Dear friends, family, former teachers, and those I haven’t met: thank you all for your kind, heartfelt comments and e-mails over the past week. They have helped me cope as I watch this incomprehensibly catastrophic situation unfold. I’m now back in the States for a few weeks, biding my time, so I thought I’d write an update about life near Tōkyō in the days following the earthquake.
Even several days after the initial quake, the ground swayed almost continuously, giving everyone the feeling that we were on a very large ship, riding swells on the open sea. Although both the strength and frequency of the aftershocks seemed to be declining, everyone was gripped by dread. The stress of seemingly endless tremors was compounded by fears of blackouts, water shortages, and nuclear contamination. Many were still waiting to hear from relatives in the north, even as it became apparent that there would be thousands who would not respond. The strain showed in my colleagues’ red, tired eyes; in the crowds of nervous smokers gathered outside shuttered train stations; and in the sleep-deprived faces of government officials on TV.
Even before TEPCO announced its plan to implement rolling blackouts, rumors had been circulating that there might be power failures and water shortages. On Saturday night, one day after the quake, I sped off on my bike toward the supermarket. By the time I’d arrived, all the bottled water had sold out, as well as most dried and instant foods. I bought a few liters of apple juice and a lemony sports drink, the closest things I could find to plain water, plus some canned food and energy bars. At another store, I picked up candles and a tiny 100 yen flashlight, to supplement the small but powerful light on my cell phone. The store was out of batteries, leaving me with only the test battery that came with the flashlight. The candles turned out to be practically useless, both for safety reasons and because I had nothing to hold them in. In other words, I was still woefully unprepared for a second potential disaster, with no radio, no fire extinguisher, no supply of fresh water, and not nearly enough food.
By Sunday, it was clear that the situation in Fukushima had become more dire. The information coming from government press conferences seemed to contradict what the foreign press was reporting – a discrepancy that would become even more troubling over the coming days. Paranoid about the prospect of radiation in the air, I shut off the air conditioner, my one source of heat. After spending the morning glued to the computer, I went to the office, hoping to get some work done. Over the course of seven hours I accomplished very little, mostly watching NHK World broadcasts and obsessively monitoring the location and strength of aftershocks on the Japan Meteorological Agency’s website. At some point, I had to stop watching the news. The footage was simply too heartbreaking. Seeing old women wrapped in blankets, sobbing over the loss of their husbands, children and friends; a grown man weeping as he recounted a narrow escape… To have been so present – to have heard the sounds of twisting metal, cracking wood, rushing water – must have been truly horrifying.
On Sunday evening, TEPCO announced that it would begin rolling blackouts throughout the Kantō region early Monday morning. I woke up early the next day – 5:45 – to beat the first blackout, which was scheduled to commence at 6:20 in my area. Outside, the usually noisy train tracks were silent, the stillness of early morning only intensifying the eerie quiet. (The blackout was later canceled, but many trains remained out of service.) Despite the lack of rail service, those who were able to come to work did. One doctor, arriving at noon, announced that it took him eight hours – by train, bus, and foot – to get to the hospital. Another biked one and a half hours from a neighboring prefecture, and yet another took an extremely expensive taxi from southern Tōkyō. Driving was still possible, though it became less feasible in the coming days, as gasoline rationing was imposed and blackouts wreaked havoc on traffic signals.
As you might expect, little work was accomplished on Monday. Minds were distracted by the bleak news from Tōhoku, few patients came, and many appointments were canceled. We spent our hours in limbo, the uncertainly becoming ever more oppressive, unsure of even when the lights would go out. Many of my colleagues left early, rushing home to eat before the next blackout. More importantly, they wanted to be with their families – some lived with elderly parents, and many had young children. I envied them, thinking about my boyfriend in Nagano, his relatives in Hokkaidō and Oregon, my family in New York and elsewhere.
Another sleepless night. I woke up twice, bed shaking and walls creaking. The second time, I rolled straight onto the floor and under the table. I considered sleeping there, then thought better of it and returned to bed.
When I entered the office Tuesday morning, I ran into my boss. He had been remarkably calm for the past few days, but now he seemed genuinely worried. The situation at Fukushima seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, and it was unclear what would happen next. He urged me to leave Tōkyō as soon as possible, recommending that I take the shinkansen to Ōsaka and fly out of Kansai airport. Go home for a while, he said, but please come back. I promised I would.
The scene at Tōkyō station was not comforting. Long lines snaked around the ticket counters, anxiety etched into the faces of hundreds of people hoping to flee west. Reserved seats were selling out quickly. There were many mothers with young children and grandparents, but husbands and fathers were few and far between. On the train, I sat next to a woman with her son, perhaps around three years old, and daughter, a year or two younger. They were well-behaved children, enjoying the ride, oblivious to the threat their mother was trying to save them from.
Following the emotional and teary goodbye with my coworkers, I immediately felt a crushing guilt for leaving them behind. I was being a selfish American, thinking only of my interests while they forged on together. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to have somewhere else to go. Many of them had no choice but to stay, either because of family and work obligations, or due to a larger sense of social responsibility. This sense of solidarity – of individual sacrifice for the sake of the group – is often cast in a negative light outside Japan, but its importance in this crisis cannot be understated. Without it, panic would surely have descended over Tōkyō, which would be a disaster in its own right. (Can you imagine how different the response would have been had a similar crisis occurred in the States?)
Some might argue that Japanese citizens have been too passive in demanding facts about the spread of radiation, given the seriousness of the situation at the Fukushima power plant. While I acknowledge that the Japanese government has been less than forthcoming in its briefings, I also believe that the disconnect in reportage between Japan and America can be at least partly attributed to differences in communication between the two cultures. Forthrightness and directness are not as highly valued in Japan as they are in America – it is better to accept bad news gracefully, and a smile can mean many things. Furthermore, it may be that the Japanese recognize that the implicit purpose of these vague reports is to maintain calm and order.
Although the American media’s inflammatory and sensationalist reporting on the crisis is not surprising, I still can’t help but wish it were more balanced, with less focus on the situation in Fukushima. While the threat of a meltdown is certainly terrifying (and attracts viewers), real problems remain in the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged regions. Besides the unimaginable destruction and loss of life, what is perhaps most tragic is that many of these towns have been literally wiped off the map. Like much of rural Japan, the population of the hardest-hit regions was largely elderly and thus even more vulnerable to disaster. Moreover, these towns were likely facing the threat of extinction even prior to the crisis. As more young people flee to Tokyo, Osaka, and other large cities, the future of Japan’s small agricultural and fishing communities becomes ever more uncertain. While physical rebuilding is possible and will not doubt proceed, these towns will be shadows of their former selves.
Ultimately, the earthquake reminds us of our deep attachments to and identifications with places, revealing the raw psychological damage that is incurred when those places cease to exist. Japan is no stranger to annihilation, but this does not make the experience any less painful.
The decision to leave Japan was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Although I hope to return in a few weeks, I am ashamed that I fled so easily. Peace of mind is no substitute, knowing that so many continue to live in fear, lacking food, water, and warmth. There’s also the fact that Japan is home (rather, one of many), and the first home I’ve really made for myself as an adult. To see this happen to your home… Well, it makes your heart hurt like nothing else. But I’m here now, trying not to dwell on the guilt and doing my best to spread awareness of the continuing humanitarian crisis in Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima, and elsewhere. In that spirit, I’d strongly encourage you to donate to the relief effort, if you haven’t done so already. Although deliveries of supplies are slowly increasing, the need for blankets, clothing, food, and many other goods will remain for months to come.
If you can, please consider donating via one of the following organizations. Thank you.