Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Improbable Trifecta: The Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Reactors

On March 11th, around 2:30 in the afternoon, I was at my base school and about to go into a meeting regarding my job and contract.  I was waiting in the English prep room with two of my English coworkers, when I noticed that I was moving.  It only took a second to realize that no, I’m not dizzy or about to faint, it’s an earthquake.  It continued, and got progressively stronger for over a minute until it reached a point where it sustained a significant tremor level for at least another minute.  As I write it, two minutes sounds like such a short amount of time, but that day it felt like time had warped and that the tremors would never stop.  It's unnatural to have the earth move beneath your feet. 

Before the tremors stopped, my coworkers knew that if the earthquake were this big in Kitami, it must have been huge somewhere else, so they turned on the radio right away.  All the stations were talking about the earthquake and tsunami warnings.  But, being that nothing was damaged in my town, there was no reason to interrupt the working day.  About twenty or thirty minutes later we entered the principal’s office for the meeting.  As we entered, we all watched the television as videos started showing the tsunami hit Japan.  I’d liken the feeling to how I felt on September 11th when I watched the two towers collapse, one after the other, also when I was at school.  I didn’t know anybody personally in either of the tragedies, but you still feel that same hard-to-describe emotion.  I’m not sure I’ve found a way to explain the feeling, but I know that others understand it – the feeling that you have after you just watched thousands of people die in an instant.  

I didn’t personally know anyone who died, and I don’t know any coworkers here who have lost friends or family.  I can count my blessings.  When I used to feel down about living in Japan, I would sometimes complain that Kitami is in the middle of nowhere, but I was never as thankful to be placed where I am as I was that day.  The earthquake hit a couple hundred miles south of us, and the tsunami damage was quite a ways south as well.  Now, the nuclear power plant problems are about 400 miles south of my city and the winds haven't shifted to bring even the tiniest radiation particles to my town yet.  

But, I think the tsunami and deaths are hitting home because it didn't happen that far from me in the grand scheme of the world.  And, I could have just as easily been placed in Sendai because where we are placed is random. Sendai was the hardest hit big city and my roommate from Chicago was placed there - she was okay though much of her town was devastated.  But, there is one JET English teacher who has been found dead.  She was safe at her school but they were sending students home, so she biked home after the earthquake and ended up biking right into the tsunami.  If she had stayed at the school another 30 minutes she probably would have survived - I can't imagine what her family and friends think about that.  It could have been me and my coworkers affected by all of this and I'm just thankful that I'm safe and at low risk for everything that has followed.  

I’ve decided that I’m not surprised at how the Japanese have responded to this.  After living here for eight months, I know that the Japanese pride themselves on their organizational ability, politeness, and orderliness. This country has a social structure that has allowed calm and order to reign.  There have been no examples of looting or crimes of opportunity.  People wait patiently in long lines for food and water.  People have organized shelters, set up chore rotations to keep the shelters clean, and some shelters have even established recycling programs.  There is no pushing and shoving...people help each other first and foremost.  Compare that to New Orleans after Katrina, or imagine what would happen in California if the "big one" hit with the same amount of destruction as here.  Or imagine how any other country would probably react.  It's amazing.  

At first, I didn’t see any fundraisers or charity efforts going on in my schools.  Since then, I've heard of a few smaller city fundraisers - including a hair cutting event at a local bar - but nothing very widespread.  Two schools that I visit did fundraising drives in the first week after the earthquake, and my base school plans on doing something after students return from Spring Break.  A few fellow JET teachers and I in the area put together a box of supplies to send to the Japanese Second Harvest organization, and the Hokkaido JETs are selling t-shirts as fundraisers.  People are gathering change on the streets of Tokyo and at the entrances of grocery stores (though not in Kitami).  I think people are really helping out, little by little. 

I do think that there are fears about the radiation.  I’m extremely safe where I am in Hokkaido, and being that Hokkaido usually exports food to mainland Japan, the food contamination scare hasn’t hit here yet.  I’m concerned if the seafood starts to pose a problem, which it could since the latest reports indicate some trace leakage into the ocean. 

I'm not going to leave early unless the US Government recommends that all its citizens in Hokkaido (my island) evacuate.  I can't always make out what is true and what is hype because I do believe that the Japanese media maybe isn't getting the whole story, but I think that some US media sources are being a bit sensational about things.  I'd probably leave if I were in or near Tokyo.   Luckily I am going home soon for a much needed vacation.  I hope by then I'll have a clearer direction as far as what to do.  If the situation worsens, I might go home and make plans to leave early.  If it gets better, I'll know that I can plan on staying.  If things stay the same, well, then I'm not sure. 


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