A Letter from Japan

Monday, March 21, 2011 | 0 Comment(s)

I really thought that today was the day when i would tell you all about the 2nd horribly dumb woman i met on vacation.  Alas, it is really funny, and it will be coming directly.  But not today.

Today, I'm gonna have to talk about Japan.  In a way i've been in denial.  Not real denial, mind you, but the type of denial you get into when a country you love is amidst a situation that is, at least potentially, worse than one can imagine.

As some of you know, i spent a little over a year teaching elementary and middle school English in Japan.  Specifically in Gunma-ken prefecture, which spans northwest from Tokyo (and therefore southwest from the most significant impact of the quake and wave.  I was part of the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program which contracts thousands of foreigners each year to go to Japan to help the country learn native English.  It is an impressive program.  Lately, it has been in the news because one of the 24 year old teachers from the program was the first American officially killed by this disaster.  Keep in mind, however, that something like 15,000 are missing.  I'll say that again 15,000 are missing.

There was a 60 min. segment on the earthquake/tsunami in Japan yesterday.   The two most powerful excerpts.  The reporter was speaking with another JET teacher from Miyagi -- the prefecture which was hit most directly.  He told the story of rushing the elementary students to the gym to escape the earthquake, then getting conflicting info as to whether or not they should run back to the school when the tsunami alert went off.

There wasn't enough time.  They all huddled in the gym as the water rushed in . . . violently.  The teacher described the water levels rising up to the basketball hoop as people were forced out of the building by the rushing water.  Elementary students were trapped by the water, and he recalled throwing/pushing as many students as possible over the upper balcony railing.  He said about 100 survived in that gym, on that upper balcony, in the dark, water all around, for 6 terrifying hours.

During the segment, they went back to that gym.  the reporter showed how about 85 bodies were laid wrapped on the gym floor.  "the truth about the situation," he said, "is that there are not enough living, to take care of the dead."

This is where i tell you the extent of my fear.  My fear is that any of these mornings, we will wake up and half of Japan will be gone.  With 4 nuclear reactors overheating in close proximity, the meltdown of one could be catastrophic, especially if the destruction of one reactor dominoes into the overheating of the others.  Which brings me to the second powerful excerpt from the 60 min piece.  They spoke with a woman who is high up the American nuclear braintrust, and was already in Japan on related issues when this all started.  She emphasized how grave the situation was.  The reporter asked her how bad it could be, if the reactors chain reacted.  Her face visibly changed.  She couldn't say it.  Essentially, you knew she could answer this question, but it seemed the reality of the answer was too scary and horrid to speak of out loud.  She equivocated.  Something along the lines of "beyond horrible and unimaginable." But her face said that she had imagined it.  Her face said it all.

My fear is not only for the radiation.  Yes, at the moment, that is the most virulent strain of potentially still tragic news.  But there was also the earthquake.  The tsunami. The earthquake shook the entire region -- hard.  The tidal wave destroyed miles and miles of villages, rice fields, and lives.  In a country that, no matter how far out in the country you were, always impressed me with its orderliness.  Things are organized.  Trains run on time.  And now, the pictures all come back katrina-like.

It makes me immensely sad.  What's striking, is that in all the pictures, the videos, you don't see people.  Like frozen death washing in to find it's victims.  Thousands died.  And from the looks of the terrain, the true death toll won't be known for a good long while. 

But even this isn't the extent of the problem.  As far as Gunma-ken, where i lived, radiation is already showing up in the crops.  Not only the rice crops of Miyagi, but the spinach of Gunma.  And part of the sustainability of Japan comes from their ability to manufacture so much of their own food, so after the radiation, after the earthquake destruction, after the tsunami damage, and after the homelessness and power outages-- right around the time people are hoping things are back to normal -- Japan will have to deal with the stigma and fear surrounding their own food supply.  Already vegetables marked as coming from certain regions of the country are being left in the bins.

This is a disaster.  A still unfolding disaster.  There have been MANY MANY MANY aftershocks above 5 on the Richter scale.   They continue to scare the people and keep them on perpetual edge.  And what i want to get across here is the enormity.  Not only of the destruction, but the destruction in comparison to the size of the country itself.   One of my good Japanese friends, Ayako Ono, who lives in a suburb of Tokyo recently sent out an email to her international friends describing both her experience and the mood in the city.  Remember that Tokyo wasn't close (relatively) to the earthquake epicenter when reading her accounts.  It was scary just to read, let alone imagine my friend living through.   In terms of the grammar, i have edited the English some, but not much (my friend's English is superb).  If you are a stickler for grammar, try writing in Japanese, and then chill out:

