Inside Looking Out, Part Two

NOTE: The following is a follow up to yesterday’s post by Pamela Runestad, a graduate student in medical anthropology who spoke in the Triangle Japan Forum on October 1, 2010. It is posted here with her permission.

It’s snowing sideways in Nagano – big, fluffy flakes that stick to the pines but not to the ground. Is it snowing in Tohoku? It must be so cold in Sendai. Those poor people just can’t get a break, can they? That’s what I’m thinking as I pack my bags and the snow swirls around outside my window.

I planned a trip to Kansai (southern Honshu) for research several weeks ago, and had really been looking forward to it. But I just got home from Tokyo and away from the big aftershocks, away from the blackouts, and away from the memory of being shaken in a bus. It felt so good to be home, despite the fact we, too, experience an occasional tremor. And now I am all stocked up on emergency supplies – do I really want to leave? It feels so safe here. It’s a known place for me, having been here on and off for 7 years. I feel as though I could manage here, no matter what happens. But that reactor…

I really wish I knew how dangerous the situation really is. On one hand, the Japanese government doesn’t want people to panic and the local media keeps repeating that current radiation levels (where?!) are not hazardous to health. On the other, the non-Japanese media seem to feed on the idea of impending doom. Most recently, the Japanese government via a bulletin on NHK World English actually asked foreign governments to calm down, to “accurately convey information provided by Japanese authorities concerning the plant.” In this squabble, each party has a vested interests; digging out helpful information is a tedious and disheartening.

Should I stay or should I go?

This is the question rattling around in the minds of expats – and perhaps some Japanese with the means and the desire go somewhere else. Social network sites are abuzz with people discussing whether or not to leave Tokyo or whether or not to leave Japan altogether. The spectrum of opinions ranges from “we’re completely safe” to “we’re going to die of radiation sickness” – and I find myself oscillating back and forth on that very spectrum.

I called a friend in Kyoto, who told me that things are functioning normally in the Kansai area. I asked about shortages, she replied that there are none (so far). I asked about aftershocks and there have been none of those either. Looking at a map of Japan, I traced the distance from the Fukushima reactors to Nagano, then down to Kyoto. It’s a much safer distance. I have planned these interviews for weeks, I may as well follow through. And… if I want to leave the country… well, there are always the international airports in Osaka or Nagoya.

I bought a train ticket, knowing that this is a luxury. A colleague of my husband’s is in Tohoku with his wife. They want to leave, but there are no trains, no buses, and no gas. I try to put this out of my mind and make my own preparations. I feel a lingering sense of guilt in doing so.

Before any trip, I go through my house and gather up the things I need, cleaning at the same time. I put away stray items and make a pile of items to be packed, dropping them in the vicinity of my waiting suitcase. I did this again today. But this time, I made two piles: one for emergency goods at home, one with stuff to take along. And I packed as though I weren’t coming back, grabbing all essential materials for my research and some personal items: a necklace from my parents, a copy of my advisor’s book that she signed before she died, a picture of husband. There are just so many possibilities. Am I crazy to be thinking of work during a natural disaster? Am I crazy to be fixating on what might happen in Fukushima instead of doing work? I turn down the heater to save gas and keep sorting.

I chose my clothes carefully: mostly cotton and wool garments with some poly propylene long underclothes. The natural fibers won’t burn to your skin in a fire, but the poly pro would protect against hypothermia if it gets cold and there is no heat. But I’ll be doing interviews if all goes to plan, so I can’t look like I’m going camping – I put a blue and white patterned Norwegian wool sweater on the pile. Man, Norwegians are practical, I thought to myself and smiled. I packed dark jeans cut so that it would be hard to notice my sturdy gortex walking shoes. I packed a first aid kit, a Gerber tool, and a hand crank radio. I packed a water bottle and some high calorie snacks – chocolate and nuts. I had a couple of mikan on the counter, so I threw those in, too. I reminded myself that just because Kansai isn’t shaking now, it doesn’t mean it won’t be later – the latest big quake, a 6.4, was centered in Shizuoka, south of Tokyo. Better safe than sorry.

