On this day of remembrance, I would like to share with you some simple memories of March 11th that have taken me three years to properly digest. I was far removed from the disaster then, but of course the events of the day made a big impression on me. I remember clearly where I was, what was on my mind and those who were about me. I remember most of all their grace, their kindness and their courtesy.
Three years ago today, when disaster struck north-eastern Japan, my girlfriend and I were safely snoozing on a train in Wakayama. On our way back to Kyoto, or so we thought, we had spent the day previous at a hot-spring resort in Katsuura. A sleepy little fishing village, I had been struck on arrival by the markedly unfriendly stares of the locals and their gruff responses when we asked for directions. Most atypical for Japan I thought, especially in a small country town where people are usually extremely friendly. But then I realised that just two stops away by train was Taiji cove: the frontline in an increasingly intransigent face-off between angry animal rights activists and equally stubborn dolphin hunters. As most of those activists were foreign, I imagined my presence might be treated with suspicion by local fishermen who felt their lifestyle to be under siege.
We were in fact deep in the heart of whaling country. A signboard in the bay advertised boat tours to watch the whales, whereas the hotel shop’s refrigerators laden with meat in varicolored cuts, encouraged us to eat them or take some home as souvenirs. Viewing these I considered the gap in mutual understanding between those who would consider this the norm, and those who would reel back in horror and disgust. Clearly this was not a problem to resolve on a single day trip however. I fled to the hotel’s ocean-side hot spring baths and spent the afternoon, gazing at the Pacific, letting my mind drift away on the waves.
The following morning we spent at Kumanonachi Taisha, a beautiful shrine overlooking Japan’s highest waterfall. There I noticed on the shrine wall a poster of a beautiful young Japanese girl, with snow white skin and a rounded blushing cheek that perfectly depicted the Hinomaru, or “rising sun” of the Japanese flag. The girl’s eyes were downcast but her smile was proud, and the message read 「私は日本人でよかった。」 – Thank goodness I am Japanese. The nationalistic implications disturbed me, not least the suggestion that by not being Japanese I was somehow lacking. Why on earth would the keeper of the shrine post such a thing? At that time I was less aware of the two sides to Shinto, Japan’s native folk religion: on one side a diverse set of organic traditions celebrating nature, fertility and locality; and on the other a somber and insidious bending of rites and myths in support of imperial and nationalistic ends… Instinctively attracted by the natural side of things, I busied myself taking pictures of the great green giant camphor tree, wise, ancient life-giving guardian to the shrine, and I set my unease aside.
After lunch we boarded our train and settled comfortably in our seats. With a couple of changes we expected to be home in Kyoto in about four hours. Sometime before 3 o’clock however, our train came to an unscheduled stop and I was awoken by an announcement that the train was halted for a tsunami alert. Apparently there had been a major earthquake in Tohoku, the north-east of Japan, but we were not to worry as the train had stopped in a safe location. This struck me as odd. Why would an earthquake in the north-east of the country affect us so far south? Surely the railway company was being over-cautious? In fact, a relatively minor tsunami did affect the coastline of Wakayama, and the very hotel I had spent the night at did have to be evacuated. At that moment though I had no idea. I checked the BBC news on my i-phone, and read the initial reports of a major earthquake and tsunami in Miyagi, but the magnitude of the disaster still didn’t hit home. I wouldn’t really understand just how bad things were until I finally got home that night around midnight and turned on my TV. Then my girlfriend and I would be rendered speechless by what we saw. Right now though, back on the train, we were relatively blasé about the situation. I spared a thought for old friends in Fukushima, a prefecture bordering Miyagi where I had previously lived, but I was not overly concerned. Fukushima was said to be on solid ground and rarely affected by earthquakes. That after all was why they had built the nuclear power plants there. Japan is a disaster prone country, and though we knew a disaster of some kind was occurring, we were yet ignorant of its scale. We were not at all alarmed, not even when my sister called me up from England to ask me if I was ok. We had each other for company, and considered this unexpected turn of events a little adventure of sorts.
As it turned out, we were in for a long wait, six hours in total, during which the train staff broadcast many messages of apology for the delay and not one passenger complained. We all knew this was nobody’s fault. These things happen and we just had to make the best of the situation. We had pulled up alongside a small country station and at some point an old lady from a local shop came on and started handing out bottled tea and small containers of rice, each garnished with a single pickled plum. With gratitude we hungrily devoured them. Later on another local came by handing out drinks and sandwiches. Everybody remarked on the generous spirit of these people who endeavoured to feed a train load of stranded people out of the goodness of their hearts – and put themselves out of pocket in the process.
Finally the railway company gave up on our stranded train, and buses were hired to carry us to Osaka. It was now evening and I will always remember what I saw from the window as our bus pulled away. The railway staff, who had never stopped apologizing, lined up outside the station, doffed their caps and bowed, and continued to bow to us until we were out of sight. And we in turn bowed to them. I suppose this is not an unusual gesture in this country. But something about that simple, gentle civility touched me then and continues to touch me now. There are those who would have you believe that Japan is best represented by its nationalist politicians, or its bureaucrats, or by whaling and dolphin hunting communities in some coastal areas. These are aspects of Japan that should not be ignored, but they are also a tiny part of the main. It is people like those who helped us that day, the cheerful local shopkeepers, the bento lunch box makers and the railway workers, always doing their best, looking out for those in need, taking responsibility for a situation as it arises – they make up the backbone of Japan. People like that raised funds for Tohoku. They were the ones who volunteered. They keep this country ticking. Simple, working, well-mannered people concerned for their fellows. They doff their caps, and I love them for it.