“That’s how high it came,” the lady says, pointing at a faint brown line drawn straight by the waves, high across the exterior of her broken house. She gives us water and lukewarm orange juice, and we do our work.
The woman’s fake eyelashes caught my attention as I dug away the mud. Half of them were still clinging on, although most of those remain- ing were half-hearted in their fight, drooping in strange angles from the side of her eyes. She was in her late twenties, and she was there for a week. As we carried back the sacks of dirt back to the white, beaten-up truck, she told me that her arms and thighs were sore from all this carrying. Usually she was a stylist, and she picked out clothes for wealthy women in Shinjuku. She was also known as the one who had the portable air shampoo. When evening came, women flocked around her large orange suitcase. One by one we took turns to sink the prongs on top of the air shampoo bottle into our hair. Water wasn’t running in the tsunami regions, then.
With her holding the other edge, I concentrate first on removing the tatami. The straw mats are light when dry, but hard to get rid of when sodden with seawater. Too delicate to remove by machine, but too heavy for easy human removal, tatamis were usually one of the last pieces of debris left in tsunami areas. I was too weak to carry it alone. Thin slabs of tatami dotted the beaches of fish- ing villages, attracting flies. Sometimes, a tatami would split in the middle of a removal, presenting a mass of maggots and dirt wriggling at your feet.
The ground left after a tsunami has a fine, gritty texture, dried dirt peppered with slivers of plastic and wood. We all try to move efficiently. I scrape away at the first layer, rubber strips peeling away from the metal of my shovel. Mud from the bot- tom of the sea bed, hugging asagao plants and tomato plants in the garden. I throw the dirt into a sandbag. There is just so much sludge. At first, teams talk amongst each other, commenting on the thickness of the toxic waste, the photographs. But after a while, we drift into silence.
When we left Tokyo for the tsunami-stricken regions in the north, the bus stalled, waiting for a man to run on. He was a salaryman, 30 or so. He carried a big duffel bag over his Comme de Garçons suit and shirt. Snug in his arms were metal lined boots, minted fresh, and he slung his regular bag to his back so he could carry the duffel bag with convenience store food in his arms. As he sat and the lights dimmed on the bus, he muttered apologetically that he had to finish something overtime. No one really heard him, and the bus left for the north.
Aftershocks are fairly dependable and predict- able, unlike earthquakes. Their occurrence and magnitude follow certain empirical laws, and the number of aftershocks can be trusted to de- crease in time. In 2011, in the month of March alone, 2941 aftershocks rippled through Japan. Ten days after the main shock, there were only a tenth the number of aftershocks that rocked the island on the day of the quake. The release of the energy resulting from the fracturing of rocks relieves the stress at the earthquake’s focus, but also transmits the energy to nearby rocks. This causes new stresses in rocks, stress that had never existed before.
When I left there was a big debate going on about whether young people should even go to the north to help out. Stereotypical disaster guilt. Fresh-eyed volunteers would arrive in a disaster spot just to leave a few days after, to satisfy their own need to help out. Going home to Tokyo, chanting that they had done what they could, and promptly forgetting whatever they had seen, except to humbly mention that that they had been there and had tried to help. Pundits argued. Newspapers proclaimed that the youth were apathetic. Groups on college campuses rallied and sent busloads of their students up north to retaliate. Loads of volunteers kept on pushing their way to the grimy truck heading back home, and girls in makeup back home played guessing games to figure out whether that last aftershock was a 4.5 or a 5.0. Why go. Why stay. Why leave. Why do we remain?
In April my mom drove me to the big Costco out in Makuhari and bought me a good sturdy jacket and dozens of air masks—she tried some on herself, noting that the air in the north was toxic, according to national television—and heavy boots, and a duffel bag full of dried food. I asked around and found myself accidentally at a Peace Boat gathering, an organization that usually ships students around various continents on a big cruise ship to volunteer for a meaningful experience. They suspended their usual activities and were organizing volunteers to go help out with tsunami relief efforts. I wasn’t sure about the meaningful experience but they were the only organization that took those under the legal age—twenty. So I sold my so-called interpretive skills, and was told that I could be helpful, since there were a lot of foreigners helping out. I was on a bus the next day.
After the earthquake in Tokyo I heard dozens of stories about what it was like in the north. Don’t tear the photographs of boys in sodden bowl cuts, stories stamped and sodden. You will meet people who had seen cars being dragged along six foot waves, filing up with water, with people in- side them. Women who had to leave their bedrid- den parents on the ground floor as they escaped upstairs with their children. How fast it must have seemed, to run up the stairs, and leave a lifetime of photos behind. A few minutes of warn- ing. And troops, troops of volunteers, stamping across toxic mud. The famous flying bus, lifted up into the sky by the waves and balanced on top of two twelve story buildings. Volunteers march- ing with Kodaks and Nikons. Tetanus, through a thin sneaker, by kitchen knives sharp and still hidden in the mud.
