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March 11 and the weeks that followed

June 3, 2011

We were in Italy,  on a train between Pisa and Firenze, when we first got news.  Earlier, around 7:00 a.m., we had tried to make a business call to Japan and were mystified as to why the calls wouldn’t connect. Never would we have guessed what had just begun to unfold back in Japan.

Finally we left the B & B without completing the call, with the idea we would try again once we were settled on the train.  Since arriving in Italy, there had been an ongoing mild disagreement about what the prefixes and procedures were for making an international call, so I tried another way.  Still no luck phoning, but a trial text message to a friend went through. Suddenly Keiki’s call went through, and we learned about the quake, and that it was a big one.  Keiki phoned his mother to check on her, and we both sighed with relief when she said that the only damage was to a stone lantern in the garden.  Her low-key, matter-of-fact delivery of the news left us completely unprepared for what we were to learn later.  To give her credit, though, this was still early, before any news of the horror unfolding in Tohoku was known.

A couple of hours later, my friend answered the text message I had sent from the train, saying his office building in Tokyo had swayed mightily but his house–out in Chiba not far from the sea–had escaped the tsunami.  A tsunami!  I said to Keiki, alarms clanging furiously in my head.  After that, it was hard to focus on the multiple delights of Firenze.  We walked around a bit more, ate a quiet dinner, and boarded the train back to Pisa much earlier than we had planned.

In the room that night, I hooked up my computer to get the news, never dreaming how terrible it could be. Though every image, every video was more shocking than the one before, I couldn’t stop downloading them.  No description of the Apocalypse, no imaginative vision of Hell could surpass what the  real world delivered up that day.  By some strange coincidence, I had seen  “Hereafter” on the plane on the way over to Italy.  At the beginning of the movie there is a long, terrifying scene in which the character Marie (Cecile de France) is swept up, engulfed and very nearly drowned in a tsunami.  Disturbing as it was, I couldn’t pull my eyes away.  That night in Pisa, I was again riveted to something I really didn’t want to watch but couldn’t stop. Strangely, in the  long view of those oncoming waves, there was a kind of illusion of something slow-moving, almost benign.  Up close, from the top of a building or the side of a hill, the waters didn’t pound, or roil, or crash  like the movie, just snaked in and flowed around and through buildings, rising relentlessly higher, spilling heavily over the sea walls, traveling endlessly far inland. Of course, the people shooting those scenes were the lucky ones who had escaped. But for me, having seen a dramatization of someone caught up, pushed helplessly along, flayed and buffeted by all the floating debris, and finally dragged under the water,  I couldn’t  help imagining all the  thousands of people who must have been caught up in and engulfed by the relentless surge.  (As we later learned, 92% of the victims of this disastrous day died by drowning.  And, the demographics of these small towns being what they are, more than 65% of the victims were over 60 years of age.)

The next day, tired and in a state of shock, we moved on to a small rural area of Toscana called Ponzano. This is where we watched the unfolding  crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. First there was the loss of emergency generators, which at first no ordinary person could quite imagine the full consequences of.  (Surely there were systems in place to handle such emergencies?  Uh, yes, but the systems had been destroyed, knocked out of commission by the “unforeseeable” events of March 11. Unforeseeable? Really? But hadn’t there been well-researched reports warning of just such a thing? With recommendations?  ….)  And if the images of the tsunami of the previous days had a surreal quality, it was exponentially more pronounced in the images of the explosions that blew open roofs and walls and rocked the plant like another earthquake.

In Italy we experienced an outpouring of sympathy, and at the same time many voiced their belief and confidence in Japanese safety-consciousness, meticulous attention to detail, and technical know-how, not to mention their level of civility and stoicism in the face of such a disaster, etc. I say etc here–somewhat equivalent to yadayadayada–because these expressions of confidence seemed utterly ironic to me, knowing what I know after living here for 18 years.  Yes, much of it is true, on a day to day, ordinary living level and scale.  The people of those villages are indeed stoic and deeply civilized in their behaviour; one cannot but stand in awe. But then there are the halls of power, where big–mega-big–business, politics, finance, and the media play; and the agencies–including the media–that are supposed to be behaving like watchdogs behave instead like lapdogs. Here you can find a pervasive culture of corruption, with bribery, abuse of power, mismanagement and subsequent cover-ups that often result in public endangerment, serious injury and death to ordinary people. The nuclear power industry is notoriously representative of this culture of corruption.

So there I am, torn by anguish and worry, bursting with admiration for the survivors now huddled in shelters and enduring excruciating deprivation, anger at TEPCO, and deep mourning for the Tohoku I experienced 5 years ago. Even though it’s been 5 years since I did that bicycle trip, the memories persist. I will relate some of them in a future blog.

Because of these memories, and because I have lived here and experienced  “the kindness of strangers” so often in this country, I resolved early on that when I returned to Japan I would join in the relief efforts and do all I could to give back some of what I have been given.

Achieving this goal  took more time than I liked, and involved a search among a number of groups to find one that I could work with.  Habitat for Humanity, of which I am a member, rejected all volunteers that were not perfectly fluent in Japanese.  After 18 years here, you’d think I would be that fluent, but I’m not (it’s both an embarrassment and an annoyance that no matter how or what I study it never seems to get much better).  So finally I found Peaceboat, which is making a point of including foreigners living in Japan, providing English information and interpretation, and putting foreigners together in small working groups.

The planning meeting was held on May 28, and the departure is June 3 (today!).  We will be going to Ishinomaki, a small coastal town not far from Matsushima.  On March 11, the tsunami came roaring up the Kitakami River, wiping out most of the town, several schools (one school lost 75% of its students), and even some of the emergency shelters where many people had gone after the earthquake.

As I put the finishing touches on this page, my 20-kilo mountaineering back pack (Jack Wolfskin: Born to be wild, it says on its  front side.  More like, Born to be an over-burdened pack animal, I say),  my knee-high construction boots, head lamp, protective clothing, face masks, and my rolling carrier packed with all the food, utensils and cooking gear I think I will need for 8 days (how hard it is to estimate that!) waiting for me at the door.  On site, we will be provided with goggles, hard hats, steel insoles for our boots, and protective gloves. Once we get there, we will not be able to bathe, drinking and cooking water will be closely rationed, there will be no electricity, and no access to supermarkets or any other conveniences.  The only amenity still available, as far as I can see, will be cell phone service. If I wonder how I can survive 8 days of hard labour (we already know we will be on “mud busting” detail) under these conditions, I only have to remind myself that the  people of Ishinomaki have been trying to get through their days every  day for almost 3 months under these conditions.

From now until the end of the trip, I will be making posts through cell phone email. If they are rough in appearance or written expression, have pity.  There is no doubt I will be doing the posts at the end of a long day…

Ready to go

This is only the clothes and equipment. Food is packed separately...

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