Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japanese Crisis Viewed From Toyama

Though I'm relatively far from the area affected by the earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear contamination by living here in Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, it has been a very strange experience to be in this country during this devastating time in Japan. Here is my account of the way things have played out from my perspective.

When the major earthquake hit, I was actually in an empty classroom pacing around half- practicing Japanese and half-worrying about the direction of my life and other petty distractions. After I finished, I went back up the the staff room and Terao Sensei told me a great earthquake had happened and that I had better go and watch the TV, which was on on the other side of the room. I went there and stood stunned and confused with about three other teachers as we watched in awe the spectacle of the great wave consuming a fishing village. I tried to rationalize what was happening without any previous information about this. I saw a flood of water move across the landscape, but from my perspective it didn't seem so menacing; maybe it looked a foot or two high and moving through empty portyards and rice fields. Perhaps it would stop after twenty or thirty feet and recede back to the ocean. Instead, it continued at what I realized was a very fast pace and was very much higher than a foot or two. Despite hitting buildings directly on, water just kept pouring forth, channeling the water through any passage available and pulling anything along with it. Oh my god, are those cars? There are cars that seem to be unknowingly driving parallel to the oncoming wave. Holy shit, they just got caught by the wave, there are lots of cars and people in them, and now they're flowing into each other, into buildings, with boats, and into people!

Us teachers looked around at each other absolutley dumbfounded, flinching and gasping as we saw everything consumed, foot by foot ... it was happening right at that moment. How could these people not know what was happening? How come this wave isn't stopping. A teacher came up with their jaw open and asked if it was Japan ... "REALLY??? Oh my god!"

The camera switched to this group of large dome buildings, one of which had caught on fire and the fire was growing. Why isn't it stopping? Why aren't there firemen there right now? I watched as the fire grew, building and rising, beginning to consume others surrounding it. They're all going to blow. Slowly, more teachers amass in front of the TV, but most everyone is silent and shocked.

Over the next few minutes and soon hours, it becomes a well understood fact that there was a massive disaster happening in eastern Japan of unparralelled magnitude. The news was warning of more earthquakes, and other areas around Japan that may be at risk. All of northeastern Japan was under extreme warning, Tokyo and southern Pacific regions were at great warning, north western Japan just reaching down to Toyama were at warning, and southwest Sea of Japan regions had no threat. It was said that a tsunami of 50 cm was going to hit Toyama at 5:30, no one seemed worried about this ... and nothing really happened. I left school on my bike to take care of a few errands, but had my head fixed towards the sea in case I too was about to be overtaken by a menacing wave. All was well, and I met Terao Sensei for dinner as we planned at an izakaya (Japanese pub) for yakitori and asahi. Of course this was all over the news, and video of Tokyo was being shown: offices shaking violently, pieces of concrete building falling into the streets, and ceilings collapsing. Also, I saw parts of eastern Hokkaido that had been flooded. Death tolls began to be posted, and the number started at meager hundreds. The feeling was that this was a horrible event, but as we saw the death toll rise, nuclear plants on fire, and affected regions spanning all the way from Hokkaido to Tokyo, it was unbelievably ominous. There was a weird feeling that things were going on as normal in Toyama. People were finishing work, eating dinner, and meeting with friends on this Friday night, but also that a tremendous amount of death and destruction had occured only hundreds of miles away on the other side of the mountains.

Terao Sensei and I finished our dinner and went our separate ways. My friends were playing poker that night, but I declined at first to instead go home and try and make some sense of things. I went online to find many people from home emailing and facebooking me to see if I was affected. People seemed to the brink of panic, and it further convinced me of the magnitude of what was happening. I became very sentimental and decided that this was not a night to be spent drinking alone in my apartment, but rather spent with people I care about here where we can talk about this. So I went to poker. My friends were all proceeding to set up the games, but the news was on the TV and we couldn't help but talk about it. At this point, it was deep into night, fires were burning, people were dying, and we thought about all the survivors stuck in the freezing nights of northern Japan. My best gaijin friend who's house we were at, turned off the TV abruptly and put on music for the poker game. All the rest of us looked at each other shocked, but didn't say anything and just began the game. My friend seemed very much averted to watching this, and is the type to shy away from death and tragedy. We just went along with it and would check back in a bit. Periodically we would turn on the TV to see the increasing disaster, but after minutes of changing a cd, my friend would turn off the TV again. How could he not be watching every second of this?!?!?! Well, that's just his deal. A few of us were asking if we felt the earthquake. One of my friends lives in a very old farm house, and he said his whole house was shaking violently. After the initial quakes subsided, he ran outside to safety next to rice fields. I had a really weird experience, where I think I had one of those experiences where I felt something strange, but naturally deemed it nothing because it seemed to out of the ordinary and no one else to confirm it at the time. So now looking back, I'm not sure if I felt it or not. After poker I went home and went to sleep, grateful for my safety, and deeply affected by the amount of devastation that was still happening at that time.

