Talking Suitcases in Fukushima, Japan

pilesofradioactivedirt from highway
Piles of radioactive dirt in Fukushima seen from the highway

In January, I visited Fukushima, Japan, – site of the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in 2011. I was invited there to meet some local activists and see if Talking Suitcases would be useful for their community. (For more about my visit, see my story “After the Sky Fell” in the June/July 2017 issue of the Progressive magazine )

While the trip was deeply moving and disturbing, I also felt honored to be invited into the community. I led a small Talking Suitcases workshop for activists and organizers. The topic they chose was “a favorite childhood memory” – a topic that gives a chance to see a side of people we rarely see – the child inside.

participant at workSome of the participants at work


I gave some of my own examples, then we set to work. Wood bits, beads, wire, colored tissue, and hot glue – that’s all we used. But the results led to all kinds of stories. One woman made a tiny pony, remembering how she loved to ride them at the fair, though she never had a chance to ride anywhere else.

littlehorseinhand
A little pony


A “tech” guy crafted a miniature bike complete with kickstand – impressing us with his story of a 200-mile bike trip he did in his teens. A theater activist made two small boats, and remembered fishing with his grandfather on the river beside their home. Our host, a survivor of the tsunami, made a sewing machine with spools of thread and tiny dress. She remembered her mother sewing all her clothes, and how she loved to sit beside her, filling the bobbins with colored thread.

sewingmachineThe sewing machine with spools and dress


A reserved neuroscientist made a tall block of wood with two blue eyes and a moon shining over it, standing beside a little block of wood. This was a memory from when he was five. He remembers standing outside and a giant bear staring at him in the moonlight; he never knew if it was real or a dream.

giantbearand smallboy
Giant bear and small boy in the moonlight


Everyone seemed to enjoy the session, led in a mix of Japanese and English. Each person had a turn to bring to life a slice of their childhood world. It was a fresh way to see each other, very fun, and drew us together, even though as adults we often seem so different.

objects on the table


I’m looking forward to future workshops in Fukushima, if our funding comes through.

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