This is something I wrote a couple weeks after all the shit went down, last year. I didn't realize until I re-read it, but this experience sort of captures why I travel and why I hope I can always travel. Big ups to
. There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be during a
national tragedy. Japan
A cluster of middle schools girls was chasing a basketball when the earthquake hit. I watched them with a whistle in my mouth, only bothering to sound it when the ball traveled out-of-bounds. The technical basketball violations were coming in onslaught and this was my sixth straight hour of refereeing. I’d stopped caring.
The students of
still emitting cascades of enthusiasm though. Red and white bandannas wrapped
around every small skull. Stomping feet and falsetto voices blasting
choreographed chants and cheers that reverberated throughout the all-wood
gymnasium. Colorful hand-painted banners hanging from the walls and ceiling.
Teams in clashing neon jerseys. Cameras and twin-pronged peace/victory signs
flashing. Girls yelping “ganbatte” and boys harassing each other through
megaphones. Special-ed students waving colossal flags, like pioneers on a new
planet. Toyooka Junior
I think I remember reading something in my college Psych class about how humans create memories of certain events simply because we’ve been told so many times that we were present at those events. Like we internalize other people’s experiences of us and make them into our own personal fist-person POV history. I swear I recall leaping into a lake as an infant. My father jumps in after me, pants and all. Once we’re safely back on solid land, I see his soaking khakis through my tearful baby eyeholes. The family is in hysterics, mother and sister weeping. I am seriously relieved and maybe like four months old.
The past week friends and family and forgotten acquaintances have been asking me nonstop about what I felt when the earthquake hit. My mind is already starting to evoke subterranean shudders, me standing there in awe, watching colorful banners flutter with a sudden and desperate urgency. But, in reality, the gymnasium had been humming with prepubescent fervor for hours. I remember things vibrating and children screaming, but that’s all. It could have been an earthquake or it could have been a bungled lay-up. I might as well get that in writing, before
Japan’s shared memory becomes mine.
I do remember everything stopping, though. There was a chirping siren and the children stiffened and shut-up and searched for someone with authority. More authority than my whistle. The flags drooped and dropped without a discernible thud. The basketball disregarded, bouncing to a standstill like the melodramatic last shot in some vintage Larry Bird documentary. A complete cessation of movement and sound.
A teacher shouted something and at once the students streamed towards the main exit with common purpose. I followed them. In
Japan I’ve learned to follow, especially when I don’t understand
where everyone’s going, or why.
As I scuttled out of the gymnasium and across the all-sand baseball field, I decided that Japanese schools pick the most inopportune times to have fire drills. The school year ends this month and Friday, March 11th was Class Match Day. A full day of blithe intramural competitions to reward the kids for the grueling academic year nearly complete. The 3rd year students were a week away from graduation and had just concluded the High School Entrance Exam: a singular test that pretty much adjudicates whether 15 year old kids have the brainpower, or brain-potential, to study what we in USA consider compulsory education. The albatross of Judgment Day – personal life dreams vs. inherited fruit farms - had been stinking up the halls for weeks. The kids deserved one day of uninterrupted celebration and play. Many of them are at school from to daily, God forbid they enjoy it. How Japanese of Japan, I thought. No extremes. No pure recreation. Must stand in a line and be enumerated by the establishment.
It was warm outside, like the best early April days in
The sun was faint yellow and without a distinct silhouette, seeping out and
everywhere. The wind was constant but gentle, maybe one level above a
breeze. Our baseball field looks out on the and the Central Japanese Alps and I remember appreciating
the view, again. The ground was how March ground is supposed to be: brown and
wet. A few brave insects spiraled in the air, suggestive of virgin
fighter-pilots. Birds must have been singing. Tenryu River
Once the kids were in sharp columns, they were counted-off in loud and aggressive verbiage. The full name, individually assigned number and classroom designation of each student announced in piercing Japanese. Everyone accounted for, all good and official, now let’s get back to the games, I thought. Then I saw my Kocho Sensei (school principal) dashing toward us, a white-plastic earthquake helmet harnessed to his head.
My Kocho Sensei is short, even by Japanese standards. As he ran towards the field, he was mostly earthquake helmet, like a turtle is mostly shell. The students had been transferring weight and whispering, but quieted when they saw him sprinting. Kocho Senseis in
Japan pretty much epitomize the word figurehead.
It’s a flocculent position that comes with a palatial office and demands no
real daily effort or responsibility. A sort of reward for years of dedicated
work in the education system. You’ve been a humble servant for The Cause, a
math teacher and a class advisor and a Vice Principal (the people who really run
shit) and now, in these last gasps before retirement, you can take naps in a
leather chair and collect a fat paycheck. They are sometimes visible; on
Wednesday mornings my K.S. makes buoyant speeches on things like the beauty of
human connection and the achievability of dreams (blabbering proudly over a
slide-show of his daughter, who has represented Japan as a member of the luge
team in the last two Olympics), but mostly, they are superfluous. They wear
suits and shake hands and smile when someone from the Board of Education comes
for an evaluation. To see a K.S. running, earthquake helmet saltating all over
his head, was odd and unsettling. Something was up.
The teachers huddled around K.S. and he spoke rapid, anxious Japanese and I did not understand a word until he said the number “seven.” The teachers gasped. K.S. addressed the students. They gasped. I asked an English teacher to please translate.
“Earthquake,” she said. “Very bad.”
“Very bad. The students must run to home.”
Back in the teachers’ office someone turned on the TV and we watched LIVE as aftershocks convulsed
Tokyo. Skyscrapers undulating like Midwestern wheat.
