Monday, 28 March 2011

A Very Japanese Disaster

On Friday 11th at 2.46pm my bed started shaking. For a moment I thought that the ground was shaking from the animal magnetism I was exuding in my dream – that dreamy Hollywood starlet was swooning at my crusty charms, delighted at my cheap beer drinking and furious smoking; but no, the flat was shaking. Not just the average temblor. It was a violent toing and froing. My wife and baby were on the other side of the sliding door milking.

It was a temblor like I had never experienced before. I’ve felt quite a few earthquakes in my time in Japan but this one was longer and harder than anything previously. The TV immediately abandoned regular programming and started flashing up a map of the country dotted with numbers showing magnitudes. 8.9! Fuck that was big. Live images started coming through of shaking buildings. I went back to bed. And then another one came: equally as ferocious and that was the end of my Friday afternoon sleep.

At that point the TV took over. We had just been given a new flat screen digital TV because the death of analogue was imminent in Japan. The picture is sharp and clear and my wife now loves watching it when she has a moment when the baby is not demanding love.

It was not long before the most shocking images came on the screen. It was so real it was like big budget movie computer effects. A wave of water was moving rapidly across a flat landscape carrying cars and houses and boats. We shouted at the TV. There were people on bridges seemingly gawping at the engulfing wave. It’s one thing to rubber neck from the comfort of your living room: it seemed both crass and stupid to do so from the actual scene of the disaster.

As the hours went on more earthquakes in various parts of Japan (mostly the East coast) were recorded on the flashing map. The map was now intersected with lines showing tsunamis.

The news was coming in thick and fast, just like the wave. Boards of first figures of deaths were hastily handwritten and held up by TV anchor men. Some of the anchors were wearing hardhats, like they expected at any moment for the studio to collapse on them.

The TV was compulsive watching but at the same time repulsive. Like a horror movie or some nature documentary of a boa digesting a water buffalo.

My wife and I discussed what we should do. Consume. So we got out the baby pram and walked down to a big supermarket in town and bought a bottle of water, candles, matches and extra nappies.

It was the following day (Saturday) that the story of disaster was aced by the story of impending nuclear doom. The reactors at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant had been battered by a 10 meter high tsunami. One looked like it had suffered from an American air strike – just a blackened tangle of melted metal. Two others had only ragged parts of their frames remaining. This was truly shocking news. Fuck that looks bad.

In the days that followed that impression only got worse. An area of 10 then 20 then 30 kilometers around the reactors was evacuated because of radiation levels spiking. It seemed that TEPCO the electricity company couldn’t get in to fix the water cooling system because of the high radiation levels.

On TV very dull looking TEPCO executives wearing factory uniforms tried to deflate the growing hysteria with a technical vocabulary that nobody understood and a natural charisma that only a Thai hooker could find appealing.

The Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, not wanting to be left out of the action, also came on wearing a blue factory uniform (apparently some type of emergency clobber). Luckily for Japan, the Prime Minister does have a personality and his speech seemed tinged with real emotion – anger at the TEPCO geeks and some vague Winston Churchill defiance in the face of adversity.

The whole weekend we watched as the tragedy unfolded. Outside things were going on as usual in the peaceful little rural city that we lived in. Well nearly as usual. It seemed in times of disaster the Japanese reveal odd consumer habits.

Within hours bottle water was sold out at the local supermarket. Not so strange. Toilet paper flew off the shelves. They were shitting themselves. Anally obsessed. Clean shitting was a top priority.
Pot noodles were one of the first things to vanish from the shelves. This puzzled me. If there was no gas or electricity to make hot water, what use was this junk food? Perhaps to wipe your arse with when the toilet paper supplies depleted to zero. Bread also sold out. This only lasts for a few days and was just plain stupid to hoard. And batteries. This made sense to me. Power cuts were being announced all over the country and having a torch nearby and a battery powered radio seemed a sensible precaution. Or maybe the batteries were for the space age toilets.

Monday rolled around and I had to go back to work. With nuclear disaster looming on the event horizon and thousands dead and many more thousands homeless and without homes, heating or kerosene; shivering in community centres as it snowed outside, it all seemed so purposeless teaching English. Earthquakes were still rippling through the main island of Honshu. Would any one come to lessons?

I went downstairs to my classroom with images of broken house trash everywhere playing in my head from watching TV. Odd images of metal hulled boats lying surrounded by rubble with old people picking through the devastation looking for relics of their former lives.

Yes, of course old ladies came to the lesson. About half of them. That is half in numbers not in physical appearance.

