Three Weeks Later

by industriousants

On Friday, March 11th, I was sitting at my desk readying myself to go home for the weekend when a teacher came into the staff room and suddenly made an announcement. I was only able to pick up one word; jishin, or earthquake. This didn’t alarm me at all. In the two years we’ve lived here, I’ve experience at least 3 small earthquakes. Actually, probably more, but I’m a sound sleeper. In Japan, as frightening as they are, earthquakes are just a fact of life, so I didn’t think much of it at first. Then, in his broken English, my vice principal told me that a wave ten meters tall had hit the northern shores. I thought that he surely must be mistaken. Ten meters would put the water level over the second story of our own school, and really, how could that be possible? Surely he actually meant to say ten feet. Sadly, his estimate turned out to be true in some areas of the disaster zone, and low in other parts.

The internet-firewall at school prevented me from connecting to YouTube, and all the major English networks didn’t yet have substantial details on the damage, so initially it was hard to tell just how bad the whole thing was. Teachers in the staff room pulled out their cell phones and started to watch the live footage being televised over NHK. Actually, that was my first real indication that this was not just your average Japanese earthquake. Teachers at my school never watch TV on their cell phones, a) because they’re supposed to be working, and b) because it’s expensive. At this point, still not fully aware of the severity of the situation, I decided to write my parents a quick email just to let them know that we were fine. I’m glad I did. A short while later they were woken in the middle of the night by phone calls from relatives in various time zones concerned about our safety. That one email probably saved them some panic.

The next person I made sure to contact was Matthew. Everyone at school had been told to stay away from the shoreline as our town was expected to get a small tsunami, maybe under 2 feet tall, in the next few hours. For some people, this warning would be enough to make them head inland a bit, but for my husband, it was more likely to make him head for home to grab his surfboard. Thankfully, when I called he was not en route to the beach, but in the safe company of a work colleague watching the news coverage at a local bookstore. I made him promise me at least twice not to go surfing.

That was all more than three weeks ago. It’s hard to believe that since then, with all the horrible stories we’ve heard and the surreal footage we’ve spent hours watching, that I can wake up today and feel like everything is normal, even here in Japan. But why wouldn’t it be? How long did it really take for Facebook posts to go from being almost 98% about radiation readings and disaster fundraising events, to being surveys about whether Jon Hamm is hotter than Michael Buble? At least 8 days. Ok, maybe 9.

I would say that most English broadcasting companies have a catastrophic-disaster attention-span of about 2 weeks, which would explain the sharp decline in coverage by most of the major media outlets lately. The large exception is the national provider, NHK World, which to this day is still pouring out the details. One can’t really blame the rest of them though. Their job is to report international news, and of course there is more going on in the world right now than just the recovery of this country. Knowing all this, it didn’t surprise me when my dad told me the CBC was pulling its reporting team out of Japan. However, I was disappointed to learn that their apparent excuse was fear of a serious nuclear meltdown that might make it impossible for them to leave the country. I thought it was a bit absurd. A more valid reason would have been that clean water, food and fuel were hampering their team, but the idea that the whole country was going to radioactively implode and cause a mass exodus triggering the government to shut down all outgoing flights just didn’t seemed plausible to me. Were they confused about which country they were in? I wanted to tell them “You’re not in Libya, you’re in Japan.”

The people here are not about to just up and leave. Last week I asked a colleague what she would do if the readings rose significantly in Miyazaki. Her response was that she hoped she could stay with family somewhere further away in the countryside and that if there were shortages of food they could try to be as self-sufficient as possible. At no point did she mention taking the first flight to Australia, or smuggling herself onto a ship bound for the America’s. Unlike the local foreign community, the Japanese have only one home and feel a deeper obligation to their communities and their jobs, sometimes admittedly almost beyond reason. These are not a people who easily abandon ship. After all, history has shown that when the plane goes down, they tend to go down with it.

It shouldn’t be surprising then to hear that some people are refusing to leave their homes or even evacuation centers to be placed in refugee apartments around the country. Even though apartments have opened up in our prefecture, rumor has it that not all survivors are willing to come. After the tsunami destroyed everything they owned, the most valuable things they have left are surviving family and friends. Getting people to part with the familiar faces of their community, to be isolated somewhere far away and alone, is not as an appealing idea as you would first think. To illustrates an extreme example of this, here is an article from NHK about the people who refuse to leave the Fukushima no-go zone:

Back in our town, life goes on much as usual. While the people of Tokyo have been asked to exercise some considerate restraint when it comes to the seasonal cherry blossom viewing parties, I haven’t heard of anything like that in our prefecture. Actually, we just had hanami last Friday, and I have two more welcome parties scheduled this week to ring in the new business year. As usual, I feel a bit guilty about the excessiveness of these events, and at the same time I wonder if it would be fair cancel them and punish the small businesses that depend on these seasonal parties to stay afloat.

Matt is back out surfing every chance he gets. When I told my mom this, I could read her facial expression right through Skype. “You mean, surfing out in the water?!” Yes. Out in the water. Obviously, with recent reports of radioactive junk being voluntarily poured into the ocean by TEPCO, surfing might seem very unappealing right now, but the sea currents from the plant run away from us, so we hope our shores are being spared. As for the risk of another tsunami, Matt admits outright that if he was out catching waves, he would probably not hear the tsunami alarm and likely be swept away. He followed that with the remark “but what can you do? We all have to die.” As reckless as this sounds, it’s true. Of course, I don’t believe that anyone should put themself willingly in harm’s way, but then you have to ask yourself what exactly is harms way? Is it cliff jumping or driving your car on the highway? Is it climbing Mount Everest or is it drinking Japanese milk? Is it being dangerously overweight in America or is it surfing in Miyazaki? I take it that Matt doesn’t believe that surfing in questionable waters is harms way, and he’s not the only one, because there are a lot of surfers out there these days. Personally, I would have preferred if he had worded it “We all have live” instead. I can agree with that statement much more readily and the idea remains the same. It’s true, we all have to die. What’s most important though, is that we don’t forget to live.