Six months have passed since the Great Tohoku Disaster. During these bright, sunny, late summer days, when the buildings hold still and the nights pass unperturbed by moments of terror when even the smallest movement of the bed shoots me awake from restless sleep, it is sometimes hard to remember that just a few months ago the whole world was shaking off its hinges and seemed to be tottering at the edge of ending.
I can’t quantify what the whole experience did to me. All I know is that I haven’t been able to write in the blog all this time; all ventures within sight of the events would leave my thoughts blank. Words almost seemed to lose their lift before anything coherent even began to form. And not just written words, but anything uttered, too. When I wasn’t clacking along in rush hour trains, lurching and swaying with everyone else, trying to think of nothing but work, it was timeless catatonia, sitting by the bedroom window, just watching clouds scud by. The world seemed to be moving elsewhere. For months nothing seemed to be happening at all around me, not even while being tumbled and kicked in the confusion of university work.
And it’s not as if evidence of the quake disappeared when the shaking began to let off. On the trains and subways, in supermarkets and shopping centers, in office buildings and sports centers, lights and unneeded electric devices remained switched off, and you stepped down into stairwells and lobbies and glided through a hushed gloom. Perhaps because so many people have volunteered to turn down or turn off their air conditioners, the whole city felt distinctly cooler than most of the summers of the last twenty years. Daily the news poured out statistics of the invisible threat from that gaping maw spewing nuclear ichor across the land, just north of us, from the region that was beloved for its green lushness and vegetables, now, just the name “Fukushima” conjures up ghosts and ostracism, human ugliness and unspeakable sorrow.
Further north lurks the “Place That Can’t Be Mentioned”, that vast, vast swath of wreckage and erasure that cannot be taken in by one mind, reaching far beyond the ability of the eye to register anything familiar, and harboring such a teeming chorus of lost voices that you cannot encounter the scenes without breaking down.
Two weeks after the big quake and tsunami, I decided to head up to Tohoku to see for myself what this horror was that had visited us, and to offer whatever I could to help, however small my contribution. It was better than sitting helpless in Tokyo, agonizing over the photos and videos I kept seeing on the Internet.
I had no plan upon first looking for a way up there. News was broken, much of it hearsay, with rumors going around of long lines of cars running out of gasoline long before making it up to the zone of destruction. Telephone lines were out and any food available up there was meant for the survivors, many of whom were starving in remote, inaccessible towns. And so it was like heading north into the Heart of Darkness, my trepidation very real, my inexperience and ignorance warning me that I was being a fool, that the disaster could easily eat me alive, too.
I found a volunteer organization downtown that referred me to another lone volunteer heading up north in two days. She had a connection up there in Minami-Sanrikucho, the hardest hit town in all of the tsunami zone. I went into a frenzy getting myself prepared, gathering all my camping gear, buying all the food for a week, scouring the city for water jugs, almost all of which had been bought up by the panicking people in Tokyo, where food was running out in the supermarkets and cars had to wait for hours to buy gasoline. I managed to get it all together before my travel partner was due to arrive to pick me up. I sat on the couch in the living room, my heart pounding, not at all sure of what I was getting myself into.
The drive up north was surprisingly normal, with almost no stops, smooth sailing along an unbroken highway that seemed not to have seen one of the biggest earthquakes in history. My travel companion and I bantered about our backgrounds, our interests, even listening to her collection of iTunes songs and singing along. It was surreal. We kept glancing out of the car windows, seeking signs of destruction and misery, but seeing nothing but the usual Japanese rural landscape. No damage seemed to have been done.