Bodies already in bags. The students clustered outside the teachers’
office, watching the images through cracks until they were ordered home, again.
Classes and club activities cancelled for the day. It was just after .
The teachers’ office stunk like that day’s school lunch which had been some sort of fish with especially thick, scaly and undercooked skin. Once the students were evacuated, we rolled the TV set to the center of the room. School was never so barren. Absolute inertia excepting that one TV, high-def and large with the volume on max. All of us watching it. The News stayed mostly on two unfolding scenes. A camera hovered over the shoreline on the east coast of the island, aimed at the Pacific and following the tsunami as it charged in from the horizon. You could actually distinguish the The First Wave and it was like a surfer’s wet-dream; robust with a crest of fat foam. On the shoreline, preceding a network of Japanese fishing huts, a family corralled beach equipment and a man wearing all black photographed the water. Within seconds the wave breached the shoreline, indifferent to the traditional boundaries of sea vs. land. The family and the photographer scrambled into separate vehicles and skedaddled, water chasing their tires. The tsunami was eventually measured at
meters, but that First
Wave wasn’t like some 30ft Hollywood rip-curl that devours civilization in slow-mo. It was more
like the sea was on steroids and time was collapsed. Like the water didn't fit
in it’s designated sea-area anymore, and had to go somewhere ASAP because it
couldn't stop expanding. It seemed unrelated to the earthquake, a separate and
global phenomenon. The ocean was growing. The same thing was probably occurring
on every coastline everywhere.
The news cut LIVE to a bridge in
Sendai, the capital of . It’s a relatively small city (population around 1
million) on the eastern coast of Japan, less than two hundred miles north of
Tokyo and about Miyagi Prefecture 270 miles Northeast of my mountain village in southern Nagano. For
Japanese people this distance is practically infinity. Many of my students have
never even once ventured outside the prefecture. We’re ensconced in the narrow
valleys that snake between the country’s three biggest mountain ranges. The
ocean is a distant and exotic entity. The bridge in Sendai an abstract, faraway place. In USA Geographical Dimensions
though, it’s basically Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, plus a thicket of mountains in between.
The bridge’s outbound traffic, as in those vehicles moving away from the lens, was stopped. Maybe seven cars and two trucks at a standstill and it was unclear why they couldn’t advance. One of the trucks was transporting petroleum in a large metal cylinder and it was stalled pretty much at the bridge’s midpoint. The bridge traversed a small parking lot, packed with miniature Japanese kei-cars, all stationed and abandoned. Water was already streaming under the parked kei-cars, like drainage run-off after a downpour and minus any sort of conduit. A stratum of wet originating just off screen and moving fast from left to right. Within seconds the vehicles were skating around like forsaken bumper cars. They tumbled into each other and then over a concrete declivity just recently converted into something like a breached dam. The cars exited screen-right lickety-split and there was just a bridge over angry water. Then a large fishing vessel came careening from screen-left. The boat ricocheted off houses until the bridge shaved its cabin in half, no problem. It sped off, screen right, like a missile with some seriously low-income housing on top. Around this time the people on the bridge abandoned all hope of reaching their destinations. Cars spun 3-point turns and accelerated toward the lens.
The news cut back to the original camera, the original shot, only different now. There was no beach and none of those Japanese fishing huts from a few minutes ago. Just a black tide, overwhelming land and man-made objects like it didn’t give a shit. Famished lava that swallowed and digested and regurgitated and advanced. What had been houses and vehicles were now indiscriminate components of The Wave. The family and photographer forgotten protagonists.
A man on a bicycle was hunched over handlebars, literally peddling for his life. He navigated narrow streets and rectangular rice-patties like a pro. As he weaved ahead of The Wave, LIVE, Science Teacher and Volleyball Coach Shoumura Sensei, approached the TV and sat right under it, front row on the floor. “Ganbatte!” she whispered.
There is no 100% literal English language translation for “ganbaru.” The kids say “fight,” but that just barely skims one in a multitude of more or less accurate translations. It can also mean “work hard” or “concentrate” or “persevere” or “endure” or “overcome.” In the gymnasium, teenage girls were screaming for their classmates to “hustle” after the basketball. Now, just barely 30min later, Shoumura Sensei was urging an anonymous cyclist to “survive.” He persevered and he endured and he hustled, but he did not survive. The wave caught him easily and imbibed his body and rolled on, a semi-solid organism with an appetite.
I’ve come to grips with the fact that, during moments of human distress, I am not a sentimental individual. When a friend/family member emotionally discharges, my first reaction is to logically consider his/her particular brand of woe and what specific actions could extinguish the source of that woe. Sometimes, as a last resort, I muster the chivalry to offer one genuine bear-hug. I like to think they are firm and memorable, capable of transferring an effusion of, like, poignancy. But they do not come naturally, the hugs.
Personally I rely on dissociation to get me through the tough times. A bicyclist fails to elude violent death and so I consider possible correlations between earthquakes and human height. Maybe its better to be short, I posit. Japan is the earthquake capital of the world and the Japanese are notoriously short. According to evolution and cause-effect type relationships, me and my lanky frame are fucked. Why though? My limbs could tangle into a futile knot of flesh, certainly. In what circumstances would the word “ganbaru” be deemed incongruous and unacceptable, anyway? Would Japanese people bother saying it to a giant, gawkish foreigner ensnared in the spokes of a diminutive bicycle? They probably would, I decided.
