Voices from Japan (VII): Ryouko

Ryouko and I on my last day in Tokyo in 2008.

Shanghai/Tokyo -- Ryouko is a long-time friend, first met as she was looking for a teacher of Italian and French. A freelance translator, Ryouko is also a big fan of Hawaiian hula dance, which she has been practicing for years. On occasion of the catastrophe that unfolded in Japan on March 11th, I've talked to her to understand how she was coping with the difficulties and how the situation was in town generally speaking.

S.: Where were you when the earthquake and tsunami occurred?
R.: I was at our hula studio in Koto-ward in Tokyo.

S.: Did you notice anything yourself at the moment?
R.: I noticed nothing in particular before the earthquake. It was a lovely Friday afternoon in Tokyo. It started slowly when we had a break between hula practices. One of us said “It’s ok! it’s just swaying to and fro!” We get used to earthquakes so we know that vertical shaking is more serious than horizontal one.
But the sway was getting bigger and bigger so that we could hardly stand. It was much bigger and longer than ones we experienced before.
Actually there were two earthquakes in Miyagi and shortly after it in Fukushima.
There were no damages in our studio, we held up a rocking water server and one of us ran out of the studio with a f lower vase in each hand though, but there were a series of aftershocks, so we went to a big park. There came many people from everywhere because the park was designated for evacuation. One of us was really scared but most of us stayed calm, even our mobile phones reached nowhere.
After a while, we went back to our studio and saw the huge tsunami was swallowing cultivated fields, and houses live on TV. There were a few cars on the road and it seemed like they didn’t notice the tsunami. We gasped in fear watching the scene that we had never seen before.
The public transportation was totally down, so some of us decided to walk home.
I went there by car so I picked up the hula sisters who were not feeling well and who lived near my home. There were many cars on the street and so many people on the sidewalks walking home.
My daughter was at home and she called me from the house phone. I could not reach anybody by mobile and could not get any emails. Wired telephone was more usable in case of emergency.
My daughter became a relay station and I got to know all members of my family were safe! Usually it takes one hour but it took four hours to get to Nerima-ward from Koto-ward.
I dropped off my friends on their way home and went to pick up my old father who lives alone.
I was driving for about six hours but surprisingly I heard no horns. People were calm and helpful to each other on the street even though we had to wait for traffic lights changing for six times at every crossroads. My father was waiting for me at the hospital. He went there for rehabilitation exercises and was hit by the earthquake there. He lives alone in Shibuya-ward in the center of Tokyo. So I tried to take him to my home. However he was exhausted, wanted to see his home safe and stay there. There were massive traffic jams going on every streets, so I gave up taking him to my home and took a nap on the couch at his home on the night, being waken up by earthquake alert from TV and mobile phone for a few times and watching the news again.
On the next day morning, I went shopping for my father and for my father’s neighbor who is aged and lives alone. There are so many people who came to buy food and things for emergency.

S.: According to some news, many people are starting to feel uncomfortable with the information they are being provided. They claim the reports are inconsistent, they don’t know whom to trust and they fear that not all the truth is being told to them. What’s your take on this? Do you feel reassured by the public information you are receiving at the moment? Do you trust what authorities are telling you?
R.: Of course we don’t feel reassured by the public information. Every time I watch TV, the death toll is increasing, the nuclear power facilities situation is getting worse.
It is really stressful. I guess most of us don’t think that the government tells us all, but we can’t believe naysayers nor rumors on the Internet either.

S.: Do you feel safe now?
R.: Not at all. Although we Tokyoites have been supplied with food, water, gas and electricity (there is planned power outage for a few hours in many areas though, not in central Tokyo.), I don’t feel safe.
The earthquake of March 11 affected the Pacific Plate which might cause another huge earthquake in Tokyo. And of course the nuclear power plant situation!
However, there are no riots, no violence in Tokyo. Girls still can walk on the street at night.

S.: What are you afraid of?

R.: Radiation exposure. Another huge earthquake in Tokyo.

S.: Are you considering to move out? If yes, where would you go to? If not, why not?
R.: I wish if I could. I love Tokyo and Japan, but the nuclear power plant situation is too serious. Many of my friends have already left Tokyo or Japan. I would go to Okinawa if possible. I know someone there but I can’t because I need to take care of my old father and my younger sister who had her baby last month. I can’t take them with me.

S.: How has your personal life changed since last Friday? Are you currently experiencing any difficulty?
R.: I am a translator and usually work at home, so it didn’t change. But many events and meetings have been canceled. There is a shortage of gasoline and there are long lines for gas stations, also trains are running on a thinned-out schedule with irregular and longer intervals due to electricity use limit.

