I wrote this near the end of 2011, right in the midst of facing my own possible personal tsunami, when my doctor informed me that I might have necrosis, or rotting of the bones, a complication due to high blood sugars from badly controlled blood sugars as a Type 1 diabetic. For three weeks my landscape shook and trembled, and every fiber within myself prepared for inundation and devastation. The wave swept over me and then subsided, with the reassurance that I’d be spared the horror of necrosis, but was instead left with osteo arthritis. No pleasure in the diagnosis, but certainly better than amputation or even, and a painful one at that, death. Following the meeting with the doctor and this news, the wind seems to have been knocked out of my sails, and like that sense of inhalation following a punch, I’ve been sitting still a lot, looking around, marveling at the visceral immediacy of the possible, wondering how, once again, I escaped more or less unscathed. So my thoughts on the Year 2011…
A year that I will never forget draws to an end and perhaps more than any time before in my life I ask myself what exactly it is that I got out of it. In many ways the March disaster seems like something a world and era away; the tremors have for the most part stopped and the most dire aspects of the tsunami clean up have more or less been addressed. Life seems to have returned to normal, at least on the surface.
Sometimes you’d think that nothing had happened, that either the people here are so resilient that they shake off the thoughts of fear and grief and move on with their lives with the full and discerning understanding that this is what life is all about, or else they’ve buried all the mess and pretend that outside of direct immersion in the actual events it really has nothing to do with their lives. Time and time again Japanese I’ve spoken to who were not there in Tohoku, or who have no family there, tell me simply, “You are alive, you made it through, what you feel now and experienced have no lasting consequences.” In a way this seems eloquently wise, a reaction that dispenses with the unnecessary and focuses only on the facts. But look around at all the posters and television commercials cheering the populace on with slogans like, “Gambare Nippon!” (Do Your Best, Japan!) or “Makeruna, Nippon!” (Don’t Give Up, Japan!), it is sorely obvious that there is much more going on under the surface than the Japanese are willing to openly face.
Only two people I’ve spoken to owned up to having been terrified, one who went through the whole earthquake experience essentially alone, and the other who had gone up to the tsunami and nuclear disaster zones to see for real what had happened there, and therefore denies himself the comfort of denial. Nearly everyone else relegates the whole thing to the “inconvenient” heap, so that even speaking about it comes across as an assault on their private sensitivities, rather than as a communal concern that everyone ought to be contributing to. And quite a number of people pop back the criticism, “That’s really selfish, to be questioning what the government does and to talk of leaving because of the possibility of radiation danger.” “Life goes on” might be the credo of a survivor, but as the fear-based outrage by Osaka residents over the Osaka City government’s plans to accept debris from Tohoku (the vast majority of which is completely outside the reaches of the radioactive claws) reveals, more revolves around watching out for one’s own neck than in working together and finding solutions as a single society. The lack of willingness to talk about any of this is not just an attempt to retain dignity, but a rather a giant brushing-under-the-carpet.
Even in Tohoku itself, where the destruction and horror affected nearly everyone’s lives, you’d expect that the unquestioned societal mores that usually run the hierarchies, would have been shaken up a bit and the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. Ten months later, with universal agreement that the low-lying towns needed to be moved to higher ground, most of the unhomed populace continues to wait in temporary housing because landowners of the surrounding mountains refuse to sell their land or work with town representatives in creating places where the town might move. So almost no progress has been made. Frustrated, people, especially the elderly, are flouting the restrictions over building upon tsunami devastated land, (or in the case of Fukushima Prefecture, the scourge of radiation) and returning to build new homes right over the old. Such is the spell of ownership and possessions; tens of thousands having lost everything doesn’t seem to count in convincing those who still have everything to give back so that everyone might re-establish their lives.
