New Beginnings

by industriousants

There is nothing new under the sun.


The last letter I sent out saw some very touching responses. Thank you for thinking of us and staying on top of all the issues that are constantly unfolding in Japan. It means a lot to us that you are so involved. It made me think that maybe now would be a good time to restart my long dormant blog. It’s been a couple of years, and I am definitely a little writing-rusty, but I just can’t keep all my thoughts to myself anymore. I find myself writing more and more group emails, so it feels like this is the best way to keep family and friends informed about what is happening to us on this side of the world.

After reading some of your emails, I went back over my last letter to make sure I didn’t make any glaring spelling or grammar errors, which tends to happen often these days! It’s really embarrassing when a Japanese student of mine catches a mistake. “What do you mean you don’t know how to spell SPEECH?!” That’s when I feel like I have really been in Japan too long! After almost two years of trying to cram Japanese into my head, English seems less and less familiar. I’ll write a word on the blackboard and think automatically that it looks wrong. Matt is constantly correcting my pronunciation these days…the word ‘pronunciation’ is a good example. I’ve started saying it “pronounciation”.

My brain is already full of English and French, and there is a dash of Spanish in there too. Now Japanese is fighting for space. It’s pretty hilarious when I talk to the Peruvian mother of one of my students. She doesn’t speak English, but understands some Japanese. We end up sounding like we are talking in Esperanto, because every other sentence has words from 4 different languages all blended together. Still, we get what each other is saying.

Anyway, moving on.
We recently took a vacation from the disaster media coverage and visited the neighboring island of Shikoku. No internet and no large doses of international news coverage left me feeling both relieved and stressed out, probably how a junky feels when they first check into rehab. I was constantly asking my Japanese friend what the situation was like with the reactors, and he would calmly reply “not good” and wouldn’t elaborate any further. Halfway through the road trip, we started listening to Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, and it helped me take my mind off the things happening far away that I had zero power to change. Instead of picturing scenes of nuclear fall out, I found myself visualizing possible exercise routines and jogging schedules that I could tackle once the baby has been born. While Murakami comes off as being an overly self-absorbed egomaniac, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, was probably the best kind of CD-book to listen to on our 3 day sojourn…it was positive, inspiring and much more uplifting than listening to something like Neville Shutes On The Beach, which is essentially what CNN feels like these days.

Shikoku was filled with good company, but overall was not all that exciting. We’ve seen a lot of Japan, and the truth is that after a while it all looks the same. It’s not the geography that is un-amazing, and the people are always wonderful, but it’s the architecture and urban planning that leave something to be desired. There is just too much pavement in places that don’t need pavement. Everything is paved, even the shorelines and sometimes the mountainsides. Then there are those poorer small towns that haven’t been updated in years. They are much like the fishing villages you’ve seen on the news being wiped out by that huge expansive wave. These homes are still made of wood and aluminum siding. They look much older than they really are, as hard weather conditions run down their exteriors quickly.

Structures here are not built to last, perhaps with the exception of schools and hospitals, but I am not sure why. I have been told that the value of a house drops the moment it is moved into. The house is really worth nothing…but the land is definitely pricey. Families don’t renovate homes, they just tear them down and build new ones, or they abandon them and move elsewhere. Our town is full of old empty buildings that no one wants to live or work in. It’s probably also a sign that this place has seen better days. A great blog to read about the current housing situation in Japan can be found here:

News of the northern disaster is still very much on our radar, but it’s astonishing how fast the urgency of it has dissipated. The last few days I’ve woken up in the morning and completely forgotten that there was even an earthquake to begin with. It’s sad really. Time makes you forget, and the crunch of life and the physical distance buffers us considerably from the reality that continues to unfold up there.

We don’t have a television, so all our news comes from the internet. Lately, the international media’s focus seems to have taken a hard left turn into Libya, and Canada has got an election on its hands, so there is home grown fodder to feed on there. Locally in Japan, the northern reporting is still strong. A friend’s boyfriend works for NHK News, the national media provider. He is scheduled to fly up to the disaster area shortly to help out with the reporting duties. Apparently all prefectures in Japan are sending their local reporters in shifts to the effected zones, to help share the load of keeping the public informed.

The nuclear plant continues to be make very slow progress, if any at all. Still, no one here in Miyazaki seems to be panicking. While they won’t talk about it up front, if you ask them directly “Aren’t you worried?” they will definitely say “Yes” but they don’t say much more about what it is that they are feeling. It does makes sense though. The Japanese, as far as I my own experiences go, are a people of very few words, but I have found over time that if you read between the lines, there is a lot being said.

Fortunately for us, the foreign community does a good job all on its own at keeping us in a constant state of mini-panic, which I don’t think is an entirely bad thing either. While I want nothing more than to remain calm and level headed during this time of disaster, I also can’t let myself believe that everything is business as usual. The truth is that it’s not. The other truth is, that we are far away from the hot zone, so it’s best to find a healthy mental balance and stick with it for as long as possible.

Something that helps us keep the Fukushima issue in perspective are the daily radiation readings for each prefecture. I check them here:

If you take a look, Miyagi and Fukushima aren’t listed, because they are probably off the charts. Ibaraki to Kanegawa, including Tokyo, are all showing higher than normal levels, though some minimally. South of that is all very normal and within range. The readings haven’t changed in our prefecture since before the Tsunami, which is a relief. I am also happy that we aren’t connected in anyway to the main island of Honshu, so water contamination at this point does not seem to be an issue. A ban has been placed on all the produce coming out of the effected regions and Japanese people are likely to shun the food that comes from these places for years to come, even if they are eventually proven to be safe. Japan is very particular about what it eats. It’s the only country I’ve ever visited where imported tropical fruits are cheaper and less desirable than locally grown potatoes.

Another good example of strict food regulation has to do with a few cases of hoof and mouth disease that were detected in our region last year. It resulted in the culling of thousands of cows and the unfortunate suicide of the farmer whose cow apparently started the whole thing. A massive sanitizing movement started, which saw people cueing up their cars on the highway to have them sprayed down with disinfectant, and everyone voluntarily walking their shoes through cleaning solutions almost 10 times a day to help stop the spread of potentially diseased dirt fragments. I noticed more Australian beef at the grocery store, which was cheaper, but seemed unpopular. I assumed it was because it wasn’t up to Japanese tastes. In the end, I think most people just switched over to chicken. I can’t even imagine what a radiation scare will do to the farmers who live in the north. To me, their livelihood seems doomed.

Regardless of everything, we continue to plug away at our daily lives. The weather is warming and the cherry blossoms are just now starting to reveal themselves. Seasonal picnics under these beautiful blossoming trees is one of the few places that Japanese people find true repose from their otherwise busy and culturally demanding lives. They take real pleasure in the fleeting beauty of the pretty pink sakura flowers. It’s a great experience to sit there with them and admire something as simple as the season changing. Truly, you realize it’s not that simple at all. It’s basically the whole world around you being dead and colorless and all of a sudden, miraculously, it comes alive. For those people who survived the Tsunami, who have been evacuated from their homes and who have no certainty about their future or the future of their children, I hope somewhere nearby there is a blossoming cherry tree. Maybe they can look towards it and know that even through the darkest of times and the coldest of winters, even when everything surely seems dead, life begins again.

March 28, 2011