Back at the Sendai bridge the situation had gone to total shit. Ships and houses passing under the bridge like they were supposed to. Some of the vehicles on the bridge had successfully absconded, but the petrol truck was in deep trouble. The bridge was a narrow two lane bridge and the truck was an 18-wheeler and the exact opposite of nimble. It was now perpendicular to intended traffic flow, performing a torturous like 33-point turn. It looked broken, malfunctioned, just caroming back and forth, a physical manifestation of the the unofficial definition of insanity. The worst aspect of the truck’s tragic performance was that it hadn’t allowed the small/agile vehicles previously ahead of it to escape first. Water had submerged the far end of the bridge and was steadily approaching. Three cars had about-faced and were just sitting there waiting, trapped between the encroaching ocean and a berserk gasoline truck that was basically just a backfiring barrier at this point.
More teachers had surrounded the TV and were like rooting for the truck to complete its 180. Lot’s of “gambatte” being uttered at increasing volumes. I looked outside and it was snowing. Serious snow, sideways blizzard type snow. A teacher announced that cell-phones had gone kaput across the country and I thought about the insects I’d seen testing their wings a few minutes prior. It seemed unfair that the brave bugs, the trailblazers of spring, had to navigate so much snow all of a sudden. Where does a mosquito go during a snowstorm? Ganbatte, mosquitoes, I thought. Ganbatte.
Pretty soon the teachers started using land-lines to call students’ home-phones. There are no school-buses here and the kids walk to and from school daily. In case of emergency they are expected not to loiter like teenagers. Walk straight home, no dilly-dallying. The school began calling residences maybe 30min after the imposed exodus. When a student was certified safe and sound, it was declared with verbiage that no longer seemed so aggressive. The vice principal checked off names, one by one. A thorough inventory of survivors.
I got home around 1700h and it had stopped snowing. The sky was the color of steel and the wind had picked up a couple levels. I sent some Everything OK Here - How’s Everything Over There On Your End e-mails to my aunts and cousins in Tokyo. For the rest of the night I watched Japanese TV. Images of flaming, omnichrome liquid chewing up communities. Capsized barges floating down Main Street. Huts and houses basically combining collapse with evaporate. Rice-fields becoming marshy junkyards + graveyards. Smoke and seawater the new norm.
The soundtrack to all this chaos was mostly female newscasters speaking Japanese and not really taking into account my Japanese language incompetency. I preferred it initially, like the images spoke for themselves or something equally trite. But then it, the news, started interposing shots of enormous metallic cubes encased in a complex system of industrial pipes and smokestacks. They were unfamiliar and ominous, and made worse by their utter serenity. Why would the news focus on unscathed structures when thousands of people were dying LIVE? The cubes seemed mechanical, dangerous and patient, just sitting there. Japanese women speaking at high velocity and not sounding pleased or comfortable at all.
My TV viewing experience at that point was basically:
“Mush mush mush 500 dead mush mush.” An entire town literally demapped in a snap. “Mush mush eight mush earthquake mush mush.” The tsunami dark, dynamic and freckled with self-contained bonfires that floated on the wave itself. “Mush mush dangerous mush.” An immense factory of unknown materials, 100% intact and motionless. “Mush dangerous mush mush.”
Once I’d received reply e-mails from my relatives, confirming their status as OK, I went to bed.
I was in thick sleep when my phone began making noises. Strange new sounds that were horrible and jarring. Like a robot clearing its severely congested throat during a car accident. I reached for and opened my cell and absorbed a surplus of the color red and the solitary word: EARTHQUAKE. I re-reclined and chastised my phone for being so tardy it was almost funny, if there weren’t so many casualties and stuff.
Some undefined number of seconds passed before the walls went haywire. The sensation of me and my futon as a paradigm of stability while everything else suffered a nervous breakdown. Stop being ridiculous walls, I sort of dreamed. They were chattering like spooked and frigid idiots. I touched them, envisioning myself, my fingertips, as a majestic and mollifying force - capable of consoling things my bear-hugs wouldn’t even know what do do with. But it was more like the opposite. When I pushed myself seated and pressed my palms and cheeks into the wall, my body became a whole new brand of disturbed. Like the walls had infected me from the inside out, starting with my bones, which were now just paper segments of a decorative Halloween skeleton. Flapping about compliant and for entertainment purposes, minimal mass and no signs of life.
I didn’t do my own laundry until I went to college. Before that, I’d always just tossed sweaty apparel into designated hamper and mother would take it from there. Clean, odorless and folded clothing would resurface on my bed eventually. In college my dormitory had a laundry room in the basement. An all-cement dungeon that smelled like a locker-room and featured 19-year-olds flaunting the death-rattles of their wardrobes. Pajama pants and hoodie sweatshirts with nothing underneath. Shoving things into cavities and pressing buttons and spilling powder and sighing. But I have a job now and endeavor to act adult, so Sunday is Laundry Day. Every Sunday morning I start a load first thing, even before shower and coffee. It’s the primary act of Weekly Abode Tidying. As my clothes endure whatever abuses a washing machine administers, I clean my house. Rinse dishes and cutlery, take meticulously partitioned (according to Japanese regulations) trash/recycling to dump, vacuum, dispose of weekly stuff accumulation etc. I don’t put a time limit on my domestic chore-duties because the washing machine acts as my alarm clock. The final phase of clothes-washing apparently involves violent gyration. My washing machine is nowhere near state-of-the-art, so this last phase is especially clamorous. When the floor starts humming a guttural baritone, my clothes are almost clean. As I wait for the appliance to complete its vicious rotations, I watch it palpitate. It resembles a super-sized sex toy, vibrating with a purpose; more = better. So anyway, as I was semi-sitting on my futon in total nighttime darkness, face mashed against wall and brain flickering in and out of consciousness, I experienced myself as a cheap plastic action figure sitting on top of my laundry machine on a Sunday morning. My helpless bauble-status at that moment was paralyzing and a newfound, esoteric reverence for household appliances actuated somewhere in my umbra.
