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A Second Impression of Kamepao, 7/28/99

It usually takes longer to construct something than it does to demolish it. At least that's the way of the construction world. But in the case of Kamepao, it's not a simple teardown. When these kids are asked to take down the "shelter" they have played in for a year, they don't just set out to rip it down. They clean out the inside first, collecting pieces they'd made weeks before, saving some, leaving some aside. When the scissors and knives come out, used only by the 4th and 5th graders, pieces are cut out carefully to preserve certain shapes or images. Rather than destroying the entire structure at once, as if that were the intention, they take time to play with each piece as it comes off. The boxes come apart in layers and gradually become a neighborhood of homes. Several children choose a box of their own and begin cutting windows in it. Some hang curtains with scrap fabrics, some bring things they've made inside. Where a group of four children have assembled their new homes, other children quickly pick up their box and move ( hikkosu ) to be with the others. They quickly begin to call each other "neighbors", as well as visit each others' homes.

Although the dismantling of Kamepao today is very different from the destruction of homes after a natural disaster, the actions of the children demonstrated, even if only metaphorically, one of the main intentions of the Kamepao Project at large. As Kamepao is intended to be a temporary "shelter" for kids in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it is also intended to be dismantled after homes are reconstructed. Kamepao becomes a collective shelter where kids can work together. After it has served its purpose, kids return to their homes with their families. Coincidental or not, it is interesting that these children chose to build houses out of the components of the Kamepao shelter. It seems a natural reaction - to build or rebuild after a home or shelter has been destroyed: if a turtle lost its shell, it might likely go under a rock. It could be a simple (yet extremely complicated) instinctual need to have a zone, or a designated space to call your own. Besides offering physical protection and storage for possessions, it also serves as both a physical and mental space of safety. The kids seemed to be responding to the absence of this zone by creating new ones, but, even more importantly, private ones.

In the same way that schools, churches, gymnasiums, etc. serve as places for people to gather after a natural disaster, Kamepao designates a similar space. A gymnasium, for example, might be chosen for its size, but it could only be chosen if it too hadn't been destroyed during the earthquake or other disaster. Kamepao, on the other hand, is portable, as its name suggests. A turtle is never without its home. It moves with its home and never has to worry about a need to rebuild or move. In this sense it always carries its own safety. This metaphor seems to function for Kamepao. Pao, as a moveable home in Mongolia - similar to a Teepee in that its materials are lightweight, and it can be built and rebuilt easily - adds a nomadic dimension to the metaphor. Kamepao can be built when and where it is needed. And similar to the way in which an igloo is built from materials that are present, Kamepao also considers a similar practicality in construction.

Natural disasters often bring people together in unnatural ways. The collectivity of living together, working together, eating together, often a direct consequence of a natural disaster, cannot help but create new relationships. In many cases, neighbors for years may meet each other for the first time. Adults sometimes find this difficult, especially when they are used to a certain amount of control in either their business or home. Status or position often determines roles, which, once established, rarely change. Those roles often don't exist from the start in a collective living situation but are likely to be established anew. For some adults, this change could come as a shock. Among the many things that must be dealt with after a disaster, the exposure of what is normally considered private to the public is often uncomfortable.

Children, arguably less conditioned by status roles, find it much easier to communicate with other children, even if they're strangers. As long as the zone in which they meet is established as a safe zone, like a gymnasium or Kamepao, children feel free to play with anyone who takes an interest in their activities. Today, I was surprised that the children, rather quickly, found it easy to include me in their activities. Not only am I a stranger and an adult, but also a non-Japanese. Yet the children didn't hesitate to, 1). ask me to play with them, and 2). speak to me in Japanese. Both of these traits I have found in my experiences in Japan to be rare among adults. It is rare to never that a Japanese person I have never met will come up to me and speak to me in Japanese. There are many complicated reasons for this, that range from fear to dislike to certain cultural insecurities, etc.. In the case that I am approached, it is most often in English. When I answer in Japanese, I'm 90% of the time met with astonishment that such words can come from my mouth. And 40% of that 90% of the time, the person addressing me will continue to speak in English. And without having a certain "in" with a group, it is often rare to be approached by a stranger and included in some activity. And, in the event that I am included, it is 90% of the time under the auspices that I am an American and a native English speaker. The conversation, or my inclusion in the activity, most likely centers around my ability or inability to speak the language or eat the food, or around things American, or English. Children, on the other hand, don't necessarily have these same fears or prejudices, unless they are taught them by their parents.

I mention this personal example to suggest that another value of Kamepao is that it allows children to exersize this ability to meet and share without prejudices. As adults often have to overcome certain prejudices when they are forced into a public living situation, Kamepao, by bringing children together, can often also bring adults together. There are very few benefits to a natural disaster like an earthquake. No one would likely choose this disruption of their lifestyle. But, in the way that a natural disaster forces people to come together, adults can often learn again, from children, the ability to face others without prejudices and heirarchies. Unfortunately, in the same way that people tend to quickly seek new shelter when their previous shelter has been destroyed, so too do they seek to establish new, or old, prejudices and hierarchies. Adults will be adults, as the saying should go.

My experience today made me consider again the question of if Kamepao is for kids. On the surface it seems to focus its attention on kids, but as the activities build, the roles of adults seem to come more into play. Play is the vehicle in which children communicate. Adults, it could be argued, have lost the ability to play with each other. If kids have access to Kamepao, they quickly learn how to use it. Adults also have these same abilities, yet layers of social norms prevent them access. A natural disaster has the power to strip a person not only of his or her home, but also of the many layers that make his or her life secure. No one asks for or seeks destruction, but when it comes to rebuilding, having the necessary tools is essential.
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