I'm here today with the man known as Our Man in Abiko. Welcome, thank you for taking the time today.
Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
So I guess we're here to talk about Quakebook.
Our Man: That's right. That's why I'm here. Um, shall I explain a little about Quakebook?
Please do. Now the title of the actual book is 2:46?
Our Man: Is 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake. That's right.
OK, please tell us a little about it.
Well, sure. And really, we call it, uh, Quakebook. Uh, that's how it's known. It started out as just a crazy idea. I was having a shower one week after the earthquake, and I thought, “What can I do to help? I'm just an English teacher, uh, in Abiko, uh, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Um, so what can I do?” Well, I used to be a newspaper reporter and newspaper subeditor, so I have some skills. Uh, not, nothing that I thought was useful, but I could make a book. Um, so, I have no staff; where can I find some staff? Aha! I have Twitter. So that's really a very simple idea, and so I thought I would collect people's experiences of the earthquake, put it together, sell the book, and all the profits will go to the Red Cross. That's the basic idea, and it's just grown from there.
Now you were fairly active on Twitter before this, right?
I was, yeah. I had a, a crazy blog, uh, “Our Man in Abiko,” uh, and it was a way of, uh, letting off steam from being an English teacher. I sometimes, I wanted to talk about politics, I wanted to talk about media and things that maybe my students were tired of hearing about. So I had this, uh, crazy character, this anonymous character who, um, was a kind of, uh, out-of-work British secret agent. Uh, that was the idea. That was the character, um, who could just talk about any, any silly stuff.
Uh, then, you know, so I had a, I had a following of at least some journalists and, um, artistic people, and people interested in Japan, so that was a good base to start with. Uh, then when the earthquake happened, suddenly I thought, well this character, instead being a wa-, a waste of time, could really spring forward and become a real, almost a real person. And, uh, lead the resistance against the earthquake.
Uh, it's, but of course, I can't do that. I'm just an English teacher. But maybe Our Man in Abiko can, can lead the troops. And that's how it all began.
I, I know the fact that you were using this alias, it almost left some people suspicious. They were worried that this Quakebook thing might be a scam, that, uh, the money would be going to you. I mean, why did you choose to remain anonymous?
Um, many reasons. I mean, you know, people are suspicious and naturally suspicious, especially when you ask for their money. So, I've been, I've been very clear right from the beginning, no money comes to me or to Quakebook. And we don't even touch the money. It all goes straight to the Red Cross. It goes through Amazon. Um, I, I don't even know exactly how much money there is because we don't touch it.
Um, but, yeah, why did, why be anonymous? Again it's to be a character. I, if I tell you my real name, it's just, “Oh.” You know, nothing interesting there. But if I say, “Well actually I'm the, I'm the leader of the, of the resistance movement to the earthquake and my name's Our Man in Abiko,” you may think I'm kind of crazy, but you think, “OK. Tell me more.” And that's what I wanted. “OK.” You know, ha-ha.
So, and knowing, other reasons are I want to be anonymous, um, so that my family is not involved in this. I didn't know how big this would become. Um, or, you know, I didn't want to bother anybody. So that was another reason. Um, and also, frankly, it's just more fun this way. And it's a, it's a, it was a project born on the Internet, so it deserves to have a sort of Internet identity. So people use crazy names on the Internet, um, but that's why I've, I've been happy to do interviews like this one to prove I am a real person and this isn't a scam. Um, all the money does go to the Red Cross, um ... and that's it.
I understand that, uh, Amazon was quite helpful through this.
Very helpful, yeah. Um, right from the beginning, we thought, “Well, we've got this book ...,” um, and we could have done one of two things: we could have put it out as an e-book on our blog and just asked people to, to donate. Uh, because it's a very complicated system on how to get the money. But I thought, “No. This book deserves to go higher.” And I thought, “Well, what's the number-one place to go? Well, everybody knows Amazon. Uh, what, we'll try Amazon.” Uh, it's a crazy idea. Who, I mean who, they're not going to listen to us. And at first, they were a little resistant. They thought, “Well, you know, we don't want to be seen as being ambulance chasers.” Um, so, on Twitter, I, I announced, “Well, look, the way around that is you don't take any money. Then you're not being an ambulance chaser, you're just helping.”
