Prophets, Prophecies, and Open Wounds

All the fuss about a Rapture has been unknown and irrelevant here in Hadano City, and probably across most of the nation, with the exception of young people on Twitter or Facebook who have friends in the US.  I tried, in vain, to explain the concept to my co-workers this week, and was met with bewilderment and only mild interest.  Earthquakes?  Floods?  Just part of living within the Rim of Fire.  End of the World?  Well, that’s exactly what the Tohoku quake and tsunami must have felt like, and folks survived, didn’t they?  Not just the bad ones, either.  Anyway,  Japan has its own prophets (called “Yogensha”), and now the nation is in the process of rediscovering them.

I recently attended a concert with an old friend; we hadn’t seen each other for nearly a year, so at the post-concert dinner we had a bit of catching up to do.  It is customary these days to greet friends we meet only infrequently with, “Are you okay since the quake?  How were you that day??” (Not necessarily, “What were you doing?”, though that’s usually the follow-up question).  Since most of my friends are from either Kanagawa or Tokyo prefecture, we all know that we were okay–there were upsets and minor injuries, but no deaths this far South.  That said, most of us were not really emotionally okay the day of the quake, and the aftershocks that followed left us nervous and shaken.  So we recount our own experiences, and inevitably agree that we’ve never been quite that frightened, EVER.  Then we must mention how lucky we were, and how much harder it was and still is for the victims in Tohoku. Even if we don’t know anyone personally, we can imagine. Those who lack imagination have only to turn on the nightly news, which still focuses nearly exclusively on the disaster, as well as the country’s efforts to save energy (“setsu-den”).

My friend Fusae-san and I had finished detailing our personal quake stories, had covered the “so sad for the victims” part, and were starting on dessert. That’s when she informed me that I  *must* read the latest blog that *everyone* was talking about. All ears, I asked for details.  Apparently, the blog was written by an older woman, whose posts were now considered prophetic, and who has become an instant celebrity. Her name was Matsubara Teruko, and according to Fusae, her posts were actually typed by her daughter, as she was not computer-literate.  Ooooh, good stuff–a prophet!  I  Googled her the next day, and she popped up immediately after I typed in “Matsubara”….a celebrity indeed!  I struggled to read her posts in Japanese (found them rambling, but cheery), and paid particular attention to the month of February (as Fusae had suggested).  What I found was….dubious at best.  Among a myriad of other topics were mentions of preparing for disaster, based on the Christchurch Quake and other disasters across the globe that were linked together in her mind. ” You can never be too prepared!” was her basic message, and although sensible and praiseworthy, I hardly consider that advice prophetic. Nonetheless, she is now wildly popular, and everyone loves a little old lady with her own blog.

Other prophets are more long-suffering, and have spent their lives in a very Biblical fashion, warning their neighbors, and  being consistently ignored and even shunned by their own families. Wednesday’s NY Times Global Edition gave two of these prophets validation and instant fame, by publishing their stories on its front page.  Nagano Eiichi, ninety years old, and Shiratori Yoshika, seventy-eight, are lifelong anti-nuclear activists. They and their colleagues have known nothing but defeat in court battles, warnings from employers, and harassment from their neighbors. Suddenly, the tables have turned, and “the aging protestors are now heralded as truth-tellers, while members of the nuclear establishment are being demonized.” (Martin Fackler) Another elderly man from the town of Iwaki in Fukushima is now not only a prophet, but a hero. After years of preaching to deaf ears ( we’re on the coast! A tsunami could strike any minute, and we’re not prepared! ) , Suzuki Tokuo had gone so far as to create his own evacuation manual, distribute it to the entire community, and make plans for an evacuation drill in the fall. As he was discussing the plans with a local police officer, the quake struck!  Fearing the onset of a  tsunami, Suzuki boldly hopped into the passenger seat of the police car, urging the officer to begin cruising the neighborhood.  Indeed, the tsunami did strike shortly after, and the two could see the water moving in from their hilltop vantage-point. According to the Asahi Shinbun, Suzuki used the microphone inside the patrol car to warn residents to flee to higher ground, first urging , and then “ordering”.  Those who heard and took him seriously were saved, but many still doubted and lost their lives.

And so, in the end, the prophets are now enjoying fame and recognition after enduring years of humiliation and defeat.  Most find this only small consolation. Nagano Eiichi, the ninety-year-old nuclear activist, finds his fame especially bittersweet. “If we had done more, if our voices had been louder, we could have prevented the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi,” he says. Perhaps. I personally find it sad that Japan’s young people have been sluggish and apathetic until this point. Older activists like Nagano, Suzuki, and Shiratori have been consistently ignored by college students and their entire generation (who I sometimes suspect have been too busy plucking their brows, creating elaborate hairstyles, and keeping themselves otherwise well-groomed), and have been unable to drum up support for their efforts. Well, no longer!  College students, young parents, and thirty-something office workers are now all on the band wagon, marching in Shibuya and getting photographed in spiffy clothes. They owe a debt to their elders, who did the hard work for them.

