Volume Seven Issue Two
- Category: Volume 7 Issue 2 2011
- Published on Thursday, 12 May 2011 21:14
I felt the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, in the same way that you might get a spot of drizzle from the tip of the tail of a hurricane. At 2.46 pm on Friday, 11 March, I was walking home from the library in a small, quiet town called Daishoji, some 400 miles west of the epicentre.
The pavement shifted side to side, ever so slightly. I had been drinking the night before, and my first thought was for my lost youth, when I could handle a few beers and a couple of shots without wobbling off a footpath the following afternoon. It took a full five seconds to register that this movement was occurring outside my skull, and a little longer to recognise the sensation. Since moving to Japan in the autumn of 2008, I had noticed only three of the seismic tremors that shiver through these islands with the frequency of high-speed trains. Once while I was eating lunch on the steps of a public square in Tokyo, and the concrete swayed as if in a breeze. And twice while I was asleep in bed, where it started as a distant twinge of my inner ear, and sounded outward until the whole apartment was rattling.
These events were over so quickly that I might as well have imagined them. They caused no death or damage, and barely warranted a mention on the news, or in conversation. But they disturbed my dreams for weeks. Lying half-awake, I listened for the earth turning over like a flooded engine, deep below the mattress. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most widely translated novelist, once described this disconcerting new awareness in After The Quake, a book of short stories that were all set in the wake of the Great Hanshin (or Kobe) earthquake of 1995: ‘We take it for granted that the ground beneath our feet is solid and stationary. But suddenly one day we see that it is not true. The earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid.’
This tremor, like the others, felt more ominous than violent. The difference was in the duration. I continued back to my apartment with the ground still shaking, and it didn’t stop until after I sat down, switched on the TV, and saw that it was much worse in Tokyo. With all of Japan’s major news networks based in the capital, the earliest footage of the earthquake came from inside their broadcasting towers. The announcers were admirably composed, strapping on white protective hoods to keep reading the latest developments, even as the studio walls bent inwards. They recommended that viewers cover their own heads with helmets, knit caps, or “zabuton” (seat cushions). They advised the public to stay away from anything that might fall on top of them, particularly vending machines. They had reports of oil fires, car wrecks, and a lot of broken glass, but it looked as if the megacity was mostly intact, and for about ten minutes it seemed comical how quickly and efficiently the media had turned to emergency service.
Then came the tsunami alerts, reaching half-way around the country’s coastal perimeter. And shortly after that, the first images from the northeast: a monstrous white wave turning black as it made landfall near Sen-dai, an oceanic whirlpool spinning like a saw blade against the Iwate seaboard, whole rows of houses torn out of Natori City and floating away in flames. A few hours later, my editors in Europe woke to these scenes, which were now streaming live around the world. They wanted to know what I could tell them, as their occasional correspondent in Japan. The answer was, not much, except to say that most Japanese were also watching this on TV and the internet, with the same dawning sense of something terrible happening, somewhere else.
On the Monday after the quake, I taught my weekly English language class as usual at the community hall in Chokushi, a cluster of rice-farming villages near my adoptive home town, between the Sea of Japan and the Hakusan mountain range. The group consists of eight regular students – seven women and one man, none of them under 60, all of them emphatically local. They were born here, and they’ll die within walking distance if they can help it. In that sense, they are fairly representative of Japan’s aging rural population, but I wouldn’t call them typical of folk who live in this area, if only because they are so well-travelled. Once or twice a year they put their considerable savings toward a short and rushed class trip to some far-flung destination, most recently Egypt, just a couple of months before the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak.
They study English to understand the outside world. In Japanese, there is just one word for everywhere that is not Japan. “Gaikoku” refers to all foreign countries, making no distinction between, say, Scotland, Peru, Uzbekistan, or Sierra Leone. My students delight in specifics. They know that I am Irish, and they seem to enjoy my repeated tirades against the global spread of Ameri-can English, which I tend to play up because it makes them chortle like babies. But they also seem to regard me as an ambassador for the United Nations, and that Monday night they thanked me personally for the messages of support that had piled in from the west over the weekend. ‘Everyone is so kind,’ said Mariko, who is always the first to speak because she is seated immediately to my left.
As a matter of routine, each student writes a journal entry in English every week, and reads it aloud in the next class, starting with Mariko and working clockwise around the table, with me correcting their grammar and pronunciation as they go. On this occasion, each of them had recorded their own impressions of the earthquake, tsunami, and emerging radiation crisis. ‘Japan has suffered a catastrophic disaster,’ began Mariko, and I tried to explain that this statement, while accurate, was also tautological – the noun and the adjective being roughly interchangeable, one made redundant by the other. I felt a bit superfluous myself. If words become meaningless in the aftermath of catastrophic disasters, or disastrous catastrophes, then it seems absurd to insist on proper usage.
Next it was Ikuko’s turn, a gifted amateur soprano who can sing arias in German, French, and Italian, but sometimes struggles with English verb tenses and particles. ‘I was thought, “what could I doing?”’ she said, describing her sense of helplessness at the worsening news from the Tohoku region. Another student, a keen gardener named Inami, who takes pride in her ‘green thumb’, has friends in the affected area, and received a call earlier that day to say they were safe.
‘But … house … is … destroyed,’ she added, dropping her possessive pronouns as usual. Oshita, the only other man in the room, had not known about the earthquake until two hours later, when his son-in-law called him from a hotel skyscraper in downtown Tokyo. ‘He was trapped for a short while there,’ read Oshita from his journal, ‘because it was a lot of shaking on the high floors.’ I corrected him politely, and we moved on, to discuss unfamiliar words and phrases such as “unreal”, “devastation”, and “relief effort”. The group wanted to know the English for “tsunami”, and seemed pleased to learn that we defer to the Japanese on that particular noun, given their unfortunate wealth of experience. A housewife named Michiko, who is probably my best student, read a list of essential items that the class should donate to evacuation centres in Miyagi and surrounding prefectures. ‘Flashlights, warm blankets, dry batteries, canned food, bottled water, etcetera,’ she said. ‘Excellent,’ I told her, in a mock imperious tone, ‘but “flashlight” is an American term. In proper English, we call it a “torch”.’ Everyone smiled indulgently, and duly noted this down.
- Next >>