The ride took much longer than we had anticipated, so it was already dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Minami-Sanrikucho. All the street lights were out, so we drove in darkness, along deserted roads that passed through town after town with not a soul visible in any of the houses or walking the streets. As if a harbinger for what we were about to encounter, a gigantic dog-like creature appeared suddenly in the headlights on the verge of the road and we swept past without being able to identify what it was. The road ran out of pavement and we started bumping along a dirt track, when suddenly, like an exhibit in a ghost house, an upturned house loomed out of the darkness, right in the middle of the road. My companion shrieked and slammed on the breaks. We sat there, hearts pounding in our mouths, staring as the headlights shone into an empty window. When we peered around the car into the darkness, we became aware of the mountains of wreckage, wooden beams piled like matchsticks, houses and cars mashed together in impossible heaps, huge steel I-beams wrapped like spaghetti around building corners. It was piled so high we couldn’t see over it, all around us. The air was thick with dust, and when I rolled down the window it stank of brine and dead fish, mud and rotting vegetation. And we realized that it wasn’t an earthquake that we had come to, but the horror of the tsunami.
We drove gingerly through the detritus, picking the way carefully over the debris, until we found the evacuation center, where my companion’s contact waited.
The rest of the week in the town was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and I was totally unprepared for it. I had imagined camping amidst the wreckage, and working with volunteers to help clear this up, but in reality it was much too dangerous to spend much time in the wreckage, due to the danger of infection and proliferating bacteria, and to the forest of razor sharp edges everywhere, even underfoot. Instead, we stayed at the town’s sports center/ evacuation center, protected and organized by the local government and the Self Defense Forces. The whole population of the surrounding town was housed in the gym, thousands of people crammed together on every square inch of the floors. On the floor of the gym itself was a scene straight out of the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark… a gigantic warehouse of stacks and aisles of boxes of foodstuffs, basic survival goods, clothes, and blankets. Everywhere outside giant trucks and heavy machinery rumbled in the parking spaces, with lines of soldiers, teams of doctors and rescue workers, and an army of volunteer workers doing all the menial work like handing out food, cleaning toilets, carrying boxes, and answering the questions of the scared evacuees.
During the week I met quite a few of them, listened to their stories, ate with them, helped them with basic chores. Nearly all of them revealed having lost someone, and the stories were harrowing and painful to listen to. And yet, everyone attempted to laugh and bear all this with dignity and grace. Walking around the evacuation center for the first part of the week a sense of mutual respect and calmness pervaded everything. That is until the second to the last day, when, after nearly three weeks being crammed together with hundreds of other families, eating the same instant food, boredom settling in, and anxiety over having lost their homes and livelihoods finally kicking in, several brawls erupted in the parking lots. Some of the locals began to grow suspicious of people like me who had come from Tokyo, where none of this destruction existed at this level. One man, catching sight of the only foreigner besides the Israeli rescue unit to have come to the town (nearby Ishinomaki was being called the “Harajuku of the Disaster Zone” because of all the young and non-Japanese volunteers), shouted at me in the worst tough-guy guttural Japanese, that I should stop butting into private people’s lives and that they didn’t need outside help. I later managed to get him to sit down and tell me about his experience: he had lost everyone, including his 7 year old daughter, his 10 year old son, his wife, his father, and brother. Only his aging and sick mother had survived, but, after driving out of the small coastal town up the coast, he had been waiting for six days to get his mother into a medical facility and he was worried she wouldn’t make it. He broke down sobbing in the midst of this story, and he was so ashamed that he got into his car, and locked the door. To see this proud and determined man get reduced to sobbing because he felt so helpless made me ask myself if coming here was not just being selfish and novelty seeking. What difference could I make here? I spoke to quite a few victims, and each time the stories were similar. One old man related how he had been standing on a hill overlooking his house when the tsunami hit, and he could only stand there helplessly as he watched his wife and 20 year old son get swept away in the house. He never found their bodies. Another man, while I was doing volunteer work in the vicinity of his demolished house, approached me to ask what I was doing. When he learned who I was working with and what we were doing, he began to tearfully tell me about being in the apartment building just behind us, with his wife and 3 year old daughter. When they saw the mud wave rolling in from the fields below, he shouted to his wife to get out of the house. He grabbed his daughter and started running up the valley, away from the oncoming mud wave. His wife, however, decided that she needed to gather a few valuables before escaping and while still in the apartment, the mud wave engulfed the house and crushed it. The father had managed to run far enough up the valley to reach the point where the mud wave let off. Weeping, he repeated over and over that his daughter kept asking when they could go home to see mother.
