Notes on a Civilization Under Fire

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A Pennsylvania's medic journey through the 2011 post-earthquake radiation disaster in northern Japan

Submitted: January 12, 2013

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Submitted: January 12, 2013



Sakura float by
The breeze on the lonely stream
The beat my heart skipped
- a haiku on Thursday morning

Old tents on new ground
In scents of fuel and fire
The dead have voices
- a haiku on Friday night

The order to evacuate Shirakawa came less than an hour after I was finished writing the last entry on THHL. We had been preparing for more than a week to build the village's ability to respond to radiation problems since a nearby tire plant and computer component factory were both coming back online. Less than two days into the mission, it was cut short and our entire facility was displaced 50 kilometers north. A village that survived flooding, drought, internal unrest and the Allied air raids of World War II was done away with by waves and particles. The worst part is that we still don't know who gave the order to leave.

We hadn't slept since arriving. We hadn't eaten in 24 hours. At 11 PM on Thursday, we packed all of our gear that hadn't been given to the Japanese technicians back on the pallets. We pulled people out of their beds in buildings and tents, folding the cots and bundling the blankets. By the time I called Masumi and told him I needed him to return, he was already twenty minutes away with two trucks and Hiroshi, the commander of a regiment of the 5th Brigade, which owed us 200 gallons of kerosene.

Everything was ready to move by 2 AM. Kathy, one of the Pennsylvanians, was tearing up by the time we got the last of our patients in cars and on trucks, ready to follow us up the highway to Shiroishi, the place we had been told to go. I gave her a hug and told her we'd be able to stop moving soon, hoping that the powers that be wouldn't make a liar of me. During the hasty load-out, I noticed my aging boxer shorts were no longer able to take the fact I'd lost weight for the last month and fell down inside my pants. Since our lack of sleep and high activity level lent themselves to zaniness, I made Kathy and some of the Japanese children laugh by mooning them. Professionalism - in this efficient atmosphere, someone has to forget it.

I looked at the map as Masumi drove through the clear, cold night through the new evacuation zone. The edge of the mandatory evacuation zone, which I had seen the sakura on, is at least five kilometers from Shirakawa. Masumi drew a line with his tattooed finger farther out from the damaged nuclear reactor, cutting Shirakawa in half.

"That is what it should be," he said.

"Who said it should be?" I said.

"Someone who knows."

Upon arriving in Shiroishi, I learned the line originated with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but I could not learn who it had been enforced by as far as Shirakawa goes. Hiroshi used passive voice, nearly impossible in Japanese for such matters, hiding the origin of the orders. "Alara," he said. It's an acronym used in radiation emergencies, meaning "as low as reasonably achievable" - the amount of radiation someone is exposed to. The word has no meaning in Japanese and has been used to describe the effort to clear people away from Fukushima Dai-Ichi. I mentioned to him that Shiroishi was actually closer, even if upwind, to Fukushima Dai-Ichi. In this exchange, I meant to politely convey my frustration by saying I am mad, but I accidentally said "I am madness." This could have inspired laughter, but he seemed bewildered and a little scared. People who know me can understand how he took me seriously.

Hiroshi considered the map for a moment, excused himself for fifteen minutes and returned, ordering us farther north to the outskirts of Sendai, where we had first come from. Again, there was no identity of the person or persons moving us like errant chess pieces through the breezes of the most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. I eased my frustration and attempted to do so for the Pennsylvanians - especially Gary, our senior member - by recalling chinmoku, the Japanese principle of silence having meaning. The Japanese employ silence in many ways and often give more credence to someone of few words than many. But that is not to say there is less information held or even communicated by a silent person. There may be no clear explanation. There may be a known one that should not be shared. I keep watching Hiroshi and Masumi for clues in their eyes and gestures, and I keep restraining my team from asking too much. The Japanese do not speak carelessly: iwanu ga hana - silence is golden.

We finally camped in and around a school south of the city. There was more room than in Shirakawa; we even managed to put crew quarters inside an office instead of an outdoor tent. Masumi stayed with one of the trucks, ordering Koichi and the others back to the airport, where U.S. and Japanese forces are still struggling to restore Sendai's connections to the rest of the world. We had kerosene heaters in the tents outside but only ran them half the time because of fuel shortages, so we encouraged people to keep the flaps closed. Able-bodied people began doing exercises to keep warm.

Several patients who had stubbornly refused special treatment turned for the worse in the cold early morning, as the trip to Sendai had not done them any favors. We brought the two critical ones into our office, only to lose one of them a few minutes later. The Japanese doctor ran the code with mechanical efficiency, and the body was removed within seconds of the declaration of death. No other patients saw the hurried procession. I thought how different it would have been in Haiti, when a body would lie in its bed for more than an hour as patients looked at it in masked horror. Japan has so many walls, even in open spaces.

When I woke up yesterday morning, Gary told me I had been snoring. I never snore. A few minutes later, I began coughing and my head felt the inner pressure it does when I get sick in the winter. The radiation gear had been protecting me, but the constant wet cold combined with the cloud of nastiness left in Sendai by the tsunami got into my lungs after I shed it. I began a course of azithromycin, but I am still sluggish and having trouble breathing on occasion. Joel had me reassigned to logistics so I could stay away from patients, most of whom are battling their own illnesses. That put me with Masumi and Hiroshi again.

Neither of them speak often, and they almost never speak to each other. I have my own theories as to why not, but it none of my business. They are certainly soto (outsiders) to each other and, even in this crisis that is bringing people together, the social norms hold steady. If nothing else, they are what these displaced and confused people are holding onto. There is little left.

One thing both men are doing remarkably well is attending the needs of the dead. In this situation, soshiki (the customs of funerals in Japan) cannot be observed to the letter. The original dead could not be attended by their families (a ceremony known as shini mizu - water of death) and the only fabric shop in Sendai ran out of material for kyokatabiri - the white kimonos that a corpse is dressed in - well before I arrived. All details of the dead have been painstakingly recorded to aid with later ceremonies, unlike after Haiti's earthquake when nameless bodies were thrown over walls into mass graves, and traditions will continue. A mass soretsu (funeral procession) is planned for next week and a shijuku nichi hoyu ceremony will be held forty-nine days after each death. The spirits are not angered; if they are, they have forgotten the ways of life.

I can tell Masumi is also ill; he is utterly silent on emotional matters but he has been gasping and groaning as he lifts and moves things. We are quite the pair. Joel called us "the gambari twins," after the idea of patience and determination in Japan that borders on fanaticism. It is amusing, as we are dressed identically and stand the exact same height. His hair is jet black and his hands are tattooed quite ornately, but otherwise, we could be family.

We ended another day smelling of kerosene and the powder that comes off the high-energy biscuits we brought to feed the camp. A heavy blanket of salt and rotting biotic material hangs in the air over our valley; it is trapped against the mountains by the wind off the cold Pacific. Haikus fly into my mind and I reduce the lines of the landscape through the mist into the same broad strokes I see in Japanese paintings. This place inspires everything I love about Japan. It is all here. I may stand in the dominion of destruction, but the moment inside me is perfect.

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