"I look up as I walk." I translate the beginning of the Sukiyaki Song, kneeling on the tatami floor of my hot Shikoku apartment some twelve, thirteen years ago. The first line is not that hard. "Sore wa doushite desu ka?" asks my teacher. I read on to find out why someone might choose to walk in this way. "So that … something to do with a tear … doesn’t..." There is an unfamiliar verb that I suppose I should know, or at least be able to guess at, but I really can't imagine why anyone might walk with their face pointed skywards. Patiently as ever, my teacher interprets the text until I understand: "I look up as I walk, So that the tears won't fall". What a delightful concept – and how Japanese; understated sadness, acceptance, moving on.
Of course, it's a bit poetic for the real world. And yet in planning the London Victoriathon - our Walk for Japan - over recent weeks, the memory resurfaced with new meaning. As with any disaster, there had been horror at the events in Tohoku, but as the news worsened with every passing hour, the horror turned to distress, compounded inevitably by my own close ties with Japan. My friends were safe, but they were upset and frightened, and some had loved ones in the affected areas. My Japanese teacher, now living in Tokyo, reported that her home had not stopped shaking for three days. That my town had not been hit was indeed a blessing, yet entire communities just like mine had been destroyed: JETs, their Japanese teachers, their adopted families, crazy neighbours, favourite shopkeepers and noodle bar owners, their supervisors, their earnest students - and the naughty ones – all gone. And left behind, hundreds of thousands more, not only bereaved and homeless, but in many cases robbed of their entire personal landscapes; lifetimes of papers, photos, letters, washed heartbreakingly away in seconds along with the schools, parks, theatres and community centres that hold a person's memories and foster one's sense of belonging.
While those affected were meeting fate with poise and decorum, snivelling in front of the telly thousands of miles away was clearly self-indulgent and futile. Compelled to show solidarity, I searched the internet for inspiration; current JETs, and alumni in most of the major English-speaking countries, were already getting mobilised, but I needed a concept that was inexpensive to stage, easy to administer and that had the potential to raise money with only a few participants. Reading about the Tokyo Yamathon, an annual race along the Japan Rail Yamanote Line, gave me the idea of putting on a version of the event in London.
How often does a plan come together so that it seems almost predestined? Ex-GEOS teacher and old friend from Ehime days, Steve Munday, unhesitatingly jumped on board and several days of relatively intense, enthusiastic collaboration yielded a premise, a logo, flyer, maps and, finally, a charity and JustGiving site. The Victoria Line, being London's busiest Tube line and 14 miles long, provided the ideal basis for our 19-mile (31 km) route, especially because it bisects Piccadilly, home to the Embassy of Japan and the Japan Centre.
Our chosen date was 16th April, so time for planning and publicity was at a premium. With apprehension, I approached the task of e-mailing my contacts about the walk. Why should others care about this just because I did? I told myself that if we could get ten walkers to raise £100 each, it would be worthwhile; in Japan it is the effort that counts. I was wholly unprepared for the response. Within minutes of sending my e-mail I had received £75 worth of sponsorship, followed in subsequent days by many more donations and heartfelt messages of encouragement. The reaction from Steve's side was no different. Alongside the names of friends and colleagues we see frequently were those of people we had not met for years or do not socialise with, university mates (and a lecturer), a colleague from a long-past internship abroad, a girl I'd met on holiday, as well as ex-JETs from other countries who had already donated elsewhere but still wanted to register their backing for the project. My parents forwarded the e-mail to their circle so that soon we were receiving well wishes and contributions from names we didn't even recognise! It was humbling to witness how people rallied round, despite in many cases having no affiliations with Japan - helping hands from the ordinary citizens of our native country (and Europe, America and Australia) to their counterparts in our former home.
By the day of the walk, we had nine participants confirmed, including Steve's brother, my Dad, Liz Aveling (ex-JET, ex-CLAIR and founder of the JETAA hiking group) and Gemma Cox, Editor of NEO Magazine. Thanks to her first-class network, Gemma alone secured an impressive donation of £250 from Tokyo Toys in London! At the last minute, Udayan Sengupta, another ex-JET friend from Ehime, decided to get on the night bus all the way from Scotland to be with us. The benefits of sleepwalking as a strategy for completing long-distance hikes have been woefully under-researched, but it seemed to work for him!
Following a spell of unseasonably hot weather, we were fortunate that 16th April was pleasantly warm and breezy. The atmosphere was convivial as old friendships were renewed – and new ones made. We got off to an early start and comfortably completed 10-11 miles by lunchtime, passing through many oft-overlooked but picturesque, historic pockets of north London: reservoirs, parks, waterways and hidden architectural gems - most notably (for some!) the newly converted apartment complex at Highbury, the old Arsenal football stadium. Cherry trees in full bloom at intervals along our route provided a reminder, if any were needed, of our cause. A picnic in Tavistock Square fortified us for the afternoon, when we were joined by three more walkers. We fought our way through dense crowds in central London, paid homage at the Embassy with some of the origami cranes made by my friends' schools, and finally navigated the tourist hotspots around Buckingham Palace and Victoria before entering the quieter streets of south London.
After a day's trudging on chiefly concrete paths, the last few miles were tough on everyone's joints, and in spite of some attractive public gardens, cityscapes and intriguing statuary, all sights were firmly set on Brixton, our "last station stop". It is not an exaggeration to say that on this final leg, it was the generosity and motivational words of our sponsors that spurred us to complete the task. No lesser incentives were the images of displaced Japanese still living uncomplainingly on gymnasium floors in Tohoku, and the knowledge that hundreds of Tokyo commuters had had to stagger home similar distances in their work shoes during the quake because the transport system had been shut down. We had chosen to attempt this challenge, and with optimum conditions to do so, there could be no self-pity.
Eight-and-a-half walking hours after we had started, we finally reached Brixton station amidst exclamations of "Otsukaresama deshita!", "Omedetou!" and other such hurrahs. We piled on to the first sofa of the first pub we could find, for what was to be one drink. But the sofa was comfy and the beer was wet so the inclination to head back to central London diminished with every sip. We checked the donations and discovered that we had gained a further £50 while walking – a great sense of fulfilment.
In Japan a large part of our job was to "teach" internationalisation, but of course, this is not a concept that lives between the pages of a textbook, to be trotted out for speech contests or cultural festivals. True internationalisation only exists as the result of a metamorphosis which occurs with each small kindness exchanged during a foreigner's time in Japan. When I look back on my three years on Shikoku, it is often the little things which made it so special and so memorable. Our project too is modest in comparison with the magnitude of the current problems, but without the JET Programme, it - and many of the other fundraisers taking place - would not have happened.
And so we walked - looking up, looking forward, quelling our own tears and perhaps providing some comfort where it was needed. I wish we hadn’t had to, but if ever there was an example of good deriving from bad, surely this was one.
A selection of photographs from the day can be seen at www.justgiving.com/london-victoriathon, where, if you wish, a donation to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund may still be made.