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Vol.6 Amya L. Miller

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Talk for Recovery

Talk #6 – Amya L. Miller

Global Public Relations Director, City of Rikuzentakata

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1. Visiting and feeling the disaster

Komo: Amya-sam, thank you for coming, and it’s very nice to see you. I have been looking forward to having a talk like this with you ever since I saw the announcement of your role at Rikuzentakata as the Global PR Director.

Amya: Nice to meet you, too. I have been also looking forward to this interview! In fact, Kubota-san, the Deputy Mayor of Rikuzentakata told me about your activities in Rikuzentakata before, and I was searching for your name in Facebook. But for some reason I could not find you…

 

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Komo: Then, coincidentally, you had a message from me… I asked Kubota-san to connect me to you right after I saw the announcement of your new role, as I immediately sensed you and I have something in common about what needs to happen in Rikuzentakata.
Amya: I think so, too. I heard you have been visiting Rikuzentakata every month to hold the English class for the local people?

Komo: Yes. In November 2011 I started “Komo’s English Reading-aloud Club.” Right after the quake, I started sending supplies to the disaster-affected areas. But I came to feel somehow that I should visit there in person. Then I made my way to Rikuzentakata where most of my supplies were distributed through the volunteer group. So, how did you come to visit Rikuzentakata? You basically lived in the United States, not in Japan, right?

Amya: Well. First of all, I grew up in Japan. Although my home and my family are currently in the United States, Japan was the place I grew up. So I had a very strong personal attachment to Japan… Then I saw what happened on March 11, 2011 on TV programs and newspapers. I was so shocked, and I did not know what to do at the beginning.

Komo: Then, you decided to visit the disaster-hit areas…

Amya: Yes. I was just panicked at the beginning and was wondering around the room day after day. I must have looked like a weird person. Then my husband told me, “You can go, if you want.” His words triggered me to fly over to Japan.

Komo: When was it?

Amya: It was… late March.

Komo: Wow. So you came in just a few weeks after the event.

Amya: Yes, I did.

Komo: Where did you go at the beginning? Right away to Rikuzentakata?

Amya: No. At that stage, there was very limited access to the disaster-hit areas. I had a hard time in finding the volunteer group to let me go there, but finally I found a way to go with “All Hands” (http://hands.org/ ) to Ofunato area. They were based in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata so I was here right away.

Komo: Ah, so you first came into Ofunato and Rikuzentakata.

Amya: Yes. Then, on the Day 1 of the activity, I had a chance to go into Rikuzentakata area. Our car came down from Apple Road to Rikuzentakata, then I found…

Komo: You found…

Amya: It was an overwhelming scene. Just, overwhelming… Probably I muttered something like, “What a hell is happening here?” It was like, in a sense, a “Quiet hell.”

Komo: “Quiet hell…”

Amya: Yes, it was a quiet hell.

Komo: My first visit to Rikuzentakata was in early September 2011. Even at that time, the level of distraction I sensed was enormous, and when I stayed alone in front of a ruined building early in the morning by myself, I could not help bursting into tears… I was like a crazy man… Because when I stood there, I could imagine what happened and how victims felt in a kind of “3D” image. It was such a shock that I decided to visit Rikuzentakata for at least ten years. The scene changed my life.

Amya: I understand what you say as “3D.” It’s really different…. Just watching the scene over the TV and coming and standing there are totally different. Unless you come physically, you cannot sense what really happened.

Komo: It’s a “3D” and “five senses” experience, I would say. See directly how they are, sense directly by smelling, touching, and hearing the sound of silence.

Amya: I think all the Japanese people should at least pay a visit to the disaster-affected areas in Tohoku region. You may be busy. You may have an urgent business. You may have a family issue… But wouldn’t you have even a day through a year? It was a historical event for entire Japan, and all the Japanese people should hand down the story from generation to generation, so that their descendants can learn from the history. It’s a social and ethical responsibility of Japanese people.

Komo: After that first, shocking visit, what did you do?

