|My Seven Days in March|
|Written by Masami Takahashi|
|Monday, 21 March 2011 13:50|
On Friday, March 11, 2011, I found it strange that my 10-year-old daughter’s figure-skating coach called my wife’s cell phone around 9 o’clock in the morning just to ask how we were doing. Friday mornings are usually a quiet time for us because that’s the only day when my wife does not have to take our daughter to a daily pre-dawn figure skating lesson on Oakton and then drive her back before her school starts at 8:53. My wife had no idea what the coach was talking about until he muttered “an earthquake” and “Japan” in one sentence. We had not heard anything. I usually turn the radio off when the NPR does its fund-raising. We rarely watch TV, only DVDs and Netflix. Since we had just moved to a new house in Lincoln Park, we had no Internet service, either. After she hung up and told me about an earthquake in Japan, I wasn’t yet that concerned. Japan is an “earthquake-ready” country. The construction regulations are very strict so that the buildings can withstand significant quakes. Companies and schools have, by law, an annual training day to review proper procedures and the best evacuation routes in an emergency. Also, I had never met anyone who didn’t have non-perishable goodies stashed away just in case. Besides, I thought, it was already 11 P.M. in Japan, and my mother must’ve gone to bed some time ago.
When I arrived at my office around 10 A.M. on the Northeastern Illinois University campus, people just kept on asking me about the earthquake. I ran up the stairs and started looking at the news on the Internet. As I read through many reports, both in English and Japanese, I realized that this one was something big, horrendously big. What really hit home with me was that the strength of the quake was unprecedented in Japan and that the epicenter was relatively close (about 200 miles) to my hometown, where my in-laws and my 82-year-old mother live. I was especially concerned about my mother. She lives alone after suffering a stroke a couple of years ago, on the 10th floor of a multi-story condo. High-rise buildings in Japan are designed to sway when quakes occur so that they can absorb the destructive energy. As a result, a minor quake at ground level feels several magnitudes stronger on her floor.
My wife and I tried to call our homes that night, but to no avail. We only heard either a strange tone or a pre-recorded message in Chinese
My wife finally got through to talk to her sister who lives in Chiba, about 30 miles south. She was able to reach my in-laws’ house where the father was alone at the time (The mother-in-law happened to be in Australia for a hiking trip that soon turned into her biggest guilt trip). Via email, I eventually reached my brother who lives in Saitama. He was just about to leave with his wife and son to rescue my mother. Usually, it is an easy drive, a little more than an hour on a highway. However, he later told me that the highway was closed, and that it took them almost 6 hours to get to their destination. Moreover, he said the traffic he was in going north (toward the epicenter) was still better than traffic going the other direction, since most people were fleeing southward.
The phone to my mother was still dead. Again, for some strange reason, all I could hear was a pre-recorded female Chinese voice.
At this point, although I hadn’t been able to reach my mother by phone, I was able to communicate via email with my old friends who still live in town. They informed me that Tsuchiura was hit with a magnitude 6.9 quake, compared to 8.9 in Sendai, and that there was no threat of tsunami because the city is located inland. I also asked them to check on my mother.
The phone line was still down, but my brother eventually sent me an email saying that our mother was fine. Everything in our house that was standing upright had fallen in the earthquake, including Butsudan, a Buddhist altar. There was shattered glass everywhere. When the quake hit, she was in my old room reading newspapers. For a reason she could not recollect, she had thought she had to hold on to a freestanding looking glass among many other things (perhaps because it was a gift from my late father). The quake was so powerful, however, that she had to eventually let it go; it fell to the floor and the mirror shattered to pieces. After the initial shock subsided, she inspected the damage. No lifelines-- gas, water, and electricity--were functional. While she had some bottled water and non-perishable food in a closet, her biggest problem was that a huge bookcase fell and blocked the path to the bathroom. For the next 24 hours until my brother lifted the bookshelf, she had to use the veranda.
According to my mother, the electricity came back on the second day, but the elevator was still not operational. That meant my mother, who cannot climb up and down ten flights of stairs, could not go outside. Although the water service came back on the 4th day, it could not reach her due to a damaged water pump. She said that one of my friends brought several gallons of well water for non-drinking purposes by climbing up the stairs. She used the water to first wash her hands and utensils, and then to flush the toilet.
On this day, my main concern shifted from the lifeline and after-shocks to the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, located only about 150km north of her house. They just expanded the radius of the restricted zone from 10km to 20 km. The water-dumping effort by helicopters on TV looked so lame. Each “bucket” can carry only a tiny portion of water to fill up a gigantic cooling fuel pool.
The elevator was back in order, she said. I told her to go outside to see for herself if there was any food available in the stores. She wanted to go out, but couldn’t because of strong wind gusts all day. She was optimistic about the nuclear plant situation.
I called Japan Air Line (JAL) today because three days prior to the earthquake I had just purchased two non-refundable tickets for my mother and mother-in-law to visit Chicago on April 12. I explained to them that I wanted to cancel them because their houses were badly damaged due to the quake and they were in no mood for a sight seeing tour in Chicago. They stubbornly refused my request and kept on saying, “The rules are rules,” like a broken record.
While there are more and more heartbreaking images and articles about the disaster, there are also a handful of heartwarming pictures and stories. For example, a collection of pictures depict the beautiful smiles of children at the refugee camp (view here). In particular, one picture caught my eye; a smiling toddler held high by her mother. The original caption read, “A smiling toddler with a long-waited warm milk bottle in the background (she may not see another bottle for sometime to come).”
My mother went outside for the first time since the quake. Most of the houses and buildings looked okay, she said, but there a are few old houses that are completely destroyed. The grocery store she usually goes to was open as usual. Although they carry mostly preserved and “instant” food and are out of fresh products (e. g., milk, vegetables, fruits, etc.), she was able to purchase a bunch of spinach. I reminded her that she could boil the spinach without cooking gas by using the microwave oven.
It was the following morning when we heard on the radio that the restricted area around the nuclear plant was just expanded again from 20 km to 30 km, and spinach from our prefecture was found to be contaminated with a trace of radiation. I tried to call her in the morning, but all I heard was a pre-recorded female Chinese voice…
Masami Takahashi is currently an Associate professor of psychology at Northeastern Illinois University. He spent the last 20 years studying developmental psychology, specializing in late adulthood. His research focus has been on the psychological strengths of older adults including the concepts of wisdom and spirituality.
He is the author of a documentary film, “The Last Kamikaze: Testimonials from WWII Suicide Pilots”, which tells the story of Japanese teenagers recruited as suicide bombers during World War Two.
He lives in Chicago with his family.
The Last Kamikaze: Testimonials from WWII Suicide Pilots links: