All their little shoes
Memories of the Great East Japan Earthquake
On the morning of March 11th 2011 I prayed for an earthquake.
I wish that I was making this up. I had forgotten it, some meaningless sarcastic little comment, but the Japanese remember because they don’t understand black humour. My girlfriend at the time was knelt before the mirror in her pyjamas combing her hair, and on my way out of the door to work I turned back to her, clasped my hands together, looked skywards and in my pigeon Japanese said:
“Kami-sama, jishin onegaishimasu!”
God above, humbly I request an earthquake!
And she smiled and laughed even though it wasn’t at all funny, again because she is Japanese, and it was her that remembered.
What I had before me that day was the graduation of the third graders I taught, moving from junior high school to high school. It is a three hour ceremony where everyone comes together to cry. They pipe piano music through the speakers, huge bouqets of flowers are lined neatly up beneath the hi-no-maru flag, and speeches, endless speeches are given about the defining experiences everyone has shared that will shape their life. The parents are there, the past teachers of the school, the head of the local branch of police, well-wishers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, toddlers standing on chairs, all congregated to congratulate young adults well beyond the age of patronisation on getting something they literally cannot fail to get.
It is utterly, utterly interminable.
I had experienced two before this one and was not looking forward to this one, and so I made a shitty little comment that I thought was amusing. And by the end of the day, well…
So the ceremony comes, and I force myself into a shirt that fit me once, tie a bright blue necktie on (colour of freshness, rebirth, advancement) and I go and I sit, and it passes and everyone but me cries, the kids in their white sneakers, boys in blue blazers and girls in grey, and the Japanese sing the dreary minor-key national anthem and then we stand outside and clap the departing third graders as they leave through the school gates for the last time and they tear the buttons off of their blazers and hand them to their friends in the lower grades and it is done.
I look forward to the evening because it is Friday. I think of beers I will drink. We eat a rich celebratory boxed lunch in the staff room, shellfish and pickled vegetables, and then all the staff go their own way. The thing about my job then as an Assistant Language Teacher was that I was essentially a luxury. I did very little and in return received a big fat tax-exempt salary that was conceived in the eighties where the Japanese economy seemed limitless. I felt very little guilt for this and took the money of course, and on that day the other teachers who earned less, who paid taxes, and who worked from six in the morning to eight at night go and do what they do whilst I go and browse through Wikipedia.
The staff room slowly empties as I learn about the world’s deadliest aircraft disasters. I take my necktie off, unbutton the collar. There is silence, the sports field empty, the children gone. Uchida-sensei, a teacher of Japanese literature in his thirties, and Abe-sensei a woman who is possibly beyond that remain alongside me, tapping away on their computers. And then it happens.
I presume I thought it was a truck passing too close initially, but we are far from any road on which a truck of any size might drive. I stand up. Abe-sensei and Uchida-sensei stand up too. We all look to the ceiling, as though that is where the shaking is coming from. Things start to move, and then things start to really move. Off the shelves first, papers and plastic file holders and the flowers teachers had taken from the hall, and then the heavy stuff starts getting flung about - the fridge rocks, the filings cabinets smash against each other, the television bucks against the bindings that tie it down to prevent exactly what it is trying to do.
I want to say that I handled it so calmly, that I made some glib comment but I didn’t. What I thought, the entirety of what I was capable of thinking was: What the fuck is this? What the fuck is this?
It doesn’t end. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds... We had had the emergency drills, but an earthquake is something the British could never conceive of. I have to go, I have to run, I feel sick. Fortunately I am on the ground floor and all that stands between me and the sports field is a sliding glass door. I make a dash for it and try to prise it open, and with the warping back and forth of the frame around it it doesn’t move. Uchida-sensei starts screaming at me in Japanese, and I don’t understand. He has enough time to try English instead:
“Deibiddo! Glass! Dangerous! Dangerous!”
I understand. He himself is standing, legs braced and wide like a sea captain in a squall. Abe-sensei has vanished beneath her desk. Like an idiot I copy her, diving beneath the cheap grey table where we all drank our tea and coffee between lessons. The cupboards open, disgorging plates and glasses and bottles of tobacco and soy sauce and chopsticks and knives and forks and the things that can shatter shatter and all the pieces move and dance.
I realise that the opposite wall is howling – it is lined with panels and knobs that I presumed merely controlled the school clocks and the elevator for the disabled, but now I know I am wrong. Red lights flash and it honks and it beeps and a tinny, calm woman’s voice comes from it saying something like:
“Jishin desu! Jishin desu! Jishin desu!”
An earthquake, an earthquake, an earthquake!
The earthquake goes on long enough that I have time to consider the modern science behind plate tectonics, and yet simultaneously I have a complete empathy with people living three hundred years ago who would take such an event as this as a pretty profound communication from a deity. I have time to recall that the school is made of cheap concrete and is forty years old also, and I look to the ceiling just waiting for it to cave in, but the walls hold.
I later learn that what will come to be known as the Higashi Nihon Dai-Shinsai lasted for all of five minutes, where the average severe earthquake is about thirty seconds. I was incapable of counting at the time and yet looking back honestly it did not feel that long to me. The shaking begins to subsode. Uchida-sensei’s braced crouch lessens. Abe-sensei emerges from under her desk. Still, minor tremors. We shout at each other if we are all okay, and answer yes. And now that I am able to, I rise and I throw the door open and I run outside.
It is freezing, the skies grey, and my entire body is shaking. I watch my hands quiver. I look up. I see the school still stands. I look around to the houses that surround the school, and they stand also. The tallest building nearby is a thirty storey block of flats, and the aircraft warning lights on its roof are still blinking as they did six minutes ago. Manic relief comes. I start to laugh to myself. I think at this exact moment: well, it was scary, but if all these buildings are still upright it can’t have been that bad. A magnitude 6.0 I roughly theorise with my entire experiences of earthquakes being the one that just happened. Not like Tokyo 1923 (7.9), or Kobe a dozen years back (7.3), both of which previous Wikipedia sessions have relayed to me as serious killers.
Other teachers emerge outside. Some smile like I do. Some have grim faces. Over the next few minutes students and others from the surrounding area will start to arrive because schools are designated as refuge areas in times of disaster. People have their cellphones out, emergency broadcast bulletins starting to arrive. Someone fetches a transistor radio from inside the staff room, begins to unfurl its antenna. Others know what to do. I just sort of stand around, shivering.
I see Haruka Itano. She is a second year student and about thirteen years old. She is pretty much the stereotype of a Japanese schoolgirl in the best possible way – diligent, friendly, her handwriting in English measured and neat, her hair even worn in pigtails. Now she is wearing the red tracksuit that serves as the school’s sports uniform, and she is crouched down in a squat and she is crying. I squat beside her, try and act as an adult.
“Daijobu,” I say, “Anzen… See? Anzen, minna. Tattemono madda… Warukunakatta, Haruka. Ii yo!”
It’s okay. Safe. We’re safe. Buildings still… It wasn’t bad, Haruka. Fine!
Haruka nods, trying to believe me. She wipes her tears away, says something through them so quickly I do not understand it. All I can do is smile back.
Somewhere near to us, Uchida-sensei has got the preliminary earthquake report on his phone. He says: “Shindou nana? Shindou nana?!”
He repeats it again and again, disbelieving. I did not understand what he was saying at the time, but he says it enough that I remember it, and so here: shindou means intensity of the earthquake as recorded on the surface of the earth. Nana means seven. Seven is the strongest possible category on the scale used by the Japanese Meteorological Agency. Shindou nana, therefore, is apocalyptic.
Yet we are still here.
People look around with a dumb sense of wonder and worry. I notice then that the concrete that surrounds the school is cracked, that the paving stones are now uneven and raised in erratic pyramids, that the school itself appears to have been shunted about a foot along the horizontal, a gap between wall and road in which rusted iron girders of the foundations are visible.
The cellphones are dying, the network crippled and what servers left crowded with millions of people trying to contact families. I try my girlfriend but hear only the busy line message. I send her a mail. I lend the phone to a teacher who tries to get through to her family. She has no success either. For the first time I venture back indoors to get my jacket. I run in and out in a matter of seconds, fearful of the school collapsing.
Slowly, organisation and practice begins to kick in amongst the Japanese. As I said, schools are refuge areas, and so the teachers and the students set about preparing the sports hall as a place for hundreds of people to spend the night, bringing out kerosene heaters, portable toilets and tents, blankets, big crates full of hard crackers and boil-in-the-bag rice. I do not know what to do to help, and no-one has the time to translate or speak slow enough to tell me what to do. Eventually the headteacher tells me I can go home, but to be careful and to come back if my apartment has been destroyed.
I laugh her off. It wasn’t that bad. Daijobu yo!
On the way back home a fierce snow blows in. I walk shivering. I am still wearing my dress shoes. My feet hurt and it is a forty minute walk. Yet before I arrive the snow is gone and the sky is clear. It is as though an entire weather front had been pushed quickly over us. The roads are thick with cars and other people trudging as I trudge. I look around for damage, and find not a single building has fallen over. Some windows have shattered, some tiles have been thrown from roofs, but nothing serious that I can see. A train sits still and evacuated upon the tracks, neither derailed nor burning.
