Sunday, April 10, 2011

Thoughts on Japan, By Beth Kinsella Sakanishi

Walking home from teaching her first ‘Current Topics’ class since the earthquake, Beth got thinking about an old essay she wrote and what she would add to it now:

In Fits and Starts

I was trying to think of a way to describe the shaky islets in a swamp feelings here. That fragility, but also the connectedness to a sure and history-laden environment. An emotional ecosystem that lives with and sustains flow, change. I looked back at an essay I wrote several years ago and saw I have been thinking these things out for years. I was talking, in the piece below, about how the historical fear of fires in Japan, and the other natural disasters, does something to the human spirit. How it can make the idea of ‘change’ less scary in one way (it has to be done, over and over and over, in this land of typhoons, floods, earthquakes, fires), but also, on the other hand, more awful (Again? Again, you are asking me to pick up the pieces of my life and somehow get over the loss, again?) All I know is that people here live with impermanence, transience, fragility, in ways as built into the fabric of their lives as Americans do with ‘freedom’, say. And because something is in danger of being taken away or destroyed does not mean you live without it. That is part of what I was writing about below:

"Change. In a land of frequent earthquakes, of seasonal typhoons and floods and fires, don’t people get used to their lives being ripped out from under them? This is a country where you can still hear, especially in winter, people walking the neighborhoods at night, around dinner time, clicking two pieces of wood together, calling out the same refrain echoing down the centuries, “Beware of your fires”. No, people here still have paper panes in their tatami mat rooms, and a heart that slows for a moment, listening to that neighborhood warning, then fumbles to find its pace again.”

“Japan lives with extremes. Friends back home in snow country, where the only natural disasters to worry about are blizzards and ice storms, cannot imagine how I could live in a place that is so prone to earthquakes. The thing about earthquakes, though, is that they seldom last more than a minute or two, and often much less than that. They are terrifying for those moments, and in fact, so disoriented am I -- every single time -- by the unexpectedness of the jolt, that it takes a handful of seconds to recognize what it happening, even though I have been through these rumblings literally thousands of times before. When mind kicks in, after heart and body have already sent up their flares, I run to the doorway and wait. And in those moments of waiting think enough thoughts, enough worst scenarios, to fill a very long book.

But then it is over, and never having experienced a serious quake I am only talking about those that leave no more than a few dishes or picture frames broken. Right after one, for the next day, that is all anyone talks about: where were you? what did you do? Everyone uses this time’s warning to check that their earthquake kit is up-to-date, too. By the end of the week, though, the earthquake and the certainty that a bigger one is coming some day, has already faded. This kind of time is too quick with its shout to keep holding on to.”

Of course, now that I have lived through a big one, or at least the outer edges of one, I can report that my mind worked differently in the 9.0 jolt. And whether it was because it was so long -- five minutes instead of the usual 30 seconds or so, because it was three quakes that happened sequentially, overlapping a bit -- or because it was so strong (if it was a 9.0 there, it was about a 7 in our part of Chiba), time did a funny thing. Instead of the flood of thoughts that usually go through my head in the lesser, quicker jolts, this time, I told Takeshi all my mind could come up with was “Please stop, please stop, please stop,” in a loop as fierce as a mantra. What I had not remembered until a few days ago, and this had come back to me eerily just an hour or so before the most recent, strong aftershock, was that I had for the first time ever thought, “This feels very different. It is not stopping. I might die in this one.” I had not even been able to ‘remember’ I thought that until a few days ago, a month after the quake.

I know this piece is dark, so far, but it won’t stay that way. I just mean to be showing you how the mind suffers these horrors (and I am so far from knowing firsthand any of the real horrors; my shocks have all been second-hand from the flood of news images and stories we are still getting day and night), and then repairs itself in fits and starts. I feel absolutely pummeled at times by the emotional impact of the Tohoku stories, the scenes repeated over and over (like the twin towers falling again and again, though Japan learned something from that, I believe, and did not give us tsunami waves endlessly, after the first few days), the repeated need to be up on the latest thing that has gone wrong at the Fukushima reactors.

And yet.

Yet, even I, knowing my adopted country as well as I do, having lived here now more years than in my home country, am amazed and inspired by how quickly people find alternative ways to live when ‘normal’ is not possible.

One last bit from the essay I quoted above. In that piece, I was talking about a time, years ago, when I was deciding whether to go or stay and visited Kyoto one winter to help me think. This is how I ended the piece:

“The way the sky after a typhoon is scrubbed bluer and more cloudless than it has been for months, the way fear jumps up but then in settling down brings a calm deeper than before -- these are the cleansings of a place where nature can change your world in an instant, but can also foster determination to dig in. I think of all the fires Kyoto has endured, all the civil wars and faction fights, the earthquakes and typhoons and landslides, and what I see down every street, in every shrine and temple garden, and views unchanged for a millennium, is belief that we can pick ourselves up and start again. This is the real heart of Kyoto, of the whole country, and is one reason I chose to stay that long ago winter I was in doubt.”

Well, I cannot say that anything is so easy this time. And yet, I see this same belief and determination everywhere:

People all over the country donating children’s backpacks (an odd -- to me -- humungous thing that tells you how much homework these kids get, and hard as a turtle’s shell, so sturdy that one young girl was saved from the tsunami’s sweep when the strap of her backpack caught on an upper landing and she was held above the waters until they receded) for those who need them in the Tohoku area. These are expensive items, not the small amount we would think a backpack might cost.