Nagano prefecture is situated on a fault plane that supposedly makes it, Nagano, more sensitive to kinetic tectonic forces, or something. Geological ignorance aside, the seismic activity on the morning of Saturday, March 12th was incessant. Three earthquakes struck between 0400h and 0515h, each registered at over 5 magnitude and the largest, the first, at 6.8. My phone trumpeted the same strident advisory each time. The epicenter was up in northern Nagano, so the majority of my household possessions remained upright and undamaged for the duration. After the first quake I was alert and in front of the TV. A different news anchor, still female, talking fast and looking disheveled by Japanese public-appearance standards.
“Mush mush Nagano Prefecture mush strong mush mush dangerous.” A 2D map of central Japan with maybe three prefectures, definitely including mine, highlighted and frantically blinking red. “Mush earthquake mush six mush eight mush seven mush.” The same series of industrial cubes and tubes, still just biding time. “Mush Mush Tokyo, Chiba, Yamanashi, Kanagawa, Saitama Prefectures mush mush strong mush.” A map of the aforementioned prefectures, just east of Nagano, blinking frantic and red. Mush mush 900 dead mush.” A map of Nagano now orange and still blinking.
Sleep was basically an impossibility at this point. Somewhere between the second and third earthquakes I killed my gas supply and filled my bathtub with water. Precautionary measures that had been recommended by teachers and gave me the sense of at least I was doing something to save my skin. The television displayed a new map every few minutes, different prefectures all over the country exploding into flashing colors - Japan’s topography like a neurotic spectrum of sunset pigmentation. The newswomen unhappily repeating the words strong and dangerous every few seconds.
I coach the Junior High basketball team and was supposed to return to the school gymnasium at 8am Saturday morning for a basketball-related event. Some sort of final celebration for the 3rd year basketball members before they departed for high school. A day of scrimmages between coaches, parents, past/present team members, that apparently necessitated an 0800h start. Then a nice curry-rice indoor picnic afterwards. As I rejoined futon around 7am, I figured that at least the event would be cancelled and I could sleep-in. No possible way something so trivial could happen in the midst of something so serious and isn’t that cliche about silver linings just so spot-on. I didn’t really sleep, sort fogged over, interrupted by a constant stream of terminally ill robots performing high-speed auto collisions. An hour later the co-coach called my house, inquiring as to why I was not yet present at the gymnasium. It was after 8am and she and the team were starting to wonder.
I’ve lived here for almost eight months now and considered myself more or less adjusted to Japanese life. The daily cultural quirks that were initially mammoth obstacles are now routine. I identify the products I want at grocery stores and I purchase them with aplomb. I classify disposables without even thinking about it. I expect an excess of paperwork and a deficiency of body language. I accept that there is no Japanese language equivalent for “bless you” and am good and silent when someone sneezes. I never leave any leftovers whatsoever, even consuming cold rubbery fish-skin when necessary. It was almost a source of pride, really. Imagining myself as The Ultimate Global Citizen, capable of accelerated cultural adaption. Drop me anywhere in the world and I will accede and assimilate like that. Eight months and I already understood Japan. Me, a savant of humanism.
But I was completely unprepared for that phone call. I threw on some athletic gear and rushed to school, looking and smelling rotten. The baseball team was already stretching on the diamond, call and response counting to eight then shifting to new distorted positions in precisely coordinated maneuvers. When I exited my kei-car the baseballers spun and greeted, standing erect and army-like. There was no evidence of snowfall or insects anywhere. Inside the gymnasium, the basketball team was mid-warm-ups. Tight and evenly-distributed rebound and lay-up lines. Syncopated sounds of encouragement. They paused and bowed in perfect accord when I entered. The banners from yesterday still up, hanging there florid and clueless.
The basketball festivities went according to Pre-Disaster Blueprint. 3rd year students loping up and down the court, blocking 1st years’ shots and relishing it. Fathers aggressively giving it their all, trying to prove something to someone. Me getting winded and perspiry way faster than anyone else. After four (!) hours of scrimmages we relocated to the town hall’s communal cooking room, where diligent mothers presided over cauldrons of beef curry. The team assembled wooden tables and ordered them into a compact rectangle, laying out plates and silverware systematically. We ate curry and rice accompanied by fried chicken and salad and the mood was happy. Multiple parents complimented my ruthless butchering of their native language. The boys gorged like teenage boys are supposed to. Exactly one mother mentioned the earthquake and tsunami and only to confirm that I was like holding up OK on an emotional level. It must be difficult being American at a time like this, she said with zero irony. After every drop of curry was devoured, the team arm-wrestled and argued about girls and I helped clean-up as much as the mothers would permit.
I got home around 1500h and turned on the TV just to reestablish that I hadn’t experienced some sort of serious mental implosion over the past 24 hours and there really was a monumental tragedy going down. The female newscasters were bleary-eyed and the images disturbing. The NYTimes website informed me that the cubic structures were nuclear reactors.
There were two notable aftershocks Sunday and I spent the day firing off reassuring e-mails to friends and family back in USA.