When I went back three years later, everything had changed. The streets were cleared of rubble, and I couldn’t find a trace of mud. The gargantuan towers of car metal and truck were gone. I visited the headquarters of one of the local news- papers. Their building looked half-done. It was spanking new on the bottom and old and wave- torn on top.
I entered their machine room in the basement, led by a reporter who had been in the building the day of the quake. There were three printing presses, all of which went under a few minutes after the shaking. As their basement filled with water, the newspapermen were silent, and they clung to the windows on the highest floor of the building. They saw cars and trees pass. As soon as the black water receded, they would go down and survey the damage. They would divide into teams and go out to their neighbors to record, as quickly and accurately as possible, the typeface information: the number of dead, the locations of shelters and those still living. But their only means of doing so was underwater, and their ink was staining the mud of the sea.
So the bureau chief bit his lip and unfurled a man-sized roll of paper—thankfully, the paper for distribution was stored on the second floor— and took out a big fat marker. The newspaper- men looked at each other, and they watched as their chief hauled and balanced his big body over the clean white expanse of machine-use pa- per. He drew a shaky box on the right side with the marker. Inside it, he wrote:
March 11th. 2011. The pen squeaked.
He kept on writing: numbers, figures, locations. The junior bureau chief took over when his hand was tired, and the next junior member after that. A fifty-year old Japanese man’s handwriting is not the most legible thing in the world, but it had to do. By the next day half of the bureau wielded markers and pens, while the other half were out gathering information. Beats, jurisdictions, as- signed topics—assignments and who-wrote-what didn’t matter anymore, as half a dozen reporters collaborated on one handwritten article. On one sheet, a sentence would break off, and the thick, tired dashes of a masculine hand would twist into the thinner swoops of a female reporter. With no backshift, mistakes were crossed out in red ink. This is how they did it before, they told each other, as they took shifts to prevent cramping. This is what we have to do. As soon as a sheet was finished they sent a runner to pin it on the bulletin boards of relief shelters.
A week passed until they were able to find a print- ing press that worked. Three years later, the first sheets that they had hand-written were on their way to Washington D.C., to be preserved for posterity. On one of the sheets were lists of names,
names of those who were in a specific relief shelter. “There were too many who passed,” the bureau chief said. He pointed to a few names writ- ten by a shaky, smudgy hand, and told me with an embarrassed smile that that was his writing. “At that point, it was more important to chronicle the living.” But the living names would go unrecognized in D.C. And soon the living beings those names represented would pass, and then the paper would simply be paper.
There’s a blue bridge that crosses into a wide street next to my house in Tokyo, and the river is lined for a mile with persimmon trees. A name- less man planted them after the war, and when you bike down the street, every other tree flashing by would be a thick persimmon tree, followed by a cherry blossom tree. Come autumn, thick, waxy leaves bundling orange persimmons would collect on the gravel roads, and come April, drudges of pink-brown blossom petals would line the concrete encasing the river, and stink.
One April afternoon after the quake I crossed over the bridge on my bicycle, heading home from school. I heard the whirring of a bicycle behind me, and a man’s voice saying that I had dropped something, stop. So I stopped and the man’s voice came closer, and I felt something, a petal maybe, touch the back of my neck. But it was the man’s finger, and he was asking, “What color is it?”
And I answered with a rush of adrenaline and my foot stamped on the pedals, but his arm was wrapped around the head of my bicycle, his thumb on my brakes. The light touch moved from my neck to my collarbone. With that I swung my leg off my bike, surprisingly easily, and I started to run. I wondered if they recognized what was going on. The grandmothers in motorbikes, buzzing along in their white, plastic helmets. The boys playing with insects on the gravel. The pastel colored houses snug right next to each other, pushing bicycles and schoolgirls through their narrow streets. Middle-aged couples talking to their pets. Looking up, then look- ing down.
I reached the front gate of my house, and his voice turned into an image. He was on a slender red sports bike, and he wore a yellow shirt. He was waving at me, and his grin blended into a white flash as he sped past. “I’ll see you again!” he said. The police came to my house and asked if I was wearing a skirt while I was riding my bi- cycle. A week later I left for the north.
