, 2006

“I am here as a journalist, but first and foremost as a human rights activist”: Iraqi correspondent Isam Rasheed visits Japan, urges focus on war’s human costs

(Photo of Isam Rashed by Kimberly Hughes)

Isam Rashed, an Iraqi journalist whose work appears regularly in Inter Press Service news reports, gave a talk and video presentation on the evening of Wednesday, June 14th in Tokyo’s Bunkyo ward as part of an event co-sponsored by Iraq Hope Network and World Peace Now—both of which are coalitions of smaller Japan-based NGOs and grassroots citizens groups.
Rasheed told the audience of several hundred people that although he was visiting Japan in his capacity as a journalist, his ultimate purpose was as a human rights activist committed to getting the word out as widely as possible regarding the widespread suffering among his people at the hands of the U.S. military occupation. 

Rasheed showed two video films documenting the human costs of the war that have befallen the citizens of Fallujah, including Caught In the Crossfire," a documentary film that was shot between November 2004 and April 2005 as a collaborative project between Iraqi and U.S. filmmakers, including himself and Mark Manning (The Road to Fallujah).

The images spoke for themselves in terms of the horrific suffering that has continued to plague the people of Iraq: listless children with torn limbs; men whose dead bodies have been riddled with various tortures; a young woman who has lost an eye in addition to two of her children. These tragic scenes were then suddenly interspersed with a simulated look through the viewfinder of a Apache helicopter-making the contrast between the cold technological apparatuses of the U.S. military and the suffering on the ground all the more grippingly poignant.

Rasheed also pointed out that what happened in Fallujah also repeated itself in the city of Ramadi, whose citizens were suddenly ordered to evacuate the city this past April despite the fact that most had no other shelter to turn to. Many ended up in mosquito-infested desert encampments with filthy water and little food, and those who stayed behind were left (and continue to remain) as virtual prisoners in their homes. Many civilians have been wounded or killed by the ensuing attacks, and essentially remain trapped inside the city with dwindling lifelines of food, water and electricity. 

Rasheed lamented the “dirty” way in which the U.S. continues to conduct this war in his country. He explained that medicines to soothe and care for the wounded remain scarce, and young men are being taken away and incarcerated en masse by the U.S.-trained Iraqi police. Anyone moving about is required to pass through multiple military checkpoints, where civilians are forced to wait in line for several hours and then subjected to humiliating searches that essentially treat them all as criminals.

“Is this really U.S. style democracy?” Rasheed asked pointedly. He also charged that the U.S. has deliberately utilized divide-and-conquer tactics, such as pitting Sunni against Shia where such divisions hardly existed in the past, and deliberately infiltrating the police force with guerrilla-like death squads. Such moves, he suggests, have been useful for deepening the justification for occupation (i.e., more dead Iraqis mean more reasons for the U.S. to stay and offer protection).

Sharing the stage with Rasheed at this event was moderator Nahoko Takato, a humanitarian aid worker  working with the Iraq Hope Network who expressed similar distress regarding the conditions that she witnessed while working in Iraq. Her blog,  the Iraqi Hope Diary, details accounts received regularly via e-mail  from a friend in Ramadi that offer a gripping firsthand account of how dismal life has become in the city. Recently, Takato received word from the author of these accounts that his brother died on June 12th from loss of blood after being injured in a car accident and then detained at a U.S. military checkpoint on the way to the hospital.

"The concept of our project is 'reconstruction, not destruction,' but how will my friend react now after the loss of his brother?" Takato wrote in a recent blog entry. "I pleaded with him to channel his heartbreak and rage into continuing to write to us about what was happening in Ramadi, instead of picking up a weapon. After considering the matter, he finally told me not to worry because he was committed to protecting his family through peaceful means." 

Throughout the evening's presentation, Rasheed repeated different variations of a singular gripping question: How would you react if what was now happening in Iraq was happening instead to you and your family? He invited each of us in the audience to go beyond the video game-like presentation of war that has been offered to us by the mainstream media, and actually imagine what war feels like. 

Could we imagine, he asked, the terror that we and our loved ones would experience upon being awakened from a peaceful sleep in the middle of the night as our home was suddenly and violently busted into by foreign soldiers? How would we feel, he continued, if we were then subjected to invasive body searches, as was the case for Rasheed and each member of his family--including his 85 year-old father and five year-old son? Could we even begin to conceive of the pain, he asked, of those who have lost everything through violent means--family members, home, possessions--while continuing to be treated as virtual prisoners on their own territory?

