ON 11 MARCH 2011, an unprecedented disaster struck Japan. A massive earthquake off the coast near Sendai, north of Tokyo, threw Tokyo itself into temporary chaos and brought untold damage and death to its north. Untold because, immediately after the quake, a huge tsunami overwhelmed the coastal area for hundreds of kilometres. Many thousands died, many more thousands fled. More than four years later, the area remains devastated and people are still trying to piece together their lives.
Such disasters had occurred before in Japan, though never on such a scale. But it seemed the gods were still not satisfied, for in the ensuing days it became clear that the combination of earthquake and tsunami had significantly damaged the nuclear power installations at Fukushima, and deadly radiation was filling the air. Once again, many around the world could sense the irradiated ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stirring, after almost seventy years.
When I went to Japan a little over three weeks later, I was still stunned, appalled and full of grief. I lived in Kyoto for twenty years, and Japan still feels like a kind of home to me. During the brief weeks I was there I struggled to make sense of it all – what had happened, how Japan was feeling and how I myself was feeling. It was a time of chaos and fear overlaid by an uncanny sense of normalcy, as so often happens in extreme situations. What I wrote then attempted to capture the texture of those weeks.
It’s just over three weeks since the tsunami struck, and I’m on my way to Japan – or rather, I’m trying to get there. Already the air around the trip is disturbed by fallout from the disaster (how the appropriate metaphors leap to mind!). Tonight’s flight has been cancelled for the second time and what would have been a direct overnight ride is now a roundabout, thirteen-hour flight, leaving early tomorrow.
Sitting tonight in the airport hotel dining room with the few other stranded passengers, I caught us all glancing surreptitiously at each other, trying to guess – why are they going? Almost all were Japanese. One curious man dared to ask me the question, and was clearly moved when I told him I used to live in Japan, and was going back to visit friends.
‘Not in the stricken area I hope?’ he said.
‘No, in Kyoto,’ I told him, and we agreed it was probably safe enough from the radiation down there. He was a businessman on his way back to Tokyo.
‘I don’t know anyone up north,’ he said, ‘but I still feel as if tragedy has struck my life.’
Everyone looks eerily calm, though I know enough to know that appearances mean nothing. I have a feeling the incongruity of normalcy is going to be a keynote of this trip – so much invisible but ‘in the air’. I’m aware of a deep tension over what awaits, feel as if I’m flying into a dark and troubling cloud, not knowing what it contains. A dense swarm of invisible uncertainties. The only sure feeling is that, despite all that’s happened – no, precisely because of it – I long to be in Japan.
Well, the ‘Dread Zone of Japan’, as the Canberra Times headline called it (I can see why our plane was so empty!) is so far astonishingly normal.
Getting here wasn’t, of course – up at 3.30 am, flight out at 6.00 with a bare handful of passengers aboard. An unscheduled offloading at Hong Kong, and finally into Narita around 8.00 this evening. Qantas would have airdropped us in if they could, so eager they were to get out. By that time it was too late to get the train to Kyoto as I’d planned, so I am in Narita for the night, nervously close to the real ‘dread zone’ after all.
The empty airport is the only disaster I’ve seen so far. Virtually no one is coming in. The local train has a running sign about disruption to services and partial closure of lines due to the earthquake. Otherwise, nothing.
Once at the hotel I rang G to let her know I wouldn’t be arriving till tomorrow. She too was sounding sanguine about it – foreign press overreacting. Of course it entirely depends on who one believes, though I can quite see that ‘Dread Zone of Japan‘ is a ridiculous distortion. Such is the air of calm and normality that when I found a pamphlet on my hotel table recommending I try the radium hot spring bath on the second floor I thought, Hell, why not? In for a penny, in for a pound. It was wonderful, of course, though unnervingly empty.
And then, just as I was settling into bed with a sigh of pleasure at being back, there was a slow rolling quake strong enough to make the building creak and sway alarmingly, and the muffled voices in the surrounding rooms fall suddenly silent. The terrifying old dragon is still ruffling his scales.
