The Falcon Train Flies Again!

Hayabusa, the "Falcon Train"

It is Sunday afternoon in Japan; the end of a highly emotional week, or the  hopeful beginning of a new week , depending on your calendar. My wall calendar says it’s the start of a fresh new week, but my “techo”, or date book, says no: the old week has not been fully processed yet, and it’s too soon to put it behind me. Certainly, there was a lot to process. The biggest news on evening TV was the resumption of services of…..the Tokyo to Tohoku bullet train!  The trains themselves were undamaged by the quake, but power outages, damaged cables, and a myriad of complications have prevented them from running. Finally, this Monday, the first train was set to leave for Aomori prefecture, just North of Iwate. There was great fanfare and publicity as volunteers boarded the train, energized to aid in the clean-up efforts and play their part in the reconstruction of Tohoku. The train’s destination, Aomori, was shaken but relatively undamaged by the quake and tsunami, so tourist agencies had been assiduously promoting their hot springs and historical sites in an effort to lure tourists for the Golden Week holidays as well.  The bullet train up and running–it should have been a triumphant event….but it ended in frustration and disappointment as problems with overhead power cables in Tohoku prevented the train from leaving Shinjuku for six full hours. The well-wishers and tourists went home, the passengers waited-at first patiently, but with increasing boredom-and railway workers strove  frantically to resolve the problems. The train finally limped rather than sped out of the station in the early evening, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The train continued to be plagued with power outages and suspended services until Thursday, when it was announced that services were “back to normal”. For those of you who are not familiar with the newest, fastest, most stylish bullet train called “Hayabusa” (literally, the “Falcon Train” ) , I’m including a photo; even if you are not a train geek (a good portion of Japanese men are, and some women as well), you must admit that it is a thing of beauty and wonder. If you’ve had the good fortune to have ridden on any one of the legendary bullet trains, you will appreciate the comfort, cleanliness of the train, as well as the impeccable manners and attractiveness of the attendants who push the snack trolleys back and forth down the aisles.  Non-train geeks and those who have never indulged in the luxury of a bullet train ride must gaze at the photo and imagine the symbolic significance of this sleek mechanical beauty, and what it means to the country to have it up  and running again.

Aside from the symbolism, the “Falcon Train” is, as I mentioned, bringing hundreds of volunteers to cities like Ishinomaki and Kesennuma; young people from the Tokyo area have chosen to spend their Golden Week ( four national holidays sandwiched in between two weekends) in Tohoku, putting their energy and enthusiasm to work doing manual labor. At this point, there are still many more would-be-volunteers than there are resources to house and organize them. One might think that any help would be welcome, no?  But in reading a description of the volunteer experience of a British man who had travelled to Ishinomaki with an NPO called AP Bank, I began to understand why controlling the number of volunteers and planning and organizing their schedules is of such grave importance. The Tokyo man, Richard Smart, had been sent to an uraban area which had suffered very little structural damage, but had been deluged with mud and debris from the tsunami. He writes of the mind-boggling layers of protective covering he was required to don: “…industrial face masks, protective goggles, protective boots, industrial gloves and waterproofing from head to toe.”  His first thought was that these were just cautionary measures, but changed his tune quickly when confronted with “…a mix of dust, rotting matter, fish, oil and stagnating water,”  as well as a toxic sludge covering the floors of the buildings he was sent to clean. Within seconds, he and the other volunteers felt a burning in the back of their throats, and hurriedly slapped on the face masks.

Volunteers like Smart from various NPO agencies travel with their own food, sleep in tents, and take orders from local officials. In contrast, those who make their way up North as individuals without sleeping arrangements, food, protective clothing, or even a plan cause more trouble for already overworked officials and are, in general, not welcome. I have seen no mention of the language issue, but my guess is that non-Japanese speakers (no matter how genuine their desire to help may be) could also be problematic for local officials, as time would be wasted scouring the town for translators.  Locals are also understandably wary of “disaster tourists”, who arrive with cameras around their necks to gawk at the desolation, get a video to post on you tube, and hurry home. As the US Air Force troops stationed in Misawa (just north of the worst-hit areas) understood, picking up the pieces that were Northern Japan must be done carefully and precisely, the Japanese way. The airport in Sendai, which was nearly written off as a complete loss, was cleaned up (and believe me, that took more than a few dishrags) and given a new purpose as a desperately needed transit station for planes bearing aid supplies; this was done tactfully, with the approval and mutual efforts of the Japanese military. The US troops won praise for not charging in and wresting full control from the Japanese, and Japanese troops were equally praised for gracefully allowing the US troops to lend their expertise and bail them out (literally and figuratively!) of a situation they would have been hard-pressed to tackle alone. Regardless of how hard they were hit by the quake or the tsunami (or the combination), neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities all have plans by now, and are beginning to move forward. Those who truly want to “help” must go through the proper channels, receive the proper permission, and work with qualified and experienced organizations (such as the volunteers who were sent from Kobe, who had first-hand knowledge of disaster clean-up), or their help turns out to be a further burden on an already stressed system.

