No curve was too sharp for them and their bicycle. No puddle was deep enough to stop them. -- Friends by Helme Hein

15 March, 2011

On Fear

This updated map shows 452 earthquakes in the last week. Aftershocks continue all up and down the seaboard. The earth is truly readjusting itself. This morning at 4:45 we first heard a deep grumbling that sounded like a freight train. It was almost as if we heard the plates themselves moving as the vibrations worked their way up our building and jolted us. Friends in other parts of Tokyo heard the same noise.

When there is a lack of clear information, fear and misinformation spread rampant. For the international group of Tokyoites, it's the fear of the unknown: more aftershocks? the REALLY big one still to come? nuclear radiation spreading to Tokyo? food shortages? trains to the airport cut? rolling blackouts until the end of April?

The Japanese seem to be the picture of calm and stoicism. At least that is what is shown in their poised demeanor. News reports show those Japanese most affected by the tsunami calmly waiting in straight lines for necessary supplies and walking instead of taking overcrowded transportation. They wait patiently for news from the government and help each other as needed. It's just what they have to do at this point in time. Japan is a country that is supremely organized and prepared. But I believe it is also a culture of sacrifice. Self-indulgent panic does nothing for the greater good of their country or humanity. When it was announced that blackouts would ensue in order to conserve energy, citizens voluntarily cut enough energy usage that there was no need for mandatory electricity outages. Not many societies would be so quick to react.

But the international community? Everyone wants to get the hell out of dodge. Starting on the Saturday post-quake, teachers, families and other expats started heading for the airport and shinkansen to take them away from Tokyo. For those of us who do not speak Japanese, there is always a fear that we don't know the whole truth, that we might miss something in translation. There is also a lack of trust in government. People want to be rational, but the initial response is to flee. Because we can. The international community is not rooted in Japan like the Japanese are. At the slightest disconcerting soundbite, people are ready to jump into the comforting arms of a home-country, or any country with a nice beach, that is not facing nuclear fallout. Seisen closed for the entire week because all the other Tokyo international schools did. 1/4 of James's class left the country over the weekend. Fathers are sending their wives and children to stay with family in the south. Out of a group of friends 15 or so deep, only 4 people still remain in Tokyo with us. And they aren't sure they are going to stay, either.

The truth at this point is that we aren't in immediate danger here in Tokyo. The people to the north are in danger. Our egos make us think that we are the most important people on earth and that our personal safety is of the utmost concern. Honestly, it's tough to fight that ego sometimes... I'd be lying if I said that fear didn't poison us from time to time. So, we monitor the news and also try to go about our daily lives. We don't panic because we know it won't help. We have a newborn boy who can't risk even the slightest amount of radiation in his developing body. We'll be ready and we'll be smart, but we won't panic. If it comes down to it, we'll leave for the safety of our son. But first, we have to work on getting his passport expedited...


Kristin Pedroja said...

This is a fascinating post, Jesse - especially the foreigner reaction vs. Japanese reaction. I really admire that you're sticking it out - what an experience, to see how a country deals with its citizens in moments of tragedy. It's so easy to run away, and that takes away part of the delicious challenge of living abroad. Well done to stay alert, but hopefully things will settle down in the next few days.


Erik R. said...

Kristin sent me here. Very interesting post. Maintaining your cool in these situations is difficult, but important.

Good luck!

Scott and Heather said...

Good post Jesse. Good luck getting Woody's passport expedited. You are in my thoughts.


Jesse said...

Thanks everyone. Kristin, you make us sound so brave, but really we are just waiting for the passport. James's brother who works for the state department is trying to use a contact or two to help us get moved up the list. It will probably be a few days at the least. We had another huge earthquake last night--a 6.4. Gave the house a good swinging.