My sense of relief grows. I estimate then that things will be back to normal within a day or two, that I might even be able to buy and enjoy beer that evening. In this hour or so, I do not feel three aftershocks each over magnitude 7.0, perhaps noticing once that the electricity cables above were swinging back and forth. One thing I will quickly learn is that outside of structures detecting earthquakes is actually quite hard. The natural earth sways and carries you with it, but things rooted in firm foundations stubbornly fight against any movement.
I return home. I find my apartment block is still standing. I live on the second floor, and on the way up I test each step gingerly with my weight. None give out. Neither can I smell gas or smoke. Satisfied, I punch the code into my lock. The door opens neatly. Of course things have been tossed around inside, but it is not as bad as I expected. I cannot recall specifics, but I remember my fridge still stood, that my television had fallen over, that my guitar remained in tune, that my laptop was still upon its desk and the near-completed draft of what will become Child of Vengeance is thankfully safe, but that my girlfriends huge apple mac that she had got that Christmas before was on the floor. That, I worry about but cannot check because the power is out.
In fact, the only things I can find that are definitely broken are my mirror and the few plates and glasses that fell out of my cupboards. Quickly, I change into my insulated snowboarding long johns, jeans, two pairs of socks and three layers beneath a down jacket. A tremor comes and I panic and run for the door. Outside I watch the people passing by for a while. Then I go back upstairs, bring down a folding chair, some bread and some ketchup and some cheap processed chicken nuggets that I had in the fridge, and I make myself a sandwich.
I sit and eat. My body has stopped shaking. The snow has melted already. The sun is shining and I live on top of a hill, and I can see not a single house in the valley before me that is burning or collapsed. An old lady stops to ask me if I’m okay. Initially, she does not see beneath my wool hat that I am white. When I answer in my thick accent she is surprised for a moment, but smiles and nods and goes on her way with a thumbs up, because what I say to her is:
Yeah. I’m okay. Not that bad. Daijobu yo!
Around about this time, of course, no more than ten miles away from me and my shattered mirror a wall of water and silt and ships and lumber and houses is annihilating entire communities, and thousands of men and women and children are sucking mud into their lungs.
But solipsism is wonderful while it lasts.
It begins to get dark. I sit around waiting either for my girlfriend to call or to return home. Several hours pass. I decide I should probably go and find somewhere to buy something to drink. All I have in my apartment is half a bottle of coke and a can of beer. The water is of course off, and will not be back on for days.
As I head down to the supermarket, I see order, not chaos. A queue of a hundred people patiently wait to use a payphone, landlines still operational. A bus driver in a neat uniform apologizes profusely to a waiting crowd that all services have been cancelled and not one person utters a complaint. At the supermarket itself there is no frenzy or panic. No one is hoarding. The supermarket must have a backup generator because the lights are still on, but it is not powerful enough to run the fridges and so staff members are walking around offering people slices of sushi rolls before they spoil. No one snatches. Everyone shares. I get a piece.
Most of the perishables and things of substance are gone, all the bottled water also. I get, if I recall, a few bags of peanuts, some potato chips, some beef jerky, a salami sausage, some toffees, a pineapple, and a few more bottles of coke or oolong tea or whatever I can, really. The registers are offline, and so the cashier that serves me uses a calculator to work out my change. She tells me to be careful outside, that other earthquakes might be coming.
Just consider this, for a moment: an earthquake the scale of which was previously unconceivable has come to the country, and they have got the calculators out to continue calm business transactions for what is ultimately vital sustenance in a time of privation. There is no clamour or accusation. I cannot even hear a raised voice. Would that happen in the UK? Would that happen in whatever country you live in? I do not think so.
But the opening line of the Heike-monogatari reads: “The bells of the Gion temple toll the impermanence of all things.” This was written near a thousand years ago; the Japanese have long understood the random cruelty of the world, prepare for it, do not react with panic or anger at the malicious whim of chance. This is a great triumph of their society. It might get lost in my personal blinkered rambling, so I want to take the moment now to emphasise how tremendous the dignity and stoicism with which the people of northern Japan endured all they endured truly was.
It really is astonishing looking back.
When I get back to my apartment it is fully dark. The streetlights are not on. People carry torches. The local convenience store has boarded up its shattered window with cardboard boxes. A policeman is standing at an intersection with a megaphone and a flashing red baton, directing cars in the place of traffic lights.
My girlfriend manages to get through on my cellphone. We ask each other if we are okay. We are. What follows, paraphrased:
“This wasn’t so bad, huh?” I laugh.
“It was bad. Very bad.” she says.
“It’s not bad here.”
“I can see on television… It’s bad.”
“Yeah? Well, you should come home.”
“I think I am going to stay here for the night,” she says. She works at a call centre for one of the major telecoms companies, “They have emergency power, and beds. And food. And it’ll be two hours walking home now. It’s dark.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Uhh. What should I do, then?”
