In Japan, No Time Yet for Grief
By KAZUMI SAEKI
WHEN the earthquake struck, I was at the hot springs in Sakunami, about 15 miles from my home in Sendai. I was playing host to a couple from Britain, and as I soaked in an open-air bath with Ben, the husband, powdery snow began to shake off the surrounding boulders. The next moment, small pieces of broken stone came tumbling down.
“It’s an earthquake, a big one,” I said, urging Ben on to the changing room next door. Without bothering to dry off, I pulled on my bathrobe. As I struggled to keep my legs from buckling and tied my sash with trembling hands, I was struck by the terrifying realization that the great earthquake off Miyagi Prefecture, predicted for so long, had at last arrived.
The fierce rolling of the earth lasted longer than I had ever experienced. As I learned later, this was not just the predicted earthquake. It was a giant quake in the waters off Miyagi; off the Sanriku coast in Iwate Prefecture to the north; off Fukushima Prefecture to the south. It lasted six minutes.
I heard screams from the women’s changing room and eventually Ben’s wife, Liz, appeared, supported by my wife. Earthquakes are rare in Britain, and I could see plainly Liz’s great shock at experiencing one.
Public transportation back to Sendai, the big city closest to the epicenter, had stopped running, cellphones were not working and all flow of information had ceased. The inn kindly let us spend the night, and the following day a young tourist from Tokyo drove us in his rental car back to Sendai. The roads were torn apart and blocked at points by collapsed inns. The windows of larger buildings were smashed and the tile roofs of houses had crumbled to the ground, while old concrete-block walls were reduced to rubble.
Scenes of disaster appeared before my eyes, but in all honesty, I felt the scale of destruction was rather small. When I reached my home, on high ground, the lock on the front door was broken and the floor was covered with books, CDs and plates that had fallen from the shelves. But everything was dry, and there was nothing to alter my perception of the scope of the disaster.
This perception completely changed as I learned, little by little, the magnitude of the damage by way of the hand-crank radio, my sole source of information amid the continuing blackout. The Pacific coast of northeastern Japan has endured many tsunamis, including one from the 9.5-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960, and disaster preparedness is a strong part of daily life in the region. But this earthquake produced 30-foot-high waves, far beyond what anyone had imagined, wiping out entire towns. It is becoming clear that the number of casualties might reach the tens of thousands.
We lacked both water and gas, and our only illumination that night came from candles and the moon. With the lights of the city extinguished, stars shone brightly in the night sky. When I looked out toward the ocean the next morning, I saw in horror that neighborhoods close to the sea had simply vanished. Many of our friends lived in those areas. In the distance, I could see only the trees planted to protect the shore.
I found my elderly mother, who lives nearby and had taken temporary refuge at an emergency shelter, where she said that everyone complained of the cold while sharing rice balls. Many were coughing. The shelter was overflowing, and my mother decided to come home with my wife and me. On my way to and from the shelter, I passed a gasoline station where people lined up, hoping for a small amount of rationed fuel. Reports of a catastrophe at the nuclear power plant in neighboring Fukushima Prefecture, involving hydrogen explosions and radiation leaks, have come in. Now an invisible pollution is beginning to spread. People have acquired a desire for technology that surpasses human comprehension. Yet the bill that has come due for that desire is all too dear.
Even as I write, strong aftershocks continue. As he left, Ben spoke of a “calm chaos.” It is true that faced with this calamity, the people of Sendai have maintained a sense of calm. This is perhaps due less to the emotional restraint that is particular to the people of the northern countryside, and more to the hollowing out of their emotions. In the vortex of an unimaginable disaster, they have not yet had the time to feel grief, sadness and anger.
Before I became a writer, I worked for 10 years as an electrician, until I suffered asbestos poisoning. My main job was to travel around Tokyo, repairing lights, including street lamps and the hallway and stairway lights in apartment buildings. For this reason, the sight of the well-ordered, unbroken expanse of the city’s lights always brought me a great sense of relief. Will I ever again experience such peace?