I’ve fled west on the shinkansen, to the safety of Kyoto. Things are looking rather different today.
Reading the newspaper this morning was sobering. Zipping along through a sombre spring smog studded with the occasional blossoming tree, I read page after page of nothing but the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster, as I discover it’s called – a quick dip into the Japanese language news confronted me with all sorts of unfamiliar terms (reactor cores, spent fuel rods, sieverts, iodine, and so on).
I pored over it all: seven thousand children evacuated to distant schools, ongoing power cuts, fish prices in Chiba plummeting, plus a detailed look at the reactors and their damage (hard to follow even when you think you understand). Exclusion zones, radiation levels detailed by prefecture, reassuring talk of ‘studies’ undertaken to determine this and that (oh good, no need to worry then). Possible impact on agriculture and rice in the region, much anguish over economic repercussions, and in Kyoto the Imperial Palace is holding its Spring Open Day but is thoughtfully refraining from the usual celebratory court football and musical performances this year as a mark of respect – the first such suspension since 1946.
Then suddenly through the window the astonishing hugeness of Mount Fuji, upper half dazzlingly snow-clad, a long black worry-cloud draped over its brow.
At the back of the paper – at last – pages on life in the refugee centres, volunteer work, food, support networks, transport, services disruptions. There are heart-warming pictures of kids, helping hands, smiling people. And one sudden and grim page listing the numbers of dead and missing, area by area, the missing far outnumbering the dead. Altogether a deeply affecting read. I feel I’m hurtling west out of harm’s way while black demons of destruction slide away behind me.
Later, in Kyoto, a walk up the glittering Kamo River under the cherry blossoms, opening from moment to moment with the blue spring sky at their back. From deep in the branches the uguisu’s call is quick, bright, light – a fleeting bubble of song. Here, for now, all’s suddenly right with the world again.
Off to the bathhouse in the evening. The nuclear crisis is on TV in the background, turned down low, no one pausing to watch. That old human ability to adapt to any situation and just get on with living – our salvation, and possibly also our doom.
It seems to be sinking in. Today, everything felt strongly poignant. Seeing things I love brings a strange ache to the heart – loss and missing and ephemerality all wind round each other.
Walked into town through a light rain, the cherries in full bloom along the canal, but passers-by pause to savour them with an almost furtive guilt. Along the river, too, there are astonishingly few carousers this year. The cherry trees are dressed to kill, and almost no one’s looking. Japan is indeed in mourning – and truly, who could stroll and dream beneath the frothy blossoms, believing that the world is good, when to the north-east so many are suffering?
Bought another newspaper, though no chance to do more than glance at it. News of a big ‘aftershock’ (there’s debate about whether these things aren’t fresh earthquakes) in Miyagi Prefecture, several dead. Kyoto has apparently felt only one or two tremors in all this, and there’s no mention of radiation extending this far. Though everyone’s deeply shocked, down here in the Kansai region the disaster is other people’s problem to a quite uncanny degree. It’s another version of that weird incongruity I anticipated before I left Australia – so much is so very normal, in the face of so much that’s almost too terrible to know.
Rain misted the northern mountains all day, and in the afternoon I went up to Ohara to visit lovely Sanzenin Temple, always especially beautiful in mist and rain. I could have sat a long time with the little Buddha in one of the side halls. On the way back, stopped off at a traditional dye studio – bubbling vats of indigo and young cherry branches (the spring cherry wood produces a salmon pink, I learnt, and the autumn wood a brown). A beautiful, fresh-faced young girl came out to talk; she’d spent four years making Japanese washi paper up in the mountains. Snow to the waist last year, she said. She was here to make washi cloth (the paper is cut into two-millimetre strips, twisted tight to form single long threads, then indigo-dyed and woven), now a vanishing art. One of the few other practitioners is an old woman up in Miyagi prefecture, but no one’s heard of her since the tsunami. She told me this gravely but without wincing.
‘Our art mustn’t die,’ she said. ‘I’ll carry it on.’ I was the one who struggled with tears.
