The disaster happened, at it was at first a wave crashing on the shore, pulling away houses and people, leaving us stranded on roof or second story, burying us alive. From the south, some felt a shiver on the upper floors of a skyscraper. Someone was lunching in a Mexican restaurant and suddenly felt dizzy, disoriented. She thought maybe the margarita was a little too strong for her but then the feeling continued for one minute, then two. She made eye contact reluctantly with others at her table, recognized the expression in the worried gaze staring back at her. All over Osaka, people were doing the same.
I became aware of it gradually and immediately. Running errands with a friend, he turned to me calmly at some point and said, there’s just been an earthquake in the north. My father is trapped on a train, but it should start running soon. An earthquake. An earthquake. Was it big or small? Destructive or just exciting? I suppose it was the periodic updates about my friend’s father on the train that made the situation become real so slowly for me. Yes of course, there’s been and earthquake. But is your father o.k.?
After a few minutes, televisions were rechanneled. Websites were redirected, radios were retuned. Eyes tore from faces to screens and fastened there. For the rest of the weekend, activity was punctuated with long communal viewings of national news, and short assuring messages to friends outside. We were spectators inside Japan. But to the rest of the world, for a few minutes we too were in grave danger.
|news program on the ferry demonstrating how to make a toilet from a cardboard box in an emergency|
By Monday, the waters had ceased their angry swallowing of farmland in the north and they were left to face the fresh beaches, the strange flotsam of what had been daily life. A man was found far from shore sitting on what had been his roof. A woman recounted in shock the flashing loss of her daughter to the flood. Villages sheltered in gyms without fuel or heat.
The once floating and erratic count of those lost quickly stabilized, gained structure, uniformity. The daily English radio podcast recited the count like a mantra. A place name, a number; a place name, a number; place name, number; place name, number. The abstract statistics soothed the brain after the more harrowing narratives. Things were falling into a semblance of relief as far as we were concerned in the south. But from this elemental, mechanical disaster of wave action emerged a deeper problem. The words to describe the problem tapped into a century old fear, since the problem had existed as long in potential. The after math of the problem had the power to impact the entire globe. The bigness of the problem, its “when?” its “how much?” its “how long?”…these were unknowable.
The problem was this: in a large anonymous factory of energy in a rural, undefined region, the works were heating past capacity. Since the factory was producing energy and not, say, gears, the term “heating past capacity” needs some clarification. Even when the works were within capacity, the factory could not be entered, the heat could not be beheld, quite. The factory was sealed for the protection of the workers, who monitored it carefully from without. One day a balloon of white smoke was recognized on the horizon. Steam. The water used to cool the works was evaporating very quickly, too quickly. The energy company downplayed the risks. Teams from other countries made more serious assessments. What if the water used to cool the works depletes completely?
A FINE DUST of radioactive matter swirls across the sky, settling over Tokyo. Another cloud mists across an ocean to another coast far away, where home is. It was time to leave.
But where to go? Really, in the south, we were far enough away. Besides, the wind blows from south to north, pushing the dust away from us. We were as safe as anyone else. I traveled south, still in the country, but as far away as possible. I averted my eyes from the screen. I looked instead at waterfall and coastline, ancient tree and breaking wave.
Danger slipped away, like smoke. In Kobe, the stress of the unspeakable threat felt solid, present. Further south, in Kyushu, the danger sublimated. Friends and Internet neighbors swiftly checked in and fell silent. Daily life around the globe twisted away, assured that I was safe. But my daily life had torn.
As I became more safe, as the threat subdued, I became frightened. Afraid to return to daily life, to act as if everything were resolved. Something had not been resolved. I didn't want to go back. It was still time to leave.
If I think about going back in the abstract, it feels okay, I can do it. I can imagine trips I want to take, views to see, things to draw or meals to eat. I think of new friendships like spring shoots – mysterious and fresh: what will they bloom? So I make plans, confirm responsibilities, hoping that I am not misleading employers and teachers. Because when I think of literally boarding a plane in Bangkok, riding it to Osaka, deboarding, giving my return ticket to the airport bus driver, putting my key in the lock of my dorm room, and opening the door on my old life, my life in Japan, it makes my stomach turn, it is not what I want, my body rejects it. Not that Hong Kong is much better. Not that I can think of any place that I would prefer to be.
On the route home, over sea, I approached two fellow foreigners, asking if they’d seen any dolphins. I had been watching these creatures from the deck, jumping and diving. The pair had seen the dolphins. They had seen many things. It was the time for stories.