Monday was pretty much the same as Saturday, in terms of there existing an unnerving dichotomy between the gravity of the national crises and the complete coolness with which the locals comported themselves. Once I was inside the confines of school property, it was almost like any other weekday. Hundreds of kids bustling about in identical sweat-suit school uniforms that make them look like juveniles sentenced to a lifetime of Physical Education. In one of my English classes I was asked to re-enact a story from the textbook. It was a three page illustrated narrative written in simplistic prose that basically amalgamated Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty into a single incoherent nightmare. The sort of thing that would make you write-off English speakers as a deeply disturbed and unstable populace, if you were a Japanese kid. Alice is this little blond girl sitting in a field and her skirt is like that of a cheap hooker. A white rabbit approaches her and he repeats the phrase “I’m late” maybe four times before hopping into a hole that was nowhere in sight previously but is now like threatening Alice’s personal space and security. She leaps after the rabbit and as she free-falls it’s reiterated multiple times that Alice is not going to the center of the earth. She has no intention of spelunking, the story emphasises. I squeal and pantomime the desperate flailings of a nymphet determined to avoid the earth’s core and the kids are rapt. She lands in Wonderland, sticks the landing really, like a gymnast. It’s a strange place, full of foreign creatures; cats and twins and a fully-clothed egg sitting on a wall. I assume the role of both Humpty D and Alice at this point, one bulbous and moronic-sounding the other petite and flirty. Alice wants to know what something as fragile as an egg is doing perched atop something as high as a wall. Humpty D will have none of it, though. He’s content with his current arrangement, happy to be on top of the wall, thank you very much. Humpty D strikes me as obtuse and mercurial, like he’s developed a volatile ego to compensate for a bad childhood or something. An egg with a cavalry of defense-mechanisms to go with his red suspenders. When Humpty D ignores her advice, Alice proceeds to sing the Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a big fall refrain. As I serenade an invisible and elevated egg, it occurs to me that Alice is one twisted bitch. A spiteful Machiavellian monster in a mini-skirt - feigning altruism and then advocating destruction under the pretense of nursery rhymes. I’m all of a sudden genuinely offended, like who the fuck does Alice think she is anyway, torturing doltish and emotionally stunted eggs like that. Poor dumb Humpty D starts wobbling on the wall and pleading with Alice to give it a rest, seriously please stop, but she won’t. She keeps singing and he teeters perilously and the story ends. The students burst into applause and literally no one in the classroom is contemplating earthquakes, tsunamis or nuclear radiation.
When I returned to the teachers’ office, a hand-written note was on my desk. It stated: Before 3 days a 7 magnitude earthquake will attack Toyooka [sic]. This was the first evidence I’d encountered during work-hours that, beyond the bubble of my Junior HS, there was something resembling a national apocalypse fermenting. I never discovered who wrote the note, but I assume it was an English teacher with purely honorable intentions.
During my subsequent free period I read e-mails and became increasingly afraid. My USA contacts were flipping their shit to the extreme, warning of impending physical deformities and demanding I get on the next flight OUT. My Japanese aunt, who is somewhere between cautious and irrational, commanded I be in my home at precisely 2100h because a package would be arriving, complete with SPAM, bottled electrolyte beverages and some sort of WWII self-preservation contraption that I didn’t really understand but sounded grim. My parents were severely concerned and offering their credit cards for anything and everything. The Prefectural Advisory Committee of English Teachers recommended I assemble an emergency kit on the double. My Japanese cousin who was in NYC during 9/11 and now Tokyo during this sent me a written discourse equating the two events. CNN boasted the headline JAPANESE NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IMMINENT and warned that milk was an especially capable agent of radioactivity. And so at that exact moment, me sitting there floundering in a deluge of Bad News, my cell started doing the robotic freeway pileup thing again. Within seconds the teachers’ office was in electronic uproar, maybe fifteen phones all emitting the same awful screech simultaneously. Impending doomsday signaled by digital cacophony. The Vice Principal made an announcement and you could hear preteen bodies hitting the deck school-wide. A synchronized union with the floor. One big THUD. Teachers calmly whispered or stood perfectly still, observing objects that would maybe indicate even the slightest of subterranean shivers. Cups of water and wall calenders and shit like that. I stood up and stared at the ceiling and I have no idea why. I didn’t even have time to disassociate and so that’s what I did. Looked upwards, not towards The Gods or anything significant, just at the ceiling. K.S was predictably MIA.
No earthquake/aftershock arrived and within minutes school resumed it’s standard modus operandi. The copier discharging papers and secretary Hara Sensei setting out pungent dried squid in the break room. Nobody seemed flustered. Teachers, 3rd years, special-ed kids, 1st years, all fully-functional and ostensibly 100% unaffected.
After school, around 1630h, I drove to those stores that dispense emergency supplies. All the e-mails + CNN had gotten to me. On route I noticed that the gas stations had lines of maybe 15 cars per pump. The motorists remained inside their vehicles while they waited. The weather was totally nondescript or unimportant or both. A Japanese radio station contributed a Whitney Houston 90’s film soundtrack tune to the already considerable anxiety I was experiencing. At some point the radio-personality interrupted Whitney so as to recite the names of people either missing or dead. Full disclosure, I don’t know for certain what the catalogue denoted, but there was over 100 names so I assumed it wasn’t good. I’ve never heard 100 winners identified consecutively. Very rarely do you want to be included in a long list of spoken names. Graduation might be it.
