Japan, One Month Later: Life Goes On for Three Women
It's now been a full month since a devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and even more destructive tsunami, hit the eastern shore of the Tohoku region, located on the northeastern side of Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. To many, including myself, it has seemed like a lifetime.
I'm sure you have seen the pictures of utter devastation along the north-eastern coastline; the survivors sitting patiently (some not so patiently) in shelters, of Self Defense Force soldiers and others including the U.S military digging through rubble in the increasingly futile hope of finding more survivors -- or now, for bodies so that at least families can find out what has happened to their loved ones. The death toll, now well over 13,000, is still rising. And I'm sure you have seen the scary looking images of the damaged nuclear power plants on the coastline of Fukushima prefecture and read some of the often hysterical coverage of the events there in the media.
What has struck me so much about this month is, despite what I thought was increasing interest in Japan over the last few years, how very little most people do know or understand about Japan. The language barrier plays a big role in this for sure, but there are other factors. The mainstream overseas media for the large part have been shown to be particularly lacking, I'm sorry to say. It's rather funny when Fox News mistakes a night club in central Tokyo, the Shibuya Eggman, for a nuclear power plant, but when even more respected news outlets mess things up time and time again, it's no wonder that some people think that the entire nation of Japan is either a pile of rubble or covered by a noxious, highly radioactive cloud.
The fact is, most of Japan, outside of the disaster-struck areas of Tohoku, people are fine for the most part. The areas to the west and south and far north of the country, including places that you may have heard of -- Sapporo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kobe, Fukuoka -- have seen almost no physical effects at all, save for an influx of refugees from the north. (When the quake struck, I received several emails and tweets from people concerned about their relatives stationed at the U.S. military base in Futenma, Okinawa. I had to gently tell them that Okinawa in the far south is about as far away from the Tohoku region as Chicago is from Florida.) Even in the Kanto-Tokyo metropolitan area, where I am now, things are almost back to normal. The initial earthquake was a magnitude 5.8 to 6.5 around here, making high-rise buildings sway like trees a storm and knocking things off shelves. There have been aftershocks almost every day since, most fairly weak but still disconcerting. (The biggest aftershock occurred just last Thursday, and just today, Monday, we've experienced several fairly strong aftershocks.) Then there's the fact that many power plants that supplied electricity to the area, the Fukushima nuclear plants among them, have been knocked out of commission, leaving the area with insufficient power for its factories and shops and homes. Rolling blackouts were announced about 3 weeks ago, but so far only actually taken place for the first couple days, largely due to voluntary power saving measures by companies and private individuals alike. Trains are running at slightly reduced schedules. Offices, stores, train stations have dimmed their lights down. People are refraining from turning on the heat on all but the coldest days. (I'm wondering if this combination of dealing with continuous earthquakes and rolling blackouts sounds familiar to Californians.) There was a scare regarding the tap water a couple of weeks ago for about 2 days, when the radiation levels of water in a reservoir that serves much of central Tokyo reached higher than officially allowed levels for infants. And there is the worry about contaminated vegetables and seafood from the farms and fisheries to the north-east.
Despite all of these issues though, life here is almost back to normal. Hard to believe? Well, I'd like to introduce you to three ladies, all in their 30s to 40s, from the Tokyo-metropolitan area. I asked them all some questions about the events of March 11 and afterward, and here's what they told me.
Mari is the head stylist and store manager of one of a chain of beauty salons in Yokohama. (Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, is just 20 minutes or so from central Tokyo, in Kanagawa prefecture.) She's been a hair stylist for 14 years; after leaving college and working a regular office job for a year, she decided that she would rather do something more creative.
"When the earthquake hit, I was in the salon with my co-workers and a few customers - not that many, since it was a weekday afternoon. I immediately asked everyone to get up and we all huddled together in the middle of the room, away from the mirrors and the shelves. Then we all trooped out outside, since that's what we were told to do always. The ground was shaking so much that we never did make it to the open plaza we are supposed to go to. We stood around clutching each other to stop from falling. We realized that as a business, we needed to have better procedures planned in advance for earthquakes. So the next day we had a staff meeting to go over what to do if another quake of that magnitude came.
"We didn't see man customers in our salon for about two weeks. There were the aftershocks, and also the rolling blackouts. We experienced blackouts for a couple of days (but they have since been canceled). Since then though, our customers have been coming back. They usually say that they needed feel better -- and taking care of yourself by getting your hair done is one of the best ways to do that I think!
"Another thing we did at the salons is to streamline our procedures, so that we could get our customers taken care of as quickly as possible without making them feel rushed. This was partly to deal with the possibility of the electricity getting shut off while someone was having their hair washed for example. [Note: while water is usually heated by gas in this area, the equipment that operates the heaters is on electricity.], but also to get them back home as soon as possible. Quite a few of our customers were feeling nervous and jittery for a while, and we regarded it as our mission in a way help them relax and feel good about themselves.
"For myself -- I was lucky that not much fell down off my shelves in my apartment -- just a few books. Nothing broken. I was very nervous about my parents though, since they live right on the coastline of Chiba prefecture. Plus, my sister was staying with them -- she'd gone home to have a baby [Note: many women, especially first-time moms, go back to their parents' house to give birth in Japan.]. I was so relieved when their house was okay! And I now have a brand new baby nephew."
Ayako runs a small pharmacy in suburban Yokohama in a mini mall right next to a large supermarket, with her father and sister.
"When the earthquake hit, a couple of customers and several employees were in the store. We all rushed out to the middle of the square the store faces, to be away from any buildings. The customers were quite elderly, so I helped one lady and another person helped the other. I've never experienced such a strong earthquake! And when I think of the people up north, who experienced a much stronger quake, and then the tsunami... I feel so sorry, so sad."
