the earthquake, here

15Mar11

It’s been a daunting and disorienting four days in Osaka.  On Friday the 11th, Japan experienced the largest earthquake it has ever seen (magnitude 9.0), followed by a tsunami that was 10 meters high when it hit the city of Sendai, devastating large areas of the city around the coast and airport, as well as other coastal towns located in northern Japan.  It was the fifth largest earthquake of the last 100 years and it shifted the island of Honshu by as much as 2.5 meters.  At this point, the extent of the devastation is still becoming clear, but already the estimates are running at more than 10,000 dead, with hundreds of thousands displaced and millions without electricity or running water.  The town of Minamisanriku, with a population of around 20,000, was entirely destroyed by the tsunami and about half of the town’s population has been reported as missing.  Thousands of bodies have been found washed up along the shore of northern Japan.  At the same time, nuclear crisis has struck with several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now known to be releasing significant amounts of radiation into the surrounding area (an evacuation radius around the plant of about 20 kilometers has been established) and there are genuine fears of some level of meltdown in one or more of the reactors.

Here in Osaka, however, the effects of the quake have barely been felt and there’s an outrageously surreal contrast between the levels of ‘normalcy’ here and the scenes from the areas that have been wiped out by the quake and tsunami.  Outside the days are getting warmer and it’s beginning to feel like spring.  Deliveries are made as normal, grocerie stores and convenience stores are fully stocked and full of shoppers, and yet there’s a heaviness and uneasiness that hangs over everything.

When the quake first struck I was sitting in the English department common room at the university where I work, having a cup of coffee and reading the paper.  Usually when earthquakes strike Osaka (small quakes can be felt several times a year here) the quakes are quick, jolty, and then over.  When this quake struck, however, it was more of a slow rolling — almost as if the building that I was in had been set afloat on a calm sea and was mildly rocking.  The feeling was so subtle, though also incredibly powerful at the same time, that at first both myself and the office secretary didn’t say anything to each other because we had independently come to the conclusion that we must be experiencing some kind of protracted spell of vertigo.  Eventually another professor wandered into the office, told us that there had been an earthquake, and asked if we were all right.  We both laughed at having thought that it was all in our heads and then joked about having “survived an earthquake together.”  When I went downstairs to the accounting office, however, the television was on and I was told that it have been a 7.4 magnitude quake in the Sendai region.  Since we felt the Quake in Osaka, which is 600 kilometers from Sendai, I knew that it must be a big one, but Japan seems to have a fairly major earthquake every few years (since I’ve lived in Japan there have been 11 earthquakes over magnitude six) and nobody seemed overly ruffled by the news.

Since it was a nice day, I decided to ride my bicycle to the gym.  I got to the gym, changed clothes, and went upstairs to work out.  There were quite a few regulars standing around the television, so I checked in on what was going on, confirmed it was a bad quake and that probably some people had died, and then got ready to hit one of the running machines.  This may sound callous, or completely clueless, but in fact no one else had stopped working out at this point or seemed too disturbed by the destruction.  So far it was like any other earthquake in Japan: you cross your fingers that not too many people died, talk about it a bit with whoever is around, and let it pass.  At that moment, however, the aerial view of the tsunami moving into and wrecking Sendai began to be broadcast live from the NHK helicopter (the video at the top of the page).  Myself and and a regular acquaintance at the gym, Watanabe-san, stood together and watched while the tsunami ripped inland, crushing boats, houses, and cars together and carrying them across fields, roads, and rivers as if they weren’t even there.  At first everyone watching was commenting about the tsunami, but as it kept flowing inexorably onward the talking died down toward silence.  All in all the tsunami had made its way some seven kilometers inland, destroying everything in its path.  The best way I can describe it is to say that it mulched the city.

The day after the earthquake struck, it was still very unclear how wide the damage was, and how many people might have been killed.  What was clear was that the damage in areas that had been struck by the tsunami was almost unbelievably terrible, and that several of the nuclear power plants around the northern areas of Honshu were experiencing potentially threatening malfunctions.  There was nothing to do but to wait and see.

On Saturday night I went to a party being held by the university photography club (I’m the faculty advisor).  It was partially a party celebrating the closing of the annual spring photography exhibition, and partially a farewell party for me, since I’m leaving Japan this year, after six years of working at the university.  Everyone was eating, drinking and having a good time, and I was given farewell presents of a large placard signed by everyone in the club, a tiny toy digital camera, and a beautiful ceramic teacup and platter made by the parents of one of the members of the club.  I was really moved by all this and really enjoying the party as well when the woman sitting next to me pulled out her phone, checked the news, and said, “There’s been an explosion at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima.”  And then silence.  And then horrified and hopeful waiting for details.  And eventually news comes, and when it’s not too bad things sort of return to normal.

This is the rhythm of Japan right now.   A kind of lived normalcy in the areas that have been largely unaffected by the quake that is punctured repeatedly throughout the day by news from parts of the country that have been devastated.  Each time you meet up with a friend that you haven’t seen since the quake you tentatively ask about family members or friends, and usually the answer is that they don’t know anyone from that area, or that everyone is all right.  But it’s not always the case.  One friend of mine was born and raised in Miyagi Prefecture and, although her family is fine, the massive destruction is heartrending for her.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the place you grew up in utterly destroyed.  On the news you can see expressions on the faces of survivors that are not expressions of grief, or sorrow (though you see that too), but rather a kind of blankness — the mind encountering something that is simply beyond immediate emotional comprehension and not knowing what to do with it.  And in fact, I can’t watch the television news any longer because the stories that survivors tell are simply too emotionally traumatic to listen to.  The last straw was a father who survived but watched his two sons die in the tsunami because they panicked and ran in the wrong direction.

I saw the interview with the father at a St. Patrick’s Day party — turned into an impromptu benefit — that was being held at a pub near my house.  There was the usual green, and lots of Guinness was drunk (and not only the Guinness).  People had a good time for the most part, and a large box of cash was generated and donated to the Japanese branch of the Red Cross.  Even so, however, what you could sense is that there’s an emotional wall that people have built that separates and submerges the horror of the quake from the parts of us that want to and need to continue carrying on.  But what having this wall means is that there’s always a pressure inside, trying to make itself known.

The tsunami itself made it’s way from my current home in Japan all the way to my former home in California, a kind of bizarrely direct form of physical connection.  When I asked people on the west coast of the US if they had seen it I was told an interesting story by my friend Maureen Hurley.  Apparently there was a tsunami that hit California in 1964, washing ashore a ton of driftwood.  This became the impetus for Barney West to carve the tiki sculptures that became the centerpieces of Sausalito’s Tiki Junction.

I wish the results of the tsunami here had been so positive, but instead of tiki sculptures we have malfunctioning power plants that are casting a pall over everything.  There’s absolutely nothing to panic about at this point, but the fact that every day the news is reporting new explosions, emissions of radiation, and complications with the cooling and containment process is really putting everyone on edge.  I’m not worried for myself at all here in Osaka, which is very far from the plants in Fukushima (and the wind doesn’t tend to blow this way from there anyhow), but I can’t help but be worried about the many friends I have in Tokyo, which is only two hundred kilometers or so away from the troubled reactors.  There’s nothing to do but to wait and see.



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