Amya: I once went back home in the United States. Then I discussed with my family what I could do in a longer run. While doing so, I made other visits in summer and autumn 2011. Finally, my conclusion was to stay in Japan to support the recovery of the affected areas. I established a base in Tokyo and had my working VISA approved.

Komo: Were your family OK with it?

Amya: Well, I was fortunate to have had all the conditions met to make it possible for me to come and stay here. More than anything, I got my family’s support for my activity. Without them, I could not have come like this.

Komo: Then you finally came to work with the Rikuzentakata municipal government to help them communicate with the audience in the other countries. I would say it’s a perfect fit for a person like you who can understand both Japanese and English languages and the cultures behind them.
2. The role of Global PR Director for Rikuzentakata

Komo: How often do you commute to Rikuzentakata?

Amya: Well, I make it a rule to spend half of a month in Rikuzentakata and another half here in Tokyo.

Komo: Ah-ha. So it’s 50-50. Do you normally stay for two weeks consecutively on both sides?

Amya: No. Typically a week is a maximum length of stay. On average it will be twice back-and-forth between Rikuzentakata and Tokyo in a month.

Komo: I see. Quite a busy schedule, isn’t it? I understand your role is still emerging at the moment. However, could you tell me the image of what normally you do as a Global PR Director? It is a very unique role in the local governments in Japan.

Amya: My mission is to connect Rikuzentakata to the outside world, and eventually that should lead to positive factors for the recovery of Rikuzentakata. To that end, my ongoing primary role is to interact with overseas media queries. In fact, there are so many media around the world still interested in the reality in tsunami-affected areas in Northeast Japan. However, apart from Fukushima, where there is a reason for foreign media to keep watching, not so many local governments have been proactively liaising with the foreign media. Then my new role was announced…. These days I have been getting so many queries from the media around the world.

Komo: It’s good to know that the potential media attention is still strong abroad. It may be in a sense a natural appetite, because this huge disaster should be a learning opportunity not only for Japanese but also for all the people around the world.

Amya: That is why my Tokyo days have been becoming so busy. Because Rikuzentakata is the only municipal government that has the global PR so far, most of the queries started to come to me. Normally, it is more convenient and efficient for the foreign media to meet me first in Tokyo and understand what they could get from me. Then, when they visit Rikuzentakata, they can focus on the subjects they cannot access elsewhere. From my standpoint, I can meet much larger number of media persons in Tokyo than in Rikuzentakata, for sure.

 

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Komo: Your dual-location work style is actually suitable for your role. In other words, you are kept busy no matter where you are! By the way, when you meet the foreign media, certainly you have to talk about the details of Rikuzentakata, including how it was before, what happened, how things have been going, what are the issues, etc. I can imagine your “input” side is equally busy as your “output” side.

Amya: Yes, the “input” side is very challenging. This is not a PR function for an established, large company but is a new function in a disaster-affected local government. I cannot always expect the information for PR be ready to go, and I need to proactively seek, gather, digest, and edit the information to tell. It is an enormous work, to be frank with you, but I am excited to learn wider and deeper about our City of Rikuzentakata.

Komo: What are the recent key subject matters foreign media are interested in? Say, a miracle lone pine tree?

Amya: Well, it is one of the interests, but I find the interests in Mayor Toba are quite strong abroad.

Komo: Ah-ha, Mayor Toba… Last year I read a big article about him in Wall Street Journal. I also read his book, and I watch his Facebook comments almost every morning… I have never met him in person, but he seems to have an open, frank, yet strong characteristics.

Amya: He does. It is natural that the foreign media are interested in the stories around Mayor Toba, and I can communicate more about that. Also, from our internal management viewpoint, Mayor Toba is a very nice person to work with. He is good at delegating the works to his team members, including myself. He’s got a fundamental trust in people.

Komo: I see. So you are excited to have joined his team…

Amya: Very much!

 

3. Challenges to be an “internalized outsider”

Komo: Shifting the subject to a little more of your personal aspect, what do you find challenging the most in working in a place where you did not have any prior experience? I once worked in the United States as a professional management consultant, and I found it was both rewarding and challenging… Just imagined you may have the same feeling.

Amya: It is rewarding and challenging, as you said. It is rewarding, as I can contribute to the recovery of the areas I am in charge, and eventually to the happiness of the people there. In terms of the challenge, I don’t play the “foreigner” card when I interact with local communities.

Komo: The “foreigner” card?

Amya: Well, if I position myself as a foreigner or an apparent outsider of the community, in fact it is often easier to be accepted. Even when I do something wrong, people may say, “She does not understand because she is a foreigner.” But the relationship I can get may be superficial. As I do understand Japanese culture from my experience to have grown up here, I usually try to go into a community in a Japanese mode. I care how others feel, and I pay attention to a subtle issue just like a Japanese person does.

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Komo: So you try to come into a Japanese community as a literate person about Japan. That must raise the bar of expectation to you. You can stay on a safer side, but you dare to expose yourself to a local, organic world.

Amya: I’d love to be a part of the local communities, and it goes well normally. But occasionally, there are moments where I cannot perfectly fit into the communities, or, more precisely, fit with each individual I meet.

Komo: Well, even for Japanese people it may be difficult.

Amya: For example, when I was talking with a person in a disaster-affected area, I started crying as the story he told me was so heart-wrenching. I could imagine how difficult it was, and I could not help but cry. However, he got angry all of a sudden… He said, “If you cry, you should not come here. It’s not you who should cry – It did not happen to you!” I immediately understood how he was feeling, but at that moment I had no choice but to cry.

Komo: Hmmm… It was a very delicate moment, I would imagine. But one thing is clear – If you had positioned yourself as a foreigner, he might have just swallowed his feeling in front of you. He might have said to himself, “This foreigner does not understand the sentiment of the tsunami victims.” However, because you positioned yourself as a kind of an “internalized outsider,” he could get angry in front of you.

Amya: At this very individual level, I have to be very sensitive to how I react to the person I meet face to face. It’s not always bad to cry to their stories, in fact. Depending on the individual and the context of the story, sometimes it is fine to cry, sometimes not.

Komo: Even for Japanese it will be difficult. I heard many stories about the insensitive communications and behaviors by the volunteers after the quake. Even if there was no bad intention, sometimes we cause an insensitive situation.

Amya: Ture. But I am facing the people who went through very tough experience and are still suffering from the difficulties in many different ways. As far as I decided not to hide behind the barrier of being a “foreigner,” I would like to take the same challenge of sensitivity as Japanese people are taking.

Komo: Amazing… You are the living example of what the communication is all about… In the course of time, the people in Rikuzentakata will also learn from your effort. That will be something they should be mindful when communicating with the people abroad.

 

4. Planting the seeds and opening the doors for kids

Komo: Aside from your official role as the Global PR Director for Rikuzentakata, is there anything you are planning to do for the people in those affected areas?

Amya: Definitely. One thing taking shape these days is to be with pre-school kids.

Komo: To be with pre-school kids?

Amya: Yes. It’s not an English school, so to say, but is more like a place to interact each other. I use Japanese and English to communicate and stay with them and talk and play together. The close interaction with me will, hopefully, help the kids to not fear foreigners.

Komo: That’s one of the first things we need to do. You are trying to plant the seeds of openness and global mindset to the kids you meet. What a great effort!

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Amya: While talking in Japanese, I often use the words like, “coffee” in Japanese pronunciation. As there are many such words came from English speaking countries and are already adopted to Japanese, the kids would say, “Ko-fi” easily. Then I would say, “That is an English word! Wow, you spoke English now!” They already know so much: cake, candy, ice cream, chocolate, ball, bat, hamburger, pool, truck, dress, and so on. Then their faces shine with smiles when I point out what all they know. It’s such a joy to watch.

Komo: What a nice way to give them a confidence and enjoyment to learn… Kids must be happy to see you, and they will surely grow the seeds you planted in their heart.

Oh-oh… It’s already about the time to finish the talk. Time flies! Amya-san, thank you again for coming to this interview, and I do look forward to collaborating with you in various ways going forward. Thank you very much!

(End)

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