Manga 3.11: The Tsunami, the Japanese Publishing Industry, Suzuki Miso’s Reportage, and the One Piece Lifeboat

Comic Ryū (August 2011), cover with Suzuki Miso (published June 18, 2011).

Suzuki Miso (b. 1963) has attempted just that in his “The Day Japan and I Shook.” This self-described “reportage comic,” covering the after-effects of the earthquake and tsunami, recently began serialization in Comic Ryū, a teen-young adult, otaku-inflected monthly published by Tokuma Shoten. Due to financial troubles, however, the magazine was forced to cease after its August issue (published June 18). So while the first chapter of Suzuki’s serial appeared in print, for the time being the continuation can only be read online. It will reappear in print when Comic Ryū resumes publication in December. Like many other authors treating 3.11, Suzuki is donating all income from the serial to charity.

As I said, “The Day Japan and I Shook” describes itself as a “reportage comic,” a genre that the artist has been working in since covering the first Nintendo boom in the mid 1980s. It is to treat the after-effects of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, but as a “life-sized catastrophe.” This is how Suzuki’s fictional persona describes the project in chapter one. The situation is not funny, he ruminates, so there’s no room for gags. A direct take, on the other hand, would be too heavy. “Scenes of the tsunami swallowing up cars and houses crisscross my mind. With so many people having lost their homes, their families, their land, living in refugee camps and in fear of radiation, what kind of manga should one draw? Is it the time to even be drawing manga?” The answer, urged upon him by his editor, who accompanies him like a wise uncle throughout the manga, is to turn away from the ultra-spectacular (like the boats beached on building tops) and toward the small, the “life-sized,” starting with Suzuki’s own experiences. “The big losses alone,” the editor explains, “do not make up the recent disaster.”

Suzuki Miso, "The Day Japan and I Shook," Comic Ryū (August 2011) (published June 18, 2011).

So the first chapter begins undramatically but personably with Urayasu, an area of reclaimed land on the north side of Tokyo Bay. It is best known as the site of Disneyland, but there are also large residential tracts in the area. On the day of the quake, Suzuki’s daughter was at Disneyland, one of 70,000 guests that day, and one of 20,000 stuck there until trains and buses began running again the following morning. If Disney needed a public image boost, it gets one here. The park’s handling of the situation was shipshape, and its hospitality five-star. The stranded guests that day were treated to hot meals and all-you-can-eat sweets. It was also one of the structurally soundest places in Urayasu one could be. The residential areas of Urayasu suffered significant structural damage. House foundations sank. Plumbing in high-rises did not function for over a month. The pavement cracked and the ground liquefied, as it did in some of the reclaimed areas of Kobe after the 1995 earthquake. All of this Suzuki illustrates through computer-processed photographs. Meanwhile, at Disneyland, sand pylons driven deep into the ground to support the many heavy structures above ensured against precisely the sort of rupturing that happened elsewhere in Urayasu. Only the park’s parking lot suffered liquefaction. Suzuki does not take on the obvious political question here: what is the story behind a land development policy that has higher construction standards for a commercial entertainment district than its neighboring residential ones? Instead, in the many comic asides of the manga, he dolls himself up like Mickey (looking more like Sonic) and exclaims “Dizunii sugee” – “Disney’s awesome!”

Suzuki Miso, "The Day Japan and I Shook," Comic Ryū (August 2011) (published June 18, 2011).

Having been brought up to suspect all things Disney, I have a knee jerk reaction to such sweeping praise. Yet the park seems to have deserved it. The details Suzuki provides are just the beginning. Japanese television reported extensively on the park’s handling of the situation, with the host of one show going as far as recommending Disney as a model the government should emulate before the next disaster. Apparently, there is a crisis training session going on somewhere in the park 180 days out of the year. In addition to guiding visitors to safety, employees are instructed to use whatever objects are on hand to help, protect, and comfort visitors in cases of emergency. This means using both things designated as emergency supplies, as well as whatever can be found on store shelves or in food stalls. Because of the nature of the place, the details of this can be funny. For example, large stuffed animals were handed out for people to use to protect their heads. Japanese television showed images of people running wearing teddy bears as helmets. Amongst the foodstuffs handed out were “gyoza dogs” and “Mickey manju.” But the commitment to safety and comfort was real. Employees voluntarily cleared store shelves to keep people warm and fed. At night, the park dipped into the emergency food supplies it always holds in reserve: enough water-reconstitutable daizu hijiki gohan packs (rice mixed with soy beans and seaweed) to feed 50,000 people for three to four days. Gloves, masks, and silver and gold glitter capes were handed out to those forced to spend the night. Cardboard boxes were broken down and handed out as bedding. Buildings were opened up to get as many people as possible out of the near-freezing cold. A large number were relocated to Disney Sea next door. Because the pavement of the public route linking the two parks had cracked and liquefied, people were instead shuttled via the rear staging areas, otherwise strictly off-limits to visitors in order to preserve the fiction of the magic kingdom. This detail, the sacrifice of sacrifices, also appears in Suzuki’s comic.

Suzuki’s writing on Disney and Urayasu is a timid beginning to a promising project. Generally less informative than what one can find online, and making no effort to draw back the curtain, it is certainly no work of investigative reporting. It even gets a basic fact wrong: 20,000 park visitors spent the night, not the day’s entire 70,000. What bothers me most I think is Suzuki’s lack of skepticism. Of course, Disney did exactly what it should have done. But I cannot help but suspect some corporate self-interest at play. And the rigorous training and clockwork execution echo Disney’s notoriously totalitarian work environment. One thing repeated on Japanese television was surprise that such high degrees of professionalism and initiative were maintained despite the fact that ninety percent of the park’s employees are part-time employees. (A book from 2010 about how Disney works so well with this structure went into a second edition after March 11.) Labor issues aside, these aren’t company drones. Should Disney really get all the credit for behaving “awesomely,” or shouldn’t some be passed to individual initiative? I realize these questions digress from the matter of the earthquake itself. I raise them to note Suzuki’s tendency to not challenge the word of industry and the media. This also comes out in his coverage of manga publishing.