The Reset Button

I’m taking a break from the typical doom-and-gloom story and trying to go with something more uplifting for this Christmas Day of 2012. Actually, it was just hard to think dark thoughts while I was enjoying a Mont Blanc aux marrons Christmas cake with my family on Christmas Eve, and it was hard to forget the story of the man who made it.
Naritoshi Satou was a fifth generation baker and owner of a patisserie in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture. This town is famous now as one of the places hit hardest by the tsunami of 2011. He and his wife and four children survived by running to higher ground, but their bakery and their home were completely destroyed. They evacuated and stayed with relatives in Chiba prefecture, then quickly got to work rebuilding their lives in a new place. Four months after the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown disaster, their new patisserie in Narita, Chez Nari, opened its doors.
NHK News heard about them and did a report on their shop in the early summer of 2011. You can watch it here. Even if you don’t understand Japanese, it’s easy get the meaning from the images and fill in the blanks on their recovery story.
Chez Nari, Kozunomori 2-15-13, Narita-shi, Chiba-ken, Japan 286-0048
There are probably people back in Ishinomaki who think he abandoned the community that is trying to rebuild the town, but I suspect most people don’t resent him for the personal choice he made. Others might say there was a slightly insensitive twisting of the knife in the way NHK used one family’s story to fill the need for a feel-good story about the disaster. After all, not everyone had the social and financial capital to get out and start over somewhere else, and the promotion of stories like this carry an implication that victims don’t need government support or a systematic solution to their problems. The message could be taken as an admonition to just bootstrap, expect nothing and get on with your life.
These reservations aside, there is clearly something inspirational and instructive in Mr. Nari’s reaction to his situation. He quickly overcame the emotions and excessive sentimentality that can cloud the decisions of people faced with catastrophic changes in their circumstances. Even though he had roots in the community and in the family business going back 120 years, he realized quickly that the life he had known until then was definitively over. Rebuilding would be slow and uncertain, lasting through the formative years of all his children. Compensation from government and insurance companies would be an insulting pittance. In hindsight, it was an insane risk to live so close to the sea, and rebuilding in the same area would be even crazier. He chose not to spend his time in a temporary housing facility, ruminating over the past while waiting years for rebuilding plans to ferment within the layers of local, prefectural and national bureaucracies. Perhaps the best way to help the locals was to show them an example of someone making it in a new place.
Mr. Nari’s story is instructive on a deeper level as well. It’s not only about starting over in a new place with new people. It’s about doing what once seemed impossible, leaving behind ways of living and thinking that once seemed indispensable. It should be obvious that there is a larger lesson here about the fear we have of leaving behind our familiar ways of producing energy and solving the global financial crisis.
Best wishes and thanks to everyone who has read this blog since the summer of 2011. It has had 14,000 page views from countries on every continent. This is a small fraction of what a Justin Bieber video gets in an hour, but a thousand times more than the readership of my last research paper for an obscure academic journal. Comments pro or con are always welcome.  

1 comment:

  1. I think Mr. Nari should rebuild as he's doing, but also insist on compensation if it's coming to him. He represents action and realism.

    He was smart to start the family business over somewhere different and safer, and that's an irreproachable personal choice, anyway. The homage is not in the homestead, but in the recipe! Brick and mortar, as people in Ishinomaki probably realize, is what's fleeting, not tradition.