I put that idea out, and one of the followers, um, an American businessman in Tokyo said, “Oh, wow. Yeah, I, I understand that. Let me help you.” So he got on the telephone. He said, “I've got a few connections with Amazon.” And he just kept going up the chain of command. Allegedly, the president of Amazon. Um, uh, but it got pretty high up, uh, and the, that meant that we could, uh, get all the fees waived. So, um, we raised, uh, over $30,000 just from an e-book, which, uh, lots of people don't know what an e-book is. And to raise $30,000 from it was great.
Um, and then we had a, another idea which was to make the e-book free.
Yes, this happened quite recently.
Uh, yeah. Two, two weeks ago, was it? Two weeks ago. One week ago! Anyway, recently we decided to change the style of giving out the book. I think most people who wanted to buy the book on an e-book had already done so. And everybody else was waiting for the real book to come out. Um, so we thought, well let's use this to our advantage. “OK everybody. Hey, we're going free. If you're interested in this book, download it!” A lot of people say “You're crazy. How can you raise money for charity by giving a free book? You know, we want money.”
Well, the idea is that you look at the, the book, uh, online and think, “Oh, that's great!” And then you go and you say, “Oh, I want to buy the real copy.” The real copy's coming out, uh, next week. By the time this interview's out, it will be out there. Uh, and I'm just so amazed that we've got a bilingual English and Japanese version that's coming out, uh, which you can buy from any, or most Japanese shops and, of course, Amazon. Um ...
So the only print version is going to be the bilingual version.
The first print version.
The first print version.
There's another print version, a hard-back English version, in the works which, again, by the time this interview gets out, it should be in the shops. That's a print-on-demand, so you ha-, you go there and you say, “I want this book,” and they print it and send it to you. But you can buy it from a bookshop.
OK. So it's going to be stocked in major shops?
Yes. The, um, well, I hope so. Uh, we have no, we have an advertising budget of zero. So we're up against the, we need word of mouth. We need people to say, to go to their local bookshop and say, “I want to buy Quakebook 2:46.” Uh, and they can order it. There's an ISBN number―in publishing, every book has an ISBN number―they can look that up for you. They can order it and you can get it through, through the bookshop. The more people that do that, the more shops will stock it, and then we can make more money for the, uh, Red Cross.
Something to say about the, uh, the, the book, you know, when you put out an electronic book, the costs are almost zero, so you can give all the money to charity. Uh, with a real book, there are real costs―you've got the paper and the printers, you know, and people can't work for free. So, people should understand there are, a lot of costs are coming out of that. But it's written into the contract that a minimum of 44 percent of the cover price will go to the Red Cross, which, if you know anything about publishing, is an amazing proportion.
Yeah, that's a pretty good number.
Yeah, well, if I can give a shout-out to Goken, our publishers, they waved all of their profits, um, and of course, no profits go to Quakebook, so all of that goes to the Japanese Red Cross. Uh, which is the best that we can do. Um...
I think that even e-books, if they're coming through a regular publisher, of course, you have to pay staff and they have, you'll have a certain amount of production costs but …
Yeah you do. But, you know, usually Amazon and other publishing companies take 30 percent, um, for costs and profit. So, you know, Amazon waived all of that. So, you know, it's just been, a lot of people want to help, and this is how big companies can help, um, and how ordinary people can help, by buying the book.
So how many people were involved in putting this together?
That, that's a very good question. I have no idea. It is the honest answer. Uh, in the back of the book, you'll see, uh, I believe 40 names, and they are people that I know exactly what they did, and I can say yes, they, they helped. You've got 40 people there, you've got, uh, 89 contributors, so that's 129, right? Uh, but then you've got so many other people on Twitter who've been talking about it and sending messages of encouragement, and they play a role. You've got lots of people who downloaded, uh, posters and put them up and told their friends, so they're kind of involved. Um, you've got friends of friends who have just chipped in and said, “Oh, it's OK,” you know, uh, “Can I help with the translation, and, oh, you don't need to put my name in.” So, you know, a rough estimate 200 people have been involved directly with this book. Um, amazing.