Dear Friends all over the world
Hello from Japan where we are under an emergency situation as you know!
I am sorry to send this at once to everybody. But I think it is easier to tell all of you what my situation is and how I have been.
Thank you very much again for your warm messages and worrying about me and Japan!
The earthquake on 3/11 was the biggest one in Japanese modern history.
And sadly over 8000 people died until today. And still 15,000 people missing.
I was at the office on 16th floor that time. (in Tokyo) It was the worst scary experience I have ever had! The earthquake was very long, I guess more than 3mins!
It was totally unusual.
And very difficult to run down the emergency steps to get out! Because there was so much shaking! I had to hold the railing bar to run down!!
And the wall came off because ofthe earthquake's power while I was running down. So scary. I thought the buiding will crash!

(editors note: this is completely fucking terrifying to me)
While we were out side of building, it was still shaking too much! It is very rare to feel earthquake usually when you are outside.
But it was very strong and shaking over and over.
Fortunatelly nobody got hurt or no fire from my office building.
And I could go home next day because Trains stop. 

And you watched what Tsunami did to us...
I still feel sick now when I watch the images on TV. And still feel shaking sometimes even if it doesnts shake now.
This feeling happens many people now here... because of stress.
But I am fine somehow. Thank you.
And my family, and friends are fine. Some friends are under the inconvenient situation though. i.e. no gas, no water, no electricity...
But from these incidents, to be alive is very thankful. I felt " I need to survive!!" when the earthquake came.
Well, as seen on TV, our Atomic plants are still under emergency situtaion.
So we have to save electricity.  Maybe I trust too much my country's technology. Who said Atomic power is clean and safe before I was born!?  Because over 1 week later, this crisis is still not solved, although it sounds going better. But 4 main plants are in danger. And now we have to feel scared of radioactivity. It is leaking little by little.
Foods from near plants, can we eat it in the future? Not sure. :(
Especially Miyagi prefecture, which had the big Tsunami shock, is famous about rice field...
We are in very negative situation, but some "miracles"  happen also. So not only bad things.
Limited blackout around Tokyo region, it started last week.
It is a bit inconvenient.
But we can save power more and we notice how much we use electricity too much usually!!! I know brightness is important for our life though.
But my home area, I don't know why, the blackout didn't come. And everything goes on as usual, thanks.
If you go to supermarket, you cannot buy  some "daily stuff" now. And Gasoline for cars, you can get only a few litters because of the shortage.
But don't need to use it around here. You can walk or use bicycle!
I am a bit afraid of radioactivity in the air... but hopefully it won't cause bad things for us immidiately.
I guess some foreingn countries evacuating is... the right thing. But it is for the worst case.
And I guess we are not still in the worst case. Of course you don't know when it turns "the worst".
Anyway, air is fresh, feeling Spring. Getting warmer and wamer. (Northern Japan, it is still too cold though)

I really don't want to go out in much in the radioactive spreading air.
But I have to live here. And I cannot run away.
So I HOPE no more big earthquakes will come. Small earthquakes are still coming every day, even around Tokyo, from the North!
And we will be able to recover somehow. But... I think it will take for a looooooooong time. Nobody knows when.
Because some towns were swept away. And never have i seen such a mess! How can we tidy up...
Anyway, our government is not good as usual. And our economy will be back to bad again.
But Japanese, we try to be stronger.
And maybe many of you know, we have a spirit to support each other when someone is in hard times.
And when you are in hard times, we have to support each other naturally.
We can get through somehow!
So I cannot invite you here for a while, but I would love all of you to show again how my country is good place as your place. :)  (editors note: it really is!!!! the food is BETTER than here!) So I really appreciate your warm message and being friends!
I feel so happy when I received many messages from you all over the world.
So please keep your eyes on my contry. And I am very fine because I have a space in my heart to take care of footie (*soccer) news as usual! Don't worry too much until you hear another big earthquake hit Tokyo directly.
Media likes to make "too much drama". (What do u think, friends works for the media! :P )
Again, Thank you very much and hope you are fine!
Speak to you soon!
With love,
  P.S. Shaking twice while I am writing this!!! Ugh   (yes--they had two earthquakes while she wrote this letter!)

I will conclude by emphasizing that this is the terrifying story of a person nowhere near the brunt of the destruction, and still the narrative reminds me of 9-11 (the terror of the building potentially falling--obviously not terrorism).  I cannot watch these imagines of such a beautiful country that i love being swept away and destroyed without crying.  Ayako is right about the spirit of the Japanese people, however.  They will band together and get through this.  Why don't we band together with them and then we will speak of connected spirit of the human people.

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