She tells me to go to a refuge centre. I live across from a school. I head over to check it out. The gymnasium has been converted into a shelter. It is crammed full of elderly people and young mothers with babies swaddled under blankets already, kerosene heaters blaring. All the young men are standing outside, breath steaming. Them that can bear it, bear it.
I decide to go and have a wander. It is not yet 9pm. I see lights downhill. On the main road there is the stink of diesel: portable generators are chugging away, powering the streetlights here. The road is crammed with traffic moving at a crawl. Again, though, I marvel at the relative lack of destruction. Six storey buildings seem unchanged. The concrete undersides of railway bridges remain uncracked. The mosaic on the side of a crèche is ruined, half of the tiles shaken from it, and this is about the worst proof of disaster I can find.
There is nothing really, people just going places. We here, an oblivious ten miles inland and sheltered by hills, nothing for us to do but be until things are fixed, no way really for us to help. I go back to my apartment. I stumble over all the things scattered on the floor in the dark. I have no torch. I use the illumination from my cellphone screen for light. My laptop is still charged. I sit on my bed with my boots still on shivering in all my layers, and I drink the beer and I eat the salami sausage and I try to watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica.
Christ, it sounds absurd typing it now. But this is honestly what I did. I specifically recall it was Battlestar Galactica.
About halfway through the episode an aftershock comes. I flee outside, then return to turn off the laptop to preserve the battery, then decide I will stay outside as long as I can help it. I go for a wander in the dark. I see the same things I saw earlier.
It pushes onwards towards midnight. There is an orange glow in the sky, a haze of sorts. I think perhaps they have started up a bonfire at the school refuge. I go to take a look, and find the fields outside the gymnasium dark and full of cars. The glow is further, miles beyond the school and I do not know what it is.
I later learn this was the light of millions of gallons of oil burning uncontainable at the industrial refinery down at Sendai docks.
Cars sit idling, keeping those within warm. Dashboard TVs, little LCD monitors smaller than the breadth of a hand, are tuned to news channels. Barely glimpsed through door windows again and again I see a map of Japan with the entire eastern side of it outlined in red. I do not know it, but this is a tsunami warning. The news anchors speaking of it have changed into green overalls and hardhats.
Eventually the cold gets too much and I risk going back inside my apartment to try and sleep. I lie in the dark timing the intervals between tremors. As I recall, there was a pattern of sorts: a minor one, fifteen minutes, a minor one, half an hour, then a big one. Then another fifteen minutes, and begin again. Somehow I get to sleep. Then I am woken by my phone.
It is my mum, calling from England. I am angry. Again, paraphrased:
“What the hell?” I say, “It’s 3am here. Why are you calling?”
Her voice is panicked, “You’re okay? You’re alright?” She speaks to someone else there with her, perhaps my brother, telling then I’m okay. Then she says, “We’ve been worried sick. The earthquake… Are you alright?”
“Oh, that made it to the news?”
“Don’t worry. I’m okay. Everyone is. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t serious.”
“It was magnitude 9.0.” she says.
So that is how I learn what it is I’m living through. She tells me of the images she has seen on television: of the airport being flooded, of burning houses being carried on a wave of filth, of ships smashing into the fronts of warehouses. Those scenes. You know them. You’ve seen them. And if you haven’t, you’ve probably fired up youtube in a separate window to look them up now.
You should; the Dai-Shinsai was very much the first major disaster to befall a first world nation in the age where a great majority of victims carried the ability to film in high resolution. It is therefore the first disaster in which a visceral and imminent account was constructed and shared by a multitude of those witnessing it, almost instantaneously. It creates a vivid empathy that can span the world – consider here right now that my mother is both more fearful and aware of the horror of what is happening ten thousand miles away from her than me, who is actually experiencing it.
We hang up soon enough. International cellphone calls are expensive, and I have assured her I am alive and well, and there’s not much more either of us can do. I try to get back to sleep but another big aftershock comes. This one twists a strange groaning out of my apartment, and I am done inside for the night. I try instead to sleep in several places outside. It is too cold. There is a subway nearby, and from the entrance a warm wind blows. I rest up against the grille that has been lowered for a while, and then yet another tremor comes and the whole thing lurches and creaks and cracks and I run back to the surface.
I end up lying on a bench at the bus station opposite my apartment, waiting for the dawn.
Just after the sun has risen a truck pulls up, full of guys wearing fluorescent jackets. I recognize the kanji for Sendai City on their backs, and so I follow them to see what they are doing. It turns out they are here to start up an emergency water pump. They haul up a drain cover and set up a line of temporary faucets. By lucky chance, I am almost the first one there. I run back to my apartment and return with a big red plastic kerosene tank and as many empty bottles as I can carry to be filled. I Within two hours, the line for this water will stretch back a kilometre and will remain this busy for the next week.