And, you know, of those people, I think I knew one person before this began. Everybody else, I met on Twitter, and it was just a bizarre situation. You, you'd, you'd write, I'd say, “I want to have some people writing,” and they'd send in some, some stories. “OK, I've got these stories, I need to sub-edit them. Are there any sub-editors out there?” And somebody in California: “Yeah, yeah. I, I can do it. I'm free.” “Oh great, OK. I'll give it to you ... Oh no, I've got this all, all in Japanese, my Japanese isn't good enough. Any translators out there at a, at a loose end?” Somebody in Ireland'll say: “Yeah, my wife's Japanese. She'll do it.” “Great!”
And, and, and so we had a global operation going, you know, uh, uh, a 24-hour operation, headquartered in Abiko. Um, and, and, and part of the, part of the, the purpose was to get people to help because I'm sure you remember one week after the earthquake, everybody's feeling a little helpless and scared still―there were still aftershocks. And everybody wants to know, “What can we do to help?” So this was one way.
So I encourage people to, to do what they can. My only criteria was, what can you do? Um, you know, can you help? That was, that was it. And people'll say, “Yes, I can.” “OK, you're in.” Um, you know, I, I didn't need to see a resume, or, you know, if you tell me you can translate, OK, here you go. Translate it. And that's how it worked, so we pulled it off in one week, we got the book written.
Yeah, it was great.
You had, uh, two or three major names, fairly famous people, get involved, and that was all through Twitter as well.
Yeah. That was, that was crazy. So I, I thought, you know, this would be a nice record, a history from the bottom up, uh, from ordinary people, which was fine. Uh, and then one day, uh, about three days into the project, uh, I got a tweet from, a message from, just, uh, one of my followers on Twitter who said, “Hey, did you see that William Gibson, uh, is, uh, tweeting about Quakebook?” I was like, “Wow. William Gibson, the science-fiction writer?” “Yeah.” “Ah. Wow, that's great.”
And, uh, and I didn't think anything more about it. My followers said, “Hey, why don't you ask him if he wants to contribute?” I thought, “Well, he's, he's Mr. William Gibson. He's not gonna contribute of ... but all right, yeah, what, what the heck. I'll do it.” Bam-bam-bam-bam, sent off a[n] e-mail, heard nothing from him, and I just thought, “Oh, it's, nothing's going to happen.”
So, we just joked about it on Twitter, you know, like, “Oh, we've got everything in this book, uh, but we don't have a famous science-fiction writer. Anybody know a famous science-fiction writer who'd like to write for us?” Uh, but I didn't realize, uh, he'd gone to bed. He was in Vancouver. He didn't see all this stuff. Uh, but when he got up in the morning and he read the message, h-he just sent me a direct message saying, “Yeah, sure. I'll do it. What's my deadline?” I thought, “Wow! Great!”
And so, uh, that, that felt like victory. Uh, suddenly I knew a, a famous name was, was joining us and he didn't have to, and he n―there was no talk of money, there was no talk of anything, just “What can I do to help?” And I thought, “Well that's exactly the same spirit that, that everybody involved has been doing this.” So he said, “What's, what's my deadline?” And I said, “Well, uh, three hours?” I just picked a number out. And so I gave William Gibson a three-hour deadline.
You're a fierce editor.
Yeah. I was in, I was in editing mode, you know? Uh, and he did. Three, I, I went back to bed and, and, and caught three hours' nap. When I woke up there was an e-mail from him with a, a, a 300-word piece, a one-page piece―an original that he'd written in three hours. So that was, that was the beginning, Uh, uh, I knew it was gonna be a success.
Our Man: Um, so the other famous people, uh, you may have heard of Yoko Ono ...
[Laughing] Perhaps. Yes.
