Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Where Fear Lies -- tohoku earthquake part one

With a cheap driver I worked the tiny screw on the back of my son's toy microwave oven. He likes to play restaurant every now and then, making me fish pizza and croissant soup or whatever strikes his blossoming imagination. Then he tells me to 'sit here and eat'. I couldn't remember those words coming from him lately though so maybe the batteries in there still had some juice.

The sky outside was growing dim.

I am so not prepared for this.


Quarter to three in the afternoon; my son is sitting at a kid-sized table with his friends at the Shinryo pre-school, chomping on cookies and drinking cold tea. The other kids are there with their moms. Both teachers in the room are women. I'm the only adult male, and though they all say it's great that my son could be there today with his 'O-to-san' I'm feeling a bit out of place. I stir my paper cup of coffee and watch my son interact with the other kids in effortless Japanese.

All along the coast, from Fukushima up through Miyagi and into Iwate, fishermen in slickers and rubber boots and weathered skin tie off their nets and head to bed. Their wives sit on the floor on straw mats pouring tea, alone or with friends, glancing outside at the slowly warming March weather. Young children play and shriek and eat cookies at schools just like Shinryo. All along the coast.

I slip my fingers around the lip of my cup as I feel a gentle tremor. This time, that familiar awe laced with vague fear that usually carries me through will only last the first couple of seconds.

The previous evening my student Eriko and I had gotten onto the subject of earthquakes. 'The Big One' was coming, we agreed, in the next ten or twenty years. Could be Tokyo, or maybe the Kansai area which includes Osaka, Japan's second largest city, and Kobe, center of the devastation of 1996. 'It won't be in Fukushima,' I added as the prefecture lies on relatively solid ground. 'We're lucky we live here.'

Eriko nodded in agreement.


A bang, a bolt of sound so fast and fierce it pierces not your ears but your chest. A bang like a truck slamming into the building. But this explosion, this war cry from an unseen beast, came at us from all sides; the walls, the floor, the ceiling, all suddenly, violently alive...three seconds...six seconds...ten.... The sway and creak usually rises and falls, God reaching down with one hand to shake us out of our complacence and then leaving us to our own again to ponder the continuance of the day. Today, in this moment that felt like it would last the rest of our lifetimes, there was no build-up, no gentility, only the earth erupting in what we would personify as rage as if there were even a word for what was happening. I felt that familiar awe being buried, swallowed by a fear no longer vague. A fear so distinct it turns into images, growing increasingly real.

I held my son. I thought of my wife and my baby boy and a conversation with Eriko.

This was Fukushima, this didn't happen here.


The floor and the building and the world shook again as I pried the batteries out of a toy, a hunk of molded plastic so trivial yet imbued now with something so important. Fear comes not from knowing what is happening, but from not knowing what will happen - in the next second, the next minute, the next hour if it is coming. I screwed the battery cover back into place. Don't lose that little screw, we'll need it I assured myself.

I grabbed two children's books, filled a plastic bag with snack food and water and went back out to the car, the safest place - the only safe place - for now and who knew how long. My wife was in the passenger seat holding our ten-month-old. My older boy was in his seat in the back. He had himself all buckled in, ready to go. How to explain to a kid of three why we're sitting in the car if we aren't going anywhere?

Sometimes fifteen minutes would pass without another tremor. Sometimes it was only five. 'Are we gonna get another reeeeally big earthquake?' my son asked.

I stared out the windshield, the last of the sun disappearing behind the mountains. There were no lights, anywhere, save for the faint pinpoints of the stars. Behind my son the world was black. Up ahead, on all sides, it would soon be the same.

Fear comes not from knowing what is happening, but from not knowing what will happen.

'I don't know, buddy,' I said to my son. 'I don't know.'