Listening to Rasheed’s accounts of the events that unfolded in Fallujah--particularly when he described an incident whereby citizens who were first ordered to leave the city were then later prevented at gunpoint from crossing a bridge to escape--reminded me of the situation of martial law that befell the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. While there is obviously no parallel to be made here with the situation in Iraq, the increased militarization of cities and borders that is now taking place inside the U.S. should give us pause regarding the callous way that our government responds to human needs during times of crisis even in our own country. 

This challenge that Rasheed offers us—to put ourselves in the position of suffering that is now the plight of the Iraqi people—is a powerful one that carries the potential to determine whether or not the fatal spiral of violence will finally be put to rest. For those of us who understand that labels such as “allies” vs. “enemies” and “insurgents” vs. “freedom-fighters” are false dichotomies that rest upon nothing more than the fragile matter of perspective, this leap is not a difficult one to make. Call it the cycle of revenge or call it pure karma, but in either case, it is clear that the task before us is to come face to face with the worst of all possible horrors, tortures, and suffering--and then imagine them being inflicted upon those who are closest to us. 

Americans who refuse to allow the tables to be turned, however, and continue to insist that we are still the “good guys” while ignoring bad news such as the recent Iraqi ambassadorial memo    and the tortures perpetrated by the U.S. military against Iraqis, must understand that this failure to empathize with others' suffering will ultimately continue to bring tragedy to all parties involved. 

Rasheed cautioned, for example, that Iraqis and others in the Middle East are starting to no longer automatically make distinctions between the U.S. government and its citizens. And if the U.S. continues along the same path, he said, he feared that it would be quite possible that Americans would be shown little mercy in the future. Indeed, the fate that befell the two recently kidnapped U.S. soldiers, should help drive home the point that any suffering unleashed can and will come back to confront head on those who are perceived to be its perpetrators. 

Rasheed emphasized, however, that his intent was not to encourage ill will toward ordinary American citizens, and that his interactions with committed U.S. peace organizations such as Code Pink, Global Exchange, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Voices in the Wilderness, etc. have helped him to remain aware of continuing principled opposition to the war in Iraq that does exist within the U.S. 

“The situation in our country has become so bad that no one knows who they can trust anymore,” Rasheed explained. “I just want to spread the word as far and as wide as possible about what is really happening to us.”

Ways to help:

New petition sponsored by the Iraq Hope Network to stop the violence in Ramadi and abide by international law in Iraq:

Initiative asking voters to pledge to choose only candidates who commit to withdrawing troops from Iraq:

July 4th hunger strike aimed at bringing home the troops:

- Kimberly Hughes

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Darrell Moen on Organic Farming as Social Change: "Regional Revitalization in the Okitama Basin of Yamagata Prefecture"

Anthropologist Darrell Moen's fascinating account of disenchanted Japanese leaving large cities and taking up organic farming to revitalize rural areas:

Excerpt from "Regional Revitalization in the Okitama Basin of Yamagata Prefecture":
This report describes the ways in which a group of organic farmers in Yamagata Prefecture have been able to effect basic structural changes that contribute to the social transformative process of counter-hegemony.

Members of the Okitama farmers' League (OFL) have initiated a regional revitalization plan that is based on the concept of eco-circularity in which local household food wastes and other organic materials are converted into compost for use by area organic farmers. By forming organic farmers' collectives, members provide farm-related work in rural areas during the long winter months. The women farmers in the group formed a support group for farm wives to fight collectively against female subordination within the household as well as to improve the overall position of women in the Okitama area.

They are challenging the dominant culture's values and social assumptions, and are engaged in creating new cultural values and definitions of self in relation to others. The Okitama Farmers League offers a vision of a noneconomistic, democratized, and environmentally sustainable society centered on universal principles of human rights, social justice, and popular participation in the reformulation of the meanings attached to work, authority, culture, family, community, gender, and consumption.

At each of four regional organic farmers' groups I visited in Japan while engaged in my dissertation fieldwork research, I found at least two or three member farmers who had experienced living in the megalopolises of either Osaka or Tokyo for an extended period of time (between four and ten years). Some of these farmers left home to attend colleges and universities, returning to the family farm upon graduation; others had pursued careers in the city after finishing their schooling.

Referred to as the "U-turn phenomenon" in Japan, increasing numbers of the sons and daughters of farm families are returning to their natal towns and villages from often prolonged stays in major metropolises, and a large number of those who return and take over family farms are doing so on the condition that they will be able to farm organically. They bring back with them not only invigorating new ideas and new forms of behavior, but also eye-opening stories of the alienating lifestyles and hardships associated with city life that make life in the countryside appear greatly preferable in contrast.

