Supermoon on March 21, 2011, taken by my friend Cynthia Yeung (photographer extraordinaire!), in Hong Kong
It has been the longest–no, maybe the shortest–in any case, definitely *the* most bizarre twelve days of my entire life.
Friday, March 11, 2011: The day that my world was completely rocked–literally and figuratively–to an extent that things will never be the same.
2:01 PM. I finished a call on skype with a dream consultant, having felt that the intensity of my recent dreams seemed to be trying to tell me something. This was one of the first times I had spoken with anyone about this, and I felt vague and uncertain as I tried to relay my experiences. Before we hung up the phone, her last words were that whatever message was trying to come through, she sensed it was a powerful one.
After hanging up the phone, I spent the next 30-40 minutes perusing websites on good recipes for breastfeeding mommies, since I had told friends of mine with two-week-old twin baby boys that I was going to cook a meal and bring it over to their place that evening. I finally decided on papaya chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, a salad of dark, leafy greens topped with raw almonds, and lentil beans—apparently, foods that help stimulate the flow of breast milk.The simple act of planning a menu for a new family gave me an incredibly warm and grounded feeling, and I was calm and happy as I gathered my things and started to get ready to go shopping.
2:46 PM. The room started shaking, slowly at first and then gradually stronger. Having lived in Tokyo for the past ten years, earthquakes were nothing new. Since I was on the ground floor of our 80 year-old two-story wooden house, however, I decided to play it safe and head outside.
Almost as soon as I got outdoors, it became clear that something was very, very wrong. In every earthquake I had experienced in this country previously, going outside immediatelymeant you could no longer really feel the shaking. In this case, however, the convulsions only got stronger after I went outside–to an extent I never imagined I would ever experience.
Not even sure where I was going, but certain that I could not stay still, I exited the gate onto the road in front of our house. People had started to spill out of their homes, dogs were barking, children were screaming—and still, the earth continued pitching, dipping and swirling all around us. A woman at a nearby bus stop was crouched on the ground saying “kowai! kowai!” (“This is scary!), and seemed to be nearly in tears.I made my way toward her, and we huddled together, hanging on to each other for the next several terrifying minutes. Yes, this was a stranger, and no, strangers do not huddle together in this city–much less say hello to each other on the street. But then again, feeling as if the earth is about to open up from the inside out is not a scenario that shows up in the guidebook of Tokyo street protocol. We were acting on the level of pure, primal instinct, and in a moment like this, being together with another human being felt immensely comforting.
When the pulsating finally stopped, we thanked each other and went on our way–me back to my garden, where I stayed for the next two hours together with my terrified cat, who was running away in a panic from every leaf blowing in the gradually colder, swifter wind. I was tempted to go back inside to fetch my hat and gloves, to use the toilet, to check for damage…but I was too afraid that aftershocks would come. And come they did: Hundreds of them, all through the rest of the evening, all night long, and into the next day.
For many reasons, I was one of the very lucky ones in this tragedy. Yes, I was dazed and freaked out, but since university was not in session and I was doing my translation work at home, I was in my own comfort zone. As I waited out the first of the aftershocks in the yard, messages began steadily pouring in from around the world on my iPhone through e-mail and Facebook since news of the tragedy had already begun spreading. Many others in Tokyo were not so lucky, however. Most people were stranded, either having to spend the night at their workplace or at one of the many public facilities such as schools and community centers that opened their doors for the night. Or—as in the case of my partner, who left her office at 6PM and arrived home at 11—they joined throngs of others in the streets and walked.
Slowly, more news began filtering in of the unbelievable destruction in Tohoku. Entire communities crushed and swallowed whole. Thousands killed and wounded, still thousands more displaced in the freezing temperatures. Our housemate, who is from Sendai, was unable to reach her parents, and at one point in the evening, a report came in over the radio that between 200 and 300 bodies were found right in the neighborhood where their family business was located. With phone service out, I finally reached her by skype later that evening and then again the next morning. She stayed at her office, unable to sleep at all, and finally reached her parents—who were stunned but safe—the next afternoon.
