Quakebook: International Sorrow Finds an Outlet Online

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Helpless in the face of nature's wrath, a group of Japanophiles crowdsourced a book of essays to give a voice to those affected by Japan's massive earthquake

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At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck just off the east coast of Japan. The earthquake triggered a massive tsunami -- almost 40 meters in height -- that washed nearly 10km inland. Almost 125,000 buildings were destroyed; the Japanese National Police Agency estimates that 13,596 people were killed. Thousands remain missing.

Hours after the initial quake subsided, a blogger ventured outside his home in Abiko, part of Japan's Chiba Prefecture, to take in the devastation. The British expat, who writes pseudonymously under the name "Our Man In Abiko," chronicled the uncertainty of the quake's aftermath on his personal blog, pointing his readers to the Japanese Red Cross Society and fearing for the safety of his wife and two children. "Every time the house shakes, I have to make a quick decision," Our Man wrote. "Is this one worth waking them up so we can stand in the cold outside? No, not this time, seems to be weakening. Twenty minutes later. Another aftershock, worse than before. Now do I wake them? No, not this time. I look over every now and then and see that my wife isn't sleeping."

After a few days, Our Man had a eureka moment: Why not collect personal essays, artwork and photographs inspired by the earthquake and compile them into a book? Within a month, he'd have Quakebook.

2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, also known Quakebook, is a collection of essays, eyewitness accounts, artwork and photographs sourced almost entirely through Twitter from people around the world. Our Man modestly describes the project as "an idea [developed] in a shower by an English teacher in a commuter town on the outskirts of Tokyo that has blossomed into something massive." But with dozens of personal stories and graphics, Quakebook's two-week turnaround makes the project something of a design miracle.

"I started with a simple call for 250-word submissions, and pics and even tweets," Our Man tells me in a lengthy email discussing the evolution of his project. "Where were you when it happened, what did you feel? How have you helped? Did it change anything in the way you live your life? Are you coping with grief? Or just bewildered behind a barrage of media images? Write anything as long as it is heartfelt." Within a day, he had over 70 submissions.

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From the outset, Quakebook was a labor of love, a project undertaken by those who felt the pain of their home -- and in many cases, adoptive -- country from beyond its borders. Our Man notes that his earliest contributors "were all Colonials," mostly foreigners living in Japan and Japanese living abroad.

Aware of the international complexion of Quakebook, Our Man went in search of local contributors, those who had borne witness to the quake's devastation. His mother-in-law contributed, and then his neighbors. His wife, Our Woman In Abiko, searched the Internet for details from people, as Our Man says, "who had witnessed real suffering, and found some blogs and gained permission to translate them and so on." As Our Man sought eyewitness accounts, his international team was editing, designing and networking through Twitter, trying to ensure that the project was finished in a timely manner.

Despite its far-flung contributors, the book itself offers a departure from projects in the traditional post-disaster vein that, while fundamentally well-intentioned, often contribute relief at a distance, in purely monetary terms. Songs for Japan, the star-studded relief album relying on the repackaged singles of high-visibility stars like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to raise awareness for the disaster, comes to mind.

"I don't want to trash Songs for Japan because, basically, the goal of that project is the same as ours," says Dan Ryan, one of the first journalists to join the production of Quakebook. "But it is just a compilation of existing recordings thrown together on the fly and packaged rather quickly with a red sun icon on it, isn't it? 'Teo Torriatte' by Queen is the only song in the compilation that I know was specifically written for the Japanese, but it dates from 1976. Personally, 'Songs for Japan seems like just another music industry celebrity project to me. I don't even know if any of the recording artists were directly involved with putting together the two-CD set."

The Quakebook project is on the opposite end of the spectrum from projects like Songs for Japan, offering a deeply personal, heartfelt reaction to the disaster wrought by the quake and tsunami.

"Quakebook started with small stories from regular people that convey a truth, honesty and urgency which I doubt other artistic Japan earthquake relief projects have," says Ryan. "And Quakebook does have celebrity contributors. We are so honored and lucky to have them. It was a personal thrill for me as an editor to read and be asked to edit original work by guys like William Gibson and Jake Adelstein. But these fellows, as well as Barry Eisler and Yoko Ono, are directly or strongly connected to Japan in some way."

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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