Rubble: on the ground, and in our hearts

  • What the rubble was like last spring…

    Yesterday, a friend posted before and after photos of tsunami-affected areas in Tohoku on my facebook page. Picture after picture contrasted areas engulfed by water and rubble with the new rubble-free, grey, barren landscape. I viewed them with mixed emotions of marvel (at the transformation) and sometimes distress (at the dreariness of the vision. Some areas have been reduced to bare earth, devoid of houses, shops, trees, or any sign of life).  I recalled how enormous the task of clearing the rubble seemed last March and April, and also the spirit of humility and generosity that blew across the country as a whole. There was very little whining about the inconveniences of daily life last spring (and there are plenty such inconveniences in a country where even the rich do not live in large spacious houses), and people felt good about sacrifice.

    It was then that I wrote my first blog entries, trying desperately to record the changes in attitude of those around me, and to make sense of the complexities of the 3-11 disaster and the nation’s response.  My first entries were simply “Notes” on facebook, designed to keep family and friends in the US informed, and to assure them that I had not taken to my bed, wasting away with radiation sickness. Gradually, the writing became a necessary discipline for me, and I now blog for myself as well as others. Each post requires time, concentration, research, and a good deal of thought; by the time I’ve officially pressed the “Publish” button, I’ve stretched myself a bit further than before (hoping fervently that the elastic will continue to expand and not snap abruptly) and often convinced myself of something I had not believed at the onset of writing.

    This evening, I went scrolling back through old facebook posts looking for a particular entry I remembered writing about the rubble in Tohoku, and the spirit of sacrifice that impelled people to conserve energy and begin simplifying their lives in response to the suffering of their neighbors in the north. The post dates from April 16th, before the announcement that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had suffered a meltdown, and focuses on tsunami damage rather than radiation. Here’s the post, exactly as I recorded it at the time:

    ……When I left the house today, cherry blossom petals were blowing through the 

    Sakura blooming in Tohoku, 2011

    air, lining the dirt road and sometimes settling on the heads of pedestrians. Very pleasant, no clean-up involved, and completely biodegradable. In contrast, of course, to the challenge of Tohoku, where the clean-up will take years. The clearing of rubble and debris has officially begun, but it’s a slow and delicate process. The clean-up of Kobe after the Hanshin Quake took a full three years, and experts predict that  Northern Japan will take even longer. In addition to the clean-up, the restoration of the environment in the Fukushima area could take between ten (according to Toshiba Corp.)  and thirty (according to Hitachi) years. That’s at least one childhood, and potentially one-third of a lifetime.

    The work is delicate because of the bodies which still lay buried underneath the rubble of cities such as Minami Sanriku, where eighty percent of the buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Soldiers (both US and Japanese, working together) go on foot with picks and poles, prying and prodding. Any personal mementos such as albums or photographs are recovered and put aside.  If no bodies appear to be trapped underneath the remains of a house,  heavy machinery will move in to break down the structure, and eventually cart off the broken bits to……where???  That is often the problem. The city of Fukushima is using their  former  park as a dumping ground, but it is fast filling up, and the city lacks open flat land. Currently, it takes approximately one day to break down and dispose of a single house. Work proceeds at a frustratingly slow pace, but it is proceeding, and it’s being done carefully as well, with respect to the dead and to the survivors who once lived in the flattened residences.

    Cities such as Minami Sanriku, Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, and parts of Fukushima have literally been reduced to rubble, which is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a loose mass of angular fragments of rock or masonry crumbled by natural or human forces”. In addition to the rubble, the ground is littered with random fragments of family life. Look up “Kesennuma” on YouTube, and you will see videos of a strange landscape: a bizarre goulash of piano keyboards, tile roofs, baby strollers, planks, poles, concrete blocks, window glass and front doors, all torn from the houses which are no longer recognizable as houses….except for those

    Makeshift hot bath for shelter evacuees

    houses whose second stories survived intact, and stand proudly amid the disarray. The clean-up of the fragments of houses and buildings is known as “Gareki Sagyou”, or “Rubble-Clearing”,  and it is nasty business….yet today’s International Herald Tribune posted a photo of two middle-aged men enjoying a hot bath outside, amid the wreckage, and looking quite jolly. They had rigged a fire under a large tank full of water, and were lounging Japanese-style, with white bath towels on their heads. So  the nastiest of work does have its rewards, and a measure of normality is beginning to return to even the hardest-hit areas.

