In April 2011, after the earthquake, tsunami, and fallout of radioactive material, we started a journey.
We stop at a convenience store in Shinchimachi.
Mental shutdown? It had been too early to use the term, too soon. Inside were more goods on the shelves than I had imagined would be there—things for sale. Even cigarettes, which I had heard were one of the hardest items to find in the affected areas, were being sold as usual. And masks, which I was concerned would be hard to get, were plentiful in many varieties. In the car park in front of the store, I looked out toward the ocean. So did the others. Still three kilometers away, there was no sign of the shoreline. But there was a tower, most likely the thermal power plant. The parking area was bathed in a clear light, like that of early summer. Just three hours ago it had felt like winter, and now it felt like summer. Time is swaying, I thought. Time is in disarray, I thought. The sky was overwhelmingly blue, my shadow cast sharp against the ground. Black. The temperature was now above ten degrees. Ordinary vehicles were travelling up and down Route 6, and the store had a steady stream of customers. Locals. “Let’s go,” I said to the other three. It was a few minutes after we left the convenience store. On our right, to the east as we went north, the destruction of the tsunami appeared out of the blue, sudden as an ambush. No, not appeared—it was just there. With the scars from the earthquake. The map showed a river here, which suggested the huge tsunami had surged upstream. We turn right off of Route 6. It is at the intersection by Shinchimachi Town Hall that it finally hits us, all of us, I think—mental shutdown.
What does a tsunami destroy?
It took a few days to realize that it had been flooded here. Maybe ten days or more. By the time we arrived, I think things had been pretty much cleaned up. At any rate, at least one road was functional. Free of debris. And I, the four of us, never saw any bodies. Not even the body parts we were prepared to see. The sense of force was overwhelming. The scene was too vast. It’s all been washed away, I thought, an obliterating force. There were no words… it was more than a sensation, it was a blow. Disgusted for seeing the view as a spectacle, I felt the urge to spit on myself. Air raids, I thought. A bombsite. It was like being slapped in the face. Wartime. I said to someone, this is a wasteland. Someone who wasn’t there. Maybe to the heavens. Crushed cars, overturned cars, cars full of debris. We got out of our car with its Kashiwa license plates. We got out and walked. Toward the shoreline. The eastern edge of Shinchimachi. A fishing port. Torn up asphalt. Bent steel. We saw broken slabs of concrete, strata of construction normally hidden. We saw buildings with only their steel frames remaining. Can I call them buildings? They had virtually no structure left. There was a helicopter overhead. It must have been a coast guard helicopter, since I learned a few days later that their divers had been conducting searches. For missing persons. For bodies. The stillness drowned out the din of the helicopter. There was a breeze coming off the water. Small groups of crows circling together above us gave an occasional caw. Carrion crows. There were also larks, but despite their warbling, everything was hushed. Not a gull in sight. We reached the beach. What used to be the beach. There was a woman’s handbag. A hand mirror.
The Pacific was calm.
During my journey, a character from an earlier novel of mine appeared before me and began to speak.
Picture this, he said.
I was sixteen. Not driving yet. Not yet, but soon. Soon, illegally of course, but not yet. My bike was my only way of getting around. So I cycled everywhere. Every day. I would ride through the woods, along logging roads, and then into the marshland. I rode right through. Through the wet. Every day, at the same time. This was training, after all. I rode that bike to the charcoal-burning shed, in the hills. My family knew where I’d be. I had no business with the shed itself. It was the open area outside the shed I was interested in. There I had collected lengths of bamboo of a certain thickness, together with brushwood and straw. All part of my training. I had this wooden box that served as my training equipment. Sometimes I would fill it with dry gravel. Other times I would pack it with pebbles from the stream.
The purpose? To toughen up my hands. The eight fingers of my two hands not counting my thumbs. To turn them into lethal weapons. Over several years I did this. I forget how many.
I would listen to the sounds of the box. To the crunch, or to the jab, ja-jab, jab of my fingers stabbing deep into the pebbles. Like I said, I’d been doing this for years.
But this day when I was sixteen I remember.
It wasn’t an ordinary day; it was somehow special. I remember looking up and seeing hawks. Four of them, wheeling, circling, each on its own. Then, when I looked down, there stood my sister. She’s pregnant now. She’s nine years younger than me, so she had to be seven then, attending elementary school. She had her knapsack on her back. It was yellow.
The yellow stands out in my mind. Canary yellow. She must have been on her way home from school. Her way home, needless to say, didn’t include this barely travelled road through the woods, so she must have come here to play, hang out on her own. Maybe she was making believe she was a forest animal, who knows. Anyway, there she was, suddenly where I was. My sister always walked home alone.
She hadn’t said a word for years, not since she was four. I think she resolved to stop speaking as an act of aggression, and she stuck to it. But this was no ordinary day; it was special. I was sixteen. Four hawks circled above. And then, out of the blue, here was my sister, knapsack and all, standing by the shed and staring at me.
She watched as I performed my routine, struggling to toughen my hands, to render my fingertips lethal. Didn’t say a word, of course. She stepped toward me. Still didn’t say a word.
She takes my hand. My right hand.
She strokes my palm, and then rubs each of my fingers.
“Hard,” she slowly says. It took her dozens of seconds to get this one word out. It took all of the physical strength in her little body just to say it. “Hard.” It took so much strength that her knapsack slipped down her shoulders. I was stunned. I was so taken aback that it was a minute or so before I could say anything at all. And then I began. Mumbling. Something about us being born. Something like, “Us, the three of us siblings, all of us. We got born.”
As I wrote this, time and again I felt the reality of the news cutting into my heart.
What comes next I didn’t see on TV. I read it in the paper. On April 25th the city of Koriyama announced it was going to remove the top layer of soil from the grounds of twenty-eight kindergartens, elementary and middle schools. Disposing of the soil in which radiation had accumulated. I didn’t know it when the story ran, but I soon learned the heavy machinery had moved into the elementary school where I spent six years. I picture it: bulldozers tearing up my school grounds. Tearing up, tearing away
Group translation from the BCLT summer school, 2012
Produced by James Almony, Polly Barton, Daniel Bradley, Jonathan Lloyd Davies, Morgan Giles, Tets Kimura, Marion Kinoshita, Hart Larrabee, Jonathan Rankine, Mari Seaword and Asa Yoneda.
Group leader: Michael Emmerich.
In the presence of and in consultation with the author.
With thanks to the Nippon Foundation for their support.