by Rey Ventura
Editor’s note: The author is a resident of Yokohama, Japan. The following is a reprint from a manuscript for publication. It is featured in three parts with permission from the author.
Each time I leave home for a trip, I always entrust the herbs and flowers in my little garden to the sun, the wind, and the rain. Sometimes, they survive; sometimes they perish. On my return, I would always look forward to seeing their leaves, blossoms, and twigs—their overall growth.
One summer, I traveled for a week to the island of Yakushima, in the prefecture of Kagoshima. Invigorated by the ancient sacred cedars of the island, I returned home with some chips of cedar bark that I had picked up there. On my brief stop, I also bought a packet of radish seeds at the solitary souvenir shop that is not very far from the crater of the roaring Sakurajima volcano. I’m excited to be home to sow the new seeds I have just collected. Above all, I’m looking forward to seeing the progress of a seedling that I planted five months ago.
This young tree is a Miharu Takizakura—the famous weeping cherry tree of Miharu-machi in Fukushima. When I left, it is waist-level high.
It is already dark when I arrived home from Yakushima. I potted the Sakurajima radish seeds the following morning. I immediately put them in a sunny corner of my house. In the shady spot at the back, I then made my way to say “hello” to my Miharu Takizakura. From a distance, I suddenly stand for a moment and look toward its direction. I feel strange. The corner has been cleared up. Everything has been trimmed. I cannot see my cherry tree. It is gone. Slowly, I tread toward it to check if there are any tracks left. Nothing. The young tree was not trimmed. Neither was it cut. It was uprooted! There is no trace of its existence there. It had vanished!
Where has my Miharu Takizakura gone? I asked Mayumi while she is preparing for work.
“I didn’t see anything,” she said defensively. “I had only seen weeds.
I had only cut the weeds, nothing else.”
Words would not come out. I was dumbfounded. My fears had come true. When I saw the brand-new garden shears in the toolbox earlier that morning, I knew another mystery had occurred in my wild little garden. Half an hour after Mayumi had left the house, I sent her an email: You have just killed my Miharu cherry tree.
That, probably, is the harshest email I have ever sent her. She replied quickly and apologized: I’m sorry. I will never ever touch your garden again.
More than profound dismay and melancholy, I really felt sorry for her. Mayumi could not tell the difference between the weeds and the leaves of a cherry tree!
A day after Libnos had graduated from junior high school, I planted somei yoshino, a common sakura tree in front of our house. May you grow strong, I whispered, and shower us with your pink blossoms someday. I want to commemorate my daughter’s nine years of basic education. I want to give thanks for her good heath and wish for her to grow and bloom together with the sakura tree. This is the day before 3.11.
My chair had started to shake lightly. So did my student’s. We ignored it. In Japan, it is not a rare experience to be jolted every once in a while. Many people here are already used to earthquakes. It has become a part of our daily life. But then our desk started to rattle. The books on the shelf began to shuffle. And the floor started to sway slowly like a hammock! The windows started to create a grating noise. The partition in between booths commenced to creak. The shaking, swaying, rattling, and the creaking never stopped. I looked out the window and saw that the people at the train station are rushing here and there. Others were frozen in confusion on the walkway. My student started to panic, too.
Kowai. Kowai yo! She said chilling in nervousness.
It is the eleventh of March. We are on the seventh floor and the building is swaying. The long rectangular neon sign that hangs in front of the building keeps on shaking. The noise produced by the rubbing of plastic fiber and concrete is alarming. I’m so worried it could come unhinged, fall, and hit pedestrians below. The earthquake show no signs of abating. My student hurriedly, ducked under the desk. In “solidarity,” I too joined her. We stayed under the plywood desk, as if it is the most durable and safest place to be under a magnitude nine earthquake. We knelt and coiled in fetal position, as if we were terrified schoolchildren hiding from an approaching monster we had imagined. Beware, I suddenly remembered, the Ides of March.
In Yokohama, the cherry blossoms have yet to bloom. Earlier in the day, I passed by plum blossoms along the road. I remember being halted briefly by the faint scent of their blossoms drifting in the air; I kept sniffing for the perfumed breeze from my neighbor’s garden.
It is almost three in the afternoon. I’m conducting the first lesson of the day. I’m in the middle of a conversation with a solitary client.
