>Every night a horror story plays on the 9.30pm news. The devastation seems total and the bad luck in the chain of events never-ending for Japan. Where else in the world do you get a major earthquake, a deadly tsunami, a nuclear crisis and an erupting volcano all happening in one place? I feel terrible about what has happened to this beautiful country and its people.
Just like on Sept 11, I was transfixed by the images coming out from my TV – that rolling wall of black water, the houses crushed like sticks by water the force and speed of a jetliner. It seems as surreal as planes ploughing into the sides of a skyscraper in New York. Like something out of one of those cheesy apocalyptic Hollywood disaster flicks.
The reports coming out from ground zero depict an apocalyptic nightmare, a wasteland of mud and debris where life barely flickers. But like the blackest night, the pinpricks of light shine through from the people.
Stories are slowly trickling out into the world, of a people stoic, calm and orderly, of solidarity in the face of tragedy, of kindness to strangers. There is little hysteria and panic and blame. No one has time for navel-gazing. Given the fact that their homes were wiped out, their friends and loved ones dead or missing, that their basic necessities like heat, food, gas and water are non-existent, that they live with the shadow of radiation from a nuclear fallout hanging over them, they seem to be remarkably calm. Perhaps no one has time to fear or cry when they’re all just busy with the business of staying alive.
But this is typical of the Japanese personality – this stoic acceptance, the pragmatism of living, of moving on. They are not open or demonstrative or exuberant as a people or a culture, but quiet in their actions. Yet these actions are no less powerful or kind. There is a lot of steel which we don’t see. Which is why I know and I have hope that they will overcome this – the destruction, the state of their economy, the nuclear crisis. I know they will manage in their own inimitable way and move on.
I flew over Tohoku en route to Sapporo just two months ago. We flew along the coastline. Through my plane window, I saw hills and forests dusted with snow, farmlands painted white, the roofs of houses and dark grey seas far below. I know all those are gone now. It is hard to imagine that they can be wiped out just like that.
We are due to leave for the Kansai region in three weeks or so. This trip is to celebrate 20 years of marriage and we had planned to hike the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route as well as the Kiso Valley route. On the itinerary were nights in homely minshukus, old ryokans and gassho zukuri farmhouses. Punctuating this would clouds of pink and white as this is prime sakura season.
But now, with the fears of a nuclear fallout and radioactive dust inevitably enveloping the rest of the country slowly but surely, it seems sensible to let this option go and either postpone the trip or go elsewhere. At least, this is what friends, colleagues and family urge me to do.
Yet, I am reluctant to let Japan go like this.
People say to travel like this is the height of insensitivity since thousands have died and the whole nation is clearly in mourning. We should not be intrusive at this time.
But the counter argument is that more than ever, life has to go on, the Japanese economy needs to get back on its feet and while our travel is not going to make much of a difference in the national coffers, every little bit helps. And this is exactly how and what I see the Japanese doing – getting on with survival and moving on.
This is also the season for spring, a time for sakura and the hanami. This time has always been for one to appreciate the piercing beauty that life brings as well as its transience, for the sakura stays on the trees for barely two weeks in a year before the winds and the weather do their work. In spring, while appreciating the blush of the flowers, we understand how cyclical life is – that after a harsh winter comes this beauty. It is an affirmation of life. This year, more than any other in recent history, I think the Japanese will feel this more keenly than ever.
Not sure if it makes any sense but I feel a bit disloyal to abandon my plans now. Yet even as I write, nations are sending planes to ferry their citizens out, foreigners are queuing at Narita for seats on any flight out, some airlines are cancelling flights to the country, government advisories warn against travel, many people are cancelling travel to Japan, trains are packed with people leaving the capital and heading south. To a country reeling from such a huge disaster, whose people offer such wonderful hospitality, it really seems disloyal to just abandon the place. I can understand the fears fuelling this kind of exit rush, but I would feel quite sad to see this if I were Japanese.
I am in no rush to cancel my plane tickets. For now, I will wait and see. Because this little act of defiance at least, superfluous or not, makes me feel a little bit better about a situation that I can do nothing about.