Yeah. Uh, again this happened through Twitter. One of our followers contacted, uh, Yoko Ono. 'Cause she was tweeting a lot about, you know, she was doing a lot of helpful things to try and raise money and awareness for Japan. And one of our followers said, “Oh, have you heard about Quakebook?” Um, and she said no, and she, she started tweeting about Quakebook. And then my follower said, um, “Hey, why don't you write for us?”
And I don't know if she saw that tweet or, you know, she's got lots of PR people, but somebody passed the message on to her, and she, one day, she sent a message back, said, “Yes, I'd love to.” And she'd written a piece, um, that was, when was that? On the, on March 11, on that same day, that she'd presented to people in New York, uh, in, uh, I think, Central Park. I'm not sure. Uh, but she'd written a piece, ready, uh, she said, “You can have that.” And she sent that with the Japanese.
I see. So this was something she'd written...
She'd written, but in the same spirit?
… for the event.
yeah, for another event, but in the same spirit as Quakebook. She just sort of, like, “What are my first emotions and feelings?” And she, and she wrote a very nice piece, uh, about, uh, experiencing an earthquake in Tokyo, uh, when John Lennon, when her husband was alive, with Sean when he was a baby. So she was sharing a, a common feeling. So, you know, it's been amazing. We've, I've, this thing called Twitter has, and, and Quakebook has linked. My, my wife, she wrote something. My mother-in-law, she wrote something, my neighbors. Um, uh, with people around the world, uh, and famous people like Yoko Ono and William Gibson.
And of course there's some stories from, from the, the worst-hit areas, as well.
Well, uh, yeah, exactly. I mean, it started off as a small thing just to share experiences. And then I realized, well, you know, I'm getting a lot of, um, foreigners writing, because I'm writing in English, of course. Uh, we need more Japanese. So my wife said, “Well, we'll, I'll ask my neighbors.” So we got some, some of our neighbors. And then we thought, “Well, you know, we need more people who've really suffered to tell, tell what's happened.” My wife said, “OK, I'll have a look on the Internet.” So my wife got in touch with people from some of the really hard hit areas, um, including Sendai, um, where there was a, a, a family who, uh, had to be evacuated, um, and they had a very, uh, harrowing story. Um, also, uh, near Fukushima. So, we had some people, not a lot, but some people who really, really did suffer a lot, and just gave their point of view, and, uh, the idea was to pull everything together, so no one person's experience is better or worse than another's. It just tells the story of what happened to this country, and the world, uh, on 3/11. That was the idea.
What was the most difficult thing you had to face in putting it together? Were there some, some challenges you didn't expect?
Um, I didn't realize how much work it was going to be. Um, a-and I didn't realize how little I knew about publishing. You know, I have a background in local newspapers, so I thought that would be enough. Uh, but it isn't. There, there are a, an army of people involved in making a book, even an e-book. Um, uh, but, you know, every time I came up against an obstacle, I'd just get on Twitter. I'd say, “Oh, you know, apparently I need a translator. Let's get a translator.” And, “Oh, we want to publish this book. I need a publisher!” “Oh, we want to do this in Japanese and English. Um, can anybody do that?”
So every time there was a problem, we'd ask. And we started off, I, I didn't know what a literary agent was, but I thought I needed one. So I asked Twitter, and they said, “Oh, talk to this person.” I went, “Great.” In the end, we, we, kind of, didn't need a literary agent. I still don't know what a literary agent is or does. We just sort of did it ourselves, and I think that was the philosophy of Quakebook, was, um, “If you don't know how to do it, ask.” And “Do it first, and then figure out if it's possible later.”
Because, uh, and, the, the, you know, the wonderful thing―if I can say is wonderful about something terrible like the earthquake―is it really focuses everybody's minds, and we all stop our petty problems and, you know, “Oh, I don't want to do that because I can't make any money,” or “I don't want to do this because I'm not really very good at this.” No, everybody said, “What can I do?”
So I had a designer in, in, um, Denver, um, who, she, she, she's an illustrator. She can't lay out books, but I didn't have a layout artist. I said, “Can you lay out the book?” She said, “OK, I'll give it a go.” And she did a great job. So she did our first draft. And she's just an illustrator, you know. Uh, and, and I'm not an editor, I'm an English teacher, but I, you know. So, so there's something strong about, uh, an earthquake or a, a national disaster, uh, that everybody stops worrying about little things, and, and wants to help.