We are talking about her trip to Germany where she has just visited her daughter. She has been studying English to be able to converse with her German son-in-law living in Frankfurt. I’m her English conversation instructor.
If the shaking will not stop, I thought, the building we are in might collapse. We could die under its rubble. So, I stood up and looked over the neighboring booths. Almost everybody had gone out of the learning studio. I declared what is already obvious: This is a powerful earthquake! The manager, who has remained calm throughout the quake, now urged everyone to go out, take the stairs, and leave the studio. We did. We picked our bags and rushed out of the building.
At the entrance where everyone had gathered, I looked up to check the dangling huge neon signs above us. I’m so terrified to be under them. I avoided their shadows.
My instinct is to call my wife and daughter. I tried to telephone them. The phones, to my surprise, are not working. This is the first time it happened in my ten years of living in Japan. I start to worry. The only comfort I have is Libnos is with Mayumi on this day. It is my daughter’s “orientation day.” She has just entered high school. On the streets, people start to gather around big TV screens by business establishments. News broadcasts start pouring in. We could see giant walls of dark seawater rampaging over houses, buildings and properties. The earthquake had triggered tsunamis. It is my first time to see images in real time of tsunami claiming lives and everything in its way. Indeed, this is the age of television. Wars, revolutions, and natural disasters are broadcast live as they occur, unfold, and develop.
People are walking hurriedly and with some urgency. Office workers are rushing out of buildings. I walked to the train station. As I expected, train services had been halted; passengers are stranded. All eyes are on the TV monitors hanging on various parts of the station. Images of destruction and devastation continue flooding in. Regular TV programs had been interrupted. All TV stations shifted to news program. Shops are still open but the shoppers are gone.
There is nowhere to go. Toward evening, trains are still not running. Buses are few and overcrowded. Still, I could not get through to Mayumi and Libnos’s phones.
I decide to walk with a colleague to the next station. We walk in darkness for an hour and a half. Hundreds of people are walking on the road by the rail tracks. Having left my colleague at the station, I walk home alone for another hour. I pass by areas without electricity. Many traffic lights are set in blinking yellows.
Is it still standing or not? This is my greatest apprehension. The first thing I did as soon as I have arrived is to look at our house from a distance. Although I had not seen any structures or buildings collapsing in this part of the country, I’m not so certain about our newly purchased house. Our neighbors’ houses seem all right. Ours too, I thought, should be fine. From the road up the hill, our house is gray and looks sad.
Fortunately, the fluorescent lamp on the electric post is working. It casts a gloomy light on the concrete space where our three bicycles are parked. With a feeling of strange fragility, I approached the door. Slowly, I turned the key. There are two locks. At the entryway, everything seems to be the same. The shoes on the racks remain where they are; the overhead cabinets are shut; Libnos’s picture on the ledge did not fall off. In the living room, the TV set seems to be in its original state. In the kitchen, the tall refrigerator given as a present still stands on its ground. Plates and glasses in the cupboard did not get broken.
Upstairs, in my study, some books fell off the shelves. Apart from this, there is no serious damage. I checked the other rooms but nothing appears out of order.
Desiring silence and complete solitude, I turned off the lights and walked to the veranda of my study. I looked out the window. I could not see Mt. Fuji. She had gone to bed. Lights from the houses and buildings on the neighboring hills are all considerably dimmed. The earth, I felt, is still shaking. Japan had suffered another devastating natural disaster.
Mayumi was able to call me. She said she and Libnos are in the lobby of a hotel, together with hundreds of other parents and children who could not go home. I’m relieved.
In archipelagos like Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other island-nations, after a great earthquake, tsunami usually follows. This is general knowledge. But to have a nuclear power plant disaster or a meltdown after a tsunami is remote or unthinkable.
Fukushima did not resonate until the following morning. I turned the television on and pressed buttons on the remote controller until I reached NHK, Japan’s national channel. I then heard for the first time about the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. I have not heard or thought about nuclear power in Japan until this time.
An idea started to brew in my mind.
I telephoned Prof. Jim Wheatfields. I told him my plans: I’m thinking of visiting Fukushima. I do not have a particular idea yet, but I would like to see the place for myself. By some coincidence, he too, is thinking of going. At that time, it seemed irresponsible and unprofessional if a journalist or a scholar did not go to see for himself the nuclear power plant and the disaster zone. Most of my fellow journalist friends had gone to Fukushima and had returned but here I am—I have not got a story to tell. The Professor and I penciled in a date.