We were all shocked by what came next: Multiple reactors (and their backup systems) at the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants failing due to the earthquake and tsunami, with radiation threatening to spew out into the atmosphere and/or leak into the ground water supply unless they could be cooled–and fast. While the perky Japanese media assured us that there was absolutely nothing to worry about unless you were in the immediate vicinity of the plant, reports coming in from overseas painted a picture of a living nightmare, such as physicist Michio Kaku’s blog post from three days after the disaster, which read “We are witnessing a gigantic science experiment, with the Japanese people as guinea pigs”, or this report from Democracy Now! one day later, where nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson mused that we could be looking at “Chernobyl on steroids.” OMFG doesn’t reallycapture the reaction here.
These two opposite extremes pretty much summed up what was to become the news options for those of us frantically trying to understand what exactly we were dealing with over the several days that followed. For every expert claiming that we *were* looking at very possible worst-scase scenarios (and these did include some Japanese experts and media commentators in addition to the foreign ones), there was a report issued claiming that those of us who were worried were simply succumbing to sensationalism and scare tactics, like this piece, whose author claimed that “the lack of information in Japan, partly due to the vague expressions used by the language, has created a vacuum into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured.”
My feeling in this situation, which I know was also shared by many of my friends, was that it was up to each and every one of us to do our own research, get educated, and then decide on the best course of action to protect OURSELVES, since nobody else would do it for us. History has shown that governments have assured their citizens that a situation was safe when it turned out to be anything but so—and it was then up to average citizens to do the work of discovering the truth. Two examples among many are Japanese director Hitomi Kamanaka, whose film “Hibakusha: At the End of the World” explores the link between all radiation victims worldwide, including those living downwind of the Hanford nuclear power plant in the United States, among whom she finds numerous cancers and illnesses; or this incredible photolog website of a Ukranian woman who traveled to Chernobyl twenty years after the nuclear disaster there to document what she sees.
And so, at the insisting of my partner and my own instinct for self-preservation—not to mention consideration of the fact that I did not want to stack any further odds against my chances for delivering a healthy baby (since I will be forty this year, and not planning to try for at least another year or two)—I made the decision to accept the invitation to come visit a friend in Hiroshima, (yes, irony noted), where I was an exchange student nearly twenty years prior. And so, with a two-day change of clothes, a heavy heart at leaving my partner behind (she assured me she would join me in a day or two, but couldn’t be sure due to her work responsibilities), and no clue what the immediate future would bring, I became one of the many so-called “genpatsu nanmin”–“nuclear power refugees”–who were fanning westward toward safer climes.
Once again, I realized that my situation was worlds better than most others. Instead of sitting in a freezing gymnasium with little to no food, like the folks in Tohoku—or crowded together with several families, as I know others now are doing still—I was heading to a large apartment in a safe city that was far from the danger. For the blur that was the next several days, my sanctuary became a warm and comfortable internet cafe with free wireless service, computer plug-ins, great music and delicious coffee (with cheap refills!) from morning until night as I sifted madly through all of the different news sources, frantically e-mailing, blogging, Facebooking and Twittering in an attempt to make sense of a nonsensical situation. I tried to do whatever I could to help translate pieces of information for friends lacking one language or another, but I was never sure which information was most reliable, and I was somehow left with the feeling that the more I tried to educate myself, the less I actually knew.
I would then head back to the home of my extremely generous-hearted friend when the cafe closed around 10PM and try to get some sleep. The nights were more like a series of short naps, however, each one punctuated by my bolting awake in a panic to scan my iPhone for any pieces of news that might have come through about the nuclear power plant crisis—news that would encourage my partner to finally come join me in safety, or that I could relay to my countless friends who were facing the agonizing decision of whether to leave the Kanto region themselves. Several days and nights of this was exhausting, and I realize now (with the clarity of hindsight, since the last several days have become calmer) that although my situation was paradise compared to countless others, I was still in a sense of shock and low-grade trauma.
Despite all of the doomsday scenarios afoot, some incredible sources of inspiration were also coming through as well. The messages that others across the world were sending to us—and that we in Japan were sending amongst ourselves as well–were of a single voice: that love and strength would overpower whatever difficulties we were facing. We just had to keep staying positive, sending each other encouragement, checking in with each other daily, sometimes hourly, in order to be sure we were all safe and okay. It truly was this outpouring of support that kept us going through all of the fear and uncertainty. Even in the hard-hit areas, hopeful stories like this extremely uplifting letter from a woman in Sendai were speaking of a collective shift in awareness—and some are saying that the disaster in Japan is evidence of the beginning of the ninth cycle in Mayan cosmology, known as the Cycle of Unity of Consciousness.