My volunteer group’s responsibility was to search for family photographs amidst the ruins. It seems like an easy job, but climbing amidst all that debris, in the heat and rain, and even snow, while wearing layers of protective clothing, helmet, boots, gloves, face mask, and over layer of red uniform so that we would be identifiable to both locals and the possibility of injury or death, was hot and exhausting work. We lifted thousands of beams and metals sheets, dug through silt-clogged old bags, broke open orphaned cabinets, and once even stumbled through a wooded area with a fishing boat suspended above in the tree canopy as it creaked and groaned in the wind, just outside our circle of safety. The worst moment for me was one freezing, rainy morning, while I was digging, with a photographer from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper photographing me, through the foundations of a house that had been washed away. I came upon the remains of a teenage girl’s bedroom, her colorful photographs of her and her friends, her collection of stuffed dolls, her little paper boxes of plastic jewelry and trinkets, her wads of sopping wet clothes, even her cell phone,adorned with glittery, stick-on glass beads, all strewn about the grey, muddy ground, rain soaking everything, me and the photographer soaked to the bone and cold. It all hit me at once, I was holding a photograph of the girl smiling into the camera with her chihuahua, and I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. The photographer himself slumped onto a mud-covered log, and just sat there, in shock, not caring that his camera and clothing were getting soaked. The leader of our volunteer group had to come over and coax us to stand up and get back to work. “You didn’t come here to feel sorry for yourselves, right?” he asked us. “You came here to be strong for the people who really lost something here, right? You can cry later. Right now we really need to do this.” He wasn’t being cold or heartless; he’d seen a lot of newcomers like us break down like that.
As I gained confidence and experience, a real sense of camaraderie developed with both the survivors and with the volunteer workers. We could even say we were enjoying working together and giving each other courage. The week went by more quickly. Volunteers came and went. Those of us who had stayed longer took on the leading roles and watched those who were dealing with the shock of the enormity of the disaster. We gathered thousands of photographs,cleaned them of sand and salt and mud, hung them up to dry. News reporters and camera crews from all over Japan came to interview us and film us, and our group became known as the “Memory Seekers”. One member, a 72 year old superhero who had driven all the way up from southern Japan, became a national celebrity and even had a documentary made of him. Townsfolk came up to us to tearfully thank us for helping them find and preserve their precious memories.
It was both hard and easy to leave all this. Hard, because I had made some good friends and felt I had done something of some value. Easy because I was exhausted and sad and filled with more than I could handle. I wanted to get home, feel safe again, wake up to a quiet morning without the gunning generators and cranes and bulldozers chugging through the air. The daily earthquakes, one of them a magnitude 7.2 that shuddered through the evacuation center like a derailed train and actually did more damage than the big earthquake in March, were rattling my nerves. And I just wanted to forget about all the destruction and death. It was enough.
Driving back to Tokyo was a quiet, almost reverential time. We hardly spoke. We passed through Sendai, whose damage was on a scale so hugely wide that we drove through utterly speechless. It went on for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer, all the way to the horizon, an endless brown blanket of mud and debris where once rice fields painted the entire coastline bright green.
Earthquakes were still daily rocking Tokyo when we got back. There would continue to be earthquakes for months still. But Tohoku always lies in the back of my mind. So much of what goes on in Tokyo now, what so many people consider vital to everyday life seems frivolous and petty. And I wonder how it would have been had the earthquake been much worse here in Tokyo? Who would have come to help us? Could we even have survived? And what of Fukushima? A hole in the heart of Japan. I will probably be thinking about how I’ve changed for many years to come. Will I ever be the same?