Nevertheless, most of the ruinous debris and damage from the tsunami have long been cleaned up in Tohoku, so when you go there now, you see wide swaths of emptiness, with punctuations of reminders, like lone standing houses or trees that somehow survived the onslaught, or incongruous, silent monsters, like the big fishing boats that have not yet been removed, or gouges in the silent railroads like giant bite marks. The horror of the human cost seems to have seeped into the earth, more out of sight. The Tohoku people themselves have by-and-large weathered the storm with grace and courage. Instead of complaining about the problems, they simply get on with things, cleaning what needs cleaning, building what needs building, improving what needs improving. They even put out a YouTube video to voice their gratititude to the world.
Personally the year scoured me. I’ve emerged much more tranquil and self-confident about being myself than I’ve ever felt before, but at the same time wary of everything, including people. The months following the big quake, when constant aftershocks rocked the city night and day and got me so tense that even the slightest quiver of my bed or blink of the light on a subway would set my heart racing and get me tensed up to jump to safety. Nothing felt trustworthy. Walls and ceilings could suddenly fall, subway tunnels could crush me, elevators could get stuck high up between floors, the Internet could wink out and connection to loved ones wiped clean, friends could turn away and break down, the sun could fail to rise. And worst of all, as happened to me when August rolled around, our very bodies could fail to keep holding onto the edge of the ledge and plummet into uncertainty and illness. It didn’t matter what I did, I fundamentally came to understand that attempting to stay the juggernaut would ultimately knock me aside. Who was I, but this infintesimal spark, just barely flickering at the edge of the candle?
But my eyes were also opened to the grasp of others’ concern and generosity, to the faith our communities and friendships draw out of us when the worst occurs, to that resilience and fierce determination to live and continue that we and all living beings inherently carry within us. During all the shaking, during the meeting with people who had lost everything and had reached the nedir of their lives, during the height of the pain of my disease, people were there, to help, to listen, to voice encouragement, to simply offer companionship. The kindnesses sometimes touched such an undeniable simplicity and rightness that on the spot I’d often break down weeping, I think because in our societies it happens so infrequently and was therefore such a surprise. By going through such a completely appropriate test of nature it made me think that our lives in civic society are too insulated, that only reminders of our mortality can keep up a healthy respect and awareness of one another and our place in the world. When life draws up to its full height and allows no escape, it simultaneously rips out the best in us. I realize now that we are capable of much more than we tell ourselves. I’ve also come to despise cynicism; it now seems like a cop out, a lazy way of condemning the harshness of reality and living, while making no attempt to become stronger and more adaptable.
I’ve learned to say, “No.” to things that I feel are wrong or unfair. I’ve learned to say no to anything that smacks of wasting what little precious time we have to live, or to anything pretentious or seeking to subject others to its will. Perhaps more than anything, 2011 was the year that reminded me of the treasure that life is. That I want to live, as best I can. And that I want others to live, too, and I will do all I can to be part of helping to ensure they can can make it. Seeing all those possessions obliterated and swept away by that enormous force that cares nothing for human vanity or hope, and how little of those possessions figured in what survivors yearned for, the futility of finding completion in what you own made itelf starkly clear. This might not be obvious when the nights are still and stopping by Seven-Eleven for a case of beer and packet of fried chicken is as easy as opening your wallet, but when it is no longer there and you are hungry and around you there is no one to plea to for help, the connections with others becomes more acute and all of the extras, like TV’s, computer games, five pairs of shoes, make up, that subscription to National Geographic, the Starbucks Cafe Latte, 794 friends on Facebook, first class flight to Mexico, or even the useless required language course at university, more and more come across as unnecessary and distracting, while at the same time their very luxury can help soothe the fear and frame the craziness with the familiar.
What are the answers, or the “guidelines”, then? Perhaps that there are none. Life goes on and you make do while valuing life itself. That life is the reason for living. That life other than your own is just as precious, just as pertinent, just as fiercely scratched for. And perhaps that you won’t find a caring deity hiding in the midst of the destruction, but rather, perhaps, the destruction is the deity unto itself, raw and unfiltered, inhuman, such that you must reach for your humanity and fill in your own captions. Empathy, compassion, and action are the responsibilities of a human being, not something that concerns the gods.