Not knowing what else to do, I decide to go back to the school where I work. The gym there is as full as the one close to my hosue, two dozen toddlers sleeping on a single crash mat and their mothers nearby. The staff room has been lined with newspaper and people stomp through it in muddy boots. I get given a packet of dried crackers and a cup of coffee brewed on top of a gas stove. I don’t like coffee but the warmth is welcome.
It is only the young and the old teachers present – those of us that either don’t have children or whose children are old enough to look after themselves. Even though the ground continues to shake we spend the morning starting the clean up, putting books back into cabinets, sweeping up shattered glass and so on, menial things. What else are we to do? The walls of the school have been left lined with cracks like fossilized vines. In the accountant’s office the safe has been shunted entirely across the room. It takes six of us half an hour to jimmy it back into place.
The headteacher wheels an ancient stuffed wolverine out of her office. An heirloom inherited from some predecessor in the job. “I hate this thing,” she says, “Let’s say it got destroyed.”
We all laugh.
I don’t remember feeling tired. Neither do I remember when exactly I slept properly next. The days have sort of blurred together after that first night. I can’t recall if I met up with my girlfriend on the Saturday or the Sunday. I recall giving her a big dramatic hug, because it felt like that was what I supposed to do, but it was never honestly given and not honestly returned. We were both okay, and we knew this, and we had more important things on our minds.
She has brought home several boil-in-the-bag meals, but we lack the means to boil. It says on the package of rice and fish you can hydrate it with cold water over the course of several hours, but this results in a freezing goop that has a repugnant flavour. Thus we eat mostly fruit and crisps and jerky, and spend the next few days walking from supermarket to supermarket to supermarket, trying to buy what we can. This, mostly what I remember: queuing for hours and hours.
When the aftershocks come and I am outside, I find myself looking upwards still, as though the sky holds the answer why the world is shaking. When I am inside I run outside to wait for it to subside perhaps three or four metres from whichever building, as though if it were to collapse it would not violently tip on its side but rather cave neatly in on itself, obey zoning permits. These are the stupid instincts that are forged.
Helicopters roar overhead, big olive military Chinooks and rescue vehicles of bright orange and TV crews of all colours. There is a huge black column of smoke in the sky, the oil refinery burning on. I remember seeing one woman getting roaring drunk on lemon flavoured chu-hai, about fifty years old in leapord skin pants, squatting and smoking and laughing; there is plenty of alcohol left in the city but few are buying because without ATMs money must be rationed. On the streets big trucks from the electric company disgorge teams of men who clamber up pylons to run maintenance, desperate to get everything back online.
I think it is the Monday when she and I have enough to feel safe and we have cleaned up my apartment. Got relatively full bellies. Got batteries so that we can both hang a torch from the ceiling and listen to the portable radio. Old hits blaring tinny, and messages of support, ganbarre, ganbarre, ganbarre repeated again and again. We go to bed at about 8pm, lie there together, sing along to Let It Be. The aftershocks have lessened. To feel warm, to feel unalone, to feel safe; this honestly is one of the happiest nights I ever spent with her, this woman who is now my wife.
Everything is fine, and I convince myself that everything will be back to normal in a week or two. Daijobu yo. Not that bad.
But of course, a hundred miles to the south, around about this time several thousand tons of refined plutonium rods are well on their way to becoming several thousand tons of malignant plutonium magma.
The earthquake was bad, the tsunami was terrible, but for the nation of Japan this is when it gets catastrophic.
The first I learn of it is in the staff room at school. We get power back in a matter of days, incredibly, and fridges hum and kettles boil and now the television is on pretty much all the time. A camera is zoomed in on a blue-white square building. The building explodes in a column of grey steam and the camera zooms out in a second to reveal it as a tiny thing all but on the horizon. This footage is repeated, repeated.
This looks quite tame to some other images we have seen of the wave, and I wonder why it is most of the teachers are watching this grimly.
I get told “Fukushima Dai-Ichi Genpatsu.”
I could and can barely hold a conversation about the weather in Japanese, so how could I have known these words? These words that are of course the abbreviation for Fukushima Dai-Ichi Genshiryoku Hatsuden Sho, or as it is said in English: the Tokyo Electric Power Company Fukushima Nuclear Power Complex Number One.
“Oh. Right.” I say, “That’s far. Fukushima’s far, right?”
“Then… Why are you worried?”
It’s amazing how oblivious I was. I didn’t get a dictionary to go and look any of these words up. I think I had decided that the worst had passed, that I had endured my measure of ‘suffering’ and now it was simply a matter of time until I could live as I had once more. I think I went to help ration out the school’s swimming pool water to locals who wanted to flush their toilets whilst nuclear armageddon was threatening.
When the internet returns (within five days, astonishing) and I can get information in English, I learn the scale of what is actually happening again from the mouths of people on the other side of the planet. See the name Chernobyl mentioned over and over. Rampant speculation that Fukushima Dai-ichi might blow up entirely, that the reactor might breach, that it might not, that it might have done so already and you and the millions around you have already breathed in enough fallout to curdle your lungs with cancer.
It’s difficult to explain this sense of dread. It is the first time in my life I have ever felt a mortal fear. I am a pessimist by nature and I convinced myself in that week that the entire country of Japan was doomed, imagined tumours and radiation-bloated bodies. But of course three years later we all know the radiation was mostly contained, or rather did not get as far as Sendai, so there is little point in trying to build tension here.
I will tell you though, as proof of my fear, that there was a moment watching helicopters on television dropping seawater into the number four reactor’s exposed pool and seeing most of it mist and blow away where I – alone in my apartment – actually sort of curled up into a ball and whimpered.
Or take this simple list of things I did motivated by fear:
- Taped up my air conditioner and extractor fan with ducttape to block fallout.
- Forged a rudimentary gas mask out of an old sweater and a couple of surgeon’s masks.
- Went to a dentist’s as advised by the consulate and bought antiseptic iodine so that, should it come down to it, I can drink this in order to fill my thyroids with it instead of radioactive form of iodine.
- Hoarded river water in bottles labelled with the date it was collected, intending to leave them for nine days so that the half-life of that same radioactive iodine that might have gotten in the river will have passed.
But despite me being this scared, I stayed put in Sendai. I did not run. The British consulate organized a coach for nationals down from Sendai to Narita airport and from there a plane on to Hong Kong. I could have escaped, but I didn’t. Why?
It is pleasing to tell myself it is because of my girlfriend. She was resolute in staying. Her family is here, and she will not abandon them. So me, manly me, I in turn cannot abandon her, right? This is proof of love, perhaps; clouds of caesium-137 were imminent and yet together we stood hand in hand to face them down fearlessly.
And yet the truth is I think I was just kind of immobilized by that complete feeling of helplessness. Everyone likes to think they’d be men and women of action faced with some kind of threat like this, but I just sort of twatted around in a vague fretting panic for someone else to save me. This is what the Dai-Shinsai taught me about myself. You won’t know it about yourself unless you go through something similar.
So anyway, lucky me I did not die, and yet there is no great deliverance from this thing. There is no feeling of release or definite safety. The terror just gradually abates bit by bit. Turns itself into a form of humour that runs amongst the expat community as black as the tumours we are certain we are going to develop:
What’s the difference between Fukushima and Hiroshima?
No-one made a profit on Hiroshima.
On TV, very well publicized, the CEO of TEPCO* makes a series of visits to those sheltering close to the reactor. There before the people who have been exiled and who will not return to their homes for thirty years, whose sons and husbands are likely at the reactor right now trying to mend this impossibly dangerous situation, the CEO gets down on his knees and presses his brow to the floor like a samurai and apologises with all his soul and swears that he will do everything in his power to make this right again.
Then he fucks off back to Tokyo in a chauffeured car to eat steak whilst a bunch of guys on minimum wage risk their lives.
I have never hated a human being more.
TEPCO can burn in hell. TEPCO cannot be blamed for the tsunami, but they are directly responsible for the escalation and the ruination of Fukushima prefecture. Their costcutting measures that led to Dai-Ichi being poorly equipped and undermanned and their stubborn refusal to accept any outside help or advice afterwards for the sake of covering up their own mistakes ought to be regarded as crimes. Even three years later they continue to prohibit government intervention, and just recently they have argued in court to cease paying reparations to those whose communities and livelihoods were wrecked as profoundly as something can be wrecked by TEPCO’s negligence.
But the government bailed the company out with taxpayer’s money, and of course the bottom line of all this is that TEPCO raised the prices on their surviving services as a ‘necessity’ so that they could keep the profit margin up.
For the record I am still in favour of nuclear energy. It is the only source of power that is both ‘clean’ – provided the plant is manned and maintained to safe standards and not cost-efficient standards – and has the potential to generate the amount of electricity the modern world requires. Should mankind have developed the technology to make super-potent weaponized uranium or plutonium? No. Probably not. But we did, and now we’re stuck with it for the next 250,000 years or so, and so we have the choice of having this incredibly dangerous stuff lying around, or having this incredibly dangerous stuff lying around and gaining something phenomenally useful from it.
Time winds on. More and more shops begin to reopen. Water comes back on and the kilometer queues disperse. The subway begins to run again, then the bullet trains to and from Tokyo. I have lost ten kilograms, but do not take this as suffering; I remain two or three overweight. An aftershock of 7.3 comes at around 11pm one night. I am outside within seconds (still three metres or less away from the building), in time to see the power station on the other side of the valley overload and explode in a blue fire that lights up the sky. But the damage is not severe, and repaired the next day.