“What are you doing here?” My question was pregnant with unspoken assumptions challenging their need to get in a car and drive to the classroom when gasoline was being rationed and the whole country was in a state of shock.
This is a question I repeated every morning to the few idiots who came to lessons. Some of them looked confused about my insistence that we turn the lights off to save electricity. They were and will forever be cocooned with their very Japanese middle class-ness destined to lead the rest of their lives disturbed by nothing but the need to follow forms and traditions, to clean the grave of their ancestors, to go to hot baths, to travel hundreds of kilometers to see cherries in bloom (even though cherry trees are everywhere), to be Buddhist and Shinto without knowing anything about religion.

Every class I resented. I tried to get a conversation going about disaster. Pitiful. Only one young mother seemed to get it. We talked about the fear of radiation sickness and TEPCO’s tight-lipped approach to the situation. She was near tears in her worries. Was I going crazy in wanting to get out?

As the week wore on people outside of Japan – friends and family – started getting in contact. That was a positive. People I hadn’t spoken to for ages (silent facebook friends etc.) sent me messages, phoned me at odd hours of the night and suddenly got my Skype address. It seemed that the British media were playing the Japan card to the hilt and especially the nuclear reactor scandal. My mother actually phoned after one moron on UK TV said the number 3 reactor was going to blow ‘any day now’ and that Japan would be a nuclear wasteland. My mother made an emotional plea for me to pack up my family in a car and head at high speed south away from the impending cancerous cloud that would envelope the mainland and kill everyone.

Well its 3 weeks later now and the cloud of death hasn’t arrived. I’ve been following the radiation levels carefully. They spiked in the water in Tokyo around the time when loads of foreigners fled the capital. The levels have since dropped. Water is a serious issue. It can’t be got for neither love nor money in Tokyo. The local wards are dishing out a few bottles at a time to mothers with young babies. This is not something my mother would know because the British meejah now have the American (er I mean NATO) bombing of Libya to get their teeth into.

Since that interrupted sleep on Friday 11th, I’ve got a passport for my 5 month year old kid, I’ve taken a wad of cash out of the bank for emergencies and I’ve sat through numerous lessons wondering why my students are almost fanatical in not altering their pretty little schedules. The school has bribed me to stay by doubling my holidays.

On the 15th March another quake of magnitude 6 struck Fujinomiya city – a place just north of where I live. The flat really shook. My wife and I ran desperately around collecting emergency supplies and the baby and bolted outside. Nobody was around. I had a fag to calm down and went back inside. The apartment building where I live has cracks up the walls. We didn’t feel safe living there so we moved to my parents-in-laws house, a few kilometers down the road.

The following lessons were all about my delighted old ladies telling me how they saved their flat screen TVs from falling over during the local shaker. Was this any better than discussing toilet paper and pot noodles? That was the week of my birthday and also the week when Patrick cast out all the snakes from Ireland. All depressing. I ended up getting really drunk to celebrate my birthday just in case it was my last one.

Meeting my friends at the weekend was good: somebody to talk to and to put the crisis in perspective. Over the course of the group drunk one idea came through clearly: there are two types of foreigners – those who stay and think the whole thing about nuclear disasters and food shortages is outrageous scaremongering and those who just bolted when their governments told them to. Time will tell which one is the smarter bunch. Naturally, amongst those who have stayed there is a tendency to think that those who jumped boat are Lord Jims who will later regret their cowardice. There are now plenty of jobs up for grabs. Even an idiot like Shnade might land a cushy job.

One of my old lady students was telling the class how sad she was that her Italian son-in-law had fled with her daughter and granddaughter. I pointed out to her that every single one of the old dears in the room would automatically go to the nearest airport if the Japanese government told them to leave a country. The exercise in the second conditional made no mental connection with a woman shorn of one of the lynchpins in her perfect life.

I haven’t left. I’m ready to, but I’m waiting for a clear sign that there is no alternative. It might be that when that comes it will be too late. On my side is the experience of having lived through plenty of power cuts before, of having left places by following lines of Africans merrily walking through the bush because the bus didn’t arrive. We can adapt. Unlike the daft old people in the Fukushima exclusion zone who refuse to leave their homes because well they refuse to change, to show some fucking adaptability.

What is quite literally getting on my nerves are the continued mini earthquakes that are hitting nearly daily. Some are confirmed by the TV, some, it seems, are only noticed by me. I say to my wife: “Another one.” And she just looks at me sadly. I’m hallucinating vibrations. This is paranoia like PTSD. Like a soldier in the jungle, any crack of a twig and I’m on the deck praying for my arse. This is an arse I might add that doesn’t worry about not having toilet paper or pot noodles, but does worry about becoming another statistic on the growing death toll.