So, I know you recently visited Tohoku in person. Tell us a little about, uh, what you saw and what you did.
Sure, I'm still getting over the emotions of, of what I saw. I we, we went, uh, this last weekend. Um, uh, we went to Ishinomaki, which was a, a very strange situation. I mean parts of Ishinomaki are like a war-zone. Uh, a, a large chunk of the city, about, I don't know, three, three or four square kilometers, it's just horrific. Uh, and then, you go out of that area and it's normal life. There's 7-Eleven, and, um, people going about their business. Uh, and it's just really strange, the, the, to see. Some people are still living in, um, as I say, w-war conditions. Um, most people have left. It's a very depressing place. Th-there is no life there in that, in the, if I can call it “ground zero.” I mean there's, there's nothing, nothing happening there. And yet there are still people living on the second floors.
Um, so, yeah, I, I know, you see the, if you go to someplace like Ishinomaki, and I guess Kesennuma, it really focuses the mind, there are still people that need help. And more than that, we've got to rebuild this area, or, or do something with it. Or re-house the people, and it's an enormous task.
Before I went, I was very critical of, uh, bureaucracy and, “Oh, why haven't they given more food, quickly! And why haven't they built houses for all these people?” And you go and you see how big a problem it is, and I'm a little bit more patient. And I realize, you know, OK, you're giving, giving charity to people. Who do you give, who do you give first? What do you give? Do you look after the old people first? Or do you look after the young people? Obviously the old people. But if you look after the old people, the young people will go look for a job somewhere else, and then the town has no, has no income. So maybe you should―you know. Uh, these are big questions. The―there's not an easy answer.
Do you get a better sense of the scale, being there in person?
Yeah, you do. Uh, you know, and you sit here in Tokyo and you think, “Oh, yes, we suffered so much.” We didn't suffer at all. You know, the lights went off for a while, and, and the building shook, and we got a little bit scared. Uh, but you go up there, and they, you know, I walked around, uh, I, I ga-, well, to explain, I went there with my wife and some neighbors and we, we collected some clothes and food and basic things, and gave it out to the, kind of, free flea market. So just a little thing that we could do on one weekend. While we were there, I thought, well, I'll just have a look around. And I walked around this area, and there are houses with names pasted onto the side of the house saying, “I'm no longer here, but please look for me. I'm in Yamaguchi,” or “I'm somewhere else,” “I'm with my parents.” There were other signs that say, “I'm looking for the person who lived here. Um, they may still be in this building.” You know, and you go, “What?” “There, there may be a body in this building.” You know. “Please check.”
I, it's just, and you think, well how can that be happening in, in Japan? And you reali-, it's just so enormous, and, you know, there are people there, the, the, the self-defense forces are there, the police are there, and they're doing their job, but it's just such an enormous job. Y-you have to prioritize and say, “Well, these houses are gone, you know, but we can work on this.”
So, you know, you see that and you think, “Well,” you know, “what can I do?” you know. So, um, I'm not sure what the answers are. I think that's the challenge for everybody is, “What can we do?” Um, I can write a little, I can edit. That's what I can do. Other people can, can run a marathon and raise some money. Other people, you know, I don't know, they can teach an English lesson or, or volunteer or, or something. But I think everybody has to ask themselves “How can I help?”
And don't wait for the government. You know, they've got their own problems, and, you know, rightly or wrongly, they're doing the best they can, or maybe they're not. I don't know. It's not really relevant. They do what they do. But we can do what we can do, and that's, that's, that's the point.
So I think, I think that anybody listening to this, I would, I would ask them ― obviously to buy Quakebook, but that's not even so important. More important is find a way to make a difference. Uh, this was how I could make a difference, but you can find another way. And it's our duty to do that for the people who are really suffering.
(Secret handshake to interviewer Owen Schaefer) For audio, go here from the English Journal interview. Out now at all good news kiosks. Interview: June 8, 2011.