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Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Straight off I want to say that I was personally well away from the area(s) affected by the quakes and tsunami.

It is impossible however to continue to write a blog about my life in Japan without acknowledging the terrible events of the past few days. I don’t want to try and write an account of the events, which by now have been exhaustively covered on the news. What I would like to do though is to give a slightly different perspective, some things that you won’t have seen on the disaster focused news – life going on.

I was at work on Friday when the quake struck and tsunami swept the coast several hundred miles away from where I live. Suddenly there was a buzz in the teacher’s room unlike any before, obviously everybody was talking Japanese but I could pick out enough to get an idea of what they were talking about – though I doubted I’d heard correctly. Soon the TV was on and the teachers were gathering around. We were watching, live, the images that must have soon been relayed around the world… but somehow it felt unreal. Maybe it was the language barrier or the fact that it was just so out of the blue, but I found myself literally asking my colleagues ‘Is this real?’.

We all know that Japan is an earthquake prone zone, and once or twice I’ve been woken up by my apartment gently rolling – nobody takes any notice of quakes of that magnitude, so I had no idea if what I was seeing now was common or something in a different league – but everything just felt wrong. The more I watched, the more I registered the shock and surprise in my colleagues reactions, the more serious I realised it was. I learnt two new words that day ‘osoroshii’ (dreadful, terrible, frightful) and ‘maji de’ (an exclamation meaning ‘Really – it can’t be!’). Finally it dawned on me that it wasn’t the language barrier, it was just the sheer incomprehensibility of what we were seeing.

I wanted to call Haru even though I knew she’d be safe, but my phone was at home. I left school as soon as I could and called or wrote to all of my family and friends to assure them I was ok, then went straight to Kyoto to be with Haru (where I live the trains were running normally).

We spent an exhausting evening watching the incoming news of missing people, more quakes and nuclear meltdowns. I do have a couple of favourable observations to make about the news coverage though.

Firstly, the actual tsunami coverage was done with a notable degree of compassion. Several times there was helicopter footage of cars trying to outrace a wall of water obviously faster than them, yet every time the camera moved away before the car was engulfed. Once I said out loud, ‘God, there was nowhere for them to go!’ and the only answer I got was a nod. What happened next was inevitable, and there was no need to show it.

Secondly, the death toll was never exaggerated or speculated to make horrific headlines. At all times only statistics which were believed to be verifiable were reported. I think we all expected the toll to be in the tens of thousands of lives, but until Sunday afternoon the numbers on screen here were only around 1000 as that was all that could be confirmed in the chaos. Once rescue workers got down into the devastated areas the figures leapt and the last I saw was around 15’000.

To be fair though not all the reportage was so good, as the flow of disaster news began to slow down it began to be replaced with in your face interviews with people in no state to talk to film. Putting a camera in the face of person who has just lost their lifelong home or their family (or both) should be against the law.

Friday night, faced with what was happening and what we could see on the TV, we had a tough choice to make; should we go ahead with our plans for a long weekend away or not? In the end we decided to still go away, and I’m glad we did.

On Saturday we drove over to Aichi Ken, sharing a long stretch of the road with a stream of emergency vehicles; relief was pouring in from all over Japan and heading north. I learnt several more new words during that drive; ‘kyuukyuu-sha’ (ambulance), ‘kyuumei-shi’ (paramedic), ‘shoubou-sha’ (fire engine) and ‘shoubou-shi’ (fireman).

On Sunday, as planned, we went to a festival in the small town of Inu-yama. We were out all day, enjoying the beautiful plumb blossom blooming on the trees in the grounds of the local temple. Everybody around us was smiling and laughing, there was a parade, festival food, children in costumes and life… so much life.

In the evening we went back to the hotel and turned on the TV again, more disaster, more death and destruction. Somehow it didn’t tally with life outside… yes, something awful was happening and yes, it was very real and terrible… but it was not everything that was happening.

The TV is like a window, a small window on a wide world and like any window it offers a limited view of something much bigger and grander. Turning away from that view, going out, looking at the wider picture in no way diminishes or ignores what happened, but equally a disaster (no matter how great) cannot diminish the all encompassing totality of life either. We have a moral responsibility to acknowledge, think of and help those stricken at a time like this, but it does not help anybody to only see death and to forget life. Turning off the TV and going out was by far the best thing we could have done at that time.

Today, back at the school, it was the graduation ceremony for the third year students. After the opening address we were called on to observe a short silence for the victims of the tragedy. I’ve never really thought about this tradition of silence before, but today I did think about it… and it makes sense. Somehow a silence is the best way to acknowledge something like this.

What is a silence? An anomaly, something that disrupts the normal flow, a blister in the sounds that comes before and after it, but beyond its limits everywhere else there is still sound. As a silence is to sound, so is a disaster to life – an anomaly, a disruption, a raw and painful point in time – but all around it there is still life.

When you are watching the news, don’t forget this. Don’t think of Japan as a wasteland of destruction because that’s what a little box is showing you right now, as I write this outside the window I can see my students running in the grounds, practicing baseball on the diamond and doing just the same as they always do.

Thank you for all your concern and kind message, but rest assured life is also an unstoppable force that will continue regardless.


2 responses

  1. FC


    Thank you for the update and your thoughts and experiences. It’s been hard not to feel anxious even just seeing the coverage from half way around the world. On the day of the quake (night here) I must confess I was (like many others) rapt in attention over news coverage for hours; even well in to the next day. It’s been hard not to become drawn in to it again, but I agree it has been helpful to focus more on life than death and try to look at the big picture.

    Glad you and yours are OK. Take care 🙂

    March 16, 2011 at 12:35 am

  2. dear sir,

    i am really sorry about the last tsunami happen in your country. i just stopped by your blog to see ‘Yokai’ and then i noticed that the writer was from Japan. it was a very terrifying disaster last time, just like here in my country (Indonesia). But i really appreciate with Japan. Everyone seems to be helpful and try hard to recover as soon as possible. It wasn’t happen in my country, whose people just starring around and unable to do anything as soon as Japan did.

    i hope Japan will recover soon. here, we pray the best for you all.

    yacob (Jogjakarta, Indonesia)

    March 24, 2011 at 2:26 am

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