    “Gareki Sagyou” refers to actual wreckage–the clearing away of things that cannot be salvaged. But what about those things best defined as “obstacles”??  I refer now to large objects which are in themselves intact, but have come to rest in bizarre and problematic places. In the days following the tsunami, the world saw photos of ships of all shapes and sizes, wedged into store windows or resting on top of buildings!  And the cars!!  Cars everywhere: overturned, sideways, in houses, on houses, cars on cars!  Often, the ships and cars survived their journey quite well,

    Post-tsunami morning commute

    and were in excellent condition when they landed. Thursday evening’s news featured a grim-faced man, the owner of a humungous trawler: a tuna boat, which had  washed ashore and  been deposited smack in the middle of a major highway, effectively blocking traffic in both directions. Since the boat was completely intact (aside from being in the wrong place), his insurance refused to cover for “damages”, and he was at a loss at how on earth to remove the monstrous nuisance. “Of course, I have a guilty conscience,” he said sadly. “My ship is inconveniencing the entire city, and I don’t have the means to move it!”  Hopefully, since the sad-faced man was seen by the entire nation on NHK TV, some wealthy celebrity or individual will be moved to help out, and I wonder if there will be a follow-up.

    Getting cars off the runway: Sendai airport

    The airport in Sendai was also beset with a similar “obstacle”: five THOUSAND cars piled up on the runway!  If that’s not deserving of an exclamation point, I don’t know what is. Flights were immediately cancelled, and the airport authorities despaired of opening again any time in the near future. Enter the US military, who volunteered the services of a unit who specialized in turning ruined landing strips into forward supply bases for US aircraft. Within four weeks, this US unit, working together with the Japanese military forces, had not only cleared the runway, but left the cars stacked in neat rows along the airport edge. I especially like the detail about the “neat rows”, though the problem of disposing of the cars has not yet been solved. In Wednesday’s international paper, a Colonel Toth was quoted as saying, “We are using skills developed in combat operations for humanitarian purposes…..This is the most rewarding thing we’ve done.”  Any arguments with that line of thinking??  No, I didn’t think so. The newspaper article  praised the US team for their tact and low-key profile, and the Japanese government for throwing pride to the wind and graciously accepting the help. Both sides worked together admirably.

    Meanwhile, back in the Tokyo area……the trains are still running less

    Tokyo’s bright lights were dim last spring.

    frequently,and mostly in the dark. This does not seem to bother folks; today  I watched one older man cheerfully practicing his golf swing in the pitch dark of a tunnel on the Odakyu Line. After a few minutes of this, he began passing the time by practicing his kanji strokes, writing invisible and complicated Chinese characters in the air. It was quite warm in the train, but no air conditioning, so the passengers sweat silently. In the stations, drink machines are still up and running, but not for long. The Tokyo prefecture has vowed to shut down the drink machines for the summer months to save energy–good heavens!!  Japan without vending machines! Escalators are sometimes on and sometimes off now ( depending on the time of day) and stations are either dark, or dimly lighted, even at night. Outside the stations, high school students across the country are lined up with wooden boxes around their necks, crying, “Give to the people of Tohoku!!” …..and everyone is doing just that.

    Because of the continuing aftershocks, we think of our neighbors in the North every day,  checking our cell phones to see what the magnitude of the latest quake was in Fukushima or Sendai. Those of us who are not organizing, fundraising, or sending goods to the affected areas are at least donating money. Elementary school children across the country are writing letters to the children in Tohoku and dropping coins in the jars on the counter at the 7-11 stores. Kumiko Makihara, a writer and translator living in Tokyo believes that the severity of the March 11th disaster has been a cleansing experience for the rest of the country, “…making us more tolerant, and softening our rigid adherence to social norms.” Certainly, it has brought the pursuit of luxury  and rampant consumption to a screeching halt. Although Disneyland has re-opened this week (with great fanfare!), it is certain that the upcoming Golden Week holiday will be subdued this year, and folks will be sticking close to home. It feels good to be clearing away some of the rubble in and around our hearts; we are living a bit more simply, with fewer complaints and more generosity. Most of us still have a long way to go before all the rubble is gone, but at least we’ve made a start.

    …..and that’s how things stood last April. The one year anniversary is just around the corner, and my next few entries will be an attempt to assess some of the challenges that have emerged since then, particularly those associated with the spread of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the consequent evacuation of 62,610 residents of Fukushima Prefecture (the figure given by the prefectoral government as of this February).  It’s been a major upheaval.  Outside of Tohoku the changes are harder to discern,  yet change has arrived and the country is not the same.  More on that in my next post…..which may take a while, but I’ll be back. Until then,  goodnight and thank you for reading.


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