another “small” story, japan

I love retelling “small” stories of people going about the task of daily living, like you and me. Found another one about a Japanese family trying to do what they would do under normal circumstances, in today’s Wall Street Journal. Seems to me that’s human resilience at its best. But, truthfully, what else can survivors do…but live. To stop is to die. And why would they choose to do that, when they’ve been spared. Instead they’ve taken the gift of life and moved on, vowing to remember those who have fallen.

Greater Tokyo Area is the world's most populou...

Image via Wikipedia

A Tokyo Reunion
by Michael Judge

American Airlines flight 153 from Chicago to Tokyo was nearly full and pleasantly mundane–young mothers bounced infants in the aisles, businessmen worked in the glow of their laptops, elderly couples stretched their legs near the restrooms. In the wake of the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, with the number of dead or missing surpassing more than 20,000, the ordinariness of the 13-hour flight was a comfort.

Given the fear of aftershocks and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant some 150 miles northeast of Tokyo, my wife Masae and I had joked that we’d be the only ones on the Saturday flight. Shortly before take-off, the Associated Press ran a banner on their mobile site saying that traces of “radioactive iodine” had been detected in Tokyo’s drinking water. Spinach and milk were also “tainted.” Foreigners were already leaving in droves–a mass exodus from the world’s densest metropolis was feared.

Indeed, when we told friends and acquaintances we were planning to return to Tokyo, my wife’s hometown and the city where we met 17 years ago this spring, some treated us like characters from Albert Camus‘s “The Plague.” Didn’t we understand the risks involved? Why subject ourselves to possible contamination if it could be avoided? Many governments were sending planes to evacuate overseas nationals. Washington warned against all “nonessential” travel to Tokyo.

Nonessential–a strange word. Was it nonessential to attend a family wedding we’d been looking forward to for months? When the wedding was eventually cancelled, was it nonessential to be near loved ones at a time when so many had lost theirs? My wife and I had chosen to live in America–we hadn’t chosen to abandon our family in Japan.

Nippon Professional Baseball

Image via Wikipedia

Friends in and around Tokyo assured us that life here was continuing as close to normal as possible. To save electricity, trains ran less frequently and some businesses closed earlier. There were long but orderly lines at gas stations. After much debate, opening day of Nippon Professional Baseball, the equivalent of Major League Baseball, was delayed–by four days.

Still, on the train into the city on Sunday, we were relieved to see kids playing baseball and soccer in the parks. Laundry hung from clotheslines outside apartment buildings. Restaurants and cafes were busy outside the Nippori train station. Tokyo was full of life and open for business–even as cities as far away as Los Angeles sold out of potassium-iodine pills over fears of trans-Pacific traces of radiation.

Puburiba, the public bath run by my wife’s parents, was bustling late Sunday afternoon: Elderly men and women and families of all sizes and ages sought out the communal comfort only a sento can provide. But before we could settle in, we jumped into my father-in-law’s car and drove across town to dine with our nephew Tomo and his fiancee Yurie. They’d decided to postpone their March 26 wedding plans until September, but they remained in high spirits. Over ice-cold beer and the best Korean barbeque I’ve ever had, Tomo, Yurie and a handful of relatives and friends gave thanks for our being together, no matter the occasion.

Ryounkaku before and after Great Kanto earthquake

Image via Wikipedia

On Wednesday we plan to visit the grave of my wife’s maternal grandmother, Makino, in the town of Noto on the Japanese Sea. She died last year at the age of 100. She was 13 when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck, leveling Tokyo and surrounding cities and killing between 100,000 and 140,000 people. My wife’s paternal grandmother, Kaneyo, and her two youngest children died after fleeing the firebombing of Tokyo. The bombing commenced on Nov. 17, 1944, and didn’t stop until Aug. 15, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender. More than 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, nearly all civilians, died in those nine months.

But the three didn’t die in Tokyo: They died in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, 220 miles north of the capital. Weakened by the journey, illness and starvation, they couldn’t digest the rice they were finally given in Yamagata, and they died of “burst stomachs,” according to my father-in-law, Yasumasa. Miraculously, he was the only survivor.

Nakamise-dōri

Image by midwinterphoto via Flickr

Yesterday, while we were shopping at a crowded Ikebukuro department store, news came that gray smoke was rising from two of the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, forcing workers to pull back momentarily. Shopping continued apace. News that an 8-year-old woman from Miyagi Prefecture and her 16-year-old grandson had survived for nine days in the wreckage of their home–which had been moved one kilometer by the force of the tsunami–filled the television, and was on everyone’s lips.

Mr. Judge writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.

“small” stories…big impact…hugmamma.