Work is slow in starting up again, though, because other things are not so easily mended. Schools have to be checked by engineers for structural integrity before classes are permitted to be taught once more. There are a lot of schools and only a few engineers. Eventually they make it to ours, and they run their tests and the stick the walls with hundreds and hundreds of syringes to inject some kind of supportive resin into the fractures. But until that resin dries there is nothing else for me to do, and so perhaps three weeks after the earthquake the headteacher gives me permission to take paid leave to go and volunteer in the disaster zone.
I go down to the city gymnasium the hall of which has become a makeshift command centre with a friend just after dawn. It is very busy: there are people like me who live locally, and others have come from all over the country, firefighters or the Japan Self-Defence Force or simply teams of honest, decent men who were motivated out of some sense of civic or humane duty. They have so many volunteers, in fact, that many have to be turned away due to lack of transportation. We get in though, and get given boots and gloves and shovels and then assigned buses.
I can’t tell you where it is exactly we went, other than south of Sendai. I can’t read kanji, and not many road signs remained. I slept on the way, warm in my five layers of clothing. For the first time in my life I also wear a beard. The convoy of buses rattle over cracked roads, and soon enough begin to weave along a path gouged prior out of the debris. Remnants of homes and cars and whatever else you can think of forming a canyon.
We jump out. We are a half-mile inland and I see a ship that is listing at forty-five degrees propped up by towers of crushed cars. Machines have made these supports, huge diggers and dumptrucks repurposed from building sites roaring and clattering and heaving the big stuff around. Where will all this ruin be put? Elsewhere, little mountains forming to rise above the canyons. It is not a case of removing all this destruction but rather organizing it. That is all that can be done.
That year of 2011, the prefecture of Miyagi will end up having to burn or bury the equivalent of thirty-five years worth of waste.
A tsunami is not just water, it is churned mud and silt and filth and when it recedes it leaves a crust that is as hard as concrete and a foot thick. It is our task to break up this crust with our shovels and pick axes, like we are relaying a road. We work at the very edges of the distaster zone. It stinks of salt and bilge and at the back of your mouth even through a surgeon’s mask is a musty taste like oil. I work on what was once a paddy field, level and flat. The earth beneath has received a Carthaginian peace, well and truly salted. Even cleared, nothing will grow here for years.
(Two hundred and fifty thousand years, if they don’t sort it out at Fukushima. Black jokes, hard labour.)
Some time before lunch a revolting smell of rot gushes out from the earth so disgusting and putrid that everyone within twenty yards stand up straight. There is no mistaking that stench; I have never smelt truly decayed flesh before but something primal within me recognizes. We all watch as the man who unleashed it prods delicately at the hole and what he has exhumed. Suddenly his eyes light up, his grin hidden by the surgeon’s mask he is wearing.
“It’s a fish!” he all but laughs, “It’s just a fish!”
Relieved, we get back to work. This crust is destroyer and tomb and fossilizer. Somewhere else, out of sight, big diggers like the ones around us have been digging mass graves.
Old men sit on rickety scaffold towers with megaphones and radios, watching us like swaddled lifeguards. The tsunami alert sirens have been destroyed and so if an aftershock causes another wave these men will start shouting at us to flee. We of the digging crew are all young or middle-aged men, except for one woman who has argued her way onto one of the buses, a skinny girl who looks like a student.
The digging is too hard for her, and so instead she has been relegated to pushing the wheelbarrow all our rubble gets piled in. This though proves too strenuous also, and she loses control of the barrow and it tips over. She apologises again and again as we spend five minutes refilling the barrow, and the Japanese men absolve her with words and condemn her with their eyes, and me for my part I fucking despise her.
Why did she come? Why did she take the place of a young man who could work and put his back into it and actually help? Why could she not stay and help with the administration and organisation of all the aid that has been donated? Equality has its place, and in the aftermath of a disaster of this scale let the brutes do the digging. Fuck the stupid fucking bitch and her ganbarre spirit, did she just want to come down and gawp at all the destruction?
And you, you white fuck, you came here solely out of altruism? There’s no voyeur in you?
We are working near an elementary school. It holds my attention because it is the only building nearby left standing. Houses are made as light as possible so that in case of collapse, such as caused by an earthquake, you can easily be dug out. The school on the other hand, and all government buildings, are made of concrete strong enough to resist the tsunami. Here, wherever it is, I suppose was a residential area.
No official break for lunch is called. We are not getting paid. We work until roughly midday, and then we stop. We have all brought survival rations, dried crackers or salted rice, and flasks of water or tea. I eat quickly, and then I go to poke around the school.
