Sunday, March 11, 2012

Salt By Beth Kinsella Sakanishi

If you google, you will find many articles about Japan, one year after the tsunami and earthquake and nuclear accident; wonderfully evocative images and pictures accompany the text. Here, I asked my sister Beth if she wanted to send something about 3/11, one year later. She sends no pictures, save what you see in your mind as she writes:

Like Lot’s wife, I would have been unable to leave without taking that last look back, and so would have been turned into a pillar of salt. It would be that one last look at a place you know you can never return to, to ‘keep’ it in your heart, as you move on.

All year, Japanese have been looking back at Tohoku, but as much destruction as there was, there has also been some reconstruction. Some towns can never be revived, some families have moved on giving up their three, four, five-generation’s old trade; others refuse to leave in the face of odds so overwhelming it staggers me to think of it.

There are many things I could write about as we come up to the first anniversary of March 11, but what I keep being drawn back to is one of the deepest questions, of the many, many we have all been asking, and it is one I suppose I ask as an American. Japanese have no need to ask it. It is this: What makes people stay or return to a place that asks such huge sacrifices from them?

Different ‘pictures’ come to mind with that question. The first one, because recent, is something that has puzzled me since my first winter here. This doesn’t have to do directly with any of the three prefectures that were hit by the disaster, but the ‘snow country’ I am thinking of lies partly in Tohoku. Every winter, they get massive amounts of snow, and we see towns with 3-meter snow banks (the amount so far this year, in early February) and this is the part that leaves me gobsmacked -- so much snow on the roofs that people must get up in the middle of the night to shovel it off, or the roof could cave in. These are often small mountain villages with a high percentage of older people, and these obaachans and ojiichans, grandmothers and grandfathers, are out two stories up shoveling alone at 3 a.m. Night after night, if it is a winter like the one we are having. Every year, people die, about 150 so far this year, doing so. This year is so bad that towns have given city officials days off so they can spend all day shoveling, and young people from nearby universities have come to volunteer in droves.

Why on earth continue to live in such a place, I ask every year? Well, I have had as much of an answer as I am ever going to understand, this year, with the March triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear accident) still not enough to persuade many to leave.

Yet some places are not meant to last, I think.

Or, they are meant to change. These are some of the scenes that came to mind, as I thought about all this.

First, a poem in the early Heian-era poetry anthology (compiled in the 10th century) I came across the other day:

oh barrier guards
do not close the gates before
this aged heart it
goes as a companion to
guide my child on distant roads

The commentary says that it was “composed by his mother when Chifuru left to become Vice-Governor of Michinoku. Michinoku was the general name for Iwaki, Rikuzen, Iwashiro, Rikuchu, and Mutsu provinces of northern Honshu.”

I know only a few of the old names of the Japanese prefectures so ‘Michinoku’ meant nothing to me, but Iwaki and Rikuzen are familiar to anyone who’s read anything about the Tohoku disaster. If this was written in tenth-century Japan, or in the century before, it was not too far away in time from the first ‘once in a thousand years’ tsunami that we have a record of, and Rikuzen, say, would have been impossibly far from Kyoto. I would guess this mother never saw her son again.

To read this poem and to see the proof of how populated and sophisticated Tohoku was, to think of Hiraizumi, the newest World Heritage site, a fabulous temple complex of gold leaf wonder built by a branch of the royal family only a few centuries after this poem, just inland a bit from Rikuzen (so it was spared the tsunami but did suffer earthquake damage) -- when we now think of Tohoku as a sparsely populated fishing and farming area -- was a lesson in perspective. And in echoes.

Second, a story I read about a few days ago, of the Ogatsu district in Miyagi prefecture. This is an area that had a deeply jagged coastline and so this is where the tsunami, rushing in and picking up speed in the narrowed landscape, simply erased some towns. The ones that were left (15 of the 20 settlements were wiped out) were cut off after the disaster (too hard to get to) for a while and now are very sparsely populated. But those few people who remain show me why people would do so.

One is the head monk of a temple. The main hall was swept away and the villagers then moved the temple to higher ground. The priest has decided to continue living there and when asked why, explains that the villagers, even living elsewhere, still come back because we keep their ihai (ancestral funerary tablets) here. “This temple,” he says, “is such a source of peace and calm to residents here. I can’t abandon it.”

