Resilient as a cedar

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April 19th 2011
Published: April 19th 2011
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I look across to the sakura trees lining the river – they look sad now with their colours lost and the slate grey skies emptying their rain over everything. I’m early for the bus so I go to the kiosk in the station to buy a Japan Times. Who will buy them now, I think. During the whole time I’ve been in Mito I’ve seen a grand total of four western men around the station area, but not a single western woman. You never see lots of westerners in Mito, but you would normally see more than that in a week.

I’m in Narita airport. There are a very few westerners, mostly men, but normally Narita is brimming with foreigners. I’m in a shop which sells traditional Japanese souvenirs. ‘Sumimasen’, says a Japanese man to the assistant, ‘Fujisan no sensu ga arimasu ka?’ – excuse me, do you have any fans with Mount Fuji? The assistant answers with many ‘sumimasen’s’ that she’s sorry but they haven’t. If you could only have one word to survive in Japan, it would be ‘sumimasen’. You hear it all the time. ‘Sumimasen’, excuse me, if you want to ask someone in a shop or on the street a question. Staff pepper their replies with it all the time, to soften what they are saying, whether it’s apologies, requests, or just politeness. ‘Sumimasen’ – I’m sorry. Sometimes people use ‘sumimasen’ where we’d say ‘thank you’, on receiving drinks from friends. The German equivalent would be ‘bitte’, which you hear all the time in Germany. In Britain it would be ‘thank you’. If anyone – whether family, friend, staff, bus driver, flight attendants – does anything for us, we always reply with ‘thank you’, and quite often two or more ‘thank you’s’. It’s the part of Japanese I can never manage, as Japanese people don’t use a form of ‘thank you’ for many interactions with staff. The staff are doing their job, and so don’t need necessarily to be thanked. Sometimes a nod can be a ‘thank you’, and when I first return to Europe after being in Japan for a while, I have to remember to stop myself nodding, or everyone will think I’m a bit odd.

We’re up in the air, and this time the buffeting is as we’re in a plane, not in a building rocking with an earthquake. I look down and can see squares glinting with the sun which has broken through the clouds. The squares are rice fields newly flooded, before the green shoots come through. They hadn’t started flooding the fields in Nakasugaya – assuming all the pipework has been restored after the earthquake – but Narita is always slightly in advance. In the word ‘Narita’ I don’t know what the ‘nari’ means, but the ‘ta’ part means ‘rice field’.

We’re banking and as we do so the coast comes into view, lines of surf like ribbons stretching into the distance, the sea harmless now. My eyes water slightly. I feel sad to leave Japan and my friends where everything is still unresolved, and where so much uncertainty remains. When will be the next aftershock? When can we fully relax with Fukushima? I feel guilty as I’m also slightly relieved that I won’t have to wonder any more if the earth is starting to move, or if I’m just imagining it.

Images from yesterday flush through my mind. I can see the flock of gardeners in Hitachi Seaside Park on the hill with the nemophila. There are 19 gardeners – I counted them – crouched down, weeding the hill between the bright blue of the nemophila. Many of them are elderly women, each with a large cloth sun bonnet with a tail of material to protect their necks. Now I’m at the temple Suzuki-san drove us to. The stone figures have crashed down from the earthquake and are lain down, strewn over the ground. Then I see an enormous cedar tree, its trunk two metres in diameter, soaring up to the sky, so high I cannot see the top. There’s a notice – the tree is 1100 years old. That’s amazing – it’s remained standing through so many earthquakes. I remember when Neil and I are were in the streets of Mito during the shindo 5 aftershock, mesmerised by the trees, pulsating with the movement of the earth, their trunks straight, all synchronised. I imagine that enormous cedar pulsating with so many earthquakes over the centuries, and yet still standing here strong and majestic.

It seems to me that Japan is like that, still standing whatever nature and man-made disasters hurl at it. When I left Germany I thought that Japan had been hit by a three-pronged fortune, the earthquake, the tsunami and Fukushima. Now I see, and have felt myself, that it’s actually being hit by a fourth element, the aftershocks. I read in the paper somewhere that aftershocks can be as large as one scale lower than the original magnitude of the earthquake. Given that the original earthquake was 9.0 magnitude, it’s no wonder the aftershocks are so powerful. In English the word ‘aftershock’ sounds so harmless – a little vibrating possibly. When you are there all that matters is the shindo, the degree of shaking at your position – whether it’s an aftershock or a separate earthquake is a technicality. It’s the unpredictability of the aftershocks which is wearing. You’re always a little bit tense, waiting for the next one, wondering if it's going to be a big one.

There’s an article in today’s Japan Times entitled ‘Trauma kept bottled up’:

‘The forbearance shown by survivors of the March 11 quake and tsunami has been lauded in the West, but psychologists worry that not talking about the hurt could be doing long-term damage’.

“Many people now are in a phase of acute stress disorder, which is a totally natural response to this level of trauma,” said Ritsuko Nishimae, a clinical psychologist. “If they are not able to get proper support psychologically, there is an increased possibility that they could develop post-traumatic stress disorder’, she said.’

‘Depression continues to carry a stigma in Japan that has long been shed in much of the West. This is especially marked in rural areas, such as the disaster-struck northeast, where community and family ties are strong’.

I’m very glad I came to Japan at this time as I feel I have at least shared with my friends some of the terrible events they have had to endure, and the stress which there still is. I am full of admiration for them and for the Japanese people as a whole and I have great faith in them. For the people of the north-east, no words can express what they are going through, and it will be a very long, hard path, made even worse by the constant aftershocks. To my friends, I will keep thinking about you. I wish you all the very best, courage and strength and please, please, as you rebuild everything, have all the pink ice-cream you can possibly have together with family and friends. You deserve it! And with all my heart I hope there are no more really big aftershocks, and that the angry beast does not pounce again.

Thank you.


19th April 2011

Thank you
Thank you for expressing your thoughts so beautifully that we could feel we were there with you. I have read every word avidly - you paint a picture with your words. I feel so sorry for all your Japanese friends and the trauma they have suffered - they sound such wonderful people. I am very, very, glad, though, that you are safely on your way home to us. xx

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