By the window, I stand and contemplate: the quiet Fujisan, the distant roars of tsunami, and the invisible nuclear radiation.
For the next two weeks, I regularly followed the news. I kept my senses sharper and more sensitive to my surroundings. I’m worried with the threat of another strong earthquake and nuclear power plant meltdown. But I don’t want to be paralyzed by fear. So, I moved around. I tried to document what is happening around me. I took pictures of my neighborhood and filmed friends and other people. Many of my friends and acquaintances had wanted to flee Japan. In fact, three of my teaching colleagues had departed hurriedly to neighboring countries like Taiwan and Korea. Others went home for good. Parachuting to Manila, or going home did not occur in my mind during these times. Suffer, I told myself, with the people.
Finally, the cherry blossoms have arrived in Kanagawa and Tokyo.
I went around several places filming and observing people. Generally, the atmosphere is subdued. In the first spring after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I thought, even the cherry blossoms mourned.
At Ueno Park in Tokyo, traditionally, sakura celebration is always boisterous and wild (on my first visit here many years ago, under the cherry blossoms thousands of office workers, students, and elderly people drank throughout the night till sunrise. There was a lot of rubbish under the pink blossoms the following morning. Till the break of dawn, some were still playing musical instruments; meanwhile an old man dressed in full military uniform was singing old military tunes and marches). This time, however, it is muted. People had come to see the blossoms quietly. The governor of Tokyo, had even dissuaded people from having celebrations at the park. Still, people came but the drinking of alcohol is rare this time. At five in the afternoon, the park is closed.
In Fujisawa City—where I give English instructions to business people, academics, students and housewives—not far from the train station, along the river, I walked under the cherry blossoms alone. A few years ago, this time of year, there were families having picnics under them. There are none this time. A few people are walking their dogs but there is a general sense of restraint from doing anything celebratory.
Under the moon and stars, I pedaled back home. How are the cherry blossoms of Fukushima, I wondered. How are they doing in the times of earthquakes and nuclear radiation contamination? How would spring be like after the disaster? It was then I thought of visiting the famous Miharu Takizakura—the weeping cherry blossoms in the town of Miharu-machi. I made a call to Prof. Wheatfields again to inform him about this interest. We set a date.
Near my house, the wind is combing the treetops on the nearby hill.
It is drizzling with blossoms of pink. The concrete road is dotted with fallen wet petals.
Sa aking paglisan,
O aking sinta,
Ihatid ng tanaw
As I depart
O, my beloved.
From afar, see me off
Till the end of the road.
Driving a Nissan Note, Prof. Wheatfields had come to collect me at my place. His Opel broke down and he had rented a Japanese car instead. He had just had his inherited Opel serviced: oils changed, battery replaced, tires made brand-new, and engine checked. To top it all, he had a car navigator installed in it, too. The other day, he drove his red car to the university and it behaved pretty well. But on the way back home, at the parking area, it would not start. It refused to perform its duty. It went dead capriciously, like a wife in a bad mood.
Prof. Wheatfields has no other options but to rent a car. On the phone, he apologized for the delay after I sent him an email asking what has happened.
My car broke down fantastically, he confessed, sounding more melancholic than angry.
He arrived at my place at eight in the evening. It is his first visit since we moved in a few years ago. There is no one but me. Mayumi is still at work at the office and Libnos has yet to arrive from her dance class. I made dinner for us.
While I’m improvising the meal from whatever ingredients are available in the refrigerator, he is making telephone calls. Pasta and burgers in tomato sauce are all I could invent for a meal.
In the middle of dinner, he declared: I have begun my political career. I have just joined the DPJ. Minshuto, the Democratic Party of Japan is the ruling party. They have just wrestled leadership from the long-reigning Jiminto, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been in power for some fifty years and were responsible for building the fifty-four nuclear power plants all over Japan.
Congratulations! I responded enthusiastically. Someday, I will visit your office in the Diet as a representative of Yokohama. I will call you The Right Honorable Gentleman from Yokohama. We laughed. But I could see his seriousness to embark on a new undertaking—to reinvent his person—from scholar to politician. In due time, he added, he would acquire Japanese citizenship. He has lived in Japan for over twenty years and speaks Nihongo fluently. Then we talked about voting rights of foreigners in Japan, in which we have none, and political fund donation scandals, in which there are a lot.