Another who has stayed in a settlement where only 3 of 70 households remain, is a man who ran a noodle shop after retirement. He lost his shop in the tsunami but he has reopened because he believes, “If there is a shop, people will come back.” Again and again, I have heard this same story: within days or weeks, far before any real rebuilding could proceed, people who ran shops so local that the owner knew every customer, would reopen, even if in a temporary building, or even in a stall outside. They did so, in great part, for others. Like the many who called a barber, who had lost his wife in the tsunami and now had nothing, and pleaded with him to come back, to give their lives a cherished routine. Or, those who persuaded the noodle makers, in a part of the country where not just each prefecture, but each tiny town has its own special noodle dish and to lose the taste of that is to lose a piece of one’s hometown, to return and set up business. The sake shop owners, who sold the prized sake from a part of Japan famed for its sake, begged back. When you consider that only 5 ~10 % of the debris has been removed so far and that 100,000 people are still in temporary housing, you feel it is only by these tiny steps that any progress has been made. To return is to pledge your belief in this particular place in the world.

That is a reason to return, to stay, but there are others. There is a story that I saw on TV last summer and cannot get out of my mind: it made me begin to grasp the full horror of rebuilding. There is a small town in Miyagi where most of the villages make their living from wakame (a kind of seaweed). A typical Tohoku town, with a high number of citizens over 65. Typical, also, in that they wanted, after the tsunami, to remain and rebuild their town. Their first decision was to find enough land, within the township, on higher ground where they would build temporary housing so that those who wanted to stay could live together. Then they would have to clear the harbor to rebuild the wakame platforms somehow (and by clear I mean, of trucks, huge refrigerators used for fish processing, cars, fishing boats, etc.), without access to huge cranes as theirs was a small town and other, bigger places, got those first.

The next task was to build, by hand (again, no equipment from outside), a road from the seashore where people would work in the future, to their new homes on the higher ground. Think of people, whose average age is over 60, men and women, cutting down trees, digging the ground, leveling it, laying the gravel, and then paving that long road. Further, it suddenly struck me as I watched them work and thought about what had happened where they were working, these people were going out daily and doing this in what, for them, was now a family graveyard. Everyone in that small village would have lost someone, and their deaths would have happened right there. And this would have been echoed every century or two back to that first huge tsunami we have on record. You stay because you love this place, but also to honor those very dead by staying near them.

You can stay, and do so determined to keep as many of your traditions as you can, like the young people of one town who learn and perform a type of shrine dance with music that goes back more than a thousand years to when Japan learned it from T’ang-era China. A type of dance and music China lost but Japan kept, unchanged, through a millennium. All their instruments and costumes had been lost in the tsunami. With donations, they now have new ones. Or, you can face your limitations and see what must be done differently. Farmers, in the next story, are doing the latter.

In many of the coastal areas of Miyagi and Iwate, the topsoil was washed away first by the tsunami, but was then further eroded by the removal of debris. In Fukushima, of course, radiation in the soil is the biggest worry. The Japanese government, in fact, recently just flat out told the prefecture to prevent rice farmers from planting a crop this year, after radiation was a problem in this year’s rice (Since I wrote that a few weeks ago, the government has relented and will now allow some planting, but with tighter testing. This is part of the problem: the government says one thing one day and something else the next week). Then someone hit upon an idea that has spread like wildfire throughout all three prefectures: grow the vegetables indoors, using hydroponic techniques. They can then grow the vegetables without using soil. It’s being tried by locals, by food companies, by a large restaurant chain, by one large company who will lease its land to local farmers. It skips the desalination of the soil process, they will take radiation measuring steps, and so far, it saves space and produces vegetables, but also flowers and fruit. This, many hope, could be one way to change the way farming is done in this most traditional of areas.

In Miyagi prefecture alone, only 40% of the land has been desalinated and it will take three years to finish this step. Besides the hydroponic schemes above, there are plans for the largest solar power plant in Japan to be built on some of the land made useless for farming. There are many communities, too, where groups of fishermen and farmers who once worked independently, are now deciding to incorporate and together plan how to go ahead and how to pool their resources. One such group is building a huge hydroponic facility which, although it will be a boon because they can harvest crops 5 times a year, instead of one, will be very costly. They can only do it together. In this way, too, town planners are listening to everyone, considering what order of repair makes the most sense. “Fix the boats, repair the shipyard first,” say people in one town. All the fishermen, of course, but also small companies like fish-processing plants, the distributors of the seafood, and all the restaurant owners and small hotels that are famous for the seafood they serve. This is very striking to me. No pushing ahead in line, thinking only of yourself. Seeing instead that the whole community’s survival depends on getting this process right, considering carefully the placement of each link in the chain.

