Thursday, May 12, 2011

(9) April 10: Once again, to everybody around the world

[Two months have passed since the day of the Great Earthquake. Thank you all for your interest and your encouragement; the following was written one month ago, one month after the earthquake]

One month has passed. Today I read again the newspaper from March 12th, the day after the earthquake and my heart was filled with that day’s sentiments. Once again I realized the extent of the disaster that hit our country and the impact it had
on our hearts and minds.

Japan is an earthquake-prone country. From the time our children are old enough to go to kindergarten and elementary school they participate in drills for the day an earthquake will hit. But an earthquake of a magnitude like this last one’s is rare and, even though we live with the earthquakes, we aren’t used to such big ones.

When it hit I was at the fourth floor of the school where I work, together with some of our students. It was the first time in my life that I felt something like this. Although the school was built only nine months ago and its capacity to withstand earthquakes is guaranteed, there were many times that I had to run around and gather the students who were frantically trying to find the emergency exits.

When we do earthquake drills, the first thing we are told is to remain calm and not let the tremors confuse us. That day, I was the only adult in the fourth floor so it was my duty to get all the frightened students together in one spot. According to our training, the right thing to do would have been to stay in that spot until the tremors subside and then move to an open space in an orderly fashion. My action to open the emergency exit and keep it open (since it didn’t have a door-stop) was dictated by my fear; the students took my action as a sign that they had to leave and they got out running. Although we all got out unscathed, what we did was very dangerous and truth being told, even though at the time I managed to appear calm for my students’ sake, I was worried that my training didn’t kick in; it was only the next day, when I returned home that I felt some true relief.

After hearing that my relatives were all alive and well and after receiving support and encouragement from friends abroad, I thought that Japan will be alright. I told myself that the disorder in the train system and the rolling blackouts weren’t such a serious thing. I still had my home, I had food and a futon to sleep on, I could wash my hair and take a bath so I couldn’t really complain, I thought, because up in Tohoku there were thousands of people with real problems. Without understanding it (is this what they call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I wonder?) my senses started becoming numb and although I heard the news about the accident in the nuclear power plant, I didn’t really pay much attention; actually I didn’t want to hear. And when I saw the situation in the refuge shelters I just started crying, seemingly with no feeling.

I was puzzled with what was happening to me. I was beginning to worry that I had become so numb –callous even- that I couldn’t truly realize that there were thousands of people who had lost their homes, their families –even the ground they tread upon. Why didn’t I want to do something to help? When the Kobe area was hit by the big earthquake, back in 1995, my impulse was to get there as soon as I could and do something. Why didn’t I feel the same now?

It was at that time that a friend of my friend sent me a message; actually he sent it to my friend and told him “I want to tell Atsuko to hang in there and that I’m thinking of her and her family and Japan and wishing the best but I’m not sure words will mean anything to her at this time”. My friend relayed the message to me and it got me thinking: Can it be true that the wishes and the prayers of others don’t mean anything at these times? Can it be true that words don’t have any power at all? This message was the reason I decided to try and write down my thoughts and my experiences from those days; I know I’m not very good at it and I know I can’t give you an eyewitness view of what is happening up north, where the disaster hit worse but I can tell you about my life here and now. I can tell you something about Japan as I’m living it every day.

Now, while writing these words, I have come to realize that that day I was really frightened. I have come to realize that if I made it through that day, it was because the responsibility to take care of those kids (our students) was pressing; that same responsibility was the reason I had, much to my dismay, to return to my everyday schedule as soon as possible. I have come to realize that with every aftershock, I had the feeling that Japan was crumbling: I was afraid that from that day on, I’d always have to wake up one hour earlier, at 5:00, so I can catch my morning train (because of the messed-up schedules) and that every time I’d go to the super-market to shop for the things we need for our everyday life there would be shortages. Now I know, that the reason I managed to control my feelings of fear and anxiety back then, was the thought of those people in the areas where the disaster hit the hardest.

Today, I saw a TV news program where they had messages from the people up in Tohoku: “We are sorry to annoy you; please tell everybody that we are OK”. “It is hard to hang in there but we will”, “Please don’t forget all of us living here” were among the things those people said. This thing, to having been through such a huge disaster and still say “I am sorry to annoy you” is one of the characteristics of the Tohoku people; even more so, it’s one of the characteristics of the Japanese people. Please, don’t apologize. Everybody, I do believe that you still try, that you are hanging in there. And I will remember you. This reality you are going through, and every one of you, I will never forget.

Toyama Atsuko


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