We lingered a little while, trying to wait for my wife and my daughter.
But by nine in the evening, they have not arrived yet. So, we set off. I tugged my camera bag and backpack into the car’s hood. Guided by a lady navigator, we drove to his house in Yamate.
Navichan, as Prof. Wheatfields has baptized and fondly calls her, calculated distances quickly but she lacked simple common sense. She is a well-bred convent girl and did not say bad words. She is too prim and proper—she only knew the long routes, never the short cuts. In the beginning, we were following her instructions faithfully, devotedly, and lovingly. When it said, “make a right,” “turn left after 700 meters,” we had to follow them like weak disciples. She told us distances but she did not tell us names of highways and streets, alleys, entrances and exits. She only knew numbers and is extremely good at giving orders. Now, sadly, we are not going in the right direction. The distance is supposed to be only twelve kilometers but we ended up covering a hundred! It took us an hour to arrive; normally, it would only take about fifteen minutes.
Fucking hell, the Oxford scholar blurted out in frustration. These Navis are like women. You can’t do anything with them, but you can’t do anything without them!
Finally, after an hour, we arrived at his place in Yamate. There is no one home. Right away he grabbed two cans of chu-hai cocktail and offered one to me. It was a great relief.
We passed away the remaining hours of the night watching Shohei Imamura’s Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo—The Profound Desires of the Gods. The film tackles the theme of incest and inbreeding. Only gods are supposed to indulge in the profound desire of sex with members of your own family. Breaking this taboo would lead to divine punishment.
For the wages of sin—I remembered a Biblical passage that we use to memorize in my Methodist high school days—is death.
Prof. Wheatfields ushered me to Kate’s room. Kate, his daughter, is in London studying anthropology. Daisuke, his son is also in London studying music. Fumi, his wife, is in California finishing a late degree at a community college. The great Professor is sending three people to college all at the same time!
Kate, I said, as I lie on her bed. May I use your room for a night? I believe she said yes because I slept very well. Libnos, my daughter, and Kate used to go to the same elementary school. They had played games together a couple of times. Kate also had bequeathed to Libnos some of her English books.
At seven, I woke up and made myself a cup of café au lait. The hardworking Professor is still in bed. I took the liberty and ransacked his ref. There are a few cans of chu-hais and half a dozen eggs. The carton of milk is almost empty. I brewed a scoop of coffee and heated up some milk. When I poured the steamed milk into the cup with the coffee, the milk immediately curdled and smelled. I checked the label on the carton. The milk expired a week ago. Despite this, however, my cup of café au lait tasted all right. I had boiled the water and the milk. It must be all right, I said to myself. I sipped it slowly while I waited for the tired scholar to rise from bed.
It is quiet around the house. Except for the cool breeze blowing and the occasional sound of vehicles passing by, the neighborhood is calm. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in his blue overall “emergency suit,” is on television visiting a disaster area in Fukushima.
Prof. Wheatfields has risen. Do you think, he asks turning on his PC, it is okay to show up at Miharu without any reservations or anything?
I said: I bet it’s all right. You never can tell with the Japanese and cherry blossoms, he said. He makes tea for himself and prepares some cereals. He finishes them up quickly.
We set off. Prof. Wheatfields poses before our rented Nissan Note, in front of his very expensive house, for a posterity shot.
The house that the Professor had bought at a posh district in Yamate is by itself again. Its windows and doors are shut and secured. Its occupants are scattered all over the globe.
Prof. Wheatfields sets Navi-chan to guide us to the first leg of our destination: Nakoso, Fukushima. Navi-chan calculates: 220 kilometers and 5,250 yen in tolls. She’s a very intelligent and efficient lady-machine. Through the narrow and snaking road down the hill, Prof. Wheatfields steers the car toward Kannai. We drop by at a small supermarket and we buy various canned goods, instant noodles, some alcohol, and various packs of snacks. We do not buy rice and rolls of tissue paper—the first items that disappeared at once right after the earthquake.
Life goes on in Yokohama but there is a general feeling of cautiousness and worry. We reach the big road. We pass by Landmark Tower in Sakuragicho. Prof. Wheatfields plays some music: “Something Better Change.” It is a little loud. The louder the music, the faster the Professor drives. I feel as if we are drifting on the highway. We are now running at an average speed of eighty kilometers per hour (kph). We are over the speed limit. I caution the good Professor.