In the morning we had camp-wide morning exercises, radio calisthenics. Just like the old days. We spreaded out evenly across the university yard and picked our patch of grass. Then we swung our arms and stretched in unison to the rasping music from the radio. Most of us had been do- ing this since we were children, and our limbs swung automatically to the coordinated routine. The elderly do it to keep their memory fresh, and every time I swung my arms to the crackling I remembered with a laugh that my grandpa said he liked it because the Americans had banned it for a while, because it was too militaristic. One of the veterans led the radio calisthenics, though it doesn’t really need leading, as we all knew the routine anyway. He sported a black jacket and a black square mask and black boots. He lugged around a black megaphone, and—I checked— he had a black tent.
There was a system of hierarchy, at least in the place where I was, which was the makeshift camp for Peace Boat in a local university. The man with the black leather jacket held the pow- er, because he owned the fleet of buses and vans that transported mud, food, debris, and water. Anyone who stayed longer than two weeks was called a veteran.
Many would stay, accepting a new skin of dirt and donated food. But most would leave. And every Monday, the bus would leave and a pile of a line of unpopular ramen and beans would be carefully left in a big cardboard box, and veterans would swarm around the pile, picking up favorites from the fresh plastic debris.
While we ate, we talked. There was a big communal stove, and we dumped our ramen near it, while a veteran would find a big pot.
Do you know the story about Kikosama and the
scandal about how she bullied our Empress into mental breakdown? That’s why she won’t have any more children, poor woman.
One time my boy got home and realized that he didn’t have his key to open the door. So— this is what he says, I can’t believe I wasn’t there to see it—he climbed up the fence and scaled the wall to our third floor window, which he knows is usually open, through using his ties as rope!
So this happened to my friend, Saori. She was on the elevator one day and a man came in with a cellphone and a cap. Saori was looking at the mirror and he had come in and his cell- phone light flashed. She looked at him, and of course she said “Wait,”—matte, stop, wait, don’t move—“Did you just—”
And the elevator door dinged and it was the first floor. With a shrug she walked out but before she did, she tripped. She tripped on his shoe, an oversized white shoe with two velcro pads, and dropped her bag. And then he ran out of the elevator and knelt down beside her. “Are you hurt?” he said. He ran two fingers, two surprisingly clean fingers, she said, up her forearm. And there they stayed. She looked at him and he looked at her, and she felt how nervous he was, and it scared her, she said. And then he said again, “Are you hurt?” and she ran.
But the police of course did nothing and her parents decided not to change apartments. And then he came again. And his knife grazed her skirt and she knew she had to leave somehow but he pressed the button, B1, to the basement garage. Saori told me then that as she pressed herself against the cold linoleum, as he cut off the but- tons of her blazer, she thought about all those times when she had been grasped on the elbow by a scout from a modeling agency in Shibuya. She would be walking with her friends and they would appear from nowhere but they would have those voices, and of course you would say no— fathers, you know, hate that kind of thing—but you would take their company card and show it to the girls the next morning and complain that another one of those scouts had assaulted them on the street the other day. But somehow this wasn’t like that and she was actually scared be- cause the man’s pants were yellow. They were chemically yellow at the hems, stained yellow with chalk, and rode low on his hips, baggy like a construction workers’. And he was now taking off her socks, and putting them into his pocket. She didn’t resist because she had heard they let you off easy that way. The elevator wasn’t moving though. He’d noticed too. He banged the elevator door and the doors jolted like they were answering but our trusty Mitsubishi elevators don’t really work that way. He pressed the B1 button again. The elevator was too narrow. She’d told the police, hadn’t she, she’d done everything right. And they had said everything was going to be all right, nodded to her parents, and bowing, of course, they had left the apartment.
And everything was going to be alright, though Saori hadn’t known it then, doesn’t really know it now, she says. The elevator had stopped on the first floor and a woman with her dog had come in and screamed and the man with the yellow pants had run out, leaving the knife and Saori on the floor. The woman rode with Saori down to B1 and up to the seventh floor where Saori’s mother had been waiting with her dinner and her piano lesson. And then Saori’s parents decided to change apartments.
Did you watch the new Ghibli movie? I’m so jealous, I love Porco Rosso, can’t stand Spirited Away, thinking about re-watching Nausicaa again. Let’s watch it tonight, my computer still has a bit of battery left. Don’t call me otaku, I’m not like that, more like obsessed, more obsessed than too obsessed, you know. You know.
They say that the next earthquake will hit Tokyo within the next five years.
You wouldn’t believe it but I think I might want to stay here for a little while longer.
I left after a month, and returned to the rhythm of my life in Tokyo, feeling the shiver of the ground underneath my feet. Out in the universe, even mud shines beautifully.