08 April 2011

Everything there is to talk about

Previously, on Ohayo an tSeapain, I emigrated to Japan. It was awesome, after some adjusting. Since then: I didn't recontract, I recontracted, March 11th earthquake, (previously planned) evacuation to Osaka, return to Shiz, I unrecontracted and now this...everything there is to talk about.

I thought about posting a blog entry after the disaster. It would have had the title 'Japan earthquake and tsunami March 11th'. It would have gotten a million hits, from people looking for legitimate, useful information, people like my family, wanting information because they knew someone in Japan. So there was no blog post. Instead I consumed media. I subsisted on a diet of NHK and BBC live news feed, YouTube videos captured by Japanese mobile phones, of tsunami waves churning infrastructure around, of the sea enveloping farmland up to 10km inland in Sendai, of the Japanese parliament as the earthquake struck. Actually, to be honest, I didn't look at most of that until later...what I focused on first was Fukushima Daiichi.

Ironically, although I felt the 3/11 tremors in Shizuoka, I didn't realise that such a large earthquake had occurred until almost 20 hours later. My Dad informed by phone from Ireland. Had I seen the news? No. What an incredible highlighting of one's vulnerability in a place where they don't speak the native language. Of course, I saw the initial TV broadcast at school but, not understanding the announcements or the text, I relied on translation. Unsurprisingly, the primary concern of the English teachers at that moment wasn't translating for me. When I finally grabbed one and asked what was going on I heard, 'There's been a small earthquake in Mie-Ken. There is no damage.' Satisfied, I went back to my work that afternoon. Later that day, I didn't bother to check online for information. After all, there'd been none available in English when I'd tried frantically Googling for it...because it was only a small earthquake...

Of course, I'm sure the teacher didn't intentionally mislead me. During the commotion, maybe NHK wasn't yet broadcasting the facts, maybe the teacher had heard incorrectly, or maybe it was me that misheard her. Whatever the reason I was amazed later that evening, to notice everyone in Fujieda train station crowded around the solitary TV above the turnstiles, staring. It was like some pseudo-realistic scene from a disaster movie. But still, it had only been a minor quake, hadn't it? The following morning, after the phone call from my Dad, I finally went online and realised the extent of it. I discovered that the map of Japan, still being unanimously broadcast by all TV channels, with the flashing red/orange/yellow along the coastline was a tsunami warning. You see, it's not just language but pure inexperience that cuts me off from news sources.

Two days on, 'out of dodge' in Osaka, the obsessive live news feed monitoring began. Going on a preplanned holiday, we met people on the train who were fleeing westward. They had IPhone4s with data...and checked the news constantly. Once in the Kansai region, our 'safe days' were numbered, or were they? In the end, we delayed returning for 3 days, booking a new hotel each day that we decided...no, not today, let's not go back today. Scarily, we had to move hotels each night because many were booked up, full of foreigners on the next flight out via Osaka airport. Should I also be leaving Japan?

It was hard to know, far away from and out of touch with Shiz. Certainly, the online debate I saw was polarized. The foreign media were blowing things out of proportion, freaking our friends and family out...or was the Japanese government and TEPCO with-holding information? There had been protests in Tokyo. Ultimately, we did a lot of research, and decided that while the nuclear situation wasn't stable, the scientific sources seemed to rule out the kind of mushroom-cloud shaped meltdown that constituted the West's 'worse than Chernobyl' worst fears. Shiz was safe, according to scientists. Worst case scenario and Shiz was still safe.

We headed back on the 24th. Teachers at school were amazed to see me. They thought I'd left the country. So that was OK. They asked if I'd been advised to leave...yes, but here I was. (Fukushima) nuclear fears (largely) allayed, my media tastes changed. I began researching the Tokai earthquake again. Again because, like I assume most Shiz JETs did, I looked it up a lot after our earthquake initiation at Kakegawa Orientation. First year JETs got to ride an 'earthquake van' back in August. Though no more dramatic than the average roller coaster, the lack of being strapped in, coupled with the fact that it was simulating an experience we were predicted to have suddenly, unexpectedly, made it infinitely more terrifying. It had inspired me to get an earthquake kit.

In fact, before leaving Osaka, one of the conditions of our leaving Osaka, was stocking up on all those things I'd meant to get for the kit but never gotten around to buying. The purchases seemed very urgent all of a sudden. Back in Fujieda, I placed the upgraded kit on my bike to bring it everywhere with me. Placed a torch and helmet beside my bed. Bought a Swiss army knife and kindling..so that I could make a fire to boil water on the top of a hill that I'd evacuate to as a tsunami precaution if the Tokai happened at night...you see I was a little freaked out. You might say that I was paranoid if what had happened hadn't happened, but a new frame of reference had been established. Each day as I cycled to school, the small saucepan hanging from my backpack clinking against my metal bike basket I thought, can I continue to live like this?