I asked: Are we not being watched?
As far as I know, he explains as he shifts gears, there are no surveillance cameras on Japanese highways. While in Britain there are a lot of them; you can easily get busted for over speeding.
We are now running at ninety kph. We are violating the law, I remind the good scholar.
Yeah. But so is everybody else. There is no one here that is actually doing sixty kilometers per hour. Abnormally low speed limit and no attempt to enforce it—that’s the Japanese characteristic!
I didn’t realize you are a fast driver, Professor.
Only when it’s safe, Rey.
Everybody is zooming past us. Loud music keeps us going. We go through a tunnel and come out onto a long and boring highway.
We are on the Joban Expressway bound for Iwaki, Fukushima.
According to the highway electronic bulletin board, we are eighty kilometers to our destination and it is raining there. There are a few cars on the road.
At a service area, we pull over and take ramen for breakfast. There are plum trees with pink blossoms between the toilet and the restaurant. While I’m having a look at them, Prof. Wheatfields calls our host who is expecting our arrival. He asks them if it is possible to get petrol in Fukushima. He is worried about refueling. There had been news about shortage or difficulty of getting gasoline in Fukushima.
He tells them to expect us in an hour and a half.
The sky is filled with darkening clouds. Japanese highways are impeccable. There is not a single piece of rubbish and there are no slum dwellings along them, unlike in the Philippines. The road is wide but the sky is wider. By now, you can count the number of cars with your fingers.
The farther we go, the lesser the number of vehicles.
At Mito, Ibaraki, it starts to rain. When it rains, they say, the level of nuclear radiation becomes higher.
I asked Prof. Wheatfields about Daisuke, his son.
He is planning, he said, to study classical music in Berlin under a famous German classical professor.
Daisuke is a baritone. He has been appearing recently in college productions, playing lead roles. He is now in his third and last year at the university. I used to go to his gigs. While he is going to an international school in Yokohama, he used to play blues on his guitar; he does not sing often. But now, he’s more into singing than playing instruments.
Stop me, Prof. Wheatfields said, if you’ve heard this one before.
Go on, I said.
This is a driving episode Fumi (his wife) and Daisuke had while they were living in California. Daisuke is practicing the guitar at a friend’s house. Earlier, he had asked his mother to collect him after the rehearsal. Fumi drove to the house. She arrived and waited outside—she remained in the car. She waited. She didn’t go out and knock at the door. She didn’t call Daisuke on his mobile phone. She just waited and waited. After more than an hour, Daisuke came out. He got into the car. Fumi is quiet. As soon as Daisuke had fastened his seatbelt, Fumi stepped on the accelerator—she stepped hard. The car zoomed out. They reached the highway. Fumi is racing. After a short while, they noticed a patrol car behind them. The police car flashed its headlights, signaling them to pull over. Fumi panicked. She stepped on the gas harder. The police followed them. She is looking for a place to stop. They took an exit and found a place to park. In an instant, four patrol cars surrounded them and blocked their way. The police officers ordered them to come out, hands up, and turn their backs against the car. A dozen cops—their guns drawn and aimed at them—the most terrifying moment of their lives!
It has started to rain. We have reached Kita Ibaraki. We are very near Fukushima.
Fumi, the Professor continues his story, is extremely courteous, very protective of her children to the point of . . ., but very conservative. And she’s not a very good driver. A couple of times she had bumped into other cars. She is what you call a fender-bender. One time, we went shopping at a department store with a multistoried car park.
As soon as we got to the car park, she said to the kids: Go!
Stretch your legs. Have a run around.
Stop! I shouted. There are cars zooming in and out, and you let your kids stretch their legs!
Honestly, most of the time, I do not know what’s in her mind.
The Japanese are tunnel builders. They can dig a hole, no matter where, no matter how deep it is. They seem to have tamed nature. We go through well-lit tunnels and come out on another spotless and dizzyingly hygienic highway. We have not seen anything yet that we could consider “devastated.”