Then there is the story of ‘the miracle of Kamaishi’. There were something like 150 children in Kamaishi and school had already let out so they were all on their way home or had reached home when the earthquake struck. The ‘miracle’ of Kamaishi is that, unlike other places, every single child escaped. Remember, this is a community where, in many families, both mother and father need to work, so those kids who were at home, were usually alone. Or they were out playing, or dawdling on their way home. What saved them was perhaps instinct, but more than that it was training, I believe. Every schoolchild in Tohoku has training in what to do in case of an earthquake and tsunami. The TV show presenting this story, to my frustration, did not explain why Kamaishi kids had absorbed it so much more strongly than those in other towns. Was it a far-thinking mayor, was it a charismatic educational leader, that made sure the schools and the parents stressed this? Was it someone who remembered their parents’ stories of the last devastating tsunami? For whatever reason, though, those kids ran to high ground and most did the hardest thing, it seems to me, something so counter-intuitive it would have to have been ruthlessly taught: think only of yourself. Each person should save themselves, parents should not go back for children because the school will be leading them to higher ground, don’t go back for the elderly in the house because neighbors are taking care of them and you may get caught going back while they have already reached safety.

Almost every child remembered. They left immediately and those children home with elderly grandparents helped them (in one case, a boy had to persuade the grandmother who was sure the sea walls would protect them. He followed his training, though, and insisted, and saved them both). One poor boy had made it to high ground, remembered his grandmother would be home alone, went back only to find -- as everyone had warned him -- that she had left already, and ran again to higher ground, just barely ahead of the waters this time. His grandmother, after hugging him, yelled at him, saying “How could I have faced your mother (who had died a few years earlier) if I had survived but something had happened to you?”

The image I am left with most deeply though, is a nine-year-old girl who, when asked what she thought of when she recalled that day said, “When I grow up and have children, I will tell them to save themselves first.” The strength of that, the resolution of that, impresses me, but I also shake my head and think, is it worth living in this place if you need to teach children that?

Lastly, there are the first two towns that, in the beginning of February, decided to move their government offices back to their home towns which lie in the ‘government advised evacuation zone’ (one degree less severe than the inner circle of the ‘no go zone’ near the destroyed nuclear power plants. One of these towns is even partly in the ‘no go zone’). They had moved and set up in another part of Fukushima, but now the mayors have decided to return. One of the towns has a few schools, a hospital, and some stores open. The severe winter weather we’ve been having has delayed the decontamination process, so they know it will take longer than planned, but they want to go first, in the hopes of encouraging people to come back. A minority has, or will, return, but many families say their children have already made many new friends, they have adjusted to life elsewhere, and older people interviewed say they can’t go back unless there is not only a hospital but transportation to get there and to the shops.

I admire these two mayors at the same time that I think they are delusional. I understand now, as much as someone from a different, more mobile culture can, how important a ‘home town’ is here, but all that energy and planning and sacrifice could be better spent, it seems to me, elsewhere. It makes me think of all the small, feisty western towns that are part of America’s myth-making, who were once vibrant and bursting at the seams, and could have (but for this or that) turned into a Chicago, a San Francisco, a Denver, and are instead ghost towns in the desert. Some places are not meant to last.

And yet, the monk, the farmers trying a new method, the villagers making their own road, and the children of Kamaishi, all show me another answer, another way to think about life, and the past as part of the future.

As I turn back one more time to look back at Tohoku, at first all I see is the salt water covering every square inch, erasing everything, receding to leave farmland salty so useless, but then my thoughts turn to the ritual of wrestlers tossing salt into the sumo ring to purify it, throwing salt over your shoulders and head before you enter the house as you come back from a funeral to ward off evil, and then back to Lot’s wife, and I feel the two strands in me -- of a Western, Christian upbringing and an equal number of years of life in a Buddhist country -- intertwine and I am left with ocean salt on my tongue and salt tears on my cheeks.