I was in the grocery store when I mentally cracked. Internal tension had been mounting for days, especially that day, exacerbated by the sensation that I was literally the only person in Japan comprehending that End Of Days was suddenly a tangible thing. But now the grocery store resembled a scene from the first act of a zombie movie and it didn’t comfort me at all. Every aisle at maximum capacity. People embracing whole shelves of instant ramen and whooshing everything into their shopping carts at once. Bottled water sold in Cosco sized boxes. No one even touching the fresh produce. Zero flashlights or batteries or milk on the premises. Muzak similar to American muzak, except more jangly.
There’s a reason USA zombie movies are never set in Japan. The Japanese mass reaction to an outbreak would seem totally implausible to an American audience. Moviegoers too bored and baffled to even bother shouting at the screen. It was surreal, really. Non-animate visual stimuli in the grocery store transmitted apocalyptic urgency, but the bodies themselves, the actual shoppers, communicated no traces of fear or desperation. Women hoarded toilet paper and portable gas canisters, but their physical movements embodied leisure and civility. Patient, tactful navigation of shopping-carts. Minimal conversation. Polite, measured mannerisms. Parents reminding children that there was absolutely no running allowed. The performance of actions and the implied significance of those actions were divorced from one another. Totally unrelated in every way. Like dislocating your own shoulder and smiling.
It struck me there in the grocery store that even dissociation as a coping-mechanism has its limits. Alice and Humpty D can only do so much. God knows how long I’d been subconsciously desiring some sort of common acknowledgement of the very real crises we were all abiding. But that was why I’d come to here. I was seeking a communal space where panicked souls could disseminate personal emotions into one big cloud of shared experience. Somewhere to to feel better or at least affiliated. But the grocery store only made me feel severely alone. I was not like these people. We could not Share.
So I started sprinting through rows of packaged goods, grabbing items haphazardly, filling the cart with whatever and peeling-out. My eyes like something rabid. Executing your Classic American Public Freak-Out.
My house was a fully-fortified Anti-End of Days Acropolis by the time my aunt’s parcel arrived just before 2100h that night. The kitchen counter lined with water bottles. Bathtub filled, gas off and TV on. Flashlights strategically distributed by every exit. A heavy-duty backpack crammed with canned-goods and warm clothing.
The materials inside the cardboard box fit right in. A multitude of Items of Last Resort. Batteries and vitamins. Rice, potato chips, sardines, seaweed and other foods that ranged from bland to barely edible. Concealed beneath everything was the prize object. A cobalt blue doodad that felt like a pillow and had a note taped to it. BOKUZUKIN is what we wore in the middle of war to protect our head and shoulder. Try it when needed [sic].
The Bokuzukin felt needed right then and there, so I put it on. Sort of shoving my head into its crevice and re-emerging for air, my skull buried inside some breed of cushiony headgear that was undeniably vaginal. Like I’d dived head-first back into the womb and was now looking out at the Big Bad World world from a secure location. The Ultimate and Primordial Safe Place. The apex of the hood was distended and pointy, acutely Klan-like with a cottony labia majora prolapsing all over my shoulders. I was 100% impenetrable there, an epileptic bigot probing the Electra Complex from deep inside the warm cortex of my Bokuzukin.
Inevitably I started contemplating WWII. The Bokuzukin was a standard household item back during The War, an article of last resort against frequent US air-raids. These air-raids didn’t happen so long ago, but you’d never know it. Present-day Japan seems to have simply, completely Transcended. There is no manifest ill-will towards Americans. No sense of latent anger or resentment or heartache. Just healthy-and-mature-acceptance which is so universal it doesn’t even need to be acknowledged.
I remember this one college professor I had that was fixated on contrasting, often in sweeping generalizations, China and Japan. She was convinced a cursory study of Japanese vs. Chinese artwork betrayed the genesis of every historical conflict between the two nations/cultures. According to her theory, Chinese art expresses a value system predicated on the ideals of perfection and permanence while Japanese art conveys the primary principles of humbleness and transience. A simplistic hypotheses, really, but she had evidence to back it up. Chinese art is (often, historically) precise and arresting: clearly defined planes and judiciously crafted, grandiose images. Japanese art is (often, historically) elusive and mundane: undefined perspectives and insignificant subject matter. This divergence proves, according to Ms. Professor, that the Chinese are forever endeavoring to self-actualize, become more perfect, while the Japanese exist in a state of consent - aware of themselves as an immaterial and temporary entity. This is a seriously irreconcilable difference, she asserted. She then attempted to further augment her argument by showing Olympic video footage - the ‘98 Nagano Opening Ceremonies vs. the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremonies - but lost me at that point.
Over the past months I’ve been reminded of Ms. Professor’s analysis on numerous occasions. There was this one night maybe a month ago I + three friends were returning from a snowboarding excursion in northern
It had been a hellish trip; one companion performing a convulsive weep-fest at
the summit and then, on the ride home, the chauffeur suffering a genuine
nervous breakdown, complete with physical writhing and nonsensical muttering.
An exorbitant 2-day blizzard throughout. So anyway, we were on the interstate
and it was approaching .
The snow had finally stopped falling and was eerily absent in general -
emphasizing the drastic meteorological disconnect between North & South
Nagano. As we neared home we hit some severe traffic. Standstill,
bumper-to-bumper, total gridlock, etc. It took two hours to advance 5k.