A saxophone flowing with a soothing melody and tears from heaven accompany Prof. Wheatfields’s storytelling and driving. He talks about the babushkas of Chernobyl, the community of brave grandmothers who have returned to their homeland around the forbidden zone in Ukraine. They coexist with a “dead” nuclear power plant that is still deadly and toxic. They grow vegetables, raise farm animals, and survive on them. More and more stories about them have come out recently. Prof. Wheatfields compares Chernobyl to Iitate-mura, a village located thirty kilometers away from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Iitate-mura has the highest level of nuclear radiation contamination. It is a farming community of low-lying valleys—a perfect terrain for nuclear radiation to settle in. A visit to this village is his main interest; meanwhile, I am more interested in the cherry blossoms of Miharu-machi.
Staying in Iitate village for one day, he said half-jokingly, is roughly the same as having a chest X-ray. Obviously, you won’t be having a chest X-ray everyday for the rest of your life. For two or three days, it is no big deal. If we could only see what nuclear radiation is like, if we could only see the face of the enemy, if we could only read its mind, it would be easier to deal with it. We are driving to the unknown and it is terrifying to be confronting something that is intangible and unseen.
But like faith in God’s existence, I believe nuclear radiation does exist.
A trumpet in a string band heralds our arrival in Fukushima. This is the beginning, I said, of our long and unpredictable journey into the nuclear radiation zone.
We reach the final tollgate. We pay the tolls exactly as Navi-chan had kindly calculated: five thousand and two hundred fifty yen. At a T-road, we stop on the red. A billboard across us announces: Iwaki, Nakoso – Yokoso! [Welcome to Nakoso (You Are Not Welcome), Iwaki].
It is still raining. The cherry blossoms are drenched and in tears. They welcome our arrival. We approach the end of the road. The sign says, Nakoso to the right. More signs remind us to drive safely. The sky is gray. We stop and wait for the green light to the right. There are a few vehicles passing by. Except for the music playing in our car, outside everything looks gloomy and sad.
Officially, we are now in Fukushima. I have a strange feeling that I can’t define precisely: fear, mystery, adventure, or is it melancholy?
Everything seems vague. This is a journey into the unknown.
To open the window and breathe in fresh air scares me. Nuclear radiation level is higher when it rains. I wonder what’s the current reading outside. There is a 7 Eleven on the left; a Family Mart on the right; next to it is a gasoline station. They are all lit. Everything looks normal. But nobody is walking on the road.
A solitary lady in kimono holding an umbrella walks in the rain; she is refined and elegant, unmindful of nuclear radiation.
We are seventy kilometers away from Ground Zero.
At an intersection, Navi-chan tells us to turn right. We obey her faithfully. It is almost six in the evening. People seem to be all indoors. We drive around the heart of the town, obeying every instruction of Navi-chan. Most shops are closed and lamps are dimmed. Except for the street lighting, generally lights are turned off. Destination reached, Navi-chan announces rather informally. Route guidance ends now.
Officially, we have arrived but we still have to find the exact location.
Prof. Wheatfields pulls up on the side, makes calls, and asks for further directions. Navi-chan could not give us everything; she does not know the details. Occasionally, you have to use your brain and common sense.
Our host is a retired lady dentist. Along with the three members of her family, she welcomes us politely and with utmost hospitality. Her son and her daughter-in-law came to stay with her after the nuclear disaster. They have been living with her for a month now.
The doctor’s house withstood the intensity of the 3.11 earthquake.
But there are numerous cracks on the walls, as if long centipedes had crept through them. The doctor’s daughter shows us our room—a wide tatami-mat space that looks out to the garden. White tsubakis are in bloom. In the living room, we chat briefly with our host and members of her family. We talk about the drive, the weather, and the frequency ofearthquakes. Everyone said, almost in chorus, that he or she is already used to daily aftershocks and that he or she can sleep all right every single night.
On TV, footage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is shown again.
There is a tsunami of discussions and commentaries. People are desperate to learn from the Soviet-era’s nuclear disaster experience.
Prof. Wheatfields generously introduces me. Feeling a little cold, he goes to fetch his jacket.
Before dinner, we talk about people’s reactions to earthquakes. Prof. Wheatfields tells his observation. He saw an old man, he said, who went wildly and theatrically: Ima sugoi jishin datta!” Others, he said, behaved calmly: “This time’s intensity is 6.5 here, 6.0 there,” as if just reading baseball statistics. And “But I didn’t feel anything.”
The low dining table with a kotatsu heater underneath has been prepared in advance. We gather around it. In the middle of the table is an electric skillet pan. Our host takes turns grilling pieces of pork, strips of beef, slices of onion rings, bell pepper, pumpkins, cabbage, and other vegetables. The Professor and I are the guests and we are not doing anything but just waiting for the right time to grab. Beer and shohchu are served. We make a toast. “Kampai!”
