Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tsunami, or, "There's nothing left but to enjoy tonight."

At about 4:00 Friday, I had just sat down for tea and cookies with other teachers at Minato Elementary after a full day of classes when the tsunami warning came out. There had been a large earthquake off the cost, the principal told us, and though Arida is far from the epicenter, we had better get to the roof.

"Minato" means "port" in Japanese, and from the windy roof we could see the still, shimmering ocean. A half hour passed. The predicted two meter tsunami did not come. Some neighborhood families had come to the school seeking higher ground, but a sense of relief and normalcy soon returned. I helped the first-grade teacher post student artwork on the ground floor bulletin board. 

I had plans to see friends in Osaka that weekend, including a breakdance performance by the fourth-grade teacher at one of my elementary schools(!), so I went home, took a nap, and made my way to the big city blithely oblivious to the devastation in northeast Japan. It was only after I met up with some Japanese acquaintances later that night, at an Irish pub of all places, that I saw the footage of towns being swept away and factories set ablaze. Pangs of guilt for drinking Guinness at such a time. 

The next morning (yesterday, that is), I received a call from my sister in Argentina - "Are you OK? Have you talked to mom and dad yet?" Pangs of guilt for forgetting that, though Wakayama's distance from the quake and my own safety seemed obvious geographical and existential truths to me, they would be far from obvious to those who care about me back in the States. Sincerest thanks, and apologies, to all those who worried about me. 

A few hours before my breakdancing teacher friend's performance, I ambled through the streets of Shinsaibashi, one of the city's most debauched neon night districts. Young men in slim suits with strange hair asked me how my "search" was going,  groups of college-age friends posed for pictures, women in short skirts flirted with small herds of drunk businessmen. In a word, normalcy. I made my way to Ola, a Mexican restaurant run by a Japanese couple - the husband a stoic aficionado of salsas and tequilas, the wife a gregarious bartender who my friends and I immediately mistook for an actual Mexican the first time we visited. 

The conversation at the bar, naturally, turned to the ongoing disaster several hundred miles northeast. 

"Y'know, they say we're due for a big earthquake here in Kansai too - the nankai jishin." 
(Kansai = The Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe/Wakayama area of Japan)

"Really?" I blurted out, barely concealing the surprise and concern in behind it. 

"Yep. Like the Kobe earthquake." 

"I was here in Osaka when that hit. It split a crack right down the middle of the roof in our apartment...."

(Osaka is only a 30 minute train ride from Kobe and experienced strong tremors during that quake.) 

"We're screwed if it hits Osaka," the barkeep said as a half-smile spread across her face, "Osaka's one of the weakest cities when it comes to that sort of thing." 

"Why's that?" I asked, eyebrow raised. 

"Because Osaka people are damn fools."(osaka no hito wa minna aho yakara) Her face bloomed into a full, bemused grin. "If a building catches fire, you're supposed to evacuate, right? Not so in Osaka. This very building could be on fire right now, and we'd just say 'hey, you smell that?' 'fire? psshhh, don't be ridiculous!' We'd all die in the restaurant, beer in hand, laughing like the fools we are."

"Not such a bad way to go, I guess," I offered.   

"Not at all." 

"You can't predict these sorts of things anyways."


"I still feel bad about what's happening up in Sendai. I just wish I could do something." 

"Besides giving money, there isn't a whole lot we can do." 

"True, but... I guess you're right." 

"Like you said, it could be us tomorrow," the barkeep said, "No way to predict these things. And that's why, for us, there's nothing left but to enjoy tonight." With that she poured chilled tequila into a long row of glasses that had miraculously appeared in front of her. "On the house." 

The closest analogy I can think of to how people here in Kansai are experiencing the Northeastern Japan Tsunami is how people in Maryland felt when Hurricane Katrina first struck. Before the botched response added insult and compounded injury, before the justified outrage at "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!", there was that visceral mix of awe, fear, sympathy, and a sense of our own futility at what was happening.

 "Natural disaster" is an interesting phrase as such - besides the usual, literal meaning, "natural" also has the nuance of "in keeping with the order of things." We think of wars and other human-born crises as preventable, their occurrence the result of our failure to prevent them. Not so with earthquakes. All we can do in the face of forces beyond human magnitude is prepare best we can and respond when they do strike. But we are ultimately at their mercy: some people in northeast Japan had minutes between feeling the ground shake beneath them and the arrival of the tsunami. We call such things acts of god for a reason - before geology and meteorology, what could have possibly explained a wall of water thirty feet high but a wrathful deity?

If any place is prepared for such disasters, though, Japan is. I highly recommend Nick Kristof's essay on the disaster for those interested - he articulates something I felt strongly but could not put words to. I'd add one thing, though, to toughness and resiliency he describes, something in the words of that bartender at Ola: humor.  Osaka people are known for their raucous, slightly mean sense of humor, and I think it reflects a certain type of fatalism common to any people who have known misfortune ( this has been said about Jewish humor, but really, laughter is not so far from tears in many places.... here, the trauma of WWII has not entirely faded into history yet). Realizing that ceiling could quite literally come crashing down on one's head at any given moment, one is faced with a choice: to worry, or to laugh. Perhaps this is not the first response one feels at seeing a costal village wiped away, and certainly there are times when the sheer enormity of a tragedy precludes any response but stunned silence or inexpressible sadness. Once that initial shock begins to fade, though, the stoic resolve and stifled tears that Kristof describes will share space with laughter. Not simply out of bitterness, though there will surely be some of that, but because misfortunes of this magnitude are, in a cosmic sense, funny. They put into high relief the smallness of our selves, our ambitions, our problems - all suddenly absurd in this new light. Down at the bottom of pandora's box, just to the left of hope, the gods must have left us laughter too. 

I felt a sudden sense of solidarity with those affected by the tsunami in Ola last night, hearing about the nankai jishin and realizing that nothing but sheer chance separates me from someone on the northeast coast. But I guess that's the case with any disaster, manmade or natural, large or small. My prayers are with those in northeast Japan, as are much of the world's. We should do what we can to help in these situations - I'll go give blood Wednesday - but there's precious little most individuals can accomplish from where we live. For now, then, I guess there's nothing left but to enjoy tonight. 

Much love to all my friends and family. 


  1. Beautiful, as always, Carter. Glad you're still safe!

  2. .....
    you're been taking breakdance classes??!!!

  3. Thanks, Seguin!

    @Adil - No breakdancing classes for me, alas. I was just there to support one of my Japanese co-teachers. Who is a badass breakdancer, by the way.