What is it that this disaster wants to teach us? If there’s nothing it wants to teach us, then what should I believe in? – Fukushima Poet Ryoichi Wago
March was falling apart. My girlfriend and I had recently broken up and we were to see each other at an academic conference in Montreal where our respective jobs were both sending us. A week before the event, Northeast Japan was hit by domino disasters: a record earthquake followed by a tsunami that would claim over 15,000 lives. Then Fukushima’s coastal reactors blew, turning once bustling cities into ghost towns and sending radiation into the water supply of one of the most populous cities in the world. My girlfriend’s family and friends in Japan were outside the disaster zone but I was rattled. At the conference, I cringed at the banal conversations of the academics who lingered in the hallways, talking about their various job appointments.
I bailed on two colleagues my coworker Jim and I were supposed to meet early one morning when my emotions frayed after too little sleep and too much news coverage of the disaster. One started making small talk about her child’s school party, muffins or something. I turned to Jim with tears in my eyes, shook my head and left the building without a word to our colleagues.
I held onto my former girlfriend like a lifeboat though, as a Japanese citizen, she certainly had more to be concerned about than I did. For her, Fukushima seemed as far away as it did to me, outside her world. Writers from Fukushima would later reflect on the disconnect they felt from the rest of the country, the sacrifice they endured so that places like Tokyo would have a reliable food supply, a reliable energy source.
Despite my initial dismissal of the academics at the conference, I was humbled to discover how many people there were directly affected by the event but still carried themselves upright while I was blubbering and sulking. Our neighbor in the booth next to us, a boisterous, friendly Brit selling books for the UN had felt the earthquake in Tokyo where he lived with his family right before jetting to the conference. Each day the news got worse and worse, the American government was advising citizens to leave the country, yet he continued to affably greet customers at his booth.
Still, there was anxiety under his buoyant demeanor. We talked generally about the disaster but he was mostly preoccupied with Anderson Cooper’s coverage on CNN. “Anderson 360!” he scoffed. “What kind of a name for a show is that!?”. He’d arrive to the exhibit hall in the morning, take a quick glance at his inventory, and ask us, “Hey, did you see Anderson last night? With that Geiger counter around his neck? God! What an ambulance chaser!”. He laughed haughtily at Anderson’s antics, his cowardly jolt when yet another reactor exploded, his war zone-like coverage from a faraway Tokyo rooftop.
On another day, an academic from Hiroshima University revealed before his panel presentation that his family was evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture as we sat there listening to his dry presentation on ASEAN. He sat back down in the sparse audience after his talk where I could see his mussed hair. He took photos of the other panelists as they got up to talk and a small cellophane-wrapped lip balm stamped in Hiragana fell out of his pocket unnoticed onto the floor. This little glimpse of his private life devastated me. What other modest nothings of life were hiding in the folds of these academic posturings? What other secrets were those I walked among hiding?
Jim and I were bewildered when the woman at the other booth next to us, representing a foreign policy think tank, began playing a DVD that featured various horrible things that were occurring in the world: genocide, climate change, global epidemics, and the timely kicker: the threat of nuclear proliferation complete with footage of an atom bomb test and a creepy, wavering robot-voiced countdown: fiihihive, foohorhor, threeheehee, two ooh ooh, wahnnan… BOOM! (She seemed entirely indifferent to the irony). Jim and I commented loudly on the disturbing nature of the clip within her earshot. He even half-jokingly asked if she could change it to the NCAA championships instead. She wasn’t amused. The film played in a loop for the whole four-day event, amplifying our anxieties.
A knot would come and go in the center of my upper back depending on the progress or setbacks crews were having at Fukushima Daiichi. The technologies we created to serve us had gotten much too unwieldy for our moral evolution, it seemed. Watching bold crews scramble to address the smoking reactors with buckets of water showed starkly how much humility we as a species lacked. The monster turning on us with a brush of its tail.
On NPR, Christopher Joyce reiterated the oft-cited national characteristic of gaman (我慢) —“to endure, accept the pain, don’t complain,” and shikata ganai (仕方がない) or “it can’t be helped.” The later seemed most useful. After the conference, I would watch Kore Eda’s quiet film Still Walking, an Ozu-esque examination of bittersweet family dynamics and unfulfilled yearnings. Kore Eda shoots at the luminous sky, the bright clear clouds. The family house is in a hilly neighborhood overlooking the ocean where a red train passes by in a regular, peaceful hush.
The train holds a regular schedule despite all the dramas that play out in the household. The mother character tends the grave of a son who commited suicide, says matter-of-factly how impossible it is to lose a child, but regularly huffs and puffs up and down the hill to the graveyard anyway. A younger woman politely endures this new mother-in-law’s cutting comments, a quick flicker of hurt showing on her face before regaining composure. These seams of pain are so unbearably accute, yet they are somehow borne.