Wednesday, October 7, 2015

KIZUNA, Tohuku, Japan


This blog first appeared on 12/11/2014.

Today's guest blogger is Sujata Massey, whom I've been very fortunate over the past few years to have as a member of the writing group I'm in.  Even when she moved from Minneapolis to Baltimore, she continued with the group, focussing in on the parts of our manuscripts that needed work.  For that a huge thank you.

Sujata is nearly all of us combined: she was born in England to parents from India and Germany. She grew up mostly in the United States (California, Pennsylvania and Minnesota) and earned her BA from the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars program. After that she worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper before marrying and moving to Japan. 

The area where Sujata once lived, an hour south of Tokyo, forms most of the settings of her Rei Shimura mysteries. The series has collected many mystery award nominations, including the Edgar, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark awards, and has won the Agatha and Macavity prizes for traditional mystery fiction. The Rei Shimura mysteries are published in 18 countries.

Taking a leaf out of Zoë's word of the week, Sujata has one of her own: kizuna, which she uses in the title of her latest Rei Shimura mystery, The Kizuna Coast, published by Ikat Press and available at on Dec 15, 2014, and at bookstores and multiple Internet platforms from February 15, 2015.

Sujata has also written a wonderful book, The Sleeping Dictionary, set in India.  It received a starred review from Booklist and is a delightful read.

In this blog, she explains why a word popularized by the government still holds power three years after Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

Please welcome Sujata Massey.

Stan - Thursday


In March 2011, Japan’s main island was rocked by a 9.0 Richter scale earthquake, the highest-power quake since such recordings began. The temblor triggered a tsunami wave that swept much of the northeastern coast. The wave reached more than 30 feet high, striking dozens of fishing villages and small towns in the scenic area called Tohoku.

Four years later, over 15,000 were recorded drowned, and more than a million buildings were damaged. Picture all that happening in one afternoon.  

Recent natural disasters have meant millions of people worldwide losing their homes and communities. Quite often survivors of these tragedies remain in trailers, tents, or on the street for years. Despite Japan’s economic strength, rebuilding has been difficult and delayed. Today, about 300,000 Japanese still live in temporary housing. In Fukushima--where a large nuclear reactor plant was damaged—whole towns of people may never be able to return home due to continued high radiation.
But as people continue to recount that fateful day in March, what stands out are the accounts of community members helping each other. Police and firefighters stayed on the job trying to help people evacuate, even though it meant they had no time to escape. Drivers packed their cars with neighbors as they rushed to higher ground. Nuclear power plant workers stayed in a lethal zone for weeks.

After the disaster, people traveled hundreds of miles to help clean up the towns and aid the survivors. Others welcomed Tohoku refugees into their homes. Throughout Japan, people waited patiently in line for gasoline and food and water in stores (which continued to sell at regular rather than black-market prices). The Japanese word for such actions is kizuna (kih-zoo-nah) and means “bonds of loving kindness.” People spoke of kizuna so often that the Japanese public voted it the kanji character of the year.

I’d been writing about Japan since the mid-1990s when the tsunami hit. Everything I’d published before was happy and humorous: mysteries celebrating Japan’s decorative arts traditions and stylish modern culture. Now that literary world had vanished. How could I set any book in Japan without referring to the tsunami?

I decided to make the next mystery about the tsunami, to bridge the old world I’d written about with the new. And without a doubt, the title had to have something about kizuna in it. With the help of readers, I came up with The Kizuna Coast.

However, I was anxious that my slow writing process—from 2011 to 2014--would produce a book published too late to matter at all. You know how disasters fade from memory—earthquakes in Haiti and the Philippines, the cyclones and floods in Bangladesh? So many people all over the world are sympathetic for just a few months. Another concern was that some Japanese feel the tsunami is so painful that it should not be the subject of books or art.

I pondered the steady trickle of poignant news from Tohoku: grand openings of libraries, hospitals, and schools contrasting with stories about survivors still desperate for government assistance. And I realized that for me, this is Japan’s story of the century. I believe that the tsunami tale should be told often and in many different voices.

Sugihama, the fictional setting of the novel, is a charming fishing village, like so many other real places nearby. Rei Shimura, the young Japanese-American antiques dealer featured in all my books, rushes into its devastated remains with a volunteer crew, hoping she’ll find a missing elderly friend. When she encounters a suspicious corpse, the police have no time for investigation. So she’s aided by townspeople, the armed services, medical volunteers, and an adorable rescue dog.

The final pages of the book hint at the great restoration that will come to Tohoku; but I knew while writing it that realistically, this would only be part of the picture. Today, many Japanese are disappointed by the government’s lack of commitment to improving sea walls and other important structures, and also providing support for unemployed, displaced people. And I have to agree with them that honoring and preserving the communities is simply an extension of kizuna.

Sujata - Thursday


  1. The world needs a lot more kizuna.

  2. Ditto. There is a lot among people in various countries. In European countries, people are being welcoming to migrants, as in Germany.
    Even with the government closing off the Hungarian borders, many of the population have been warm and friendly -- and providing help.
    On Sept. 12, there were rallies all over Europe to welcome the refugees.