Kyoto after the 3/11 Quake/Tsunami/Nuclear Power Plant Failure

by Hanna

(Elderly people viewing the plum blossoms in the imperial palace park, Gosho.)

Again, there is so much to write about. I discovered yesterday that these emotions I’m feeling in relation to the quake and other events in my life right now is plainly grief. Why? Because I’m learning how to live in the world with death and uncertainty. I don’t think I’ve ever really worked through grief like this before in my life. But realizing this is what my problem is has been a huge relief, because in working through grief, new possibilities for life open up and life becomes fuller. I can see it happening before me and within me now. . .

But first, back to the story. So, I eventually made it to Kyoto by shinkansen. What was strange was that the train wasn’t any more crowded than usual, the atmosphere at the station and in the cars was no different than I had experienced it many times before. Sure, I was initially surprised by the large number of young families with small children, but it was Sunday, so they were probably going to see the grandparents naturally enough. Who knows if they were trying to flee the aftershocks or nuclear threat?

The shinkansen was, of course, incredibly fast. Within no time I was in Kyoto Station. The people, the air, the trains, everything was normal there, but I was still hyper-attentive. My nerves would not relax and didn’t for a few days. At the hostel where I stayed, I even based my choice of the top bunch on a quick evaluation of the seismic possibilities, a crazy evaluation considering the sturdy, perfectly solid beams used in the beds’ construction. Of course, the whole week that I stayed there, I only felt tiny tremors, which just might have been my own imagination. It was hard to tell, but Kyoto is far far away from the afflicted area and only shuddered as the East was flattened.

(The view from a bench in the Gosho park. I spent a good part of an afternoon there, not wanting to sightsee anymore.)

In the meantime, I put up a mask of confidence and control whenever I met people. I tried to be my usual smilely self. I met with the director of the study abroad program at Doshisha University, the program with which I came to Japan for the very first time eight years ago. The director was also my very first Japanese professor in college ten years ago. We had planned a meeting with students to talk about living in Japan after graduating from college, but the meeting began with a run down of the news and analysis. Unsurprisingly, students’ parents were reacting strongly to the disaster and some wanted their children to come home. The program responded rationally with the facts: Kyoto was completely unaffected and was too far away from eastern Japan to be affected by the aftermath. The students’ studies should not be interrupted.

Thereafter, I had a wonderful evening with the director and her husband, a religion professor, at an izakaya near the university. With that, I finally let my control down enough to allow myself a glass of beer. As of the earthquake, I had been completely incapable of drinking for fear of losing the fragile grasp I had on the world around me.

At the hostel where I stayed, there were people from all over the world, but when I arrived many were from Europe. A few young French and German women frantically tried to find earlier flights to their home countries. As the week progressed, Europeans were replaced by tourists from various Asian countries, and finally by Japanese trying to find respite from the affected areas in the East. A woman from Ibaraki showed up with her son. Her husband is French, and they were looking for flights to France.

(A girl celebrating Shichi-go-san playing in front of the main sanctuary at Kitano Tenmangu.)

I spent my first day in Kyoto dutifully going to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine to pray to the god there, a god of study and, conveniently enough, originally a god of bad weather. However, my previous plans to sightsee places in Kyoto and in the greater Kansai area that are related to my research fell apart as I was more interested in the news, spending hours each morning and evening taking in as much news as I could, so I could purvey the situation rationally to my family and friends overseas. Rational news was the only anti-dote to completely flipping out, the only way to stay sane within the fierce storm of emotional reactions.

But not all news was rational. The night after the earthquake, I watched a podcast of the NBC Nightly News as I often do, and the quick succession of images accompanied by an uncorrelated narrative was misleading and purely sensational. (Shockingly enough, in one image a burning oil refinery was shown at the exact same moment the narrative mentioned problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant.) The only benefit I could see from that kind of reporting was collecting donations, since charity information was displayed right after the barrage of overwhelming images and information (the sound design and background design didn’t help much either). CNN wasn’t much different. I preferred the NHK news, which gave the most information anyway, albeit in Japanese, and more rationally than any foreign news service I was checking on both in Europe and North America.

Towards the end of the first week in Kyoto, more young Japanese people were coming to Kyoto for the long weekend or for a short period of time to regain some composure, it was hard to tell the difference, but most likely a bit of both. A few friends of mine who came from Tokyo had become completely overloaded with the emotional stress there. The lights were going out in rolling blackouts, trains functioned on reduced schedules, and radioactivity scares rose in waves through the city, particularly when it rained. Tokyo’s normally perfect clockwork permits a person to find a train itinerary on their cell phone that is aligned down to within seconds with the actual trains. That clockwork was seriously disrupted and it showed on the tense faces of friends visiting Kyoto for a few days when they didn’t have work. Those I met came, though, not as evacuees, but as tourists, visiting sights and meeting with friends. But work drew them back to Tokyo very soon after a few days.

In the meantime, life in Kyoto was surreally normal. Sure, the most commonly overheard conversation in restaurants and cafes throughout the city were about the disaster, but these happened in the most normal circumstances. If I hadn’t known Japanese, I would have thought the people completely indifferent, a fallacy that the philosopher Mishima Kenichi pointed out in an opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemenine. The Japanese response to the disaster isn’t any more or less dramatic than that of any other culture, it is just different. Although Mishima doesn’t mention the aftermath of Katrina, the levels of emotional frustration that led to plundering and violence there are not so different from the frustration and stress here. The difference is in how that frustration is dealt with, which might realate to the cultural (and economic) differences between the two places. . .

And just as in any other culture, the desire to help is strong. But in this case, there is very little to do even now. Because of food and fuel shortages in the northeast, volunteers are discouraged from going. Shortly after going to Kyoto, I wanted to reply to a call for help interpreting for international rescue teams, but since information on the need and situation was seriously lacking, I did not go. As a result, I regret that I haven’t been able to do much of anything to help yet. I feel powerless still, but I hope in the months and years to come to be able to volunteer in rebuilding.

(More to come. . .)

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