Went with K-san to a gathering of friends. It was a Spring Party, up on a local mountainside under the blossoms. There’d been debate about holding it this year, but they decided to go ahead ‘on behalf of everyone who can’t’. Still, the celebration was definitely muted. We sat on the grass, sharing each other’s food and drink and keeping the conversation cheerfully neutral. ‘Drink today for who knows about tomorrow,’ M-san remarked as he tossed back the sake, and there were deep nods of sorrowing agreement.
Everyone was surprised I was in Japan, and remarked how kind and brave it was of me, ‘considering’. Considering how terrifyingly the Western press is portraying post-disaster Japan, they meant, though they didn’t spell this out or even seem particularly angry about it.
‘We overreact in just the same way when a disaster happens somewhere else, heaven knows,’ one person added kindly. I, on the other hand, feel ashamed at our mass cowardice – all the stories of foreign residents even in Kansai packing up and leaving, not to mention of course the dearth of foreign tourists everywhere. If I were asked to explain why I’m here now, though, I could only produce words like ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’, which I suppose aren’t emotions I should expect everyone else to feel.
On the way home, I had a good talk with K-san. ‘It’s grim,’ she said, ‘truly grim.’ She too speaks of a disturbing sense of disconnection, in herself and others. She finds herself forgetting from time to time, when life takes over, then remembering with horror all over again.
I decided to try talking about something that’s been bothering me – the apparent lack of any connection being made here between Hiroshima–Nagasaki and the present nuclear power problem, which is something the Western media have made much of. Scientist that she is, she said all the sensible things: there’s almost no similarity, after all; what’s happening around Fukushima isn’t radiation sickness as it was with the bombs; nothing has exploded; the use of the stuff is completely different, and so on. And perhaps it’s all true, though surely the long-term radiation effects will be the same, and it seems to me that if you get bitten by the same creature twice you’d be inclined to draw certain conclusions about it, even if the first was in the form of a vicious cur and the other was as friendly and cuddly as nuclear power makes itself out to be. Is there some aversion to connecting the two, or is the West overly keen to see the relationship? Still, if the connection had been made in Japan from the beginning we might not be where we are today.
There’s anger that the plants were built where they were, she said, but also acknowledgement that nowhere in Japan is actually safe. Yet most still feel they must agree, it seems, that ‘we have to have them’ – it’s the price you pay. How easy acceptance makes things, and how impossible change becomes in the face of it. I was also interested to hear her say, ‘Well, we always knew they were dangerous.’ This is not what I remember from past discussions, when I never could get very far on the topic of how dangerous I felt nuclear power to be.
It brings back memories of when I first came to live in Japan, back in the mid-’70s, fresh from working with Australia’s nascent anti-nuclear power movement and with a mission to liaise with the equivalent movement in Japan. I found, to my utter astonishment, that there wasn’t one. Any group calling itself ‘anti-nuclear’ was invariably concerned solely with the peace movement. Nuclear power was another thing altogether, and was Good, as opposed to the bomb, which of course was Bad. The nuclear power industry, then busy installing its first plants across the length and breadth of Japan, had clearly done a magnificent job of promoting its concept of ‘the peaceful atom’. That word ‘peace’ was enough to make everyone smile and embrace it, when Japan was still twitching in the aftermath of its wartime experiences. Perhaps it’s this legacy that has kept Japan so in love with nuclear power all these years, and still prevents people from connecting that past horror with the present one.
Another big earthquake up north, more disruption. It’s been a month since the tsunami and it’s all still going on. They’re widening the exclusion zone around Fukushima – much talk in the paper of what size the zone should be, with foreign criticism of the present twenty-kilometre area as far too small. How deeply confusing it all is! Who to believe? The more one reads of sieverts and safety levels, or pores over the careful explanations of the anatomy of the power plants and possible implications of likely damage, the more bewildered one feels. The local press presents it all with comforting objective calm, full of soothing explanations that never quite get at the nub of the matter: just how worried should we be? The Western press tends to be much more hysterical, reactive and condemnatory. But quite possibly with good reason. One day soothed by the calm voice of apparent reason (‘Trust us, here are the facts, don’t panic, we’re working on it, it’ll all be better soon’), and the next day waking from this trance to the conviction that in fact the whole thing is horribly out of control and no one really knows what the hell is happening, how bad it is, or how bad it’s going to get.
