Takeo Saijo’s innovative ideas for Japan’s recovery
Vol.1: Why “Structural Constructivism” matters
We (the crew of Hobonichi* News) met Dr. Takeo Saijo, a full-time lecturer at the Graduate School of Commerce, Waseda University. He is also founder of “Project Fumbaro Eastern Japan”, an endeavor that consists of a series of powerful initiatives to support tsunami stricken areas in East Japan.
Those initiatives are full of innovative and exciting ideas to support victims of the tsunami and to rebuild the Tohoku area [northeast region of Japan].
Shigesato Itoi**, our boss, and we were fascinated by the initiatives.
One example: he launched a project to donate used home appliances from all over Japan to the devastated areas. Can you imagine how they “make sure the donated appliances are in working condition”?
Would you like to know the answer? Please read on!
Itoi: How is your situation right now? Have things settled down?
Saijo: No, they haven’t settled down yet. Things are still really hectic every day.
Itoi: How is your professional life?
Saijo: I have two classes a week to teach. Other than that, my life has been taken up by the Fumbaro Project.
Itoi: There’s much less urgency and feeling of emergency now compared to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, when we saw Mr. Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary, on TV all the time.
Saijo: No, there isn’t.
Itoi: You must have been busy like him as well then.
Saijo: Actually, no, I wasn’t. I didn’t get busy like this until I visited the disaster area for the first time on March 31. I was told that there would be a gasoline delivery to my parents’ home on that day, and so I went then. I’ve been busy since then.
Itoi: I see. That makes me want to ask you what you were thinking about between March 11 (the day of the earthquake) and the 30th.
Saijo: I had been thinking about what I, as a scholar, could possibly do, but I continued to write. I decided to write an article every day on various themes such as, “a nuclear power discussion for mutual understanding” and I continued doing so, because that is my expertise.
Itoi: I remember that there were a lot of things which could be figured out and judged at the time and a lot that couldn’t, since things were constantly changing. It was difficult for me to even figure out my own opinions on them back then. I remember this since I was also writing every day. Was your experience similar?
Saijo: Yes, I agree. One of the characteristics of this disaster was that no one could say “this is it” for certain. We were never sure until things were confirmed afterward. There was always the possibility that things could turn out to be totally opposite later on. I think that this particular difficulty is characteristic of this disaster.
Saijo: When I went to Akita for a lecture on March 16, we still had no idea if the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant would be under control. My parents live in Sendai. I even begged my father to evacuate and come to Tokyo.
Saijo: Then on that day, on March 16, my thoughts finally came together.
Saijo: I got totally lost and didn’t know what to do or what to think any longer. I was completely exhausted and even thought that I didn’t care anymore. Then, I had the feeling that the answer simply came down to me. After all, this is the matter of “How We Live Our Lives”.
Itoi: Yes, yes.
Saijo: How I Live My Life. The only way left to me was to make my own decision based on information I had at that point. My expertise is in academia. So I began writing every day.
Itoi: So you weren’t writing before that?
Saijo: No, I couldn’t write until March 16. At the time, I still did not know the whereabouts of my uncle or my friends.
Itoi: Right, at the time, there were many missing people and it wasn’t clear if they had survived or not.
[Translator’s note: According to the National Police Agency, 5,070 persons are still missing, as of July 17, 2011.]
Saijo: Coastal areas were thoroughly devastated, but the extent depended on whether the tsunami had reached particular areas or not. So everyone who lived in the area lost friends or people they know.
Itoi: Right, it was still “shaking” on March 15.
Saijo: Right, there was a magnitude 6 quake on the 15th in Shizuoka.
Itoi: Right, you might have perceived things totally differently if you had been in Tokyo instead of Akita that day. It must have been a much more vivid experience being in Akita then.
Saijo: Right, actually, since my parent’s house is quite old (laugh), when I heard that there was a magnitude 7 quake in Miyagi prefecture, I thought that the house must have been flattened. My brother, a firefighter, said that he darted to the house to see if it was still standing.
Saijo: This made me think that I needed to go to save my parents myself. Then, I received a call from my parents and they told me that they were OK.
Itoi: I see. I understand. I don’t remember exactly when, but I started getting more and more on my twitter account asking me why I wasn’t talking to Saijo-san yet. But at that point, I had no idea who Saijo-san was.
Saijo: Right (laugh).
Itoi: I thought that you were a person who has been doing this kind of things even before the earthquake but actually, you weren’t.
Saijo: No, I was not.
Itoi: Many of the people who work in disaster relief are professionals, but on the other hand, there are laymen like you who get involved in support activities. Then, I thought that this disaster was the kind of disaster that brings people together from many backgrounds, and this made me think that I should go see you in person.
Saijo: I also had numerous calls to tell me to get in touch with you as well.
Itoi: What is the current scale of the project like?
Saijo: We have about 400 to 500 people who are involved in this project.
[Translator’s note: As of July 18, 2011, 946 people are involved through Facebook. The actual number involved could be close to 1,000, including those who do not use Facebook.]
Various divisions are being launched and the project is expanding as we move forward.
Itoi: Not all the people have knowledge about this kind of work, right?
Saijo: No, they do not. But to begin with, the lack of knowledge is not a major issue. I have not even met most of the people on the project. We have been working together for a while already, but in many cases, I’m still saying “How do you do?” to many of the people on this project (laugh).
Saijo: Of course, I know all the people who are at the core of the project. But since this project began expanding on the Internet, I haven’t met many of the people who are involved. The project has grown to a surprising scale just in a few days after its launch on the Internet.
