Inside Looking Out, Part Three

NOTE: The following is the third post on the earthquake and its aftermath 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.

The past few days, I’ve been walking around the cities of Osaka and Kyoto, conducting interviews I had planned to do before the quake. After it happened, I emailed my future interviewees, asking about their families and whether or not they were still willing to speak with me. Five out of five responded in the affirmative. “Kansai is not really affected,” most told me. “See you soon.” So I headed down as planned.

When I arrived in Kyoto, I was thankful for all my obsessive packing. The snow seemed to have followed the train down through Nagano and Gifu to Kyoto. The scenes outside the windows resembled Japanese versions of Ansel Adams photos – mountain peaks dusted in white with rice paddies in the fore. Once in a while, some color peeked out from under the blanket of cold and gray: plum blossoms here, new grass there. But just looking out gave me a chill. I was glad to have layers of wool, poly pro, and rain gear and a mug of hot tea.

My mind flashed to the school gymnasiums that often serve as emergency shelters. I’ve worked at six different schools in Japan and the gyms were always the same: large and somehow ominous. They had high ceilings. The windows were high up to let in light and let out heat (in summer) – without being in places where they’d get easily broken by a stray ball of some sort. They were usually fairly dark. And of course they had hard, wooden floors. None of our gyms were heated centrally, and none seemed to be insulated, either. That may be different prefecture to prefecture, but basically, these were the coldest buildings in the schools. For graduation ceremonies, I wore long underwear under my suit, even though they had large kerosene space heaters burning. I found myself wondering how people were staying warm in the shelters in Tōhoku? Having sat on those wooden floors in winter myself various times, I know how they can pull the heat right out of you. How can you sleep on those hard, polished floorboards without waking up cold through and through?

When I arrived at the temple where I was staying, I had to take out my camera and snap a few photos. The falling snow softened the surroundings, reflecting both the moonlight and the gentle lights in the doorways. Despite the cold, it was breathtaking… as Kyoto is often said to be.

And as I walked around over the course of the next few days, I found that, in a way, life in Kansai does indeed seem to be carrying on as usual. People are going to work, kids are preparing for spring break, and trains are running as usual. People were out for jogs, playing volleyball, buying cars at local dealerships, shopping, and going drinking over the weekend. But the semblance of normalcy is not an indicator of indifference. Rather, it reflects how they are experiencing the quake in a much different way than those who live in Kantō or Tōhoku.

Most of the population in Kansai didn’t feel the quake at all – or barely noticed it. Unlike those who lived close to the epicenter, they didn’t experience the tsunamis or the seemingly relentless shaking first hand. Being on a totally different power grid, they haven’t experienced shortages in electricity, either. Instead, Kansai experienced (and continues to experience) the Tōhoku earthquake through television broadcasts, like the rest of the world. And in the days following, they experienced the aftermath through some inconveniences at the store – shortages in batteries, rice, diapers, and water – or, at least restrictions on the amounts they could buy. For example, a single customer can only purchase a CASE of water (6 bottles) at a certain store in Kyoto. Never mind that in Tokyo it’s still hard to come by at all. But I didn’t hear anyone complain about certain products being replaced with signs explaining their absence. A friend was quick to say that this might be because many of them had experienced the Hanshin earthquake in 1995 that killed over 6,000 people – 4,000 in Kobe alone.

It’s my guess that the differences in experience are part of what is making it possible for people in Kansai to go about their daily lives, while finding ways to show support for those in the hardest hit areas:

At Osaka station, students crowded the sidewalk with large signs, asking for donations for the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami survivors – and several groups were doing the same along the riverside sidewalks in Kyoto. An Osaka restaurant was offering a special sake set (3 cups, 3 different sakes) to benefit the quake victims. There was a donation box out at a concert in a local market in Kyoto: although the concert had been planned weeks in advance, the sponsors decided to make it a benefit of sorts. The hotel where I’m staying tonight has a yellow piggy bank at the front desk, into which you can deposit change for the cause. And I noticed a large truck with a “Tōhoku Earthquake Relief” sign on it as I wrote up my notes in a café in Osaka. “This truck and two others are driving to Miyagi today,” a volunteer told me. “What’s in the truck?” “Rice,” she said with a big smile. “A metric ton of rice.”

And even if things look normal on the surface, we cannot assume that people are unaffected. In fact, this is what one of my interviewees in Osaka told me on Friday: “Ms. Pamela, I really want to talk to you. But please understand that I’m not quite myself today. I’m from Sendai…”

Despite his initial note of caution, however, this man talked with me for four hours and then we talked over dinner for another two. Sometimes acting “normal” helps get you back to feeling normal.