The next day was an unbelievably bright and sunny day in Toyama. One couldn't help but be refreshed from the immediate change of weather towards spring, but the feeling was also very ominous around. Everyone seemed very quiet and concerned, and yet still proceeding with their day. I rode my bike to the store and tried to imagine my own small town of Kurobe being consumed by a tsunami of such magnitude. I looked at the ugly glaring concrete buildings that were spattered throughout the town that would stand defiantly against oncoming surges of water and manipulated automobiles and bodies. I looked at the flimsy 50-year-old-plus housing that would have absolutley crumbled immediately under such force. I looked at all the elderly that frequent the streets at midday, and they as well would have absolutley zero chance against such a happening. Shit ... I would have no chance against such a force. Just immediate and inevitable absolute destruction. Like newspaper in a fire.

I turned on the news in the morning and was amazed to see the death toll above one thousand and only burning skeletal remains of those large industrial domes I had seen consumed the day before. And now, a nuclear plant in Fukushima was just destroyed and vain attempts to keep others from going as well were in order. Alas, the aftermath of such immediate destruction only increases the building terror. Nuclear threat? This is unbelievable. All this happening while I cleaned my house on this beautiful spring day, pondering the bachelor party I was going to attend later that night. Throughout the day the situation was still building.

I was to have a friend from the U.S. visit me in Toyama the next weekend, and just realized this may not happen. He had apparently arrived in Osaka around the time of the incident, and thought people frantically running around in industrial uniforms was normal for Japan. It wasn't until he checked his email that he had realized that the largest recorded earthquake in Japanese history had just occured and the country was in a national state of emergency. He was safe in Osaka, but was planning on headed to Tokyo before coming to Toyama. At that time there were delays and frequent blackouts in Tokyo, as there still is, but I figured by the time he got there, things would be relatively normal and he could at least get a train to Toyama.

Sunday came and things were slowly getting worse considering the death toll and impending nuclear disaster.

Monday, more of the same. At one point, I was in the school office alone while the teachers were in a meeting and I heard a very strange alarm-like buzzing noise. Heh? Was it coming from me? I could hear it coming from all around me too. My head darted from side to side trying to figure out where the alarm was coming from and I stood up shooting my chair behind me as I did a chase-my-own-tail maneuver looking for the source of this sound. I grabbed my cell phone and realized that it was coming from all the cell phones left behind in the empty classroom. It was a national earthquake warning sent to all cell phones, so I positioned myself next to a doorway and listened with my whole being for any quakes. I looked towards my desk and imagined myself huddled beneath it as the whole ceiling collapsed trapping me inside. This did not happen of course, no earthquake was felt, and since that time my alarm has gone off maybe 5 times warning of earthquakes in neighboring prefectures like Nagano and Niigata.

My friend who was to visit is returning home early with the work party he was with due to the general nation-wide as well as Tokyo-specific status ... delayed transportation, frequent blackouts, possibly more earthquakes, questionable nuclear meltdown. I don't blame them at all, especially because he's on a business trip and was merely making a side trip for fun to see me.

On this Tuesday, four days after the tsunami, things are strange in Toyama. Life here is progressing as normal, but the news is utterly occupied with the status of the disaster and the nuclear question is not getting any better. Throughout this time, I have been asking the Japanese around me about the details of what is happening, but I have gotten little more than what is immediately on the TV. Live images of the affected areas, nuclear updates from the authorities, and statistics of people dead and lost. I've asked about the sake my own safety, and people don't seem to be worried about being affected here in Toyama very much at all. I asked Terao Sensei about things in Tokyo concerning my friend getting around, but I didn't get any more information I already knew: transportation is delayed.

