Category Archives: Japan

What We Have (or Haven’t) Learned From Hiroshima – Nuclear Crisis in Japan

A few weeks ago I took a weekend trip to the city of Hiroshima. The purpose was, as the city promotes itself as an international center of peace and anti-nuclear sentiment, to garner a true appreciation of nuclear threat. Little did I know how relevant this trip would turn out to be.

The city nowadays shows little sign of its tragic past, though it is more spacious than other Japanese cities of its size, for obvious reasons. A beautiful park stands in the center of the city, in the place where the A-bomb went off, which was once the bustling city center. At the edge of the Memorial Peace Park and along a branch of the river stands the famous Hiroshima “A-Bomb Dome”, and across from that, the monument dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki and other children killed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If you have not heard the story of 12-year-old Sadako and her thousand paper cranes, I highly suggest looking it up. The young Sadako seemingly escaped the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing unscathed at the age of 2, but was discovered to have developed radiation-induced leukemia by the age of 12. An ancient Japanese story says that anyone who can fold a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish by a crane. Sadako folded over one thousand cranes in her hospital bed, each with a wish to live. However, she died within a year of her diagnosis.

"This is our cry, this is our prayer: Peace on Earth"

Paper cranes are sent from school children from around the world

The last of Sadako's own paper cranes on display

The final attraction of the Memorial Peace Park is the museum. Inside it is divided into two sections, one detailing the city of Hiroshima, its development from its founding up to the bombing and why it was chosen as a target, and the other detailing the toll of the destruction and the impact on human lives. What makes this museum particularly legitimate is its entrance fee: 50 Yen, the equivalent of  1 US dollar per person.

While the section of the museum that extols on the city is fascinating in its own right, the real “juice” in my opinion was the latter section. The collection of personal items, photos and debris gathered and preserved bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the human element of the tragedy. Displaying clothes to melted roof tiles to sections of preserved leukemia-filled bone marrow, the Memorial Museum, no matter how full of people, is perpetually quiet.

The exact time of detonation

An artist's depiction of how surivors described people caught in the blast (shortly before they died) - their skin literally blown off

The tricycle of a three-year-old boy that died shortly after the bombing

The clothes of school children caught in the blast - all of whom died within a few days after the bombing

The fading shadow of a man burned into the steps of what was once Hiroshima city hall

And finally, what is most relevant to those of us in Japan right now:

The sludge stain on a white wall of the radioactive "black rain" that fell over Hiroshima afterwards - literally the steam of the evaporated river raining down and dragging radioactive material with it

A child survivor's depiction of those severely dehydrated after the bombing drinking the "black rain"

This brings me to current events. Before I continue, let me be clear: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are very different from the current nuclear reactor crisis in northeastern Japan. However I will say, even though the bombs were designed to destroy and the plants were designed with several safety redundancies, in both cases uranium and plutonium have been used. These are radioactive and dangerous, and ties between them are undeniable.

That being said, the current nuclear crisis affecting over 6 Japanese reactors has put one of the only nations to have ever known nuclear fallout into an understandable state of panic (the others being Ukraine and much of Europe after the Chernobyl disaster, of which I know too little about to speak of with any authority at this time). And all of this after the 5th largest earthquake recorded in over 100 years and a tsunami that wiped out entire towns.

People are panicked. Food and supplies that are desperately needed in the disaster zone are disappearing from shelves up north, and droves are fleeing Tokyo by train or air. And while out where I live people still keep their firm Japanese calm in place, they nervously check the news. They whisper. They wait.

But for what?

As an American citizen, I cannot have faith in any kind of government and still claim to possess a single brain cell. And though I may personally find Japan to be more (shall I say) honorable than many other countries, my almost natural (and hard-earned) suspicions of government communication have me on the alert. They can’t be telling us the whole story.

So for me it comes down to this question: what shall I do? If (or rather when) a reactor blows, I don’t want to be downwind. Luckily the wind is currently blowing east and out to sea, where it will disperse before harming anyone on the North American continent, but that can change at any moment.

They say it can be controlled, and they say that radiation levels outside of a certain radius are not harmful to human health. But one reactor after another has either exploded or caught on fire – and it is difficult not to conclude that the Japanese government is trying to keep people from panicking. Experts from around the world ensure us that nothing extremely bad can happen.

People can speculate about how safe radiation levels are from across oceans in their university chairs, but I’m HERE now. When it comes to the reality of harm to one’s own person, the speculation of others from far away is often hardly worth a damn.

I don’t plan on leaving the country. There is a chance that I don’t need to be worrying so much, especially since I myself am not an expert on anything nuclear. I am not panicked. But the potential prospect of contracting leukemia in 15 years or telling my deformed children why they turned out they way they did is not appealing to me. Right now I can only hope for the best.