Daniel and Antonia were on vacation from Sendai. Daniel wasn’t worried about the nuclear plant. He had read a blog online that predicted the level of the plant catastrophe to be “Chernobyl to the power of 6.”
“This is of course, ridiculous,” he started in, “for several reasons.”
1. Although there are 6 reactors at the Fukushima plant, only 4 of them are failing, and of those, 2 are already under control. So the power we’re looking at is at worse 4, not 6.
2. If one reactor meltdown (Chernobyl) is compared to 4 reactor meltdowns (Fukushima) then the problem is multiplied, not increased exponentially.
3. Even if we were to use powers to compare the two events, and even if we used the power of 6, this gives us 1 to the 6, which still equals 1:
1x1x1x1x1x1 = 1 .
Daniel is an undergraduate engineering student on a year long exchange from the University of Maryland. Antonia smiles at him quietly. She shifts weight from one foot to the other. She looks tired, maybe from an elaborate and tedious experience. She’s been studying something in the borderland between linguistics and computer programming, using her post-baccalaureate year abroad to prepare for a graduate program in Germany.
To them, the earthquake felt stronger than a shiver. There was no uncanny question of perception like we had in the South, no slow awakening. But, noted Daniel, not a single building fell. The effect of the earthquake itself was actually minimal. Compared to the following tsunami. The enormous wave that crashed on the once shore flooding everything stretched inland two miles away from Daniel and Antonia’s dormitory, and then began receding.
For days and chilly nights the power shut off. The hadn’t managed to get any fuel, so they cooked over an open fire. Antonia gathered wood while Daniel coaxed the flames. It was difficult to find firewood. Not because everything was wet, but because in what was formerly a city, there wasn’t much dead wood lying around. What could have been firewood had been cleared away, disposed of. They saw some people trying to burn a telephone pole. There was nothing to cut it down to size with. The poisonous smoke was black and sickening to think of. But, as Daniel added, all the fires emitted dark, reeky smoke, seeping into clothing, settling on skin. Soon everyone was filthy, Daniel not the least, since as a busy student he hadn’t done laundry in weeks.
For food, they went to the convenience store. There wasn’t much available, but Daniel is an eagle scout and knows how to make due. They bough what they could find: eggs, green peppers, and oranges. Daniel hollowed out the peppers and oranges and skewered them. Then he cracked an egg inside one, roasting it slowly in the fire until the egg was cooked. Antonia agreed that it was quite good under the circumstances, pepper’s flavor permeating the runny egg. The oranges were less successful. As it turns out, the oil in orange rind is highly flammable, compromising the egg cooking project.
After a few days, the students country’s consulates finally started responding. Germany was first, U.S. and China were last. Germany promised one bus, then sent three when they realized how many foreign students were stranded. When the buses arrived, everyone piled on: students from Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, the German consulate didn’t make bones about nationality. Everyone who wanted to go was taken to Tokyo.
They arrived at the Westin hotel around 4 in the morning. Groggy and stinking, they were separated according to nationality then. Germans and boyfriends of Germans showered, slept under clean sheets on soft beds. Others found shelter at 24 hour Internet cafes.
Daniel called the U.S. consulate over and over, but they just took down his personal information, wished him luck, and hung up. Antonia’s parents were convinced that all of Japan had been reduced to a char, that everyone still alive had already evacuated the country. Frustrated and powerless, the pair decided to move on. They had planned to go to Kyushu during spring recess, so they went. Instead of carrying blothes and things for a week long vacation, they brought everything they could carry from their dorm rooms, uncertain if they could ever return.
When I packed for my trip, leaving from the south, I looked over my things as well. I though, what if I can’t come back? What should I bring? What if I just need to keep moving? I brought my hard drive, but left my laptop behind. But I knew that if I didn’t return, it had more to do with me than with the situation. A friend evacuating her mother from Tokyo to Seattle assured me: you can always come back. But for Daniel and Antonia, it’s a different story.
They had been travelling in the rural south without laptop or smartphone, ignoring television and radio, blocking it out, trying to calm down. But there were decisions to be made, information to send and receive, plans pending and weighing upon them. When the ferry got close to shore, the signal returned to my iPhone, and I handed it to Daniel. When he logged in, he had 25-30 new messages. One of them quieted him, made him settle back in his chair, made his face fall. One of them called him back home. Antonia drew close to him, sat on the arm of his chair. I wandered away then, leaving them. He really couldn’t return to Sendai. The game was over, and what would he do about Antonia? I watched them glumly walk outside to talk things over again.
“Thank you,” Daniel said, returning the phone.
“Thank you,” Antonia said, opening a tangerine I had left for them. They faded away into the rain when we docked.