Be prepared, stay calm
For twenty years people in Japan and Canada have been asking me when I will return to Canada. Or, do I plan to return to Canada? Then finally, if I will return to Canada? My response has always been that, yes, I want to return but, no, I don’t know exactly when and I have no immediate plan. The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 tested my position on these questions and drove my family to the brink of decision, but it did not deter my life in Tokyo. That in itself is a decision. Not only was there the stress of the environmental crisis, but I lost a lot of employment as appointments were suddenly cancelled with no alternative or replacement occupation. Economic security for foreigners in Japan is a dodgy notion to begin with, but the aftermath of the great earthquake made my living here measurably more difficult simply from the perspective of the bottom line. But then I remembered that in Chinese the word for “crisis” is the same as “opportunity.” Or so I have read.
In the days after 3/11 when the nuclear crisis was mushrooming, when tens of thousands of resident foreigners (“gaijin”) fled the country (derisively nicknamed “fly-jin” by those who stayed behind), and even some European missions in the capital began either to re-locate to Osaka or else flee the country entirely my Japanese wife and I were under great pressure either to stay, or flee to Guelph. Or to Vancouver, to Okinawa or Thailand, which are all within our reach. At least for a couple of weeks, anyway, long enough to see how the wind was blowing. I am sure, though, that if we did leave Japan it would have been to re-locate permanently to Canada. I went so far as to put a hold on airline tickets for the entire family and was even looking forward to it. (“Gosh, this time next week we’ll be regaling friends and family in Guelphwith the story and shopping at the Stone Road Mall.”) The first week following the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear power plant disaster was a frantic time of domestic and international consultation, trans-oceanic telephoning, global E-mailing and soul searching.
In the end we decided to stay first, because there was no family unanimity here. Second, because we decided that the risks and expense outweighed the probable threat. Third, the immediate financial cost of it was so daunting. And, fourth, because if the radiation danger was as great as worst-case scenarios painted then leaving the country just for a short time and then returning would probably be a wasted gesture. It was either relocate permanently to Guelph or not flee at all. As it turns out, evacuation proved unnecessary and I stayed to experience a rapidly evolving collective government and public response to a great disaster. It was sort of like being in one of those old war documentaries. Think of grainy black-and-white film clips of Berlin in ruins. But there were no bodies in the streets or destroyed buildings in Tokyo. Images that we saw on television of the disaster along the northern coastline looked to us just as much like another world as they must have looked to Canadians. But the experience of frequent strong aftershocks in the capital, power outages, transportation paralysis, gasoline queues, food shortages and empty shelves, contaminated water and invisible radiation in the air made life here very ... interesting. This isn’t what Canadian Boy Scouts prepared me for. Well, maybe the Boy Scout experience didn’t hurt. The first rule of survival is Be Prepared. Then, Stay Calm. In the immediate aftermath people on the streets here spontaneously spoke to one another, even to strangers, talking with low, exhausted voices, “Are you okay? What were you doing when it happened?” It was the exhaustion of the post-adrenalin high. A new sense of community was being born right in front of me, and I was in it. The Japanese really came together as a nation and I think they can rightly be proud of their calm perseverance.
The entire population fretted over trust: who to trust, what information to trust, what sources to trust. It was a distilling process as layer after layer of additional information brought things into focus. For me, this year raised my consciousness of saving electricity, preparing for future disasters, placing more importance on ties with family members and relatives, and avoiding undue influence by rumor.