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East AND West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 2)

March 6, 2014

By Angela Jeffs

February 2014

How fortunate I am with my friends. They act as sounding boards to my writing in ways that more often than not leave me gasping with revelation.

So it was with K., who living as she does in Tokyo,  responded to PJTR  (part 1) with such wisdom.

She often thinks 3/11 wrecked the lives of those living in Japan far more than is realised by both the outside world, and even those involved.

What if, she asks… What if 3/11 had not happened. Where would we all be now?

Good question.

K. acknowledges that we made the decision to go to Scotland based on financial concerns and a desire to be near my aunt.  “If 3/11 had not happened, you would probably have felt you could come back at any time for a long visit.  Scotland and Japan, both safe and secure, opposite sides of the Earth, opposite sides of the coin in your lives.”

Instead I find myself left wondering if I was not “deeply relieved” to have left? Would I be questioning roller-coastering waves of emotion if 3/11 had not happened?  Before that date – March 11, 2011 –  I went to Scotland on a regular basis, staying here without a qualm (other than leaving Akii in “bachelor-mode” and that was never a real problem.)

K. wonders whether I am really questioning in a subconscious sort of way,  DID 3/11 impact our decision to leave and if so, am I feeling guilty in some way of having deserted Japan? (D., who now lives in England, certainly feels guilty to have left asap after the catastrophe. She’s glad she did, but the guilt of succumbing to flight ahead of fight is something she has to live with, she says.)

When I was simply “here” (and Japan was simply “there”, going to and fro from time to time)  I often missed my life 12,000 miles away, even pined for it, but there were no complicated emotions about having left in the first place.  How light, free and,  yes, unburdened that would feel, being able to simply enjoy “both sides of the coin.”

That is how K. felt when she lived two thirds of the year in New York.  She enjoyed New York, but desperately missed Tokyo… with a very innocent and pure longing.  Nothing more complicated than that.

“Yeah, Fukushima fucked up our lives,” she reflects.

Yet on a day to basis I get no sense of that, certainly from social networking.

It has become quite odd, in fact. Post a photo of day to day activity here – a photo of Akii chopping logs, or the cat on the mat,  and the LIKEs come  thick and fast. Post an article found in the foreign press about Fukushima, the state of the reactors and related post 3/11 effects  (for there is less and less coming out of Japan itself due to political forces) and there may be one or two responses, and always from the same people. Predominantly the main reaction is silence.

So is the government right to keep all news under wraps in order to allow the population to kid itself that all is well, and life can go on undisturbed by rumour or indeed fact?

Friend J., who lives in London, has just returned from a visit to Tokyo where her ageing Japanese sister-in-law needed some assistance. Working with welfare agencies, going out and about (as a potter) mixing in Japan’s rich ceramics culture, ” It often seemed that Fukushima did not exist, though I suspected every meal and glass of beer was radioactive.”

“Shikataganai,” she added, though whether she was saying Oh well, it can’t be helped, with fatalistic acceptance or casual irony was hard to know.

It is certainly true that Japan can’t go back to pre-3/11 days. The earthquake, the tsunami were acts of nature… shikataganai. But the nuclear meltdowns, and all the horrors implicit, were not acts of nature: they were manmade. We are responsible. They could have been helped; they need not have happened.

For the subsequent 18 months I lived with such anger and guilt. Anger at the government and all the agencies and authorities involved; guilt to have been part of the generation that allowed the nuclear industry to so easily have its wicked way with us. Of which, I must add, I am one.

For the first six months after 3/11 Japan showed a genuine desire for change.

But frightened and despairing in the light of the country’s politics, it grew tired.

Exhausted, seeing no light at the end of the tunnel barring an explosion so large it could change the northern hemisphere forever, people retreated into the seemingly secure confines of their daily lives.

By concentrating on the familiar, the dread of the unfamiliar faded from consciousness. A form of self-preservation that is allowing other forces fill the space where the questions and demands of angry voices once clamoured.

Japan is taking a right-wing turn, as if a nationalist war-mongering stance is the solution to a wrecked coastline and more accidents waiting to happen.

The government is seeking to turn reactors back in and even build more. Copies of Anne Franks’ diaries have been vandalized in public libraries. Homeless men are gravitating to (or being transported to) Sendai where the yakuza regard them as fodder for work in the stricken Daichi plant.

This for sure is not the Japan I remember and love. Nor indeed the Japan I want to return to, for what can I do personally to affect any return to sanity?

I admire C. who has her ticket booked for another stint of helping the fishing village she adopted three years ago get back on its feet. When asked how she could go to and fro so easily, move from making jams and chutneys for English farmers’ markets and using the money collected by speaking at schools etc., to rebuild her little bit of Fukushima, she reminded me that after a stroke and recovering, she no longer has any fear of anything.

She is also decades younger. She has physical flexibility and energy where I – having been sick since before Christmas – have little to none.

So am I afraid? I remember a dream of returning to Japan and as we came into land, the runway began to rock and roll again. And another of a faceless individual offering me a fuel rod and then dropping it: your fault, he/she said; you ought not to have come back.

How many in Japan will read this? At what point will a reader put it aside because of uncomfortable feelings triggered? Am I fair to even offer this up?

Akii is asking similar questions on Mixi, Japan’s equivalent to Facebook. And again he is finding a deep resistance.

“It’s like after the Emperor died… or after any death in the family. There is the unspoken year of mourning; you just don’t talk about it. I feel as if I am causing offense by even raising the subject of Fukushima. Really, I don’t know the best way forward. ”

Me neither. Do I only want to talk about it because I am here and not there? If I was there, would it be verboten, an unspoken but acknowledged forbidden subject?

There is a clue in the words “Ima desu” (It’s now) that became Japan’s catchphrase in 2013.

As someone who works hard to appreciate life in the now rather than getting caught up in the nostalgia and regrets of past and fear of future, this is surely very interesting. But what does the phrase “Ima desu” actually mean? Live IN the now, or FOR the now? There is a difference, I believe.

I remember a student (American) saying: “I do live for the moment, because I don’t believe in any hereafter. But that’s not to say I don’t try to do it responsibly.”

Good for her. (I am thinking of those for whom living in the moment implies greedy self-concern and a total lack of empathy for others in the present and future.)

So where am I with all this. As confused as when I sat down to write this? Less, I think. I think Japan is making its choices and they are not choices I can go along with. So it’s best I stay here. In fact I’m glad I’m here. And this is not something I have been able to say since I arrived 18 months ago. So, progress.

I am not done yet though. Unlike C., who brought her daughter to Scotland from Tokyo a year ago and has not found herself thinking of Japan much at all. “I’m good at ‘out of sight, out of mind’… Not in a cold heartless kind of way,” she adds, not wanting to be misunderstood. “More practical than anything else.”

My way of dealing with something near incomprehensible and unsolvable is very different. I’m like a dog with a bone. I chew and chew and chew on it, turning it over and over and over. Not because I expect to get to the heart of the matter, but because it seems important to keep trying.

And then, whether I have reached the marrow or not (in part 3) I want to bury it.

Also by Angela:

- East AND West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 1)

- East AND West: Walking the Wood

- East AND West: Clearing the burn

- East AND West: Re-arranged

- East to West: Taking Responsibility


About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs ( stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within. Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via
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