Looking to the east

One year after the earthquake that destroyed entire villages, a photo exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center incorporates a series of ‘then and now’ pictures showing the devastation and the rebuilding.

Japan earthquake 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Japanese Embassy)
Japan earthquake 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Japanese Embassy)
On the face of it, Japan and Israel have very little in common. The Japanese are known for, among other attributes, their sense of order – in terms of both aesthetics and public decorum. We, on the other hand, tend to be somewhat more demonstrative and less pedantic about tidiness. Even so, Helena Grinshpun believes we have much to share, and plenty of mutual appreciation.
As an expert on Japan, not to mention a lecturer on Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an occasional tour guide to the Land of the Rising Sun, Grinshpun is well qualified to express an informed opinion on the subject.
She is also, naturally, delighted that the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv is hosting a photography exhibition to mark the first anniversary of the tsunami disaster in Japan. The show, which opens on Monday, goes by the self-explanatory title of “The Tohoku Region – Building for a Better Tomorrow” and incorporates a series of “then and now” images, which feature shots of the damage caused by the storm, in tandem with pictures of the same spots after the clearing and rebuilding work was completed, as well as photographs of the local residents finding treasured items from the wrecked homes or reuniting with loved ones. The exhibition was curated by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Some of the photos were taken by ministry staff, and others by professional photographers.
Besides the havoc the tsunami wreaked on Japan, it also interfered with Grinshpun’s breadwinning.
“I was supposed to take a group to Japan shortly after the disaster, but it was canceled,” she says.
She eventually made it to Japan several months later and was surprised by the state of affairs she found there.
“I only managed to free myself from my teaching duties in the fall, at the beginning of October. I expected to find a much more serious situation there, after all the reports in the media of what was going on there.”
And it wasn’t as if Grinshpun might have missed something. She got very close to the epicenter of the disaster area.
“I got to a place that was around 35 km. away from the area around the [Fukushima] nuclear plant, which was evacuated. I stayed with a family there and I wanted to see how the people there were managing.”
But there is the human side, and then there are aesthetics.
“In visual terms there was nothing to see. All the debris had been cleared away and everything looked neat and orderly,” she says, although adding that the absence of detritus was misleading.
“There were towns and villages that had, literally, been wiped off the face of the earth. Everything was clean and tranquil. But when I walked around, through the grass that had sprouted since the disaster I could see concrete and the foundations of buildings.”
Gradually a clearer picture of the scale of the tragedy began to emerge.
“You start to see buildings that look fine from afar, but [from] close up you see the cracks in the walls,” Grinshpun recalls. “Or you find a chimney stack lying in the bushes that had once belonged to a house that no longer exists. The story unfolded bit by bit – first the seeming tranquility and then the telltale signs of the disaster.”
That superficial tidiness is an integral part of Japanese culture, and deeply entrenched in the national psyche.
“That is not something that the Japanese consider on a conscious level,” says Grinshpun. “Japanese aesthetics are very clean and tidy. The Japanese have a fundamental passion for order. If you look at typical... Japanese public gardens, the first thing you notice is the order and the attention to detail. It is not aesthetic chaos, it is aesthetic order.
The locals themselves told me that their first instinct after the disaster was to...
clean everything up, even though there was still no infrastructure in place – no electricity or running water.”
That compulsion to restore a semblance of order before getting to grips with the business of rebuilding and rehabilitation applied to the ruins themselves.
“They cleared the garbage and wreckage and then they sorted everything into different categories,” Grinshpun continues. “They made piles of roof tiles, and piles of doors and doorframes, and other heaps of cars. That all connects with the fact that the Japanese find it very hard to deal with chaos.”
Grinshpun explains that the bedlam equally pertained to the physical conditions and the social ramifications of the disaster, particularly given that the area worst hit by the tsunami is a rural region.
“The chaos also impacted on the human aspect. People who live in villages and small towns in Japan attach great importance to long-standing relationships.
Suddenly all that was gone. Some people died, others fled and some were evacuated. The whole human-social fabric was ripped apart. That was very hard for the local people to deal with.”
This social cohesion is peculiar to rural Japan, and very different from the alienation and isolation rife in the big cities like Tokyo. The strong human bonds in the country are depicted in some of the photographs in the exhibition and, naturally, the social side was accentuated in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.
There are pictures of relatives and friends overjoyed and finding they had survived, and another touching photo of a young woman carrying an older neighbor away from piles of wreckage, on her back.
“The difference between urban life and country life is enormous,” notes Grinshpun. “That is something I look at a lot in my work. Tokyo is not representative of Japan, like New York is not typical of the United States. In the region hit by the tsunami, in the northeast, people still live a community-based, traditional way of life that has always existed in Japan.”