Drowning in an expanse of brake-lights. Aforementioned chauffeur insisting that
thrash-metal functioned to calm his nerves. Me in a state of intense personal
agony, face pressed against window, basically searching for just one comrade in
misery. Someone to Identify and Share with. But the Japanese people
in contiguous vehicles demonstrated zero signs of impatience or
dissatisfaction. No honking or corporeal expressions of frustration/shock. They
just sat there, staring forward like cold-fish freaks. It was grotesque but
also admirable, I decided. There was surely a pile-up ahead. A heap of wasted
vehicles and mutilated bodies. Families and lives permanently altered for the
worse. And here I was calculating how many hours of sleep it would cost me,
like an asshole.
But there was no accident. No tragedy, no emergency. There was only a thorough examination of tires, performed manually by small men in baby-green polyester full-body suits wielding instruments reminiscent of hand-held MosquitoZappers. The powers that be, presumably the Nagano Highway Traffic Control Safety and Security Powers, had ordered a mandatory midnight snow-tire inspection for all southbound traffic, as in, those vehicles that had just fled massive snowfall and were now already on 100% moistureless asphalt. As my car-mates flipped their collective shit, I retreated into a shell of urgent disassociation, recalling that one college professor and a series of spectacles from the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremonies involving over-sized masks.
I could go on for hours just ticking-off examples that would enrapture Ms. Professor. The school teachers here have to transfer schools every 4-5 years, regardless of whether they want to or not. Students must eat their entire allocation of school lunch daily, even when the main course is auburn chunks of whale meat. The amount of paperwork required for the slightest official exchange is mind-numbing and never questioned. And on and on and on, Ms. Professor somewhere out there, rapidly approaching climax.
I thought I’d adapted to it all. Learned to appreciate The Japanese Way. The Ultimate Global Citizen, just doing his thing. But now, with End of Days looming, The Japanese Way struck me as horribly fatalistic. The rows of vehicles patiently waiting to fill up tanks. The tranquil masses at the grocery store. The basketball events. Those three cars on the Sendai Bridge, trapped and doomed and just sitting there observing that godforsaken petrol truck. Whitney Houston. The whole healthy-and-mature-acceptance thing suddenly seemed like nonsense. Japanese people should hate America. They should lament Hiroshima and Nagasaki daily and blame us for every bad thing that's happened since then. They should cancel school. They should physically fight for every last drop of gasoline. Thousands were dead. Towns vanished. A nuclear reactor emitting plumes of something morbid. This was a time for howling and looting.
God bless the internet, though. During those first few days I relied heavily on it, the world wide web, to provide me with an injection of intense trepidation whenever I wanted/needed. Just check CNN or NYTimes or BBC and feel afraid. Occidental journalists were blowing-gaskets on the regular. Articles with titles like tag-lines from Hollywood in the Summer. People Must Flee, But Where To? and Another Day, Another Explosion and Radiation Levels Skyrocket, What’s Next? Me sitting there deep inside my Bokuzukin, shifting in and out of Bring-It-On-Motherfuckers mode.
By Wednesday March 16, the day before graduation, I was less apprehensive and more just profoundly confused. The Western Media continued to employ vocabulary like: calamity, catastrophe, disaster, and nightmare and USA friends and family were increasingly frantic, christening me an Idiot With a Death-Wish. Meanwhile life in Toyooka was pretty much back to normal. No more aftershocks or cellphone alarms. Grocery stores re-stocked. Female newscasters composed. Me sitting at my desk, correcting tests with a red magic-marker.
So in this state of profound confusion I did what any self-respecting Modern Man does when totally disoriented and in need of some noble guidance. I consulted Facebook.
Predictably, Facebook was overflowing with reactions to the Japanese Disaster. I had come to the right place. People were Sharing here. Initially this Sharing seemed to follow the same basic formula as what I was already experiencing on a daily-basis. People inside Japan feeling much more secure than people outside Japan believed we, the Insiders, deserved to feel. Countless Assistant English Teachers chiding all the excessive angst originating from parents and other Outsiders who just didn’t have a clue about anything.
I’m getting really really frustrated with all the BS that’s getting fed to everyone by the media. Japan is not going to explode people. The media is blowing everything way out of proportion and pouring gasoline on the fire when they should be pouring water. RELAX.
And like twenty other Assistant English teachers would reply to each one of these messages. Identify and Testify. But the Outsiders were unconvinced, accusing the Japanese Government and Media of distortion and brainwashing. The West was sensationalist, said the Insiders. The Japs were liars, countered the Outsiders. And so on.
I skimmed oodles of these messages before experiencing something like a miniature epiphany of no real significance.
Theory: it’s all about different conceptions of community. The Facebook voices initially seemed to be in opposition to each other - Insiders vs. Outsiders, we're safe vs. you’re fucked - but they were actually essentially analogous. The content was contrasting, but the form was the same. They were all Western voices emoting personal experiences and opinions. An echo-chamber of all things first-person. I was terrified, but I am alive and I appreciate MY life. I want you to leave Japan. I will not let the sensationalists influence ME. I think this is God’s payback for Pearl Harbor. I think you’re ignorant and I hate you. etc.
At first all this Sharing struck me as horribly self-indulgent. A confluence of voices convinced of their own specialness. Confident that everyone else not only wanted, but needed, to experience this specialness too. An orgy of the self. But really, obviously, this is the nature of Sharing. Two or more separate entities mutually participating/exchanging. Individualism is a Big Deal in The West, especially in USA, so it’s logical that our brand of Community consists of individuals temporarily/permanently Sharing themselves. We do what we know, and we know the self. How do I feel. What do I think. What should I do. Maybe this even explains my little disassociation problem. In moments of duress, many individuals Share and form Western Communities. I do me. I disassociate.