What stands out to me is that these experiences are very different from those in the footage from Tōhoku or Tokyo. Why have these areas become synonymous with “Japan” when describing this tragedy? Why has the tendency been to focus on the survivors and foreign aid over domestic assistance? And why do people – Japanese and non-Japanese alike – fall back on the claim that survivors remain calm because of their socialization – their “group mentality” – rather than consider the multitude of factors that have functioned to curb the panic level post tsunami?

It is true that much of Japan remains calm. But I’d say there are several reasons for this that vary with people’s experiences. The survivors, for example, may be in shock. They may be cold and hungry, and emotionally drained from watching their homes and loved ones swept away. I haven’t yet seen reports on post traumatic stress or nightmares, but I’m sure these problems exist. Living in close quarters like school gymnasiums also makes it possible for colds and other acute, infectious illnesses to spread rapidly among such a population. The presence of rescue groups and people outside the immediate area who head up disaster relief may allow the survivors to relax, to allow themselves to be taken care of after they struggled for their lives. To put it another way, they may simply be too traumatized – physically and emotionally – to be anything other than “calm.”

For those outside the hardest hit areas, there are other factors. The first is that they watch the news. They know how bad it is in other places. A friend working through the blackouts in Tokyo told me, “I’m so tired. But I can’t complain. It’s so much worse for Tōhoku people. I have to keep going. And, it’s getting better little by little.” Additionally, the Japanese government via the media has worked hard to reassure people that progress is being made in finding people, delivering goods, and containing the radioactivity. Constant reassurance is a panic preventive. Moreover, people who experience the quake via television may feel no reason NOT to be calm and continue as normal. And finally, some people may push through for the sheer challenge of it. Really, I think it is more realistic and fairer to the Japanese people (not to mention more interesting) to say that the relative calm here depends on the combinations of their various efforts and experiences rather than to state that all Japanese are all putting the group before the individual as they have been trained to do.

This leaves me wondering to what degree the tendency to say that social practices or “mores” are the reason for this calm goes hand in hand with the tendency to give the vast majority of media attention to the survivors and their sufferings? If privilege is given to images of the calm, Japanese victim getting help from the non-Japanese rescuer, rather than images of Japanese helping other Japanese, it’s possible for people (Japanese and non-Japanese) to start to believe that all Japanese are victims and rescuers are all foreign. The foreign rescuer is strong, dominant, and a symbol of national pride. Thus, in the non-Japanese media, diversity is lost and Tōhoku and Tokyo become synonymous with Japan (ie, dangerous, decrepit, and in need of saving). It thus follows that the calm, Japanese victim voluntarily takes the subordinate position, humbly and gratefully accepting assistance. Thus, the Japanese media focuses on the generosity of other nations, which is essential to saving lives and cleaning up in the wake of the disasters. Again, Tōhoku and Tokyo become synonymous with Japan, but for different reasons entirely. To put it plainly, foreign donors can feel good about themselves and Japanese can get what they need by utilizing the same dichotomy for different reasons.

My goal is not to say Japan doesn’t need outside help. It clearly does. And it isn’t to say that non-Japanese rescuers shouldn’t feel good about their efforts. They definitely should. My first point is that showing Japanese efforts alongside non-Japanese efforts would be good for morale – for everyone involved. It would provide some much-needed balance the picture of how Japanese are experiencing the quake in different ways. (Although I am aware that such a readjustment may not be popular among whoever stands to profit in keeping things the way they are.) My second point is that caution should be exercised in attributing a phenomenon to a single factor, or a society to a single trait. Reducing people to a trait or two encourages comparisons and emphasis on difference, rather than on what humans share across cultures. It’s important to carefully consider whether to utilize a comparison or a generalization to understand a situation. How does utilization of a comparison elucidate or obstruct parts of a picture? If focus remains on humanity rather than differences during disasters like this one, for example, it is easy to see the extent of human compassion and caring for others.

When I made the decision to leave Japan for a few weeks, my friends assured me that I shouldn’t worry about them, and that it was right to go see my family. One said, “Pam-chan, don’t worry. We Japanese won’t lose to something like this.” Given the generous donations from around the world, I don’t think humanity will, either. But I’d still like the news – Japanese and non- Japanese alike – to spend some time documenting domestic aid efforts like the ones I’ve seen and that validate my friend’s assertion.

-Pamela Runestad, March 21, 2011

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2 Responses to Inside Looking Out, Part Three

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

  2. Pingback: Upon Returning Home « American Anthropological Association

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