This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me at a gut level of feeling, and given my message-laden dreams (which I will not go into here, but suffice it to say that they were powerful indeed)—as well as the fact that I actually felt as if I were undergoing a deeply significant personal shift on March 9th, apparently the first day of the new cycle—I feel an incredible amount of hope with regard to this new world that we now seem to be entering. There is a whole world of resources out there for those interested in taking a radically new approach to living more sustainably—which I will be attempting to synthesize in the coming weeks and months as we continue trying to educate ourselves on very basic issues—such as whether water is safe to drink and food is safe to eat—and as we try shift this tragedy into positive directions that will benefit both ourselves and all living beings, including our Mama Earth. In this regard, this piece from a healer who runs a blog called Midnight Apothecary about how we can transform our fears and grief into compassion and positive action is practically helpful as well as poignant beyond words.
Another prophecy that seems relevant to this whole situation is that of the Hopi, whose tribal leaders were horrified after learning that plutonium and uranium taken forcibly from their land were used to create the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and decided to go public with a prophecy that had been passed down from their elders. The message described how humankind has now come to stand at the crossroads of two possible futures, depending on which actions are taken–either total annihilation or peaceful sustainability. (I learned all of this from the 1986 documentary Hopi no yogen (The Hopi Prophecy) by Japanese director Miyata Kiyoshi, a classic among social activists in Japan that describes the response of Hopi and Navajo tribes in the southwestern United States to the resource colonization of their lands that have been repeatedly plundered for plutonium and uranium, or—in their words—“carving out the earth’s vital organs”). This blog post from the Sacred Land Film Project ties together last week’s earthquake and tsunami disaster with warnings given from the last of the four messengers chosen to interpret the prophecies, Thomas Banyacya,who repeatedly tried to reach decision makers with the prophecy before his death, but had little success.
While many question marks loom ahead, one thing I feel deep in my guts and my bones is this: We MUST begin implementing alternative and sustainable energies NOW, because the present system that puts the lives of so many at risk in both present and future generations–and has the potential to cause so much suffering, as we have seen this week in Fukushima—is simply criminal. I have much to educate myself about in terms of the ins and outs of the nuclear power system—for anyone wanting a primer, I suggest this post from journalist Tim Shorrick (who grew up in Japan and has been a longtime researcher into nuclear industry-related issues), as well as this heartbreaking article from 1980 about the subcontractors who do most of the nuclear dirty work, and the racism inherent in the system. And, for understanding the economics of the whole system, see this 2007 post from Money Week whch offers, in all its disgusting glory, concrete advice on how to profit from the industry.
I could go on and on, but I will stop here and save the rest for subsequent posts. Because I want to end on a positive and hopeful note, I will conclude with this piece about the creative anti-nuclear movement in Japan, since the time for us to start heeding the concerns that they have been vocalizing for decades is clearly now. I attended a demonstration yesterday of committed nuclear activists outside Chugoku Electric Power Company who are trying to permanently stop construction of the Kaminoseki nuclear power plant in the gorgeous Seto Inland Sea, and tomorrow I will be meeting with a hibakusha (survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing; literally “one who has received radiation”) to discuss her work as a peace activist, as well as her views on the new hibakusha from the Fukushima accident.
For those who wish to help with relief efforts, I highly recommend the website “Japan Volunteers”, which was compiled after the disaster by longtime Tokyo resident and NGO consultant, Sarajean Rossitto, who has many strong connections with Japan-based organizations working in disaster relief.
In closing, I will also say this: One thing we can do help usher in this new world is to simply cultivate the feeling of gratitude in our own hearts (as was also mentioned in the Midnight Apothecary blog post). This is something that anyone can do anywhere and at any time, and which has such an incredibly powerful and immediate effect of creating positive energies. So, in this spirit, I say to everyone who has offered your love and support over the past week and a half: THANK YOU. It has meant more than you know.