I’ve been with G today on a literary pilgrimage, to find the site of the ‘ten-foot-square hut’ that the poet-priest Kamo no Chōmei built for himself back at the turn of the thirteenth century and famously described in Hōjōki, which I’m presently translating. It’s a work that haunts the mind at the moment, with its grand theme of ephemerality – devastating fires, floods, famines, plagues, war, tornados and yes, earthquakes and tsunamis. He saw them all, and it sent him into the hills to build a tiny hut, relinquish all worldly attachments and contemplate the folly of any belief in permanence. A man of his terrible time, and a man for ours, when we’re having to learn all over again that old lesson. We found the site of his hut after a steep scramble up a forested hillside, by a sheltering rock beside a little stream. The description he gives is so clear that I could pace it all out, and stand more or less on the spot where he would have slept on his simple bracken bed.
Looking out over the populated plain, as he did eight centuries earlier, my eyes were haunted by the image of the massive wave that those who fled to the hillsides witnessed so recently, sweeping all before it and carrying all that life away. How much harder it is for us now to come to any kind of terms with such horror and destruction, living as we do, buffered in so many ways from the old vagaries of fate and lulled by the modern conviction of security as our natural right. But then Chōmei, too, describing the days after a terrible earthquake, said: ‘At the time, everyone spoke of how futile everything was in the face of life’s uncertainties, and their hearts seemed for a while a little less clouded by worldliness, but time passed and now, years later, no one any longer says such things.’
And so it was after the great Kobe earthquake – I remember in those first devastating days G and I walked in with a rucksack full of food and water to distribute to anyone we met, and how the sight of that sea of collapsed houses and collapsed lives seared itself into me with a realisation much like Chōmei’s, and how I later felt that insight ebbing away as the weeks passed. So nothing’s changed (though all’s impermanent).
The number of missing people shrinks day by day, and the number of the dead swells in turn. The final pages of the daily paper carry a few truly heart-rending stories from among the many thousands, padded comfortingly with stirring tales of how everyone is pitching in to help each other: makeshift schools starting up in the shelters, soup kitchens, beaming volunteers. I wonder if there’s some editorial policy involved – 20 per cent sorrow, say, to 80 per cent cheer. The dominant tone is certainly uplifting, the familiar determination to make the most of it, not give in to despair, brave it out with a smile. It’s really very moving. Yet when I see the cherry blossoms, now everywhere in magnificent bloom and already beginning to scatter, and remember how they’re traditionally such potent symbols of transiency – Chōmei’s old lesson – I can’t help but feel that something has been lost in the modern psyche, some wisdom that would allow us to look disaster in the face and learn from it, rather than rush to patch over any gaping hole revealed in our sunny assumptions (the dangers of nuclear power, global financial crises, climate change…) and reassert business as usual.
Today I hiked along Kiyotaki River. A beautiful spring day, the river all a-glitter and the mountains brocaded with clouds of cherry blossom. Once again, the place was eerily empty – I passed a solitary walker, who remarked that the earthquake had cleaned out all the tourists (not sure whether this was said approvingly or in sorrow). A leisurely picnic sitting in the sunlight on a rock where two streams rushed happily into each other’s arms and on down to pools, where wagtails flirted their tails on the shadowy banks.
Back at the bus stop, the man I’d passed en route came over to talk. An odd, rather intense fellow probably in his late sixties. Apropos of nothing, he launched into a series of remarks that, rather than directed at me, seemed more a voicing of the sort of thing he was mulling over: America has always used Japan for its dirty experiments; Japan runs on bribery and corruption, which is why we’re in the mess we are today; and those goons at the top who’ve brought us to this are from the very generation that once took to the streets over the US–Japan Security Treaty back in 1969 – and look at them now. All this was fascinating, though incoherent. Well at any rate, for once I got to hear genuine anger, which has so far been remarkably rare.