This poses a very interesting difference between Japanese and American culture. People seem to be viewing all of this in a very distant and accepting nature here in Japan. We are all watching the news attentively, but I don't hear anyone talking about it, and people seem to be taking the updates in a very matter-of-fact way. Eyes are wide, mouths are closed. I think everyone feels a great amount of sadness and terror from the incident, but is dealing with it by doing their best to work hard at their jobs for the national benefit. This is drastically different than the reaction abroad, specifically in America. I was surprised to receive so many concerned emails, because I was far from the affected area, and had been wondering if widespread news of this had already reached the U.S. during the night of the incident. I very quickly started reading English coverage of the incident for any specific updates I couldn't understand in Japanese, but initially there wasn't much. It wasn't until after a day or two that widespread fears of nuclear meltdown were the focus of discussion. People were evacuated from the surrounding area of the nuclear crisis, but there hasn't been so much worry in other areas. The American media is portraying things much differently, with an increasing concern for the potential nuclear crisis. I now settle in the middle, calm as the authorities are attending to the problem, but ever-ready for absolute nuclear meltdown and contamination of the country I currently reside in. Nevertheless, I am sure to get both English and Japanese updates hourly.

It is very easy, as a foreigner here in Japan amid such a disaster, to criticize the Japanese for their methods of dealing with such an incident. Why are the authorities so calm? Why aren't they doing more to prepare the people in case of nuclear meltdown? How come no one is talking about the meaning of this? In America, the authorities are reacting with great worry, people all the way across the world are even talking about mass nuclear contamination, and everyone is talking about it. But as a matter of fact, Terao Sensei just passed by me and asked me if there was anything I'd like to know about what's going on. I asked him if the authorities are preparing the people for nuclear meltdown, or addressing the risks, and he said not so much. I gave him a strange look, and he explained that in fact many Japanese people are unhappy about the way the government is dealing with this and want more legitimate and trustful information; not just the authorities protecting their image and telling people to calm down. People are people, and the Japanese culture is changing. What if a meltdown occured, and all of Japan was unable to save themselves because they weren't warned in time? How come Japan had to be firebombed almost completely and been the target of two nuclear bombs before surrendering in WWII? How come so many millions upon millions of Japanese have suffered in medieval times from greedy lords and shogun who wanted power? This is obviously going a bit far, but maybe we need to address how culture can affect the reaction to a disaster. But in the end, like I said, people are people, and right now there are lots of people reaction in a very generally human way to recent events.

Logistically, JETs (Japanese Exchange Teaching Programme I'm a part of) all over the country are organizing donation stations and potential, collecting non-perishable food, clothing, and monetary donations to bring aid to the affected areas. I wonder what has happened to the JETs in that area??? Has any died? I'm sure I have an email about it in my inbox as I type.

You know what's really interesting, is the earthquake hit exactly where I wanted to go in Japan before I was assigned to Toyama. I wanted to be on the Pacific side, close to Tokyo, in a culturally interesting area like Fukushima or Sendai, close to nature and small towns ... that is EXACTLY where the earthquake and tsunami hit. If I had had it my way a couple years ago, I would have placed myself right in the middle of the disaster. Is the work of my own personal kami (spirits, gods) that sent me to Toyama instead? How about the kami of those living in the affected area?

No joke, just last night before I went to sleep, I picked up a book of short stories, "Sleeping Willow, Blind Woman" by the famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, and resumed reading from a week earlier at a chapter about a boy who experienced his friend consumed by a tsunami-like wave from a typhoon. I couldn't go to sleep with this burning my mind, so I had to read it.

What is happening? I'm now looking at the TV next to me of the scenes of ravaged towns, and it's still very hard to believe. Let us pray that the nuclear threat is contained, and things can be brought back to order as quickly as possible. In my view, there is no country better suited to deal with such a disaster, culturally, financially, and infrastructurally, but what can humans do against nuclear meltdown and contamination? We'll see won't we.


  1. I was wondering about our JET brothers and sisters too. Let me know.

    This event hangs heavy around this household. Something touches us deeper than Katrina and Haiti. You, and the nation you currently reside are in our thoughts. Be well Zacky. In a strange way you are lucky to be there now to witness this time in history.

  2. Thank you very much SS.

    Here is an informative and terrifying article concerning Nuclear Cover-Up by the Japanese government I suggest those concerned read:


  3. I'll put up a link on Dojo Rat so others can read your post.
    Be safe little Bro

  4. Hey Zacky, great writing here, glad to know you are safe. We are doing well enough in Tokyo - my family is all safe and we also have this strange existence. We are marching forward - my daughter going to school, wife and I to work (what work of mine that hasn't been cancelled)....yet it could all become very meaningless in an instant.

    Long story short: I was working in a beer factory in Yokohama that day, all the trains were stopped, no way back to Tokyo so I stayed overnight in the factory. Giant vats of beer just outside, but couldn't even drink a can inside (safety first, you know, can have any drunken evacuees).

    Stay well, BP in Tokyo

  5. Hey Zacky - have you heard of any dojos that could use financial assistance? Ask around, we are beginning to fund raise.