My Life in Fukushima 1

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I live in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, and have done so for just over six years. Contrary to my every instinct in the matter, I’ve decided to start writing about my experiences here since the disaster. A friend gave me a kick in the ass about this recently; that I should really be writing about it. If not as a counter to all the hysteria surrounding the nuclear disaster, then at least as a way to signal boost my writing. He is correct, I should be. So here we go.

There are numerous reasons why I am trepidatious about doing this. Mostly because of the level of hysteria surrounding the nuclear disaster. The hysterics don’t like that I am calm and reasonable about it, this close to the center of it all. It both undercuts their claims to personal involvement and peril, and highlights their imbalance on the subject. Visiting Vancouver since the disaster has been tedious because of this: all of the reactionary environmentalist types want me to prop up their take on the world. Folks who freak out about radiation levels equivalent to a bunch of bananas while happily paying tobacco companies to give them cancer. I’m not interested in any level of dialogue with these people.

But I’m at a point where writing about my personal experiences is something I feel I should do. I’m hesitant to call it therapeutic, but I suppose the word fits.

I’ll start with the earthquake itself and move forward chronologically, in installments as I get to it.

For reference here, at the time of the earthquake I was living in Yoshima, Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture. Iwaki is on the coast and is a geographically large municipality encompassing a bunch of towns and villages. It covers much of Fukushima’s coast and was hard hit by the tsunami. Yoshima is about 20km inland. My apartment was about 50km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors.

Also for reference, my wife is Japanese and from Fukushima. Iwaki is not her home town. I won’t get more specific about her hometown, since we live there now and I’m unwilling to bust out of anonymity for this. For the sake of this, we’ll call my wife Keiko (DS9 fan here). Our apartment was a simple, two story walk up, and we lived on the second floor.

Part 1: Tohoku Earthquake 2011

Exactly one week after our civil “ceremony” marriage (almost to the hour), and exactly a week before our planned honeymoon to Okinawa, my wife and I were at home in our apartment. I had the day off, thanks to a break between my Eikaiwa’s (English conversation school) contracts with a company client. Keiko was reading and/or napping in the bedroom right behind me as I sat in the living room.

I was sitting at the kotatsu (a low table with a quilt under which is a radiant heater – by far one of the best inventions in history) and about to start writing. I had just finished having an impromptu skype conversation with my father. Then it hit.

Now, we’d had a couple of fairly minor, but lengthy, earthquakes just the week before. So as the earthquake got rolling (much like being on a rocking train car) I really wasn’t worried at all. Then, it started getting worse. I shut the screen on my laptop and grabbed the full pint glass of water off the table. Then it got worse (now violent rocking with jerks like hitting a bad speed bump at higher speed). Seeing the vase on top of the bookshelves, filled with water and flowers, was in peril of falling, I crawled over and grabbed that too.

Now holding a full water glass in my left hand and the flower vase in my right, I sat back down just as Keiko opened the fusuma sliding door from the bedroom. I sat on the floor with my back against the door frame, my arms far out to the side in an effort not to spill any of the water I was holding. Keiko was on the floor at my feet. We were both staring right at each other, eyes wide, more amazed than frightened.

Then it got really bad. Things started crashing off the shelves as the whole world seemed to explode into a cacophony of clatters and bangs. There really is no way to describe the violence of it. Those of you who have been in a major earthquake will understand it, and everyone who hasn’t should just be very thankful that you haven’t. So there we are: potted plants upending into the carpet, Keiko’s mirror and full drinking glass smashing on the floor next to us, and the most unbelievable racket coming from the kitchen. I want to hold onto my wife more than anything, but some stupid part of me can’t drop the drinking glass and vase because, you know, that will make a mess. Just when I was starting to think that the apartment might come down around us, it was over. Just like that.

Aparently it lasted upwards of six minutes. That was a long ass six minutes, I have to say. I have been more afraid in my life, at times, and I didn’t quite hit that point where I thought I was going to die, but… let’s just say that got my pulse up.