A slight tremor “reminds” us while we’re having dinner. We carry on eating without being bothered by a little earthquake. But I’m a little worried.
Prof. Wheatfields tells a story about a fellow professor. She is a German professor at an elite university in Tokyo, and who, just like him, is on a sabbatical year. Apparently, she had had an operation three years ago for cancer. Worried that cancer might recur due to the nuclear radiation contamination spreading from Fukushima to neighboring areas, including Tokyo, she had refused to come back to Japan. She had filed for a leave of absence, but the university did not grant it and instead ordered her to come back and teach. She refused.
If the university fires me, she said, I would take them to court. Does Prof. Wheatfields know any good lawyers? Yes, he said. He knows some good lawyers. He had sued an ophthalmologist who had misdiagnosed his eye problem. The German professor remained in Berlin.
Unmindful of whether the food is irradiated or not, we enjoy eating.
It seems cruel and unkind to think of contamination when many people are trying to live here normally.
With more anecdotes, Prof. Wheatfields continues to regale our host.
This time he tells them about his Opel that he had inherited from a friend.
It isn’t so fast, he said, but it isn’t so bad. I just had it fixed and a Navi installed. It is fifteen years old. But in England, it could still look brand new.
“Professor,” I interrupted him, “I think your Opel is tired and weary. It’s time to give it a rest.”
“In due time, Rey,” he said.
The worst thing that could happen to you in the middle of an earthquake, our lady dentist host said, is you’re having your tooth fixed for a cavity. When the earth beneath your feet starts shaking, you wouldn’t know what to do. Everyone has a good laugh. Then she tells us about her life of haranbanjoh—the vicissitudes of her life.
My first experience of a real disaster, she said, happened when I was nineteen years old. I was a medical student. I’m now in my eighties. Last month’s earthquake was the strongest I’ve ever experienced. The closest to that in magnitude would be the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. In the morning, I boarded a train in the city center and went to the country in the highlands. After about three to four hours, I got off and waited at the bus stop. Then from a rooftop, I saw people coming down on parachutes. I later realized the bomb had been dropped. I saw it coming down.
Then victims who have survived the atomic bombing started coming to the country. I stayed on the mountains for a month, looking after the victims with burns. I couldn’t go to school anymore. Nobody would look after the victims because the members of their families had died.
When I returned to Hiroshima after a month, the city is yakenohara—a city burnt down. Hiroshima is a big and great city just a month before.
Now, everything is burned.
The father of my friend who is also a dentist—that old man who drove me to the station—had died from burning on his way back home from the station. That was the worst experience I have ever had.
When I was about six years old, one morning the police came and took my father. I had no idea what is happening. They told him it is dangerous to live in our town so we had to move to Tokyo. I was very scared.
Our lady doctor host’s father, the Professor told me later, at that time was an active supporter of the Communist Party.
When I was a young boy, the Professor continues, I heard a lot of terrible war stories. My mom is a German Jew who escaped from Germany halfway through the War.
My grandfather is English. Grandfather was in the British Air Force, in charge of dropping bombs. He didn’t have a handsome job of being a pilot. In the middle of the War, Germany was dropping bombs on England.
On the wide-screen television, a school ground in Fukushima is being tested for its nuclear radiation contamination level. Meanwhile, the Professor is showing pictures of his son and daughter on his PC to our lady host. Kawaii desu ne, the lady doctor admires the Professor’s kids.
There are more pictures on TV of an elementary school wiped out by the tsunami. Schoolchildren are near the debris-littered ground clearing a space to do something. One girl, speaking with deep pathos, said she wants to return to school as soon as possible. Children and their parents are now living in different evacuation centers.
Prof. Wheatfields phones a lodging place in Miharu-machi. He asks a room for two. Two men: I’m an Englishman and I’ll be with a friend.
Both of us are guys. We will stay together. With dinner and breakfast included, how much would it be? What time is breakfast? Okay, Thursday night, sudomari (stay overnight without meals); breakfast and dinner, upon request; the day after tomorrow. My name is HUITOFUIRIDUSU. That’s ha-he-hu-HUITOFUIRIDUSU. Is it near the weeping blossoms? Just a few minutes? Brilliant!