Grinshpun says the Japanese authorities have learned the lessons of previous disasters.
“After the earthquake near Kobe in 1995, people were evacuated individually and... suffered greatly as a result. After last year’s tsunami the authorities did their best to move a number of families together, as a group, so that they could support each other and maintain their social links. That way, if they have to build new homes somewhere else they can renew their community way of life.”
Grinshpun also feels that the exhibition will resonate strongly here.
“I have a colleague at university who believes there is a lot of common ground between the Jewish people and the Japanese. We are two nations that feel different from others, and I see lots of Israelis visit Japan and come back with very strong impressions. And the same goes for the Japanese who come here. It never fails to surprise me how Israelis, we noisy and open Israelis, feel close to the Japanese. Maybe each side is looking for its complementary half. I don’t know.”
While that remains an open question, the images in The Tohoku Region – Building for a Better Tomorrow are likely to strike a chord.
The exhibition opens at the Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv on Monday and will run until March 27.
Shemer revisited
Iconic songstress Naomi Shemer and her work will be front and center this Thursday (8 p.m.) at Beit Hashahmat on Tagore Street in Ramat Aviv when singer, pianist and community singing host Nava Spitzer oversees an evening of song and stories designed to shed light on Shemer, who died in 2004.
Spitzer’s show, Od Lo Ahavti Dai (I Have Not Loved Enough) – The Song of Naomi Shemer’s Life, will enlighten her audience about the stories and characters behind many of Shemer’s bestknown songs, including “Noa,” which has been recorded and performed by a wide range of artists over the years, such as Arik Lavi and Meital Trabelsi, and will reveal which city was the subject of “Ha’ir Be’afor” (The Gray City), the many renditions of which include recordings by Avi Toledano and Yehoram Gaon.
The audience will be invited to sing along with Spitzer. The lyrics will be screened as will photographs from various junctures of Shemer’s life.
For tickets and more information: (03) 643-6948.
Beyond Marceau’s words
Rutie Tamir will offer a tribute to the work of iconic French- Jewish actor and mime artist Marcel Marceau at the Arab- Jewish Theater in Jaffa on March 17 (9 p.m.). Tamir put together the Behind the Words show to mark the 90th anniversary of Marceau’s birth – he died in 2007 at the age of 86 – and will perform excerpts from some of his most famous works, including his mesmerizing portrayal of a character called Bip the Clown.
“It is no coincidence that my show came about together with [this year’s award-winning silent movie] The Artist,” notes Tamir, who has worked in physical theater around the world for more than two decades. “We live in a very fast, hectic, cynical era, and I feel a strong pining among audiences for the quiet, pure art nonviolent lyricism and fun of yesteryear.”
There will be plenty of all of the above, with some behindthe- scenes glimpses of Marceau’s life away from the stage in Behind the Words.
For tickets and more information: (03) 518-5563.
Gelfman rises up
A new exhibition by Maya Gelfman will open at Galeria al Hatzuk (Gallery on the Cliff) in Netanya tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
The Kumi! (Get Up!) show incorporates new works and new interpretations of previous works in an eclectic collection that incorporates delicate sketches, embroidery work and installations.
The theme of Kumi! centers on the way the individual and the public as a whole cope with the past and the way it impacts on the present. In her work, Gelfman endeavors to convey a sense of the moment immediately after the peak of an action or event occurs, when the sharp end of a drama or nadir has subsided.
The artist focuses on what happens after the euphoria or despair passes and on the moment when a person collects himself and decides to move on.
Gelfman attributes her artistic ethos to the fact that she underwent open-heart surgery at the age of four and how, ever since, she has tried to set her sights on the future rather than feel like a victim of circumstances.
Kumi! will close on May 10.
French Film Festival
The ninth annual French Film Festival kicks off next Saturday at cinematheques around the country and will run until April 5. The festival will open with the latest blockbuster from France, Intouchables, a comedy by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache.
Veteran British-born actress Charlotte Rampling will attend a screening of The Look, a documentary about her life and work.
Other stand-outs in the festival lineup include Poliss, a drama written, directed by and starring French actress Maïwenn, about a photographer who is assigned to cover the Child Protection Unit in Paris, and Les hommes libres (Free Men) by Ismael Ferroukhi, which is set in World War II and tells the story of an Algerian immigrant who is inspired to join the Resistance by an unexpected friendship with a Jew.
Screenings of the French Film Festival will take place at cinematheques in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Sderot, Rosh Pina, Holon, Herzliya and Ashdod.