The Tokai research continued and I discovered that I hadn't had enough information, and that even the information the Prefecture has, its 'predictions' are likely to be revised, are currently be revised. The extent of the Tohoku tsunami was totally unprecedented. Seismologists said that further research needed to be done, before they could say how much stress on other fault lines (ie the Philippine/Eurasian plate fault line, location of Tokai quakes) had increased..but it had certainly not decreased. Troublesome. Worst of all was/is the location of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power plant in the south of Shizuoka. I'll post on this specifically soon, but suffice to say it's 50m from the coast (tsunami risk hello?) and the epicentre of the Tokai may well be directly underneath it. Meanwhile the BOE was bombarding me with what was supposed to be comforting information. While I doubt they said anything untrue, there was a sense of alterity of motive in the messages that was obvious a mile away. Please don't run away, they were saying. In truth, it was hard to know what or who to believe.

The biggest meanwhile has to go to the people in the Tohoku region. 3 weeks after the disaster, I was only beginning to imagine their suffering, though it had been going on less than 300 miles away. Of course, I'd donated money. I'd watched the body count rising, but these were faceless numbers initially. Maybe the most striking thing I read about the entire disaster was on NHK: 'The number of victims is expected to rise because officials in some coastal areas devastated by the tsunami still cannot calculate the exact number of missing people." Whole towns, extended families, groups of friends, places where people were born and lived their whole lives...I suppose you would call them 'communities'...whole communities had been washed away. Was that even sad? Some of the dead aren't being mourned because everyone who knew them is also dead. They haven't been reported as missing because no one misses them. Now that's hard to comprehend.

I've heard about tragedies before. The Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide. The Omagh bombing. I'd felt sad about all of them, but never before had I had to face the possibility of the same thing happening to me, of exactly the same thing being predicted to happen to me. Here in Shizuoka, the predicted Tokai earthquake is 8+ magnitude. It will also be a mega-thrust quake, caused by another plate (the Philippine plate) subducting under the Eurasian plate on which Japan sits...just like the Tohoku quake. Imagining the devastation such a quake would cause is one thing, but watching and reading news reports of it is another entirely. We can watch video footage of the tsunami hitting and read the names of the people who have died.

With all of this in mind, I was going about my daily life in a bubble of heightened and simultaneously dulled reality. At school, I'd periodically check NHK and BBC websites for further news. At the staff farewell party, which was held in a coastal hotel in Yaizu, I found myself nervously gazing out at the sea. Whenever I went out without my emergency bag, I'd be constantly assessing escape plans. What will I do if the Tokai happens while I'm here? How will I cover my head? How will I get to higher ground? Each time I saw a place in Fujieda for the first time since the quake I couldn't help but imagine it flooding, a huge wall of water engulfing the supermarket, my school, the station. All the while, a truly horrifying realisation was slowly dawning on me. I wasn't going to be able to stay in Japan.

Initially I thought, I'm just in shock. The shock will wear off and I'll be able to forget about the Tokai earthquake again and live normally. I have and I am now, for the most part. The problem for me was how to differentiate paranoia from reasonable survival concerns. I spent hours pouring over Tokai data and evacuation plans and I still believe that while obviously, people living in Shizuoka can't live in a constant state of terror, if they did so their terror wouldn't be irrational. There's nothing irrational about wanting to avoid involvement in a large scale natural disaster. It's merely basic survival instinct.

But what about the Shizuokans? This is a thorny ethical issue. Whatever way you look at it, when I told my coworkers that I'd decided not to recontract because of the Tokai earthquake, the subtext was, I'm going to leave because I don't think it's safe..eh, but good luck to you, I'm sure you'll be grand. Beyond that, putting yourself first is never really appreciated in Japan. I suppose the bottom line is that despite this, I find it acceptable. I find it necessary where personal safety is concerned. We can extrapolate then that having lived here for 8 months, I am still not turning Japanese.

But other foreigners are staying? Yes. Most of my JET friends are staying. Some of them..most of them, are in love with Japan. They speak Japanese, they love Japanese culture. They had a burning desire to come and live here and they adore it. I guess you could say they're part of communities here. It's different for me though. Like the awkward end of a relationship, I've had to let Japan know that while I love it, I'm not in love with it. I came here on a whim. I haven't really learnt any Japanese. I'm not integrated into my community. I'm not very friendly with my coworkers. That's not to say that I haven't had the experience of a lifetime or that I don't have amazing friends here, but if I were to make a list of 'things I couldn't live without' or 'things for which I would live in the predicted focal region of an 8+ magnitude earthquake', Japan wouldn't make it.

I'm so happy here, but I believe in my ability to be happy elsewhere too. So I'm leaving, not now, not all of a sudden, but in 3 months time when my contract ends. It's a decision that has alienated me from my coworkers and surprised my friends. At last, I think I've told everyone. It was a lot to think about, and it's a lot to talk about.