But so what if the Japanese Community doesn’t consist of individuals. What if the Japanese Community itself is the individual. A simplistic hypotheses, really. But I have evidence and sweeping generalizations to back it up.
Whereas USA demographics is a pluralism of all sorts of ethnicities and religions and so on, the physical constitution of Japan is seriously homogeneous. They don’t all look the same, but really, they do. Japanese people just have to see you once to know that you’re not from around here. The Japanese word for a non-Japanese person is “gaijin” and it consummately translates to “alien,” in that it means both foreigner and extraterrestrial simultaneously. A special-ed student once told me at lunch that he’d visited Thailand. I asked him why, what’s boy from Toyooka doing in a place like Thailand, and he immediately shut-down/off. Cocking and swiveling his head and acting like I was completely unintelligible, until I dropped Thailand as a conversational subject entirely. Maybe like 30min later, when he and I were in private, he relayed, unsolicited, that he’d gone to Thailand to visit his Thai grandmother. Last example; this past year there was a whole brouhaha in USA over the Arizona law allowing police to demand ID based on not-so-subtle racial profiling. But that’s been standard procedure in Japan for God knows how long. If a Japanese cop requests my “gaijin card” and I don’t have it on my person, he is within his legal rights to deport me on the spot. The recurrent theme here is one of a clearly defined Us vs. Them mentality that’s physically innate to Japanese culture. In Japan, kids would rather be considered dumb than foreign.
So say we have a little Japanese boy name Ryo who was born in Japan and he looks Japanese and so he’s naturally incorporated into the Japanese Us from birth. At age six Ryo takes his congenital Japaneseness to school where he encounters a slew of other definitively Japanese children. At school he wears the same uniform as his classmates, and its also probably the same uniform worn by every other Japanese student in his age-group nationally. So now Ryo and his classmates all eat the exact same quantity and quality of food, every day. They take the same classes with the same teachers and are never once divided or arranged according to characteristics like academic ability or personal interests. Then, in Junior High School, club activities commence and Ryo is literally at school for 12hrs every day. He and his classmates study together. They clean together. They sing together. They are always together. Eventually they coalesce into a single metaphysical entity. A sort of convergence of spirits. By the time he graduates from Junior High School, age 15 and mandatory education complete, Ryo is less individual person than an element of the Japanese Community. School is over. The inherent Japanese Us has been cultivated into I, Japan.
And so then asudden, sitting there at my desk, Japan’s previously incomprehensible and bizarre response to the avalanche of tragedies from the past week became congruent. Everything just clicked. The trapped cars on the Sendai bridge and the firemen working endlessly to salvage only corpses and whatever breed of hero was like crawling through radioactive tunnels in baby-green space suits at that very moment - none of these people even so much as complained because the importance of self was insignificant compared to the importance of the Japanese Community. That’s why the basketball event wasn’t cancelled. Why people waited patiently for gasoline. Why Whitney kept singing. Those were necessary contributions to the Japanese Community and personal suffering didn’t really matter in comparison. Be sad, but don’t make this about you. It’s about Japan. My grocery store implosion had only affirmed one simple fact for the other shoppers, a fact they already knew just from one glimpse anyway. The abnormally tall guy grunting and frothing and spinning-out over there, he is not an element of I, Japan.
This concept of I, Japan is nonnative and disconcerting to We Westerners. In USA disasters/situations of national distress, our presidents wear military uniforms and dismount helicopters and make passionate declarations from battleships. They ascend rubble and proclaim anguish and anger through megaphones. Rappers seize microphones and call leaders racists on LIVE TV. We become a mass of individuals Sharing all over each other. That’s why the Western media coverage of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear plant was so histrionic. It viewed the Official Japanese Statements as nebulous and insufficient and therefore dishonest. If a US politician ever described a potential nuclear meltdown as “some smoke,” he’d be hiding something. But the Japanese Politicians weren't intentionally hoodwinking, they were just being a prosaic element of I, Japan. And the Western media wasn't sensationalizing unnecessarily, it was just doing some intense first-person Sharing.
I sat there at my desk like doing my utmost to resist the urge to post this theory on Facebook. It all made so much sense that I absolutely had to Share it. I rotated my chair 90degrees and attempted to ease into an exhaustive conversation on cultural differences with a Japanese English Teacher (as in, a teacher of the English language who is Japanese in nationality), but she was totally uninterested in indulging me and my American soul-searching.
So I brandished my red magic-marker and graded more tests.
On Thursday March 17, after the all-inclusive graduation of 3rd years, the teachers went out for our final enkai (drinking party). We sat on the expansive tatami-floor of a reserved room in the basement of hotel that was supposedly a multiple-star establishment but really it just felt like being at the base of a some windowless cubic structure. It was the last time that assemblage of individuals would ever convene. Four teachers were being transferred. They all made toasts but did not emote and did not reflect. We just only got wasted and discussed all things unrelated to professional re-assignment and earthquakes. After the hotel we went to another restaurant for more food and drink and after that, another bar, no food, just drink.
I returned home sometime in the early morning. Basketball practice the next day at 0800h. The moon was waxing noticeably and it was springtime-nighttime brisk. I deflated into my living-room chair and spotted the hardcore backpack filled with emergency/survival stuff, sitting there in the same corner where it had been all week. I collared the bag and went digging, extracting sardines and potato chips with some significant, audible effort. I was drunk and hungry and I dipped the chips in the sardines and it didn’t taste half bad.