Since she runs a pharmacy, I asked her if she had gotten any requests for potassium iodide (a.k.a. iodine) pills.
"No, no one has asked for the pills, although we do stock them as a matter of course. We were prepared to answer any questions about them, but we haven't received any inquiries so far. If someone had asked we would have advised them to take the pills only if instructed by a doctor. As far as I know though, none of the doctors we deal with regularly got any inquiries either.
"Our regular customers are mostly elderly, and I think they are mostly very calm and matter of fact. One lady in her eighties told me this: 'I've lived in this town most of my life. During the war, with the bombings, it was much, much worse. And after we lost the war, things were pretty bad. We had no help, no one sending us goods. But we survived, and here we are. I think we will be daijoubu (okay).' I have so much to learn from our customers."
Mayumi is a full time mom to two rambunctious kids, Lyoh aged 11, and Lena who is 9 (pictured above with her mom). She lives in Machida, a suburban part of Tokyo. She's also my little sister.
"When the earthquake hit I was at home. Usually the kids walk home on their own, but as soon as the shaking stopped I rushed off to their school to get them. The kids and teachers were all out in the school yard, looking quite scared. I grabbed my children as well as several neighbor kids, and herded them all home. In Machida there are designated safe routes to take when an earthquake hits, which we followed.
"I've always been wary of earthquakes, not to mention the kids, especially Lyoh, knocking things down [Lyoh is autistic] so our house is pretty earthquake- and kid-proof, so nothing fell down or was broken. I'd just had a fight with my husband that morning, which I really regretted; I was so glad to see him back safe at home that evening.
"I did get worried when we heard on the news that the water supply to our town had higher than accepted levels of radiation for infants. My kids are not infants, but I was still concerned, especially about Lyoh. He has a habit of getting into things he shouldn't when I'm not looking, and my immediate thought was 'what about bath water? What if Lyoh sticks his head in and comes up with a mouth full of that?' I had an anxious night. However, our city government has a great text notification system. Normally it's used for things like alerting against some suspicious looking character lurking around, break-ins that have occured in the area, road works, high pollen counts and so on. The very next morning after the news about the tap water, I got a text from them to my cellphone, saying that they had already switched over the water supply so that it was coming from a safe supply. And since then the problem reservoir has become safe again, so I'm no longer worried about the water situation.
"I've been following the news closely about the [radiation-contaminated] vegetables and seafood too. I was avoiding all vegetables and dairy products from the affected areas to start with [Note: see my in-depth report about the vegetable situation in Japan]. Recently though I have started buying a few vegetables from the area again. As for seafood [caught near Fukushima], I'm sticking to fish from other areas for now until we find out more. Talking to other moms about the situation, as well as my family, really helps. I think that the best thing I can do as a mother is to keep myself well informed, and not to panic unnecessarily. The things I'm most concerned about now are the aftershocks. Thankfully the kids have acted very calmly when they've happened. Thank goodness for that."
How you can help Japan in the long run -- and what you can learn from this
The three women I've profiled are quite typical of the many people I've talked to in the past couple of weeks. I don't want to play down the really serious situation up north by any means. But people here are leading their lives and coping with circumstances as best they can. They're not being particularly 'stoic' or 'noble' or showing their 'samurai spirit' or whatever other clichés you may have read. They are just being rational adults. No one is running away in a panic; even many expats who fled initially are slowly coming back. When all is said and done, the Tokyo area is still is one of the cleanest, safest, nicest major metropolitan areas in the world.
Today at 2:46 PM local time, the nation observed a moment of silence in honor of the people who have lost their lives since March 11. The cleanup continues in the Tohoku region. Many people are fighting to bring the Fukushima nuclear power plants under control. I know that many of you reading this want to reach out and help Japan. You may have already donated money, participated in fund-raisers, and more. All of that is much appreciated, believe me. But to really help Japan going forward, please just do this: stay informed yourselves about what is really going on. Don't fall prey to attempts to dramatize the situation, or make it seem worse than it actually is. Don't be irrationally afraid of buying Japanese products, or even visiting Japan, especially the western and southern parts, northernmost Hokkaido, and even the Tokyo metropolitan area. Eventually as they are rebuilt, your support will truly help the devastated Tohoku region truly get back too. (Did you know for instance that 20% of the sake produced in Japan is made in this area?) If you loved the unique things that come out of this island country before, there's no reason to stop loving them. Please ask yourself - what kind of track record do Japanese companies, especially small ones, have when it comes to quality? Do you think they will try to sell you harmful goods?
As the old lady who is one of the pharmacy's customers said, Japan has survived, and even thrived, after experiencing a lot worse in the past. I have no doubt she will do so again, but she will need help to do so - and that's where you, and people around the world who appreciate Japanese products, come in.
And finally -- what can you learn from what's happened in Japan? It's great to be prepared with an emergency kit, as SeattleMamaDoc wrote about just after March 11. But I believe that the most important thing you can do is what all three of these women have done: get informed. In emergency situations, you may not really be able to rely on what you see on the news or read in papers. Make sure you know which government agencies and other official sources of sober information are available to you, whether you're at home or on the road. Use the internet too, wisely, always considering the source. We live in the information age, and the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is by being properly informed so that you can act appropriately.
As for myself... it has truly been a month that has changed me in many ways. It's made me think what it means to be born Japanese, to be Japanese. What it means to be a human being. What I, as a bilingual and bi-cultural person, can do. The lessons continue, every day.
Makiko (Maki) Itoh is a writer and blogger focusing on food and Japanese culture. She runs Just Hungry, a blog about Japanese food and cooking, and Just Bento, all about bento box lunches. She's the author of The Just Bento Cookbook.