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The Cherry Blossoms of Shirakawa

Essay By: The Hawk
Non-fiction



A Pennsylvania medic's chronicle of working in Japan in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and radiation disaster


Submitted:Jan 12, 2013    Reads: 13    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


When I was in this area of Japan four years ago, it was quiet and dusted with snow. I looked at the barren cherry trees and tried to imagine their branches laden with delicate pink blossoms like they are every March. I vowed that I would return sometime to see that for myself.

I never thought I would fulfill that vow while coated in protective gear, lugging relief supplies across the country and smelling of kerosene. Things don't always go the way we think they will.

Tuesday night never ended; it went straight into Wednesday. The camp that Masumi brought me to was too overwhelmed with needs that we could not provide. Koichi, one of the drivers, offloaded the supplies from Alaska in a lot behind the medical tent in order to use the truck to pick up pallets of food and clothing from Sendai Airport. Two nurses yanked me into service, as the medical tent had expanded outside, despite temperatures hovering above freezing.

I nervously looked at the line of pallets a few meters away as I waltzed between patients, checking vital signs and administering medication. Some people were coughing loudly and we cycled them inside, putting them near the heaters and then replacing them with colder people after two hours. I was sure that would not go over well and also convinced some of our supplies would be gone by dawn.

I underestimated my surroundings. Patients did not complain, although their families occasionally did, when I ordered them out into the cold. They dutifully abandoned the warm beds in deference to those who were coming inside without me so much as asking twice. Also, no one got near our supplies. Koichi returned with food and medicine brought in by the U.S. Air Force, then dutifully reloaded the trucks with the help of the 5th Brigade of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force.

One thing I had that the soldiers needed was kerosene. I had brought it in to fuel heaters, but Hiroshi, an officer in the 5th Brigade, said they needed it for something else. I asked what. He took me in a truck, along with the kerosene, to another camp south of ours. He showed me to a tent in which at least 200 bodies were stacked neatly in rows. The kerosene was for a funeral pyre; these and many other casualties had not yet been cremated. They were past the point in which the dignified Buddhist cremation ceremony, requiring at least ten gallons of kerosene per corpse, was practical and the priests had given us carte blanche to dispose of bodies as needed in the interest of public health, something that has never been ordered since the end of World War II. With only 200 gallons of kerosene, we did what we had to do.

It was after that unpleasant business that Joel and the rest of Pennsylvanian team arrived. I met them at the medical tent, marked with dirt and stinking of kerosene. Joel said I already looked awful. Hiroshi looked even worse. I didn't want to tell him why.

We drove south towards Shirakawa. No one else was; a mandatory evacuation zone was in force around the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Generating Station, the reason we were going in. Masumi and Koichi had no reaction as we cleared two checkpoints while blasting The Hives as loud as we could and had a sing-along in the truck. I caught Masumi dancing at one point, which was a relief. I was convinced he was going to go berserk.

Shirakawa is the strangest disaster zone I have ever beheld. There is no sign of danger or discord. The ground is solid, the buildings are sound, the sky is clear and the sakura (cherry blossoms) have exploded on every tree. It is a gorgeous village and there is nothing visibly wrong with it. What is invisibly wrong is too terrifying to contemplate.

Shirakawa General Hospital sits on the edge of the evacuation zone. Tens of thousands of people in the region were rendered homeless by either the earthquake or the nuclear reactor leaking radioactivity into the environment. It's been detected as far away as Iceland, but nearly all of it is concentrating right here. And no one knows how things will look as a result, or when it will even be perceived. For now, all is quiet.

That morning, the news came in that two more workers at the reactor had been burned by radioactive water while they desperately tried to stop the leak from the crippled generating station. No one had much to say about it. Very few people here are visibly ill, and almost none are exhibiting symptoms of radiation sickness. We brought it anti-radiation medications, and we are on it ourselves (I am feeling a little nauseous and I am salivating like a mad dog as a result of them). Everyone takes it and swallows it as if we were handing out samples of a new candy. The calm is eerie.

Shirakawa did have some concrete needs that we attended to. It sounds awful to say that was a relief, but sitting around waiting to see if we were needed would have been too much to bear. We restocked and sorted the pharmacy, set up shelters in two empty buildings with the cots and blankets we brought, resupplied the food depot and sent Masumi's crew back to Sendai where they are more needed. I managed to get four hours' sleep before my shift of attending to evacuees waiting outside. It was quiet; I had fewer patients in eight hours than I did in two hours in Haiti.

Joel assembled the hospital staff to begin their tutorial on the equipment and medication that we had brought. The session lasted an hour, and there were no questions. The Japanese technicians had already been trained on it all; they just didn't have it. Once we were done, they lined up and calmly took everything away as a platoon of Marines would clear a weapons switch. Cool, calm, collected, conditioned. After ten days of anticipation and preparation, we may as well have used FedEx and stayed home. Joel looked at me with an expression that reminded me of my parents' dog when we all leave for a day away from home.

"People are more freaked out in Harrisburg about this than they are here," he said.

Is it because people here know the danger is not high? No. It is high. Is it because people here know the danger and have accepted it? Perhaps. Is it because people here don't know the danger? Closer, in my opinion. But it's not that anyone actually knows the danger and is hiding it. The few radiation-related problems here now may be the tip of the iceberg.

It will be years before the world feels comfortable with food and water from here (a crying shame, as some great food and water comes from northern Japan). Even then, it will be the world's impatience and forgetfulness, not safety and sensibility, that begins to consume something that may be dangerous. But today, in the third week of a nuclear emergency twenty miles away, people in the camps and the hospital calmly eat what remains of the local food supply and drink water trucked in from the south, still tainted with radioactivity.

In a bag of donated clothing from the Salvation Army, I found a large stuffed pink elephant. Its color reminded me of the sakura adding some color to the grey skies as they shook and shivered in the cold breeze. I used the toy to tell a beloved story to several children who seemed just as freaked out as us. The effect was positive on both me and them. Nothing is quite as rewarding as making children laugh in a refugee camp. For the enjoyment of the reading several, the original telling of this classic tale can be found here.

As evening fell, I was not urgently needed, due to the efficiency of the Japanese technicians and the steadfastness of the Pennsylvanian team. I put on sixty pounds by donning all my gear, including the jacket and helmet, and went for a walk with a Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force patrol. Most of the villages are just as Shirakawa is, except for the complete absence of people. How many warning illustrations from the Cold War looked like this: a forlorn breeze wandering down deserted streets, with everything human left bizarrely in place except humans? One table in a ramen bar had a bowl of soup sitting on it, spoon and chopsticks placed carefully by its side. It was all I could do not to run away in a panic.

The sakura are in full bloom, and will remain so for only a week. I felt extraordinarily fortunate to have my dream of seeing fulfilled so perfectly by circumstance. But I could not stop thinking of the giant twisted leaves found near Chernobyl with every glance at a perfect pink flower.

I settled myself with an exercise that I use with Impressionist paintings. I stared intently at one blossom and then backed slowly away, letting it merge into its fellows and become a mountain of color washing over me. I always dreamed that fields of cherry trees would make shapes like summer clouds do. I think the tree in the photo is dancing. Do you see it?





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