Surviving Japan

Surviving Japan

Friday was just another day …

Well, okay, it was sort of just another day. It’s not everyday I put the finishing touches on a movie. But I’d done just that and had sent the treatment for the film, SKYSCRAPERMAN, to my oldest son for his input before giving it to my brother, Hollywood’s most esteemed theatrical producer, and man-about-town, Gary Guidinger. The plan is, if Gary likes what he reads, he’s agreed to get it to someone who could make the movie happen.

That’s Hollywood.

Free for a bit, I left the house early, heading to a spot where I was sure to find the day’s English language newspaper and an above average cup of coffee. My youngest son, as he does on many days, needed picking up from his school at 2:40 pm, giving me thirty minutes to play with.

I remember thinking as I skimmed the paper, there wasn’t much going on. Gadafi was doing his incredibly stupid thing in Libya. Sure, he’s a dictator and a mass murderer, but he’s also lacking in smarts. As the self-appointed leader of a country for more than forty years you would think he would have learned something from the fates of Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and the soon to fry, Charles Taylor. Gadafi has about as much chance of surviving as a rattlesnake in the middle of LA’s Mulholland Drive during rush hour.

There was a bit about Ryo Ishikawa, the Japanese teenage megastar poised to take over what Tiger left behind. Ishikawa’s current routine of hitting 400 golf balls a day has, according to him, taken his game to another level.

Like I say, not much to write home about.

Nevertheless, two very short pieces stuck with me. One described how the sixty-sixth anniversary of the March 10, 1945 fire bombing of Tokyo, the one that killed 100,000 civilians, had been given a moment of silence in the Japanese Diet. The other, and I read this seconds before dashing out the door, was about earthquakes in Tohoku, an area that included long stretches of coastline, a hundred plus kilometers to the north. A 7.3 occurred on Wednesday followed twenty-four hours later by a 6.8. Since neither resulted in damage or injuries, and Tohoku was a good distance away, I let it go like yesterday’s news.

I hit the road at 2:30, giving me just enough time to pick up a snack for the boy and myself at the Mini-Mart en route. (Okay, I know what you’re saying, “A Hollywood native, living in Marin County, buying food at the Mini-Mart?” Yeah, I did, and do. In Japan, convenience stores, like Mini-Mart, 7/11, and Family Mart, are everywhere, and they all have much in common – they’re spotless, they stock just about anything a person on the go needs, and they carry high-quality, local food products. Bottom line, like most things here, convenience stores reflect the personal pride of the Japanese people.)

At 2:40, I’m at the school’s front gate. Thirty seconds later, the young man strolls out. As is his custom, he pretends not to notice me, walking past to a prearranged meeting spot. Once there he surreptitiously looks about to be certain none of the other kids can see him, then hands me his pack full of heaven knows what that the school insists he carry back and forth. As is the custom, I’m carrying his stuff as we head off.

We’re munching spicy karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) while walking along a path cutting across a farm field when what sounds like a heavy gust of wind rattles around and through us, except there’s no wind. Then, sudden jolts of energy wobble our legs, knocking us to the ground.

Fear covers my young son’s face.

It takes several minutes for the shaking to stop. When it does, we rise to our feet and dust ourselves off. Looking around, everything seems normal except for the sirens wailing in the distance.

“Was that an earthquake?” the boy asks.

Yeah, that was an earthquake.

Leaving our chicken scattered in the dirt, we hurry in the direction of home. Halfway there a woman approaches us, gesturing at her house where several roof tiles lay in her yard. “Everybody okay?” I ask. She shakes her head yes.

We head down the path toward the river. Large branches block our route. I move several aside, enabling us to continue. The path turns to asphalt and we notice the fresh cracks. Usually, we encounter a few small trucks operated by farmers managing the rice fields on the sides of the road. But not today.

It must be a big quake I think to myself.

We arrive home, but no Mama. Where is she? We’re wondering aloud to one another when, KA-BOOM, a huge rocker sends dishes crashing to the floor and us flying to the empty field behind our house.

Whoa, this is getting serious.

