Filmmaker Linda Ohama was at home in Canada in 2011 when news broke of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident that devastated the coastal Tohoku region of Japan.
The massive wave followed by the Fukuskima nuclear disaster displaced hundreds of thousands of residents in the region.
The next morning, Ohama’s six-year-old granddaughter started asking about the children living in the area.
“She said she’d like to do something to help them and I asked her, if you were a child in Japan, in Tohoku right this minute and this happened, what would you need the most?” Ohama said.
“So my granddaughter said, for someone to hug her. So she wouldn’t feel so alone and afraid.”
Since the young girl couldn’t go to Tohoku she grabbed a piece of her bed sheet and told her grandmother she was going to create her own hug for the kids in Japan.
That started a national movement.
Kids from around Canada — including three schools in Whitehorse — decorated pieces of cloth with messages of support and hope that Ohama took to schools in Japan.
That first visit turned into a two-and-a-half year stretch in which Ohama lived in the Tohoku region and filmed her documentary Tohoku no Shingetsu: A New Moon Over Tohoku.
The film, about the people of the Tohoku region trying to rebuild their lives, is one of two coming to Whitehorse over the next 30 days thanks in part to the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon.
Ohama, who has multiple award-winning films under her belt, said she didn’t start out in Tohoku wanting to film a documentary.
“It’s such a big undertaking and plus I didn’t feel like I had the right to tell the story,” she said.
“I’m an outsider and I hardly spoke Japanese.”
But over time she kept hearing from locals who wanted to tell their story, she said. So she decided to take on the challenge.
After about three months she went into the no-go zone in Fukushima, close to the nuclear plant.
“The first town that I went to was totally deserted, everything was abandoned. It was like a ghost town, it was like a science fiction scene where all life has disappeared.”
She was a one-person crew most of the time, living in a tent and filming with a camera she purchased through online fundraising.
“Most of the time I lived in a pup tent and carried my computer and a few clothes and my camera equipment.”
When the people she was filming found out she was Canadian, that broke down some barriers. They were more willing to step outside the Japanese culture that tells them they need to be polite and quiet, she said.
“Once they get a chance to talk, you see them almost healing right in front of you,” she said.
“They’re just humans: sometimes you just need someone to talk to, and cry with. My granddaughter was right, just a hug.”
Ohama estimates she spoke to 80 people, from all walks of life, trying to rebuild after the disaster.
That includes a father whose 12-year-old daughter was killed. The school where she died was destroyed but whenever the man interacted with other children, he was cheerful, Ohama said.
“He said he was a lucky man because he was a father for 12 years instead of never being a father at all.”
That’s the mentality of the people she met, Ohama said — they tried to appreciate what they have.
“I think the Tohoku people really show that you can find beauty and you can find joy.”
Tohoku no Shingetsu: A New Moon Over Tohoku is showing March 5 at the Yukon Arts Centre. Ohama will be at the screening for a question-and-answer session.
For those interested in more Japanese culture, the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon is hosting another film night Feb. 22 at the Old Fire Hall.
A Tale of Samurai Cooking is part love story and part opportunity for local foodies to learn more about Japanese cooking.
The film is set in the Edo period of Japan. It tells the story of a Japanese woman who discovers her husband is a terrible chef, even though he is one of a long line of renowned cooks. She takes it upon herself to improve his skills.
Both of the films have English subtitles.
These kinds of films are a chance to spread more understanding of Japanese culture, said Fumi Torigai, president of the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon.
“In this day and age I think anything that helps our understanding of each other between different cultures, I think that’s very important and meaningful.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org