But still, there is no patch of earth anywhere that pulls me quite as strongly as their furusato (home town) does a Japanese. Takeshi is the first Tokyo-born member of his whole, extended Sakanishi clan. Everyone else, as far back as those that poured sake from the richly lacquered fourteenth-century wooden container that sits in the downstairs tatami room, is from the Nagano city area. Once, as newlyweds, we went to see his family’s home territory. Everything about it made me see what Takeshi’s father probably misses every day of his life: mountains, birch and fir and clean air and snow, real snow, in winter. But what made me feel the connection most was a visit to the family graveyard. Sakanishi is a fairly rare name in Tokyo and I always have to repeat it several times and explain which kanji characters are used. I have never met another Sakanishi outside of Takeshi’s family. So to enter this cemetery and see grave after grave with those two familiar kanji was intensely moving, and though I am just borrowing the name, I felt much as I did my year in Ireland when I saw ‘Dan Kinsella’s Car Dealership’ in Dublin and a pub with the name Kinsella on it, in Wexford. I think Americans, who can move relatively easily to another city or another state, who cannot usually visit a graveyard with more than a few generations of family in it, who do not need to stay in their ancestral village as people in ancient cultures like Japan and Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland have throughout their history -- I think we can perhaps come only as close as I did in Wexford, and in Nagano, to understanding why people want to return to Tohoku. I am humbled, I am moved, I am taught, by the compulsion.


Pat said...


Thank you so much for writing this. I know it is very stressful for you now, one year later.

But, so glad that you would take the time to think on these painful thoughts, order them in your mind, and then write them down so beautifully.

Thinking of you, baby sister,

Ali said...

Hi Aunt Beth,

This is beautifully written, and deeply and sadly enlightening. I say sadly, in realizing that the American press has forgotten that Japan is still picking up the pieces day by day from this tri-fold disaster, and therefore I have let myself do the same. Thank you for your direct insight into how daily life is still affected in Japan.

What you said at the end is something I thought a lot as I read this -- I spent my whole life living in New England, but I moved to DC in a second, because for me home and family is about people and experiences, not a location. But this is because I have the luxury of hopping on a plane whenever I want and landing in Boston in a little over an hour. There's something instinctively romantic about being deeply rooted in the history and ancestry of one town that has been lost on us city-dwellers.


Judy said...

Beth, my dear
Thank you for sharing your thoughts that are always very heart-felt. I miss you,
love to you and Takeshi.

Beth said...

Judy -- thanks for your warm words. I miss you, too! Don't those 'Seattle Days' seem long ago?

Ali -- what thoughtful and insightful comments. I think it is pretty natural that people 'move on' from a disaster in another county (or even one, most of the time, within your own country). But this is where you see how small Japan is, and how connected everyone is. I think of how we hear, in the US of somewhere 'far away' being hit by a tornado, or landslides in CA, or something truly huge like Katrina, but then it is still 'far away' and we go on with our lives. It's not the same in such a small, interwoven place like Japan.

There are lots of reasons, too, that this disaster is not going to be forgotten or gotten over soon, especially in the north-eastern part of Japan. Besides the sheer scale of it -- over 19,000 dead, 300,000 still without homes to go back to, three prefectures affected, 25 % of businesses in those three already closed or given up on -- it is also the slowness of the reconstruction (so everyone is watching, entirely frustrated and angry and sad, for all those families that cannot wait two or three years for work, for a home, and so will leave, and then those towns really will be ghost towns). It is the fact that we all had to watch our electric usage like hawks (the target was 25% less than usual - how easily could people in the US do that with temps in the high 90's?) last summer, this winter, and likely this coming summer, as well. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power co.) is also pushing for a whopping 17% increase in the cost of electricity for companies (forcing more out of Tokyo, or to other countries) and they want to raise household electric rates, too.

So, (sorry to go on about this!), we are reminded on an almost daily basis of the disaster. Besides all the stories that have made us feel so much for Tohoku people, we are all affected in ways, too. There's no easy forgetting.

Mom / CB said...

IT is so hard to put ourselves in another's shoes~ WE here in the USA are beginning to understand that we must "check the ingredients " in items but we do not yet have to inquire "Where was this grown" and when we have had to, we usually got an honest answer! We more os less trust our government! As I understand it m today in Japan, because they have been caught in slippery situations, the people have to be very sure of "Where, When and HOW" Put that with "Where do I live ? " and "How do I wash my clothes, etc" and it gets harder! Makes me feel that I would surely want to be with my "Buddies" in the same situation!