It may be a few years until another museum dedicated to disaster and nuclear tragedy is built in the country of Japan, but I can only hope that this is a lesson to the rest of the world to put aside plans for nuclear energy. Thirty one countries operate nuclear power stations, and many have plans to build more. It is just a bad idea. You can’t get rid of the stuff – ever. You have to bury it and hope it will go away in a few million years. And if something goes wrong politically in any country that operates plants, what happens to those plants? Who will man them? These are not risks, in the interest of the environment or humanity, to be taking. As of right now, I hope this ends soon so we can get back to concentrating on helping those who really need the help.

Ultimately, I do not and will not ever regret coming to Japan. A terrible series of events like this could happen anywhere at any time, so I cannot partake in any woulda-coulda-shouldas. Japan is a wonderful country that has opened up so many doors of opportunity for me, and greatly added to my life. I can see my poor mother now – chiding me for leaving her safe country town in Middle-of-Nowhere America to go out into the dangerous world, but despite these events, I would still say to her: sorry. I’d rather die alive than live dead.

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Tsunami

As we all should know by now, there has been a terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami in the north of Japan this weekend. Everyone is abuzz about it right now (as they should be) so, as I am here, I will give you my “where were you when…?” story.

This Friday was graduation day for the third-year students in the junior high school I teach in. After a rewarding, though tearful, ceremony, my kids left the school grounds for the last time, all full of smiles and future hopes. After the last pictures were snapped and the final waves waved – we teachers went back to an emptied school and had a special graduation lunch.

We all gave speeches commemorating good work and dedication (I think so anyway…my Japanese is not that good yet…) and went back to the staff room to relax and begin preparations for the next term.

It was not long after we settled in that one of my fellow teachers turned on the television and yelped, calling us over. Then we watched it all unfold, slowly, horribly before our eyes. As the waters washed over the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and the fires burned in Tokyo, all need for translation deteriorated. We were all yelling the same thing at the people in cars, in houses, running on the streets and empty rice paddies away from the fires that engulfed buildings or from the wall of water rushing to swallow them, : “Run! Get out of there!”

While the footage of the tsunami rushing inland (a wave with so much force and speed that it left a cloud of spray lifted behind it – a testament to it’s almost angry power) was rare and in a scientifically speaking way, significant, that fact alone could not turn our attention away from the humanity of the situation.

And while the Japanese are quite used to earthquakes and tsunamis, as they rest on one of the most active regions of the Ring of Fire and see natural disasters as not only something to prepare for, but as a part of life, none of their preparation could have shielded them against this. They have widened rivers and raised roads and bridges – they have earthquake proof buildings and evacuations plans – but when an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale hits you – who would have a chance?

So we watched in horror as the helicopters circled clusters of building about to be hit by the water in Sendai, and though they exercised some delicacy – changing the picture to one of that of an office building during the quake or a press conference just as someone was about to be swallowed inescapably before our eyes – they were not always quick enough.

As the wave of sea water black with sludge and debris, carrying boats, cars, and houses on fire pushed ever further inland, all we could do was watch as cars attempting to drive away on the highway were pushed over by the wave, as people stuck in a traffic jam leaped out of their cars in desperation and ran, as a motorcyclist did his best to race death – and lost. What struck me the hardest was hearing of the school gymnasium that collapsed in Tokyo during a graduation ceremony…

I went home to call my family and tell them I was alright. As I got in, Boyfriend yelled from the other room that the quake had hit and he had felt it, shaking our apartment for several minutes and how could I not have felt it? The best I could do was say that my school is a brand-new quake-proof building. Granted, I live a little north of the city of Kobe (another Japanese city with a history of deadly earthquakes) and far from the epicenter of the quake. But I wondered that myself – how did I not feel it? Part of me almost felt guilty – as if it was somehow shameful that I didn’t physically share in this dreadful tragedy. Perhaps I am starting to empathize with the collectivist culture of Japan.

I had noticed when I got in that my friend’s car was in my driveway, but she hadn’t come in. I called her and she told me that she couldn’t park in her spot because there were police covering the parking lot of her apartment. She sounded panicked. The two of us went down the street to check on her.

While from New Zealand, my friend is proficient in Japanese and has a lot of friends all over the country – many of them living up north. She was panicked because phone lines were down and she hadn’t/couldn’t hear from her friends to see if they were alright. What made it worse: an old woman who lived upstairs had apparently died – either from the shock of the earthquake or the tragedy or perhaps even days before – we don’t know how or when, and her family stood outside waiting and weeping.