The disaster has been raised to category 7, equal to Chernobyl – though they calmly stress that it’s in no way equivalent, it’s really only to appease the criticism from abroad, and so on. Clearly, they desperately want to make this story good, to get on with the positives like rebuilding, but all optimism is constantly being contaminated by this insoluble and ever-deepening crisis. Anxiety is building.
Past workers at the plants are interviewed, mostly talking about how amai (difficult word to translate – overly optimistic? naive? blindly refusing to acknowledge problems? ‘she’ll be right’?) the nuclear industry has always been. ‘Criminally remiss’ pretty much sums it up, actually, judging from their stories.
I’ve been thinking often of a man I met years ago, when I was walking in the mountains behind Fukui, over by the Japan Sea. He was a cheerful, nuggety little fellow in early middle age, stepping along surprisingly lightly under a big, rather tattered rucksack when I first ran into him. Two days later, he was on the bus back to Fukui. He greeted me warmly, and we got talking. He’d been in the mountains for the past month or so, he said, and was now heading back to work. He worked in a nuclear power plant near Tsuruga. As I remember it all these years later, the story was that he would work there for around three weeks before being laid off.
‘It’s dangerous work,’ he said, ‘and we get exposed to a lot of radiation, so when we reach the permitted quota they send us away.’
But because it was short-term contract labour, once he was officially signed off it was easy to show up again a few weeks later and get re-employed. They knew what was going on well enough, he said, but it suited them nicely too, since they didn’t need to train new people this way. But why on earth did he keep going back? I asked, appalled. It was good money, he said, and they housed and fed you.
Then he added, ‘I know it means I’ll die before my time, but I look at it this way – I’ve got no house or family. I’m a casual labourer and I always will be. Past a certain age, what’s waiting for me? The work will wreck me before I’m old, and I’ll die in the poor house, after a miserable life. This way, I get good money for a few weeks’ work, then I can pack my tent and head for these mountains I love for weeks on end, and then go back for more. And I can be pretty certain I’ll escape a sorry old age!’
I remember the wry grin with which he said this, and how stunned I was by such easy acceptance of the world’s iniquities.
This morning I came across a report of a Tepco spokesman’s casual admission that yes, they had been aware that a tsunami of this magnitude was possible around Fukushima – but the risk had been very small and, after all, if we always had to be 100 per cent sure nothing would go wrong before we acted where would we all be? Win some lose some, eh? (He didn’t quite put it like that, but that was the essence of it.) He seemed almost aggrieved that people were getting so upset.
I went to the bathhouse early this evening, at the same time as the gaggle of ancient ladies who hang around in the dressing room chatting while they laboriously climb back into their clothes after bathing. They talk in the old Kyoto dialect you don’t hear much any more, and it’s always a treat to listen. Today I walked in on a sombre conversation.
‘Her son rings her every day, but she just says she wants to give up.’
‘Well you would, wouldn’t you.’
‘Her house gone, all the neighbours gone.’
‘You’d just give up, wouldn’t you. What’s the point any more?’
‘Yes, that’s what she says. She just wants to give up.’
‘All gone. All swept away and gone. What’s the point any more?’ After which they fell silent.
I think of all the old people up in the north-east, huddled despairingly in those crammed refugee centres on makeshift mattresses, face to the wall. And of all the old people who are swept away and gone. This alone is more loss and sorrow than can be contemplated. How can there be so much more besides?
Back to Kyoto after a week away with H-san and N-san, to find all the blossoms scattered and gone.
We’ve been in the mountains up in Nagano, walking the old roads and staying in hot spring inns – all virtually empty, though I’ve come to expect this now. On the way there, H-san explained to me that we’d be ‘on the other side’ – that is, on the north-east tectonic plate, the one that’s causing all the mayhem. (Over a month later, aftershocks are still continuing.) It felt a little like crossing into a war zone. I’d only been dimly aware that the Kansai area is on a different tectonic plate, which is why we’ve felt no more than a tremor or two. Apparently, much more divides Kansai and Kanto than mere dialect. Even our power grids are different, another reason we’ve been spared the problems of Tokyo’s ongoing power cuts.
