Director, Popoki Peace Project
Professor Emerita, Kobe University, Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies
I began as a peace activist in the late 60’s, when I would skip junior high school in order to go to anti-war demonstrations. But my first real encounter with peace education was directly after finishing my undergraduate degree in 1977. I took a job as a volunteer with the YMCA and was sent to work in Hiroshima. It was an exciting time to be in Hiroshima because the world was seriously questioning new plans for deploying U.S. nuclear-capable missiles in Europe. Many people from around the world were visiting Hiroshima and one of my first tasks was to take them to the Peace Museum to learn about the horrific effects of the atomic bomb. At the end of my 2-year term, I stayed employed at the Hiroshima YMCA and continued to be involved in translating and sharing the stories of hibakusha, activities for teaching and learning about the atomic bombs, and thinking and working for peace. This was important and exciting work, and during my 5 years in Hiroshima I was able to meet people from around the world, travel throughout Asia to talk about Hiroshima and peace, and also travel to Micronesia, where I learned about U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific and nuclear politics in the so-called “American Lake.” Hiroshima remains a base of my understanding and work for peace, but I grew to question the focus on nuclear to the exclusion of all the other serious issues that confronted us – development, rights violations, environmental destruction and non-nuclear, but of course very lethal, wars.
I left Hiroshima to attend graduate school in Tokyo. Both my MA and PhD focused on alternatives to nuclear/military security in the island Pacific, introducing something I called an ‘endogenous security’ approach. Graduate school added peace research to my commitment to peace activism and peace education. In 1989, I was able to get a job as a research assistant at Kobe University, a 3-year contract that turned into a full professorship and a 33-year teaching career until mandatory retirement in 2022. Since becoming a professor emerita, my teaching career continues with part-time university teaching, peace education and peace activism. Using a feminist lens, I continue to focus on the struggles of people in Pacific islands for decolonization and demilitarization. At the same time, I have added another dimension through the creation of the Popoki Peace Project (2006).
My life work in peace research, education, and activism continues in pursuit of answers to the question, “what can we do to create a world where all living things can feel safe and live in peace.” The Popoki Peace Project work has helped to underscore the importance of non-verbal expression, in this case drawing in particular, and of stories, especially stories of feeling safe. Popoki Peace Project has opened a new window on peace for all life, human and otherwise, for the creation of visions of peace and ways that each person can contribute.
Challenges have been many and varied. I never envisioned that I would live my life in Japan, but my career has been one of firsts. I was the first foreign woman to hired under the same conditions as Japanese people (at the time, almost exclusively men), and that has been the story of my entire career. Illness, including a few weeks of blindness, early in my career changed my approach to academism, research and life. I began to focus more on the invisible, on stories, on emotions, and on bodies and physicality. This was met with interest by some, and aversion by many. A drawing project started after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake taught me of the importance of art as a means of expression and storytelling for everyone, not just artists, and that the sharing of those stories is relevant for the study of international politics as well as peace activism and peace education. As Japan militarizes and moves farther and farther away from the Peace Constitution and understanding of the necessity of being nuclear-free, there is less awareness and interest --- but greater and greater need. That is the biggest challenge facing me, and all of us, today.
The publication of Popoki, What Color is Peace? Popoki’s Peace Book 1 (Epic, 2007) and the creation of the Popoki Peace Project changed my life and have brought numerous successes and wonderful moments. This book of simple drawings and questions about peace – the first part focusing on smells, tastes, feel, colors, sounds and the second part on social issues – continues to be relevant to peace educators and others. But perhaps one of the most memorable moments was at the very beginning, before the book was even published. I did a workshop at an international conference. When I finished, a colleague from Liberia approached me to ask whether he could get a copy of the book. His reason was that children in Liberia have never experienced peace and don’t know how to imagine how it might be. He thought that Popoki might be able to help them to begin the journey to imagining, and then creating, peace. Sometime to my amazement, the cat Popoki with his questions about peace has made friends in Palestine, in Guahan/Guam, in many places around Japan and the world. He has made it possible to begin a conversation, something that is sometimes the most difficult thing to do.
After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Popoki Peace Project began a drawing project called “Popoki Friendship Story” in some small towns devastated by the tsunami. Not only children but adults drew on Popoki’s long cloth (45cm x 5m). A cloth can be folded to fit on the seat of a single chair or stretched long on the floor of a school gymnasium being used as an evacuation shelter. People gather around the cloth. They draw. They watch. They begin to talk. Sometimes they share their stories. Usually their expressions soften, and many leave with smiles. It has been over 12 years since I began what I thought would be a 1~2-month project, but we are still drawing and sharing. This is not peace education in the sense of ‘no more war,’ but it is peace education because it brings people to envision the ways they want to rebuild their lives and communities. It is peace education because it joins people together, often across space and time. And it is peace education because its beginnings in disaster recovery encourage all who participate to engage with disaster risk reduction, whether it be a tsunami, pandemic or all the potential and real effects of climate change.
My job as a volunteer with the YMCA began with a desire to work someplace in Asia. The YMCA decided to send me to Japan, and the Japan YMCA decided to send me to Hiroshima. I was quite upset when I heard that I would be going to live for two years in the city destroyed by the U.S. atomic bomb. I was terrified that I would be hated, and that I would not be able to make any friends. I was wrong. I made many lifetime friends, and Hiroshima remains a significant part of my work and life.
I had thought that it did not really take courage or creativity to work for peace, but I was wrong, partly because I had a very narrow and shallow understanding of what peace be. I soon learned that working for peace takes everything we have to give and more. I had thought that it did not really take courage or creativity to work for peace, but I was wrong, partly because I had a very narrow and shallow understanding of what peace be. I soon learned that working for peace takes everything we have to give and more. One of my favorites of Popoki’s questions is, “Can you have peace if others do not?” My answer is “no,” and my motivation to continue this work is that Popoki starts really important conversations, and often brings smiles to people’s faces. Not only is this work incredibly rewarding, but I believe it has something to contribute to the survival of the planet and all of the life it supports.
Is there a choice?
Every smile, every drawing, every question helps to sustain me. Every cold shoulder, small act of micro-aggression or larger, more violent hurtful words or acts are painful. But is there a choice?
Jump into water for a swim, celebrating a blooming flower, feeling a soft breeze bring me joy. Kind words, hugs, questions all help to sustain me. And of course, my belief and love for Popoki.
My choice is to continue for as long, and in as many ways, as I am able. I hope that I will have a chance to walk alongside you, whoever is reading this, and that you will walk alongside me. Perhaps we can celebrate our joy together and support each other when we falter or grow weak.
These are some videos on Popoki Peace Project's website.
The first (posted above), Popoki's Mask Gallery, is a video made during the 1st year of the pandemic. every day for 3 years, I drew Popoki with a mask and posted it on facebook. Please have a look.
Others are Popoki's friends reading stories. enjoy.