The returnees often breathe new life into regional towns and villages, and their enthusiastic determination to succeed as full-time organic farmers, helping to form various organic farmers' collectives and (by the mind-1980s) working with other rural residents to revitalize the countryside, often acts as a catalyst, motivating others to work together to improve their lives.

The presence of the returnees accelerates the process of transcending the rural-urban dichotomy, as they maintain their ties (material and ideological) with both areas. Because of their familiarity with the hectic and congested urban lifestyle, their friendships with urban residents, their knowledge of broader social issues and their experience with some of the movements associated with them, and their ultimate decision to choose the rural over the urban, they have been able to make significant contributions to the growth of the organic farming movement in the relatively remote regional areas of Japan.

In this report, I focus on a group of organic farmers in Okitama County (Yamagata Prefecture) who are involved in revitalizing their entire regional economy.1 Okitama County, with its three cities, five towns, and numerous villages, lies in a fertile basin surrounded by the Northern Japan Alps. Situated in the middle of Japan's snow belt, the county has an agricultural season that lasts only six months, and 95 percent of the county's farm families obtain most of their income from a combination of local factory employment at subcontracting firms and migratory labor during the six months of winter.
(Originally posted at the Kyoto Journal website)

Friday, March 17, 2006

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Spread St. Patrick's Day Parades (Occidental-friendly Matsuri) throughout Japan, & May Be Saving Civilization Again

(or at least putting some much-needed goodwill and fun into our shared World Civilization for one day a year)
The outward signs of any Japanese matsuri are the most puzzling enigmas to the stranger who sees them for the first time. They are many and varied; they are quite unlike anything in the way of holiday decoration ever seen in the Occident; they have each a meaning founded upon some belief or some tradition, --- a meaning known to every Japanese child; but that meaning is utterly impossible for any foreigner to guess.

- Lafcadio Hearn, 1894
A little less than a century after Hearn wrote these words, the first St. Patrick's Day parade in Tokyo in 1991 joined Japan's many matsuris, with decorations easily understandable to people all over the world. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the first Japanese St. Patrick's Day parade down Omote-Sando's broad, tree-lined boulevard in Tokyo's youth mecca, Harajuku. This year, six parades will be taking place throughout Japan, in Nagoya, Sendai, Kyoto, Ise, Yokohama, and Tokyo.

Thomas Cahill's 1995 book tells us how the Irish saved civilization during the European Middle Ages. However, it remains a mystery how and why Irish people from the far western end of the massive Eurasian landmass, leapfrogged two continents, to its far eastern end in Japan—to make Tokyo an epicenter of ever-increasing waves of St. Patrick's Day parades spreading throughout the archipelago. These Irish-Japanese parades seem to be generated by enthusiasm at the grassroots, thus are different from other adopted European and American holidays such as Valentine's Day and Christmas, popularized by department stores for commercial reasons.

There are many issues here that merit scrutiny and discussion by those interested in multiculturalism: What is it about St. Patrick's Day that gives it such strong appeal in Japan? The Guinness? The similarity to Japanese matsuri? The costumes? The music? The dancing? How does the Irish concept Craic compare with the Japanese term Tanoshii? Are they both the same and different? Why and how?

Does everyone, in fact, become Irish on St. Patrick's Day? That would make St.Patrick's Day's "Irishness" a metaculture, possibly saving contemporary civilization by serving as a global day of ethnic transcendence every year.

Why did Japan become the eastern center for St. Patrick's Day parades? Simply because of geography, because it's at the far eastern end of Eurasia and the Irish could go no further? Or are there more compelling reasons why? And, will these parades now begin spreading from Japan westward through Korea to China to India, in a reverse path from Buddhism? Will Celtic Christian motifs join the syncretic art in the Dunhuang caves in China? Who will be the pilgrims and saints spearheading this movement? Do I hear Enya singing "Sumiregusa" ("Wild Violet") in Japanese in the background?

The St. Patrick's Day parade, now a global cottage industry, has been multicultural from its inception. It was not indigenous to Ireland, but, instead, created in the Irish-American diasporan culture when the first parade took place in 1762 in New York. When Irish immigrants flooded the United States to escape the mid-1800's Irish Famine, they encountered discrimination by the dominant Anglo-Protestants. As St. Patrick's Day became a rallying symbol for Irish-American pride, parades began proliferating all over the United States.

