March 11th, 2011

There’s no point in my trying to write about anything but Japan right now.

Waking up to those images this morning tore the heart out of me.  The devastation is unthinkable, in part because, unlike the areas of Indonesia and Thailand that were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, these are so heavily populated.  They look so much like America.

(The 2004 tsunami affected me even more directly, since I knew practically every square foot of the landfall in Phuket. I told Munyin as we watched that I knew what was behind the camera almost all the time — if the operator had turned 360 degrees, I could have described what we’d see next, all the way around.)

But Japan.  It’s hard to get a grasp on freighters coming together like castanets, or a wall of water higher than the pine trees in front of it, or trucks upended and flowing beneath highway overpasses, or oil refineries burning, or the horror of what quite soon might be the first major nuclear power plant tragedy since Chernobyl.  A bullet train (or two) and a cruise ship missing.

In some ways,though, the things that hit hardest are smaller: cell-phone footage taken inside a small apartment as order degenerates into chaos in seconds and a younger man kneels beside the chair of a white-haired elder, clasping the older man to his chest and trying to keep the chair upright.  And of a supermarket as female employees in aprons scurry out from under thousands and thousands of falling items.  Or two young women sitting on concrete steps in a plaza between buildings in Tokyo, praying as the camera that’s recording them jolts up and down.

One thing I’d forgotten until I saw the footage of fires is how much of rural and small-town Japan is still wood. More of the old Japan, the one I love best, probably lost forever.  There are certain to be draconian fire codes when these areas are rebuilt: more colorless concrete blocks. I know that’s an aesthetic as opposed to a practical, life-preserving reaction, but that’s the way I am.  I regret the loss of those buildings.

All the images and accounts go to prove all over again is that there’s no productive human response when the ground beneath our feet — solid ground — is suddenly shaken out like a giant bedspread.  Nothing we want, believe, or plan matters any more.  In addition to the loss of life and the physical wreckage, an event like this leaves behind a transparent devastation of hopes, dreams, love, resolutions for a new life, selfless gestures, plans for others, ambitions, poems, unpainted pictures, unheard music.

It’s probably a good thing for us that we can’t see this particular landscape.

9 Responses to “”

  1. Beth Says:

    There will likely never by a full tally of the lives lost and, in a way, that is worse. Some family members may have escaped to name and mourn those they have lost but there are all those who didn’t have ties to anyone who will miss them, the tragedy of people who move on to new lives in cities and become anonymous.

    There was no peaceful, gentle dying in Japan today. How long is 10 seconds when it is 10 seconds of horror?

    Japan is about as advanced technically as any nation can be but the ingenuity of humans is nothing against a force of nature.

    This weekend, members of every religion will join in prayer for the lost and the living who will not yet know if they are happy to be alive.

    A friend of my daughter’s is married to a Japanese woman. She returned to Japan to have her baby a few months ago. Her husband is in the US; she and the baby are to return here in a few weeks. Mother, baby, and her parents are safe, so far, in Tokyo. We pray that they continue to be.

  2. micael hallinan Says:

    Beth, I will join you in prayer for your freinds and all the injured and lost souls in Japan.

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    What a sorrowful, frightening time. Nature is so impersonal, and so implacable. I thought of you this morning, Tim, because in an earlier post you had said you worried about tsunamis, and I wondered where you were in 2004. I think prayer and community is all we have sometimes. Truly sobering as is your post, and Beth’s.

  4. Gary Says:

    I remember where I was in 2004. I was transiting through Colombo airport in Sri Lanka, on my way to Russia, and in the airport lounge I saw the first reports of the tsunami coming through on TV. But it wasn’t until I was with friends in Russia that I found out how bad it was.

    I was working in Sri Lanka at that time, and it was sobering to go back to seaside places I had visited in the past and see the damage. What’s just happened in Japan makes 2004 look very minor indeed.

    I once worked on a coastal zone project in Bangladesh, designed to establish screens of trees to reduce the effects of hurricane tidal surges. But in the end there’s a limit to what humanity can do.

  5. Tom Logan Says:

    We need to live our lives to be certain that every moment has been the best we can make it because we do not know what the next moment will bring. I try to do at least one good, charitable, giving thing each day. If the ground disappears from beneath my feet, I will have done the best I can. Tim, my heart hurts too.

  6. barbara macdonald Says:

    My daughter taught english for two years in Rikuzentakata, which was totally destroyed despite tsunami barriers. She told me that there is high ground immediately surrounding the area so her hopes are that people were able to go there. It’s such a devastating event.

    As we are not people of considerable means my daughter did make a a good point about donations, that if 500 people were to make a 5 dollar donation to the Red Cross, that would be $2500, a nice tidy sum. Hope it isn’t inappropriate to bring this up on this site.

    She also has many photographs of her time there and when things settle down somewhat she plans to send copies to her “Japanese family” to try and give them some of their past back.

    Anyhow, thanks for letting me share these simple thoughts with you.

  7. barbara macdonald Says:

    p.s. the woodcut used to illustrate your blog today would have seemed, a few days ago, quite beautiful, now i look at it with with an ominous feeling in my heart.

  8. Beth Says:

    Thank you, Michael, for the prayers. As Lil, says prayer and the support of the community are all there is right now.

    My daughter hasn’t heard anything since last night about the mother and baby but the American side of the family are as sure as it is possible to be that there hasn’t been any significant destruction in the area in which the Japanese family lives.

    My daughter’s friend works for something similar to an NGO. He is in Canada now, his family is in Massachusetts, and his wife and baby are in Japan. They are all a little bit crazy right now, desperate for any information.


  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m sorry not to have come in here, but you’re all saying what I feel. Like some of you, I have friends in Japan, although it seems that some of them were out of the country and the others seem to be uninjured. I spent part of today watching NHK, which has a sort of Reader’s Digest online and in English. To the people on the screen this is local news, and there’s more emotion associated with it than we see here.

    And now it looks like at least one, and possibly two, of the reactors are on their way to full or partial meltdown. In the only country ever to have atomic weapons used against them. Today I saw photos of guys in thick white protective suits waving wands over the bodies of little kids who had been exposed to radiation.

    Times like this, I’m glad I’m not a priest, trying to find an explanation for all this, trying to apologize for God.

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