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New novel on 3/11 disaster explores optimism amid despair

By Alexandra Hongo

“People who didn’t lose anyone can’t really understand,” says Kai, a 17-year-old biracial boy from a coastal village in eastern Japan, as he watches his friends whose families survived the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Prior to the disaster, Kai, the fictional protagonist of "Up From the Sea" — the latest novel by Tokyo-based American author Leza Lowitz — was an ordinary teenager whose greatest passion in life was soccer, a sport he had come to use for inner strength in coping with the sudden departure of his American father back home. At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, Kai's hometown would forever change by the powerful calamity that swept away tens of thousands of lives and homes, including his own, while leaving those who survived wondering whether staying alive had been a blessing — or a curse.

Written in free verse-style from a young adult’s perspective, "Up From The Sea" revolves around Kai's post-disaster life as he struggles to accept his fate of losing nearly everyone and everything that had shaped his life until that fateful day. It follows him through a number of skillfully depicted internal clashes of anger, grief and fear, narrated in parallel with the emotions of other survivors in a poignant, accurate record of the disaster. As the town struggles to rebuild, Kai is invited to visit New York to meet 9/11 orphans, who had lived through similar despair. It is there where he learns that though he cannot change his past, he can build his future, leading him to make an important decision for his life in a heartbreaking developed rite-of-passage only a child who has lived through a loss can portray.

The Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful natural disaster to ever strike the country in recent times, followed by the man-made calamity at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, left 15,894 dead, over 2,500 missing to date and nearly 230,000 people still displaced from their homes. While the country prepares for the disaster's 5th anniversary this year, the sad reality is that for many people living away from the affected areas, March 11 is gradually moving into oblivion, despite the fact that much is yet to be done in the process of rebuilding Tohoku.

For these reasons, Lowitz's novel is a ray of light into the realization that a valuable way to contribute to the reconstruction of Tohoku is to not forget the disaster and its victims. The reality described in Lowitz's novel is eye-opening for though fictitious, Kai is an authentic illustration of the lives, struggles and emotions of the nearly 1,800 children who were left fully or half-orphaned by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, a calamity that forced them to become adults at a very fragile age.

“If there’s a message to this book, then it’s that we’re all interconnected and we all should help each other," Lowitz says, reminding us that no human being is immune to loss and that we should continue supporting each other in our battles to not break even when bent.

“For some time I struggled, wondering did I have the right to tell their stories,” recalls Lowitz, who had repeatedly visited Tohoku after the earthquake and tsunami. “But then I kept remembering the people I met up there. They kept saying ‘Don’t forget us.’”

"If we lose hope, that’s the real disaster,” Lowitz says, as she prepares for her next visit to Tohoku.

A moving story based on real events that occurred in the disaster-stricken areas, "Up From the Sea" is a novel about survival through mutual support and reliance in tragic times, where the question of "can hope be found when everything is lost?" is continuously raised and explored.

A rare contribution to the nearly non-existent English-language literature in Japan focusing on the tsunami survivors, Up From the Sea is recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the disaster from a personal point of view.

About the author 

Leza Lowitz is the author of 20 books, including "Jet Black and the Ninja Wind," which she cowrote with her husband, Shogo Oketani, "Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By," and her memoir, "Here Comes the Sun," about adapting and adopting in Japan. You can visit her online at www.lezalowitz.com.

© Japan Today

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nearly 230,000 people still displaced from their homes.

This is Abe's legacy and shame. These people should be coming first after all these years there is no excuse!

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Massiou82: If you have a complaint against the use of the word "biracial" you should offer an alternative instead is just complaining about something that has nothing to do with the substance of the story. But you offer no alternative. Only empty whining.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

The writer had mixed feelings about writing this novel. I share similar mixed feelings about it publication. I will reserve judgement until I read this book.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"biracial" ? Even though I do not like the word "half", I find "biracial" equally offensive.

I personally don't mind nor care about the use of 'half', but I'm definitely perplexed as to the problem with biracial. It's accurately descriptive.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

The writer had mixed feelings about writing this novel. I share similar mixed feelings about it publication. I will reserve judgement until I read this book.

I agree. Making money (and surely it will with the international interest in the disaster) out of hundreds of thousands of peoples misfortune leaves an uncomfortable feeling in me. Donate all profits to help these people, given that it is THEIR lives being exploited for profit and I would feel a bit better about it.

0 ( +4 / -4 )


That is a link to a preview of the book, first impression......written for a VERY young audience.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I hope to read this book soon. My wife's girlfriemd lost her aunt and aunt's daughter in law in the tsinami and were never found. So sad. I too am not excited by hafu or biracial because terms like those sound like you are not a complete human.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I too am not excited by hafu or biracial because terms like those sound like you are not a complete human.

While I disagree with the above comment (and similar) regarding the term hafu, I can understand how one could come to that determination. But I'm curious as to how you think biracial makes one sound not complete.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

There are the people who have survived disasters and those who haven't. If you are of the latter, you will remember how your field of vision suddenly narrowed. Watching the news from my partially disabled dwelling I classified the people coming into the Kobe-Awaji after the great earthquake of 17 Jan. 1995 into two categories: those trying to help us and those trying to get something off us. Politicians generally belonged to the latter group, as did the operators of tour companies whose clients stuck their cameras with automatic flashes into temporary shelters. Then there were the scads of self-fulfillment people who wanted to use us to find some sort of aesthetic moment or epiphany. I particularly hated the professional photographer who photographed our misery and scooted back to the comfort of wherever he came from, only to return a year later to photograph the same places to exuberantly show how surprisingly well things had been repaired. I hated the journal that published this rat even more. Most of all I hated the journal's editor who bubbled in my face about what a beautiful and clever this project was. Suffering reduced to pretty gloss.

I would like to think only the best of the author whose book is under discussion here. I would like to think she is more than a disaster tourist but someone in my first category, a sincere doer of good. This is an uplifting book presumably based on fact about a boy who lifts the spirits of his village through soccer. Even when knowing that the terrible condition of Tohoku (including the nuclear disaster) cannot be simply solved by soccer or similar things, there is something redeeming in this very simple book for children. On the other hand, this is a generic coming of age story; it is too limited in scope and length to be about Tohoku in depth. It's a politically safe book; or so it seems.

Putting this book into free verse or blank verse was an error. The verse reads like prose and should have been prose. This also a certain inauthenticity in the sample I have read. This is a book seems to be by someone who imagines disaster but has not lived it. I do wish the author well. I do not think this book will make her rich. (This is not Harry Potter.) I do hope she returns something to Tohoku.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If you read the book, from the author’s afterward it is clear she has contributed in the past to helping the people of Tohoku, and plans to continue to help in any way she can. She writes that she was in Japan during 3-11 and stayed in Japan to help. She's been active in numerous ways, such as volunteering at the temporary housing in the affected areas, helping to build a library, spearheading fundraising campaigns, donating her time, energy, writing, money and resources. If you know how hard it is to write a book, you would know that she wrote this one as a labor of love. If you read it, she explains how this book came about based on people she met while volunteering. Judging from her past actions, it is almost certain she will actively contribute any profit to Tohoku, as she has done before and will continue to do.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@strangerland. I do not like to conduct direct replies to questions on blogs as they are always some form of one on one arguments. For the record my children when living in Japan and then also living in the USA always confronted prejudice from class mates who told them they are not japanese or white which made them feel they were not one or the other and something less than perfect in either culture. I dont know about your cultural or ethnic background but if you are a 5 year old and told there is something wrong with not being a 100% one or the other race or culture that sucks.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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