I see Japanese companies with a mindset lightyears ahead of their usual tradition-bound thinking. This is a country where ‘flex time’ took forever to get here and is not widespread, where every year during the week-long ‘Golden Week’ (April-May) and New Year holidays, almost everyone has the same days off and so every flight out, and every train home or to a popular destination is packed (I just stay home!). An atmosphere where some companies have only recently let some employees work from home. All changed: gearing up the real threat of summer blackouts (Tokyo summers are hellish, people need air conditioning), companies are suddenly talking a language any American has known for a decade or more, with flex-time, a 4-day work week, staggered vacation times, leaving early, having a third of the workforce work at home (so the company doesn’t use as much air-conditioning), on and on.

I see all the lessons learned from other quakes: prefectures affected by the Kobe one all ‘adopting’ a Tohoku prefecture and since they are prevented by law from sending money, send ‘people’ instead: nurses and doctors and social workers, of course, but also -- and this I never would have thought of but they’ve been through it and grasped it once -- municipal workers to help take the place of key city officials and other natural planners in an emergency, who were lost in the tsunami. And whole schools moved together -- children, with their teachers, to another prefecture that has an empty school.

Some of the hardest choices facing those in the quake/tsunami/nuclear zone have to do with ‘change’. Do you leave or do you stay? Some of the terribly exhausted choose to stay in shelters or their damaged houses because they still have a relative ‘missing’ and will not leave until they know for sure. Others, whole communities, have moved to another nearby prefecture, but have done so together (with their local gov’t setting up right along with them, in this new place) so they can go back together ‘when they can’. Still others stay because they cannot bear to let others down.

There is the example of one hospital, the only hospital in a town of 10,000. Water had reached the third floor, the computers and expensive equipment like MRI machines had all been ruined. After the first week, the president and the full-time doctors left, pleading ill health. Well, the nurses were made of sterner stuff and they stayed. The head nurse, most of the other nurses, and some rotating part-time doctor staff from other cities are keeping the place running. On almost no sleep, day after day, week after week. The head nurse said, ‘Sure, I wanted to run away, too, but I couldn’t leave these people.’

You see how connected Japan is from this disaster: the reason milk is scarce (one company in Ibaragi makes most of the nation’s cartons), and the 3 big auto companies are really up against it (the parts manufacturers are almost all, in small factories, in Tohoku), and that some foods are still scarce even in relatively removed Tokyo (certain key ingredients were from Tohoku) -- is all from one huge swipe of Mother Nature.

But this realization of being connected is also, of course, why the nurses stayed, why every famous Japanese sports player, singer, comedian, writer, etc., from the affected area has gone back, or has tried to go back, to cheer people up. It’s why so many foreigners stayed and why when people asked me if I had gone home for a short time, I said I had not.

I don’t know if belief and determination are enough to bring Tohoku back, but I do know that I understand those unchanged scenes of Kyoto now even better than that winter long ago. And I don’t know how precisely you keep picking yourself back up, but I am sure that is exactly what people in Tohoku who lost power again, because of the 7.1 quake two days ago, in many areas that had just gotten it back after a month, are doing today. Perhaps shaking their heads and muttering mo ii (enough already!), but then sighing and getting back to cleaning the mud off the photo album someone found and returned to them, or scavenging what could be saved from the wreckage of what was once a sake-brewer’s or a fish-product company or a ramen shop or an auto parts factory, or picking the debris from a much smaller now farm field and planting the crop that has to go in now, today, and not tomorrow.


Kayte said...

I don't take enough time to read or comment here often, but I feel compelled to respond this time. As one who fell in love with Japan when I was still a child, based solely on images of a graceful culture and the elegant, aesthetic way they organize themselves, I really enjoyed reading this blog entry. Firstly, you write beautifully. Second and perhaps more importantly, your love and respect for the people and the culture you've become a part of is obvious.

The Japanese nature of striving against the dangers native to their home is, indeed, enigmatic to Americans. We tend to see danger as an enemy to be attacked frontally or avoided - certainly not to be respected. Yet, in Japan, they see the beauty in such things. It's one of the aspects of the culture that I respect the most.

Thank you for sharing these excerpts from your essay, as well as your present thoughts. You remind me of the quiet strength of the Nihonjin, and help to provide perspective that the news fails to share. I'll have to keep up a bit better from now on.

I'll keep you (and Japan, of course) in my prayers.

Kayte said...

On a side note - Pat, I love your choice of title picture right now. The Sakura in bloom and the mix of traditional and modern architecture, all set against the imperious profile of Fujiyama... It's nice to see a reminder of the beauty of Japan, amid all the photos of disaster in the news right now.

Thanks again for keeping up this blog. I'm sure it can be thankless at times.

Pat said...

Thanks, Kayte!

This blog CAN be a pain as it has several glitches that are very hard to work with. Since Blogspot is free, I can't complain, but to put up this long entry was a challenge. Luckily, my daughter was home and after listening to my frustration for only so long, wrote some code to get this story up!

And, I will pass on your comments to Beth. She will probably like to email you, so I will pass on your email, if that is okay.

She will be thrilled to find such a kindred spirit!


Kayte said...

Thanks, and you're welcome.
I'd love it if you send my email address on to Beth.