Sunday, March 11, 2012

3.11 One year on...many years into the future

A specialist on Japan, it is incumbent on me to reflect on events in Japan today, one year since we all watched in awe as footage of that black wall of water spewed across our screens here in Australia--but spilled through the lives of people in Tohoku in ways that will take years to recover. 

In this week's tutorial for my course 'About Japan', we will take some time to discuss the events of a year ago and what has happened since. There is a lot to think about and I am particularly interested in gauging students' responses to such events. The students in the class have a range of interests in Japan--many have been there, many plan to go; some were there as the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent shutdown of the nuclear facility happened.

As with any such natural disasters it is always to watch from afar. One's first impulse is always to go and help but there is the worry of getting in the way and being more hindrance than help. We send money in the hope that it makes a small contribution. It's often not enough. 

Regular readers will know I have been travelling to Japan for about 25 years and studying the country for much longer. As the enormity of 3.11 unfolded, (in fact, I recall my mum rang to tell me, I'd been caught up with work) the welfare of students, friends and colleagues became important. I contacted a number of friends in Tokyo. It was a large shake, but not to the scale, they reassured me, of what was happening a little further north. Trains had stopped and there was a deal of confusion but they told me not to worry. Some friends I ended up ringing everyday more for their reassurance than mine, as it turned out. As one friend said, it was just important to hear a voice from another place just so a sense of normalcy prevailed. It took about three weeks for those conversations to return to 'normal' topics. But even when I visited in September last year, there remained a bit of an 'edge' to daily life. 

Of the hundreds of poignant stories which were told, one that stays in my mind is the parent who retold of the evacuation of the school his children attended. After the earthquake, all the children moved to the school oval in an orderly manner, as they had been drilled to do...momentarily, they were safe. The tsunami hit the playground, they were gone. Even now, the image wrenches an emotional response as I write.

Natural disasters we can kind of accept, eventually. But 3.11 of course now means 'Fukushima' and the problems of nuclear power. Concerns about radiation now dominate the news. I follow several people on Twitter who make it their business to provide daily updates of radiation problems in the region; young mothers who agitate for the safety of their children; government leaders and bureaucrats who seek to reassure the general public. I see hundreds of tweets through my timeline each day of people seeking to make sense of this unfolding disaster. 

In Hiroshima, there is a monument to remind us of our wartime folly where atomic weapons are concerned. I first visited there in the 1980s. Indeed, Hiroshima, the whole town, is such a monument. It is fair to say that the Peace Park and the museum do a powerful job in making you think about the futility of war--the children's clothes, the stopped clocks, the shadow of the man who was sitting on the stairs at the time of the blast...yes, the 'shadow'... The annual commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is always accompanied by a roll call of those who died during the year, they are added to the list of 'hibakusha', victims of the atomic bombs. 

In August 2010, I had the temerity to reflect that, so many decades after the war, the list of names to be added might begin to diminish. But now Japan has another list: the thousands who died, the thousands who remain missing and now the thousands, perhaps, into the future for whom this disaster shall continue to bear its scars. Parents are worried for their children. People fear the unknown with the extent of radiation--how much? For how long? What of the future? Political leaders seem to equivocate when it comes to appropriate responses. The polity finds itself in flux, still, and again, and still...

I've never had any regrets about encountering Japan all those years ago, and pursuing my interests to the extent that I feel more than comfortable living and visiting there. I laugh with Japanese friends, I cry with them; we make jokes, we can be serious. Many of them believe, that despite everything, we can make the world a better place. And, one day, we will. 

I dedicate today's post to my friends in Japan, to those in Tohoku I encountered in my many travels through the region over the years and to those many, many people, volunteers and professionals, who have worked and kept us informed over the last year. You will have seen and heard things that shouldn't have been so, but thank you.