It looks a lot like schools that I have taught at: three pale stories arranged in a U-shape around a playground. The gate is gone. A big sign encourages all the students to wish each other a bright good morning. There is a big orange buoy with chain and anchor still on it in that playground. The walls are cracked and the windows smashed but I go inside as far as I dare. On the walls some posters hang still, smiling self-portraits in red and yellow and blue and no shade in between. Big plasma televisions are upended. A piano blocks a doorway. Ghosts of words remain on blackboards, where blackboards remain. A curious lack of desks and chairs, perhaps small enough to be swept away out the window.
I do not feel as though I am intruding. The school does not feel like a dead place, or a haunted place. It is not silent – machinery chugs constant, gulls cry above, Japanese voices are calling, calling. The floors are crusted with tsunami filth. It feels like it has been forgotten for years. That it is almost a voluntary neglect, what with all the commotion outside.
I arrive at the cloakroom sealed with big bolted doors. See all the racks and racks of shelves empty and all their little shoes scattered about. White plimsols, or once-white plimsols with navy elastic. Forty pairs. Fifty pairs. Go outside once more and look up and see the tideline painted in grease way up there on the walls level with the third storey. Go back inside and tell myself that these are indoor shoes I am seeing. That the teachers were prepared, that the children were calm, that they must have got their outdoor shoes on and fled. Go back out and look at that tideline again.
Go back to my work team. Take up my shovel. Look around as I dig, at the square metre of land I have taken back from the chaos that engulfs hundreds of kilometers. At all the Japanese men and that one Japanese woman, and wonder if they know. Want to ask the question, but do not because I am embarrassed, because my dumb tongue would stumble something out like:
"Kodomo-tachi wa... Zenbu no kodomo-tachi wa... Shinjatta kai?"
Kids… All the kids… Dead?
And then I think, as I scoop up another shovelful of orts thankful that no human face is revealed, how exactly that question could be phrased to be make some sort of higher sense even in English. How can you ask, “Were these dozens of young children all drowned for no reason other than a thousand-year fluke of plate tectonics?” and not have it sound so absurd you want to cry?
It is pushing midnight on the 10th of March 2014 as I write this. This is about all I can recall, or rather the most vivid memories, and I am struggling to find some meaning or lesson to it all. To tell you that I gained a profound zest for life. I could say that it lit a fire under my arse, that I signed my book deal in the December of 2011 spurred on by this tragedy, but the truth is I worked no harder upon my book after than I did before.
Lingering effects, then. On the TV when the earthquake warning would flash up, giving you ten seconds or so to prepare, there was a certain chime, da-dang da-dang. It had a particular cadence and came so frequently and so intrusively in those initial weeks that for months afterwards when I heard the same note of the dang in music my body would tense instinctively. When drunk in those same months I would go on bleak and maudlin rants about the inevitable annihilation of mankind, having found a new fascination in the effects of global warming and other catastrophes, slurring a particular refrain of “It comes and it goes and it goes and it comes,” over and over so many times that one friend of mine still makes fun of me. Every lump I feel on my body I now assume is a tumour courtesy of TEPCO.
But that was it. In the May of that year my girlfriend and I decided to go to Hong Kong to get away from it all, and I eat Peking crispy duck for breakfast two days in a row and put my hands in Jackie Chan’s cement imprints and everything was good and right for me again.
Really, when twenty other thousand people were killed and millions more lost their homes and their livelihoods, all that happened to me is that I lost a plate and a mirror and I had to live for a week or so like people live their entire lives in the third world.
But looking over at what I have written here with a critical eye, I think what stands out to me most is how little I was aware of things. Stripped of the internet and cellphones and electricity and a common language, what was left? Something that could eat beef jerky and shiver and be cheerfully unwitting. Perhaps for all our talk of the shrinking of the modern world, human beings remain inherently small creatures to which everything out of eyesight remains the same distance. That we stumble oblivious, shrouded in our own luck, whilst others suffer.
Is that profound enough? Things happened. I lived through them. Tale as old as oral history.
Three years later, the rebuilding goes on. Or rather, is about to commence. Only now has that concrete crust been chipped away, those mountains of debris cleaned from where coastal towns once stood. Now the helicopters hover over and show the foundations revealed beneath standing empty, everything mapped out, awaiting. It will be interesting to see whether these towns can live again, whether people will want to move back in there or if memories or fear of a repeat lingers too strong. Perhaps they have been killed for good, Kessennuma, Onnagawa, places like this, or perhaps they will thrive immediately, or perhaps only in time will they recover, when those too young to truly remember March 11th 2011 grow up and wonder why it is no-one else would want to live there, in sight of the sea.
For now though, in the year 2014, the coasts of Miyagi and Fukushima and Iwate are silent save for them that are repairing and them that go to mourn.
*TEPCO = Abbreviation for Tokyo Electric Power Company
All names in the above save for my own have been changed for the sake of privacy.