This week’s news has been packed with new revelations from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, including the resignation of the TEPCO president, who “accepts responsibility” for the disaster. He will carry the weight of his role in the dirty dealings surrounding the crippled plant for the rest of his life, but now at least the multiple burdens of shutting down the plant, preventing further environmental damage, making compensation payments to all manner of claimants (including, it has been determined, emotional damage payments to families in Fukushima forced to evacuate to shelters), and somehow managing to stay solvent, have been lifted from his shoulders. I’d guess he’ll be sleeping pretty well, all things considered.

Things are still raw and painful for folks up North, as evidenced by more small tidbits of news.  A “rakugo” storyteller attempting to cheer up shelter families with his performances is meeting with only mixed success, despite sticking to lighthearted traditional tales. “Some people can’t even laugh yet; they just walk out when I start,” he admitted.  My friend whose mother lives in Sendai also confirms this.  According to her Sendai friend, there are many stories that never make the news here about parents who have lost children; many have also lost their sanity, and some their will to live. Suicides are not unusual, she said, though they are not publicized.  Thinking of my own children and imagining my life without them, I can fully believe this. On the other end, children who have lost either one or both parents have now returned to school, and are attempting to find a measure of normalcy themselves. Three hundred students in Iwate prefecture’s Ootsuchi  Middle School are packed like sardines into a school built to hold one hundred; half of them are commuting from shelters, and many have lost one or more parents. Their teachers have had “two hours of special training on post-traumatic stress”, but that seems like only a drop in the bucket to me.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, despite the dark trains and uncomfortably warm restaurants and stores (no air conditioning!  Even CURVES was cooled only by a floor fan today, and I was sweating bullets), there are pockets of cheer. Because offices are committed to keeping the use of air conditioning to a minimum this summer, businessmen will now be allowed to wear cooler, and “cooler” clothes to work, including Hawaiian shirts and jeans (no holes please) !  Whether they will or not remains yet to be seen, but fashion retailers are hopeful. My husband is disgusted, and has already stated his intention to continue in the ranks of the uncool and sweaty.

So that’s the situation  for now….or at least a very small sliver of a big big pie. In closing this entry, I want to post a link to a new blog I’ve just found that might be of interest.  A Yokohama man has set off for Ishinomaki , and is working with the volunteer group Peaceboat in the clean-up and restoration of the city; you’ll be surprised by some of the situations he encounters, and get a first-hand account of how foreigners are aiding in the reconstruction efforts.     Again, thank you for reading, and enjoy whatever the day might bring.

"Hey, where were you guys when we needed you?"


2 thoughts on “Prophets, Prophecies, and Open Wounds

  1. Although I enjoy and appreciate your view that things seem to be changing, and the younger generation is hearing and heeding the warnings, my skepticism says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” For example, are we in The States really changing our attitude toward gasoline consumption? Or is it just a good news story? Three dollar a gallon gasoline used to be shocking, ‘and people were going to change their ways’; but now gasoline is pushing $4.00 and nothing has changed, three dollars in the new normal.

    Katrina, the Gulf oil spill–what long lasting changes are there there?

    Change is often imperceptibly slow.

    • Joseph, I can only say that change comes easier to a very small country. And to a country that is used to co-operation and sacrifice. The triple disaster was a huge jolt to the entire nation, with aftershocks still being felt two months later. Although the Northern and Southernmost islands didn’t actually feel the quake, much of the entire island of Honshu–the main island-felt it. And continued to feel it, so that what happened was a constant reminder. After that, the power grid (again, half the island on Honshu is on the same grid) was broken up and nuclear plants were down, so half of the main island experienced blackouts; folks know that if they do NOT change, the cycle of blackouts will begin again in the summer months. In Japan, change has already begun, and folks now say about dark public spaces, “Well, it was really too bright to begin with, wasn’t it?” . We’ll see how long the good attitude and perseverance lasts; my guess is that the Tohoku disaster struck such fear into peoples’ hearts that things really will continue to change for some time. As for America…..that’s a whole different kettle of fish, isn’t it? A nation that’s averse to both co-operation and sacrifice, and would rather pay ridiculously high gas prices than change their consumption habits….I can’t believe that gas is nearly four dollars a gallon now! Horrors!

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