Keiko got up right away and turned the TV on while I unplugged our various space heaters (being worried about the spilled water). Then, I checked out the kitchen and got her some slippers to put on. There was broken glass all over the place and all our shelves were basically empty.

At least I saved my drinking glass and the flower vase.

Keiko immediately started cleaning up. I kind of wonder if some part of her resented me making her stop long enough to put her slippers on. The big deal on the TV was the tsunami warnings, but since our apartment is about 20km inland we didn’t pay them any heed.

Around that time the first of the aftershocks came (bigger ones would come later). At that point I was so jacked up on adrenaline, I was actually enjoying it. We ran outside and had a look around. There was no damage anywhere to be seen. People were wandering around with an eerie calm. Some seemed a little dazed, but most were either simply startled or a little excited. There was one teenage girl in a car driving past bawling her eyes out, but that was the only demonstrative behavior I’ve seen from anyone in this entire crisis.

At that point, the worst of it seemed to be that our poo tank for the apartment had sloshed over onto the parking lot, which smelled pretty bad. It was then I saw the office ladies from across the street were worried about something on our side. Keiko and I went around the edge of the building and saw the problem: our apartment’s propane tanks.

All our cooking and water heater gas is propane and is provided by 100 pound tanks (the J equivalent, of course) attached to the side of the building. There were four of them and they had ripped their mooring chain out of the wall and had fallen over. They were dangling, at various angles, stretching the rubber hoses connecting them to the apartment’s gas matrix. I could smell propane leaking. I’ve pumped my share of the stuff (I worked at a gas station and old-school car garage for ten years: “I can’t tell you much about that… but I can tell you all about propane!”) and worked with a lot of valves and fittings in my apprentice brewer gig, so I really wasn’t worried. I shut all the valves in the matrix and cranked the bottles shut. I was pretty sure I could get it all going safely again but I didn’t. For one, I didn’t want to be responsible should anything go wrong (like more earthquakes). I also felt that, perhaps, the sight of the neighborhood gaijin tinkering with explosive fuel right then might be upsetting to people. So I let it be and we went back inside.

Keiko took to cleaning up again, and feeling pretty chuffed from my manly propane enterprise, I set about thinking about what other things I should do. I checked that we had water, which we did. Then I remembered some Discovery Channel show on disaster survival I’d seen years before, where they said you should fill up your bathtub because water will often be cut soon after an earthquake. This is because they can’t tell where the leaks are and have to shut everyone down until they can identify the breaks in the system. So I filled up the tub and a couple of plastic foot bath pails Keiko got us a while back.

While that was running, I started a battery of emails and put up my first facebook notice. Luckily, at that point the internet was working. I was also in touch with my office manager through ketai (cell phone) mail and found out everyone at my school’s branch was okay.

We spent the next ninety minutes cleaning up while aftershocks kept rolling through. By that time the adrenaline had worn off and I was very much not enjoying them. It was like having the bully who’s beaten you up do that thing where they stop a sucker punch at the last second and then make fun of you for flinching. Like that, only with earthquakes.

The feeling at that time was quite particular. Very dizzy with motion sickness, but with this cloudy vagueness to perception; like some kind of psychotropic drug. Shock, no doubt. We really weren’t worried or feeling traumatized in the least, anyway. Keep in mind there were really no images or damage reports from the earthquake or tsunami at this time. Mostly the coverage was a frazzled, hard hated anchorman giving tsunami warnings at the news desk. The one video they were showing was of the earthquake in action in an office space; no doubt their own. So the feeling was (and still is, really) much like that of being in a car wreck where no one’s injured: it’s sudden and completely awful, but then it’s all over and you’re left with a profound feeling of relief (or at least should be: now’s not the time to worry about your stuff). “Wow! That was something. Aren’t we lucky!”

To be continued…

ENDNOTES: Next time, shock in action: heading out to try to return our library books. Check out my tumblr blog for more of my writing and other nonsense: http://muse-vassal-oc.tumblr.com/

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