I wrote that towns and cities have plans now and are moving forward, but that of course excludes the prefecture of Fukushima, where nothing is certain and the future cannot be predicted.  Towns closest to the crippled power plant have been completely evacuated, with livestock and family pets left behind to starve or run wild, whichever the case might be. Rumor says that veterinarians sent in to assess the situation found nearly all the cows locked in their stables either dead or severely weakened with hunger, the chickens  all dead, and pigs, as natural scavengers, surviving off the meat of the carcasses around them. We have no actual statistics, and can only imagine the carnage and suffering of the animals who have died and are dying–not of irradiation, but of hunger. Monday’s news focused on the farmers, their sorrow and frustration at being unable to evacuate their herds, and Tuesday’s news featured a demonstration in Tokyo (finally! About time!) held by farmers from the Fukushima prefecture, who had travelled to the big city with crates of fresh produce, huge metal containers of fresh milk, and two bewildered and long-suffering cows. The scene at the entrance to  TEPCO headquarters was broadcast on the nightly news: over the mooing of the cows, angry farmers demanded compensation for their losses (300 liters of milk poured out and wasted per day!), and declared themselves dissatisfied with the electric company’s response to the nuclear disaster. Many of the farmers live in Fukushima prefecture, yet far outside the evacuation zone, where the level of radiation is not considered dangerously high. No matter. Their milk will not sell.  “This situation,” one farmer announced, “was caused by humans, not nature.”

On Tuesday, it was also announced that more towns outside the original evacuation zone must now prepare to leave by late May. Residents of these towns, whose homes and businesses are barely damaged and whose children have just begun attending school, are understandably angry and frustrated. Mayors from two of the cities, Iitate and Kawamata, met with the Prime Minister to discuss their grievances.  Meanwhile, as the Mayors frantically search for an evacuation site for their citizens, the playgrounds of their children’s schools have been declared unsafe. On Wednesday, backhoes were scraping off the surface layer of soil, which registered a dangerously high radiation level, from school playgrounds across Fukushima prefecture. No place could be found to dump or bury the irradiated soil (you want it??) , so it has been left on the playgrounds, covered over with some sort of giant metal container lids. Children wear masks indoors and out, and can no longer use the playground at all. Schools where the soil radiation level has tested normal allow children to play outdoors for a limited time each day, and only on days when the radiation level in the air is at a safe level; this is determined by teachers, who wear dosimeters strapped to their waists and check the radiation levels hourly. Back at home, parks and playgrounds also bear warning signs, urging children to play outside for no longer than an hour at a time. No trouble there-most mothers are restricting their children’s outdoor activities completely. Everything is on hold for these families as they wait to see where they will be evacuated to, how soon (or if ) they will be able to return, or whether, by some stroke of good fortune, decisions will be reversed and they will be allowed to stay. Needless to say, those who have already been evacuated live in a state of even more uncertainty and fear, unable to move forward until they know the final judgement on what they’ve left behind.

On Wednesday , the Emperor and Emperess politely declined their invitation to Will and Kate’s royal wedding, and set off for Sendai, where they were seen visiting with and consoling shelter victims. The Emperess, who manages to be a combination of graceful, warm, and uninhibited, bent down to the level of the elderly residents, clasping their hands, and receiving a hand-picked bunch of daffodils from a woman who had lost her house, but found the flowers intact in her garden.

On Thursday, there was a Buddhist ceremony held jointly in memory of pupils from a single elementary school in Ishinomaki; seventy-four out of one hundred and eight students either dead or missing. The service, held in a vast indoor space lined with flowers, offerings, and photographs of the children, brought tears to the eyes of parents and teachers across the country who, like me, couldn’t tear themselves away from the raw emotion of the scene. Also on Thursday, TEPCO declared that “compensation guidelines have been set”, promising to pay out trillions of yen in damages, including emotional damage caused by weeks or months of shelter life. The government declares that although the final responsibility belongs to TEPCO, they will step in to make sure the payments are made. How either TEPCO or the government will come up with the trillions of yen is the real question, and politicians are seen arguing heatedly among themselves about the financial crisis on public television all day long. “Get a move on, and decide SOMEthing,” I want to say, but although Japan is technically a democracy, I know I won’t get that chance. I only hope that more time is not wasted in deposing yet another Prime Minister this spring (there are already calls for his resignation)!  Let’s just make do with what we have, and move forward with some plan–any plan–to begin the process of compensation and reconstruction.

Friday was spent in setting up this blog, and Saturday was a charity Easter Egg Hunt held on the lovely green lawn of a local college campus. Nearly two hundred small children showed up, and the event raised over a thousand dollars (in yen, of course…I’m estimating in dollars) to stock a damaged library in the Tohoku region. The weather was fine, the children adorable, and the event went off without a hitch. The money is just a drop in the bucket considering the damages, but I was doing what I do best (entertaining and engaging with children), and enjoying myself thoroughly. As a woman I admire, the Granny of the Big Smile, said, that’s what it’s all about anyway. A blogger known as the Tokyo Twilighter says it this way: “To support Japan, what I would say is this: Simply do what you do every day, but do it better. Go to school or to work but with passion and energy. Engage your neighbors or community but with more sympathy and compassion than you every have. Let these historic moments move you, inspire you and invigorate you for as long as the feeling lasts because, believe me, that initial adrenaline and humanitarian solidarity will wear off. Ride it as long as you can. Let it make you be a better person, and let it wake you up from the complacency in your life.”

Good night, and thank you for reading.

2 thoughts on “The Falcon Train Flies Again!

  1. And thank *you* for writing, Ruthie. So much energy and compassion go into your notes, exactly what is needed to help heal the immense suffering all around you. And, yes, even though I’m so far away, I too will do what I can to help–like spreading the word about this blog!

  2. Thank you, as always, Ruthie for sharing the poignancy of life in Japan post-quake/tsunami. The explanation of the different issues with and approaches to volunteers and volunteering was enlightening and the image of the Empress receiving the daffodils was particularly touching. The world should pay more attention to all this ~ there are many good examples being set that everyone could benefit from.

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