This seems to be causing some resentment at the moment. N-san, who lives not far from Tokyo, was vehement on the subject of how hard it was to make ‘outsiders’ (that is, Kansai folk like us, presumably) understand just how awful it is up there. First the earthquake, which was big enough even in her area to throw things all over the house, and left her stranded in Tokyo that day with no way to get home, like so many others. And since then the power cuts, which are a major problem and not likely to improve any time soon, it seems. And as for the radiation…but, like everyone else, she’s unsure of just how dangerous it really is, inclined to hope for the best but increasingly worried that this may turn out to be foolish optimism. But what can you do? she says. That’s where we live. The whole of the Kanto region can’t just pack up and leave. (But what if…? None of us can bear to look that possibility in the face.)
When I telephoned S-san in Tokyo the other day she said much the same. ‘We just can’t talk to people from down there, they don’t understand. It’s only something they see on the TV.’ This isn’t quite true, but I can see how it might feel so, and that the utter normalcy of life down here could make one bitter.
She also said, as so many others say to me, ‘You’re very brave to come to Japan. Thank you!’ This has begun to puzzle me. There’s nothing brave in being down in Kansai, after all, and even being up there in Kanto is no braver for a foreigner than it is for everyone else, surely. People may be saying it to be polite, but S-san and I are old and trusted friends between whom there’s surely no need for such pleasantries. And it doesn’t seem in any way tongue-in-cheek. My only tentative conclusion is that perhaps it’s a kind of subconscious pariah mentality – think of the sad stories of the children from the exclusion zone who are shunned by the other kids in the schools they’ve been relocated to. How easy it would be for the afflicted to feel not just physically contaminated but somehow tainted, untouchable, if others draw back in fear like this. And radiation, that incomprehensible, invisible and terrifying substance that is uncontrollably filling the air, can feel like the frightening and incomprehensible ‘miasmas’ of an earlier age, spreading an invisible and deadly pall over all. The fear of it creeps over my own skin too, with a horror that remains quite untouched by all the careful explanations I read. The old magical thinking is never far from the surface, it seems.
Back at the same hotel in Narita, now on my way out – older and, truly, wiser than when I last stayed here a bare three weeks ago. And again, an earthquake as I was unpacking in my tiny room, a sharp jolt followed by a slow, sinister sway, dying away then swelling again before finally dying into stillness. A brief eternity in which one waited, alert, not breathing, aware of the millions of others all around – humans, animals, the earth itself – united inside that shuddering moment, breath held in hope and fear.
More than four years later, the crisis continues. Radiation has polluted a huge area, destroying the agricultural and fishing industries that were the mainstay of the Tōhoku region. Radiation levels in the Fukushima area and beyond remain scarily high. Three reactors are known to have gone into meltdown, and radiation continues to leak into the sea and the surrounding area. The disaster is ongoing, and many of its effects are still unknown.
After the accident, all forty-eight of Japan’s nuclear reactors were hastily shut down ‘for maintenance’, while the grieving country came to terms with the bitter legacy of nuclear power. Recently, however, the Abe government has been increasingly aggressive in its push to start the reactors again. The lessons of Fukushima appear to have been unlearned.
Yet, for all the talk of increased safety, it can only be a matter of time before the next terrible accident, and the problem of safe long-term storage of lethal nuclear waste remains intractable. Whatever the cost, most of Japan now fervently believes there must be a better way.
All images and audio obtained from creative commons sources.
Meredith McKinney lived and taught in Kyoto, Japan for twenty years. She returned to Australia in 1998 and is at present a visiting fellow at the Japan Centre, Australian National University. Her field is Japanese literature and literary translation, and she has published a number of translations, including (from Penguin Classics) The Pillow Book (2007) by Sei Shōnagon, and Kusamakura (2008) and Kokoro (2010), both by Natsume Sōseki. Her translation of Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki was published by Penguin Classics (Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki).