It is the 11th day after the quake, and the grim reality continues to penetrate our existence.
Natural disasters are always bad enough. Loss of life is intolerable, no matter on what scale. Having said that, this particular earthquake has been simply too devastating. Nobody yet knows for sure how many lives have been lost. Some communities have been wiped away in their entireties, leaving no one to report the missing, or deplore and weep for the deceased.
As of this morning, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the number of confirmed death is now 9199, with another 18456 missing. This appalling arithmetic of death is most probably an "underestimate" for the true nature of damage. We can only imagine, shudder and pray at this stage. In such a tragedy, deepening as things unfold, grief finds no end. Ultimately, there would be no soothing for a calamity of this scale. One could only hope for the beneficial effects of the passage of time.
In and around Tokyo, shortage of power is predicted to continue through the summer, when heavy and widespread use of air conditioning would inevitably result in peak power consumption levels. Scheduled power outage is actually likely to continue well into the winter of 2011/2012. If this forecast by those in charge proves to be the case (and all indications are that it probably will turn out to be the case), the very foundation of society as we have known it might be compromised. Termination of electricity even for a few hours, if prolonged, would seriously disrupt activities in the capital. Through the dense network of influence and interdependence in today's economical systems, the effects will be eventually felt here, there, and everywhere. And I am not talking just about Japan.
We already hear small businesses cornered to the rim of bankruptcy. Big companies are also affected, finding impossible to carry on business as usual. The entertainment and restaurant industries are clearly the worst affected. In a central Tokyo hotel I visited this Tuesday, half of the restaurants were announced closed.
In the publishing sector, with which I am involved myself, people talk about paper shortage, resulting in postponed magazine publications and cancelation of book launches. Friends of mine who work as freelancers have had their assignments cancelled at a very short notice. If this wave of cancellations prolongs, many lives will be seriously affected.
The damaging ripples this disaster has wrought upon the people is widespread, deep, and unprecedented. And yet, for many Japanese, this particular disaster has a certain element of the "deja vu." Although the damage exceeded almost any alarmist's expectations, the fact that a major earthquake would strike any given part of Japan some day or other has been buried in the Japanese psyche for all those years.
Anticipation of a disaster to come has been in this writer's mind, too. Ever since infancy, for as long as I can recollect, as a matter of fact. The expectation of a tremor to come has been in my subconscious mind, influencing in often unexpected ways my world view and personality. I suspect this is the case for many people here.
My grandfather Shichiro Mogi experienced the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in which more than 100000 people were killed. The epicenter was off Kanagawa, close enough to cause severe damage in Tokyo. Shichiro was living in downtown Tokyo at that time. When I was small, Shichiro often told me, his first grandson, about the traumatic experience, especially around the 1st of September each year, the date the earthquake hit. Although the details of his descriptions now escape me, I vividly remember the way Shichiro narrated the great fire caused by the earthquake. "When I made an escape up the hills at Ueno Park", he would often tell me, "I could see an ocean of fire from the hills towards the Tokyo Bay" On the way back home on the morning after, Shichiro would keep telling me, he saw many dead bodies in and around the river, many of them burned, too numerous and quite uncountable. The calm demeanor with which Shichiro conveyed these words to the then small me was in a marked contrast to the graphic scene described. Maybe he did not want to frighten the grandson too much.
Looking back, I suspect that it was those narratives of my grandpa Shichiro as well as the information that I got from television, books, etc. that formed my impression that life-threatening earthquake could happen any time where I live, in a nation called "Nippon" or "Nihon". Even as a child, I understood the vulnerabilities involved in living in the country of Mount Fuji.
When I was 5 or 6, I started to have dreams. It was the same dream again and again, and would invariably leave me sweating in bed as I awoke. In it, I am watching a mountain, not in such a great distance, but far enough from town so that I can only dimly see its rather ominous shadow against the sky. All of a sudden, the mountain splits into two, and a white, gigantic monster emerges from the schism. Silently, but with clear and malicious intent, the monster drifts, towards the town, towards me.
I panic. I know for sure that if the monster ever gets me, it would afflict on me an agonizing death, or something much worse, although I could not tell exactly what would happen. So I run. I dash though the streets, never looking back, but always feeling the presence of the white gigantic monster behind me. Sure it is coming onto me.
Finally I take refuge in a house in town, belonging to somebody I don't know, with a very large glass pane facing the street. Once crouching in the cozy darkness of the house, I feel relieved, although I am aware that the escape might be only temporary and illusory. However, I do say to myself: Here, even if the white monster comes, it would not be able to see me, as I am so tiny and down below. From the monster's point of view, I am just one of the millions of people being chased, and would therefore hardly count. I think it was in these dreams that I learned to rebel in the comforting knowledge of being insignificant.
Still crouching, I hear a radio playing aloud somewhere. A man's voice is giving the latest news about the monster. The grownups are also afraid, as I can acutely sense from the tone of his words. The tension within me also gets higher. I don't lose my mind, however, managing to reassure myself in this state of anonymity.
I invariably woke up at this point. The moment I came to myself, I realized that it had been that dream again. I found much solace in the fact that I was safe in bed, in my house, which was not ostensibly destroyed. As I recall, I can see that the "white gigantic monster" most probably symbolized the natural disasters that might strike me one day. The earthquake was first and foremost on the agenda of my little imagination.
I don't think mine was an oddball case. Many people in Japan grow up with a vivid awareness of earthquake vulnerabilities. In this process, the fear of the earthquake gets tightly woven into the makeup of people. The sensitivity and preparedness to something, something that might strike us at any moment, anywhere, in any context. This particular way of feeling probably helps us Japanese get prepared for the eventualities, while admittedly having certain side effects.
As I grew up, my earthquake-related dreams became more specific. I dreamed often, for example, about the damage a big earthquake inflicts on house. I am in my parents' house, and the whole structure suddenly shakes. I fear for my life, and take shelter under the table, as every child is taught to do in this country. However, it is not my house that gets crushed. Instead, my neighbor's house, which was taller than my parents', would be bent in the middle by the quake like a sheet of paper, and the upper structure would come falling down on our house. I scream the cultural equivalent of "Oh My God!" I invariably woke up at this point, back to consciousness, back to safety. I had a tendency to wake up from dreams at my most vulnerable moments, such a convenient child that I was.
The worse fate I dreamt up for my neighbor's house probably did not come from any selfishness or wishful thinking on my part. It was simply easier, given the makeup of the visual system of the brain, to imagine the neighbor's house collapsing, which I could "render" to myself from the vantage point of the outside. In other words, it is much more difficult to imagine the housing that you're currently in literally crushing onto your body. It is difficult to imagine such a tragedy inflicted on yourself, all the more so to actually experience it and cope.
(To be continued)