I opened the closet to pull out my notes. My eyes fell on my passport and American wallet. I pulled them out, holding them in my hands for several moments. My eyes filled with tears. Am I really going to go home? What a relief it would be to see my family – but how horrible it would feel to leave behind so many loved ones! “Pam, if you leave, no one will blame you,” a friend had told me earlier in the day. “If it were me, I’d probably go home, too.” I pull out a few important things, the whopping $4 I have in cash, and stuff them into my passport, which then goes in the bag. I’m just being prepared, I tell myself. I’m just trying to be smart. It’s good to have options. I brush the tears away and call my landlord to tell him I’m going to Kansai, wondering if my tears are from fear, stress or sheer exhaustion.

The whole conversation was bizarre. The receptionist was chirpy and told me to have a good trip. I told her that I might be going to the States from Kansai, but that I’ll be giving a friend a key and will pay my rent with a money order if that becomes the case. She got confused, thinking I planned to leave forever. No, no, I told her. I mean, just for a short time. Just until we know what happens with the reactor. Just until things calm down. And I still might be back on Monday. She confirmed the details, said she understood, and thanked me for calling – all sounding rather puzzled about why I would want to leave Nagano (or Japan) when the reactor is so far away.

It’s so strange: most of my friends here have assured me that Nagano is safe, yet there are shortages of bread, water, gas and kerosene. I wonder if they are simply voicing their hopes and not their fears, if they are oscillating back and forth between “completely safe” and “totally dangerous” in the same way I am? Or do those who bought out the stores belong to a totally different group than my apparently unperturbed friends? Or is it because, unlike me, they are already home, and have to simply face what comes? I don’t know. I have friends – Japanese and expats alike – who are hunkering down in Tokyo. On the other hand, many have flown out as well. I just don’t know. So – I try to keep my options open.

Years ago, I read Black Rain, a novel by Ibuse about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After the bombs fell, it rained. The radiation-laced raindrops splashed down on those left without shelter, including the main character; later, most sickened and died. I watched the snow as it fell, forming a shimmering base, and wondered if such flakes could lead to much more than hypothermia in those stranded up north.

I closed the shades. It was time to prepare for those interviews.

-Pamela Runestad, March 16, 2011

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6 Responses to Inside Looking Out, Part Two

  1. Lynda Bauer says:

    Pam — so relieved to hear you are well and safe — your personal account helps gives another perspective on ‘the news coverage’ and I hear also from my friend Yoko in Yokohama with a Japanese view. No survivor’s guilt for you, please; your Alaskan/Norwegian resilience and smarts are all to your credit, and we can only hope mirrored by many around you. Prayers from all the Bauers will cover you through this, dear girl, with some for your mom and dad, too. Stay smart, warm, and safe as you can…. Lynda B.

  2. Pingback: Inside Looking Out, Part Two « American Anthropological Association

  3. You stay in Nagano, don’t you? It’s my hometown! My parents live in Nagano city.
    Last week my father said Nagano was ok and safe, but according your report, there are shortages of the necessities now in Nagano too? Your this blog is very very useful. Thank you.
    Well, I’m a graduate student, majoring in anthropology in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I just posted my view of Japanese behavior under the critical stuation on .
    If you need any help, don’t hesitate to contact and ask me.

  4. You stay in Nagano, don’t you? It’s my hometown! My parents live in Nagano city.
    Last week my father said Nagano was ok and safe, but according your report, there are shortages of the necessities now in Nagano too? Your this blog is very very useful. Thank you.
    Well, I’m a graduate student, majoring in anthropology in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I just posted my view of Japanese behavior under the critical stuation on Special Message from AAA President Dominguez for Japan.
    If you need any help, don’t hesitate to contact and ask me.

  5. Pingback: Inside Looking Out, Part Three « American Anthropological Association

  6. Pingback: Upon Returning Home « American Anthropological Association

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