So we three strangers from faraway lands huddled together under the scent of formaldehyde (covering something rotten) that leaked down from the ceiling. We could not escape the fact of death that day.

My heart goes out to the people of Japan. 2011 has so far been a year of dreadful disaster and tragedy, from the floods of Australia and Brazil to the earthquakes of New Zealand and Japan, and even to the atrocious acts against basic human rights happening in Libya…

My heart goes out to us all. Let’s hope that 2011 has something better to bring us soon.


The Three Views of Japan

Among the Japanese, there are three “views” in Japan that are considered the most beautiful.

The first is a group of about 260 islands off of the coast of Miyagi Prefecture called Matsushima. The second is a sandbar in Miyazu bay in the Kyoto prefecture, called Amanohashidate. And the third is a shrine called Itsukushima, better known as Miyajima, located on an island in the Inland Sea of Japan, northwest of Hiroshima Bay.

I recently visited the city of Hiroshima, and made a quick trip to Itsukushima. I want to visit all of these “views” so consider this the first installment.

Itsukushima (Miyajima): (Keep in mind I visited in February)

The Pagoda from town

The famous floating Torii

The shrine

Heading up the mountain

A sign depicting a shrine that cannot be photographed

A protector of buddhism (I like this guy’s face)

Apparently if you turn the prayers they have in the middle of these stairs it is like meditation – and gives you good luck

Blessings for children


Japanese Food

The pros of Japanese food: it is delicious and full of surprises.

The cons of Japanese food: it is strange and full of surprises.

Eating food in Japan has forced me to grow up.

Let me explain.

I was this kind of eater as a child:

My parents believed in letting their children decide what they would eat. Therefore, I decided I would not touch these foods:

1) VEGETABLES

2) pickles

3) eggs

4) tomatoes

5) anything remotely resembling broccoli, either in shape, color or relative weight

6) any kind of condiment besides BBQ sauce

7) anything that didn’t look delicious, the definition of which changed every day

Don’t get me wrong. While I was a picky and difficult eater,  outside of food, my ability to throw caution to the wind and toss myself into the new and strange was quite without bounds.

I liked life unpredictable – except what I put in my mouth. I think that’s fair. And as I grew older I did manage to widen the extent of my palate, but not by much.

So, what changed in Japan that didn’t in Europe or Africa or even at home?

This.

I teach English at a Japanese junior high school. In Japan, they aren’t assholes who waste their food. For school lunch, everyone gets the same meal, and everyone has equal portions. They serve each other. They sit down and clean their trays like good citizens of the world, and when they’re done, they put their empty bowls neatly away for washing, and recycle their milk cartons. It is all done in an orderly and mature fashion.

I fully support this method and dearly wish I could bring an attitude like this toward food back to my home country.

However, this is not possible. The reasons why are as such:

Japan has a collectivist culture. They think in terms of “we” instead of “I”. They are trained from birth to think of themselves as a small part of a much larger whole. Therefore in everything they do, they keep in mind that the people and environment around them will be affected in some way. While this is a great way to lead a strong, let alone environmentally and civilly conscious society, the downsides to this type of culture are often restrictive limitations on individuals – usually in terms of self-expression.

The United States of America (and many “western” societies), on the other hand, has an individualistic culture. People raised in such societies are taught to believe that everyone is unique and important and has something to offer the world. While this type of culture gives people the freedom to live their lives with copious amounts of mobility and openness,  without fear of retribution, it can also lead to the wide-scale spread of  Selfishasshole. The disease known as  Selfishasshole makes people throw out perfectly good food to rot, all but bulldoze their way over the needs of others, and treat strangers like shit.

Not everyone does this. And not everyone is in a position to fully express themselves. There are exceptions to every rule, which is why my country must go through a difficult but necessary civil rights upheaval every few decades to maintain its base values and evolve with them.

Anyway. The point.

Japan treats almost everything like an art. Self defense. Writing. Tea. Clothing. And, of course, making and eating food.

So. We come back to this:

With this knowledge in mind, you can imagine how ill I felt with my case of Selfishasshole.

Curing it was difficult. It was painful. The selfish little child inside squirmed and cried as I forced food into its jaws. But I grew.

I developed a taste for tofu and seaweed.

I could down squid like a mother fuckin’ champion.

Food that I didn’t recognize the origin of (and still don’t) was bravely chewed and swallowed.

With my best friend rice by my side, nothing could stop me.

Until.

I try. I really really do. Sometimes I manage to eat half of it. But my students know by now to just take it out of my hands and distribute it amongst themselves.

So much for internationalism. But no matter how much growing I do, I ain’t eatin’ that shit.

Period.