The story of the Irish in Japan, of course, dates at least back to Lafcadio Hearn, a nineteenth-century global nomad, and an Anglo-Irish-Greek-American-Japanese hyphenate. About a century after the chronicler of "Old Japan" migrated to the archipelago, Irish engineers, business people, and teachers started arriving in larger numbers during Ireland's economic slump when Japan experienced its 1980's Go-Go decade.

Around one hundred young Irish teachers come to Japan on the JET program every year. Some Irish students simply come to Japan to study or visit. A sizeable proportion of these people have remained to permanently work for a Japanese company, often marrying Japanese spouses. When the Irish economy began taking off in the 1990's, IT and other business networks have developed between the two countries. Japanese companies have established offices and manufacturing plants in Ireland and Irish businesses have come to Japan. There are also 70 Irish pubs throughout Japan, from Kyushu to Hokkaido; the Japan Gaelic Athletic Association; and several Irish music and dance groups and schools.

Around nine hundred registered Irish residents live in Japan (compared to a little over seven hundred Japanese residents in Ireland). Japanese spouses, mixed children, Japanese aficionados of Irish culture, Irish-Americans, and Irish-Australians increase the population of the multi-ethnic Irish community in Japan.

One of my most pleasant memories of the Irish community in Tokyo is of an Irish-Indian-Japanese St. Patrick's Day party at the Irish ambassador's house in the early 1990's, where a Japanese virtuoso Celtic harpist played in the background.

The ambassador's wife was from India so they had an Irish-Punjabi fusion cuisine buffet – Irish soda bread served with curry dishes – with Guinness Stout and Bailey's Irish Creme for beverages. When I commented on how great the combination was, a young Irishman told me that India and Ireland actually have ancient connections and that the Irish and Indian languages are related through the Indo-European/Central Asian family. For example, the word for "brother" in Sanskrit is bhratar, and related to the Irish brathair.

And while there are differences between Ireland and Japan, they have more in common besides both being island outposts of Eurasia. In ancient Ireland, before the Christian conversion, the sun was also a powerful symbol. It's said that St. Patrick actually incorporated sun symbology with that of the cross, creating the Celtic cross. Their cultures share the veneration of water as a regenerative symbol in ritual cleansing and purification. There's a deep love of poetry in both countries. Seamus Heaney, the Irish literary Nobel laureate, is a personal friend of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who visited him last year.

An Irish friend of mine, who is married to a Japanese woman, and lives in Japan permanently, told me he felt at home in Japan from the moment he arrived, especially when he saw the spirals and circles in the rock gardens of Kyoto. They reminded him of Celtic art.

Similarly, a Japanese friend of mine told me that traditional Irish music awakened something hauntingly powerful inside of him. I told him perhaps aspects of traditional Japanese culture—repressed in Japan during its rapid modernization during the Meiji (1868-1912) period when schools began teaching classical European music at the expense of traditional Japanese music; similarly to the Anglo-Saxon repression of Celtic culture—still lingered in the Japanese collective unconscious. Perhaps these yearnings for what had been lost began surfacing in him upon the recognition of a parallel of itself in the traditional Irish musical revivals.

Formerly suppressed indigenous and traditional cultures have not only resurfaced, but are also flourishing worldwide. In the African-American experience, ancient African rhythms survived severe cultural repression during slavery. One African-American scholar attributes this to persistent "cultural memory." In the 1990's, as a Japanese traditional musical revival began building steam in tandem with the Irish traditional musical explosion (and world music everywhere), I couldn't help but wonder if there was something very old and powerful at play.

Echoing Buddhist thought and the mysticism of other faith traditions, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who had his own connections with Japan, including writing a Noh play, At the Hawk's Well, had another more mystical theory—that we all resonate to archetypal symbols, no matter from which culture, because, ultimately, we are all made of one single energy—and that memories of this unity can be evoked by symbols:
The borders of our minds are ever shifting
And many minds can flow into one another...

And create or reveal a single mind, a single energy
But these are just a couple of possible hypotheses on the topic of the proliferation of Irish parades in Japan, a subject which deserves much more investigation, and, as a toast to this ongoing discussion, I join all those in Japan and everywhere wishing each other "Éirinn go Brách"or "Happy St.  Patrick's Day!"

- Jean Miyake Downey

(Originally posted at the Kyoto Journal website. Photos of St. Pat's Day parade in Tokyo 2006, courtesy of Kjeld Duits at