S.: What do you think Japan is mostly in need of at present?
R.: International rescue teams for the nuclear power plant situation. International rescue teams for the victims of Tsunami. Kerosene (Paraffin) oil and blankets and food for the relief shelters. It is urgent! In some relief shelters they still can’t get enough food and it is so cold there and I heard some people are dying because of the coldness. Many roads were made impassable at many places by the earthquake.

S.: How does daily life around you look like now? What difference do you notice?
R.: In Tokyo, half of the stores are temporary closed, there’s almost nothing on the shelves at supermarkets and convenience stores. There are long lines of cars for gas stations. Less cars than usual on the streets.

S.: What’s your impression about the way how the Japanese people are coping with this situation? To the outsiders, they look very cool-minded, very calm, very compliant with the instructions they are given and not panicking. How do you explain that?
R.: I’m impressed with the reaction of Japanese people, not panicking ,keeping cool amid the chaos, showing consideration for others. Tohoku people are the nicest ones among all Japanese.
I think that one of the reasons is that we’ve been prepared for a big earthquake for a long time. Secondly we had compassion on people who suffered the devastation and wanted to do something for them. We felt really sincere and solemn on that day and after it.

S.: How do you think the Japanese culture is contributing to handle this massive disaster?
R.: Originally Japanese are not aggressive. We’ve been taught how important it is to cope with other people, and to have consideration for others. It is a virtue for a Japanese to sense the atmosphere of other people. So this time, many people followed well-mannered people fortunately. I’m afraid if some people get panicked, a lot of people will follow them.

S.: What’s your impression about the way how the institutions are reacting to and coping with the difficulties? Are they well coordinated? Do they look ‘in control’?

R.: I think that many people are doing their best but the victims are too many and the damage is immense to take care of. We are really grateful for the people who are saving lives and taking care of the victims without sleeping.
But I also think that the government could have taken quicker and more actions for the nuclear power plant.

S.: Do you think Japan was prepared to cope with something of this nature and scale?
R.: I think Japan was prepared really well to cope with disasters, but not to this scale.

S.: The Emperor made a very rare appearance on tv broadcasting a public message. How is that being perceived?

R.: Some people including my friends were really moved by his message. Some people were not so much but it came in our heart more than the words from Prime Minister.

S.: Do you believe the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear problem could have been prevented? If yes, what do you think went wrong? Do you think someone knew of the danger and hid it?

R.: I don’t think we could have been prevented the earthquake and the tsunami, but we could have stopped having the nuclear power plants. We didn’t like it but we didn’t say anything.
That’s our fault. We chose convenience.

S.: Do you think there’s anyone to blame for these or part of these problems? If yes, whom?

R.:The people who brought in the nuclear power plants even though they were aware of the high risk in a country with a lot of earthquakes and the people who were silent for it including me.

S.: What’s your viewpoint on the nuclear threat: do you feel at danger? Do you think there’s a real danger? Do you think the danger has already started occurring?
R.:I think the danger has already started occurring.

S.: Japan has already experienced an epic atomic disaster, a scar that still hasn’t disappeared from the public opinion and that has greatly shaped the mindset of modern Japanese civilization. Even though you haven’t personally experienced the 1945 nuclear disaster, how do you relate to that now?

R.:Japanese know how horrible the radiation damage is and how long it lasts. Even being so prepared for disaster with highest technology as Japan was, we are in the hands of nature and the forces of energy that man is responsible for. I hope the world rethink of its sources of energy and wonders what we need to do to be more in harmony with nature and the earth.

S.: How do you expect your life to change after this catastrophe?
R.: When one is confronted with despair and pain, a person can either become bitter towards life, or grow from it. I wish I can grow from it.

S.: How and when do you think Japan will recover from this situation? What do you think are key challenges in the short-term? And in the long-term? How long do you think it will take Japan to get fully back on its feet?
R.: Japan can be the country that will overcome this and grow from this terrible experience, and become higher dimensional, and in so doing become a leader again. Not an economical leader, but a people that the world can try to become more like. Japan, with the attention of the world now, will have the opportunity to share its goodness and what they learn (in life what is really important) everywhere.

S.: The world seems to be currently undergoing some major changes with the large scale upheavals unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East, on top of the ongoing challenges (climate change, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, recent economic crisis etc.). How do you look at the status of the world at the moment? Do you think there’s any lesson for us to learn? What is the message behind all of this?
R.: It has been a really challenging status of the world. I think that the message behind all of this is that we need to realize that we are a small but important part of a whole, that we are all truly one, and we need to think what we need to do to be more in harmony with nature and the earth.

S.: Is there any other comment you wish to add?
R.: Dear friends in other countries,
Thank you so much for the rescue teams, messages, prayers and sympathy for us.
We really appreciate it.
The nuclear situation is quite serious, so keep praying for us! We still have hope.
Love, Ryo♪