Itoi: That part is really interesting. You are a “scholar,” aren’t you? It is really interesting that people come to you, a scholar, and give you recommendations to meet others, while some other people approach you and ask what they can do to help. In doing so, an organization is being created. I think the Japanese people have never experienced this kind of organization before.
Saijo: That might be true. Since I am nearly unknown to public, I can say that I could not have done this without twitter. Twitter helped me connect to people.
Itoi: I think that each person has his or her own way of helping, but they don’t know where to direct their energy. They were looking for a place to connect to organize the direction of their efforts.
Saijo: I think that I’m fairly good at “constructing structures.”
Itoi: Constructing structures.
Saijo: Structures to make the whole things work out.
Itoi: Is this something you have been working on?
Saijo: Yes, it is. Originally, I was studying “structural constructivism.” I think that this is the best way of thinking that we can apply to ourselves in an emergency situation like this.
Itoi: Structural constructivism.
Saijo: Basically, most, if not all, of our past “experiences” didn’t help in dealing with this disaster. In experiences I include our understanding of how volunteers should be organized and practical know-how of how to send materials.
Itoi: Yes, yes.
Saijo: The structural-constructivism I have been studying is a “principle” which can be used for anything, like a formless formation. It is a principle for values and also for methods. In other words, it is a question as to “what a method is.” What are the “common principles” which can be applied to all “methods”? So, I had already established and was studying this “principle” academicically.
Itoi: I see.
Saijo: “Methods” are always used under specific situations, aren’t they?
Itoi: Yes, yes.
Saijo: We call “means to achieve a certain objective” under “specific situations” “methods.” There is no “exception,” theoretically.
Saijo: Basically, there are only two points we need to think about: “situations” and “objectives.” Then, what are our current “situations” and “objectives”? In this case, our objective is “disaster victim support.” In this way, by setting these two points, “situations” and “objectives,” the effectiveness of “methods” can be determined.
Itoi: You mean that “methods” do not come first.
Saijo: No, you are right. “Methods” can flexibly change their shapes.
Itoi: I see.
Saijo: The first disaster site I visited was the town of Minamisanriku. At that point I did not have the slightest idea that I would be organizing a project like this (Project Fumbaro Eastern Japan). I thought that I would do everything I can, so I filled my van with relief supplies and drove there. Since the disaster area stretches over 400 km of coastline from north to south, it seemed inevitably that they would be short of relief supplies. I thought that there were sure to be places that supplies had not reached.
Itoi: Hmmm, yes, yes.
Saijo: Everything there was totally destroyed. I got out of my van and I stood speechless.
Saijo: It was like I was wandering around the disaster area, looking for the place. Then, totally by chance, I happened to meet a person called Miura-san there and he told me that he could take me to smaller shelters since large ones were already stocked with piles of relief supplies. That was on April 1.
Itoi: I see.
Saijo: He took me to 6 small shelters and I was able to give people there what they needed. To my surprise, there wasn’t a single pen, and they only had expired foods to eat. People that were receiving disposable baby wipes told me that they would use the wipes for themselves since they had not taken a bath for weeks. I realized then that relief supplies had not reached these people at all.
Itoi: I see.
Saijo: Miura-san, the man I met, knew everyone in the area and was able to distribute necessary goods to those people. So I asked Miura-san to ask people there what they needed and told him that I would collect those things. Then I told him, “Let’s stand firm. Let’s hang in together.” [Translator’s note: the name of the project, “Fumbaro” comes from this statement.] Then I promised this to Miura-san, went back to my parents’ home, and I devoted myself to writing the “Report from Minamisanriku Town.”
Itoi: So, you were writing in Sendai.
Saijo: Yes. By watching TV, I had thought that I understood the situations there. But in reality, things were totally different in disaster areas. I even heard that some people drove all the way from Aichi Prefecture with a truck-full of relief supplies and ended up being turned away at shelters. So I started thinking about how individual persons can contribute and help disaster victims especially when these individual persons visit disaster areas by themselves. If we can “formulate methods” to make this possible, other people can follow suit.
Itoi: Then, the academic field you were talking about comes in handy. In other words, you were trying to formulate a “method.”
Saijo: Right. I formulated a “method” and then tweeted on my twitter account. When I had formulated this method more concretely, I uploaded this method on my blog. I was repeating this process, barely sleeping, and then the number of followers on my twitter account started increasing at a surprising speed of about 1,000 people per hour.
Itoi: 1,000 followers per hour.
Saijo: Then, by the noon on the following day, our website launched.
*Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun (Hobonichi): Website created by Shigesato Itoi, renowned creator. The motto is to provide with important information in an understandable way. (From Institute for Art Anthropology).
**Shigesato Itoi: (糸井 重里, born November 10, 1948) is one of the most influential cultural figures in Japan, known for his copywriting, essays, lyrics, Nintendo game creation, and as editor-in-chief of his popular website “Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun.” (“Almost” Daily Itoi News) He is best known outside of Japan as a game designer for his work on Nintendo’s EarthBound series of games, as well as his bass fishing video game. Itoi, with his copywriting work in the 1980s, established the profession among the general public in Japan. His copies epitomize the era, and are quoted regularly as a best-selling song would. Multi-talented Itoi quickly expanded his horizons into essays, lyrics, and eventually to Nintendo game creation. He is best known in the US for Nintendo’s EarthBound, released in the 1990s (released as MOTHER 2 in Japan).
He has voiced Mei and Satsuki’s father, Tatsuo Kusakabe, in the Japanese version of the My Neighbor Totoro anime film, has been a judge on a few episodes of the Japanese shows Iron Chef and Hey! Spring of Trivia, and has also co-authored a collection of short stories titled Yume de aimashou (“Let’s meet in a dream”) with writer Haruki Murakami. (From Wikipedia)]