Thursday, March 10, 2016

3/11 At Five

           On April 7, 2010 I started teaching English in Osaki, Miyagi Prefecture.  Osaki is a sparse but large farming town in northern Japan.  For almost a year, it was home.  I came to care for it very deeply and still do.   A few weeks before I was due to leave, a powerful earthquake struck the region, setting off a tsunami that in turn triggered a meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  Over 15,000 people died, tens of thousands more became homeless.  I was forced to evacuate in a hurry. 

How well do you remember something that happened five years ago?  What does it take for you to associate a memory with a particular day?  Or even an hour?  I was not looking at my watch, so the hour is not burned into my memory.  But the date and day of the week is: Friday March 11, 2011.  I’ve already told the story on this space, so I will not repeat myself.  Instead, you can read my personal experience here.  I have told that story dozens of time so far.  I’m sure I will tell it for the rest of my life.  The earthquake story is about my friends who lived through it in what I called “the foreign quarter,” an apartment block in a little rural town that happened to have a lot of gaijin residents.  It is the story of what my family experienced from afar, and how they responded.  My story is also notable for what I omit.  I never talk about the dead and I tend to elide the nuclear catastrophe unless the audience asks.
            For me, the events of 3/11 are about the earthquake and it’s secondary effects.  The nuclear catastrophe was secondary to the earthquake because the shaking and tsunami caused the meltdown, while the destruction in Tohoku, far north of Fukushima sticks in my mind.  But for most of the world, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant takes center stage.  I once wrote that I understand why the nuclear accident sticks out so much for most people, and I still lament it because it takes too much attention.  People keep referring to 3/11 as a nuclear disaster, in a way that excludes the other consequences.  I wonder now, how will people look back on all of this in ten years?  Will I have to remind people that an earthquake occurred at all, and it was responsible for the casualties?  I already know that I will have to explain how the earthquake and tsunami dealt a mortal blow a dying region.  That is to be expected.  Most people had never heard of Tohoku, and would not have otherwise.  It is to be   
            But I also worry that I will ignorantly downplay the significance of Fukushima Daiichi.  I saw the fear it inspired.  To most people, radiation might as well be magic.  Some, special, exotic, eldritch thing that causes tumors and deformities.  No, radiation is a property of matter, in which the matter because unstable and throws it’s own molecules around, in a globe (Or rather, circle.  Radiation derives from the latin radius).  What happens when those molecules hit other matter depends on how they interact.  Elements like uranium and cesium, which are often used in nuclear power generation, are toxic to humans.  See, the danger from radiation is dependent on whether or not the material is toxic.  Which is usually case.  Did you know that granite sometimes can be radioactive?   If you just looked askance at a counter-top, do not tell me.  So far, Fukushima Daiichi has not caused the death of any human.  At least, not in a way that we can connect.  I would allow for the possible of stress-induced illness as well as radiation poisoning, and any number of the 75,000 Fukushimans evacuated in the wake of the meltdown are susceptible.  I worry about downplaying the effects on them, because their pain is real. 

            I will leave you with a plea: read the whole story, and always read it carefully. 

Japanese version here

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