It goes on for more than a minute; not as long as the first one, but long enough to scare to whatchamacallit out of you. When it stops, I look around for damage, but see nothing so we head back into the house, grab a few things, then return to the field. Finally Mama arrives on her bike. She’d been in a book store when the first one hit. “Things were falling all around me as I ran out outside. People were screaming.” I ask if she felt the last one. She smiles. “A few minutes ago, an Iranian man grabbed hold of me as I rode along. At first I was shocked and couldn’t understand what he was doing. Then I realized another earthquake was hitting and he was offering protection. When it finally stopped, he let go. I went over and picked up my bicycle. But when I looked back, he was gone. I don’t know who he was but he kept me from crashing to the pavement.”

The three of us go into the house, switch on the TV, and begin packing emergency bags. I start with three bags, then realize it’s far too much. Periodically I glance at the TV. Live footage of what appears to be an animated wall of water is rolling over meticulously kept farm fields. “What is going on?” I ask. Tsunami my wife says.


Quickly I whittle three bags down to two, dragging both to our rear entrance. My wife gives me a look and I realize I need to get it down to one. Ten minutes later, I place my emergency bag next to my computer bag, best shoes, and Patagonia jacket then return my attention to the television. Any word on how far the tsunami is coming inland I ask my wife. She gives me that look again. Ever since our beach house was swamped last year in a typhoon, I’d been whining about being so far from the ocean. That all changed on Friday. Our temporary place is twenty miles inland, meaning our chances of being hit by a tsunami are minimal. Still, my mind wanders the ‘how the crow flies’ route to the coast, trying to remember the topography between here and there.

Amid endless aftershocks, we spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening glued to the television watching what is obviously a devastating event unfold before our eyes. Finally, around midnight, we hit the futons. Throughout the night, aftershocks rumble through our house, making sleep nearly impossible. During the bigger ones we’re up, hands on the handles of our suitcases, ready to make a mad dash to the field. At the first glimpse of sunrise, I rise like a zombie and immediately whack the top of my head on the low beam crossing our main room. Knowing a tragedy has just befallen the people whose country I am a guest in, I resist the urge to cuss out whoever decided six feet was high enough.

Saturday is surreal like rolling in a car at seventy miles an hour is surreal. With a backdrop of continuous aftershocks, ongoing footage of tsunamis destroying everything in their path, and talk of nuclear meltdown, I’m looking for an escape. Except, there are no options – everything’s closed. The trains are stopped, as are the buses. My Audi is in Marin and the bicycle I’m riding I found in a rice field and clearly incapable of taking me and my family out of harm’s way. I’ve heard planes are taking off but the chances of getting on one are similar to that rattlesnake’s on Mulholland.

Reality is sinking in.

We walk to the local market to stock up for what appears to be a long haul. Problem! The shelves are mostly empty. All that’s left is the lousiest of the lousy – really cheap ‘just add hot water’ noodle soup; skim ‘aka white water’ milk; made in China rice crackers (respectable Japanese would never (never!) buy food from China). Fortunately, there’s a few bottles of red wine and I grab ’em all.

Like wilted roses, we trudge home.

First thing, I crack open a bottle of red and guzzle half of it. Soon I’m going about being stuck and no food and all that. I’m about to go out and track down the slime sucker who put the beam across our ceiling when my wife points to the TV now displaying an image of Matsushima, a revered member of Nihon Sankei, one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. When the Haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, visited Matsushima in 1689 he spontaneously erupted …

Matsushima ah!
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

This year’s tsunami, however, gave no such respect to Matsushima; destruction and dead bodies litter what was once pristine. The pain is enough to zip even my mouth. I fall to the tatamis, sit back, and stare at the TV.

– Survivors visit a food market destroyed by the quake, leaving money for its rebuilding, taking nothing away;

– A woman holds a sign near a sea of rubble. My wife translates … “Please come to my home and use my toilet and shower. I have many futons. You are welcome.”

– A high school boy rubs the back of an older man who laments the tragedy. The kid tells him, “Don’t worry old man, we will rebuild Japan.”

– A homeless person shares a piece of cardboard with a salaryman forced to sleep on a train station floor.

Saturday rolls into Sunday with me moving nary an inch. Even the incessant aftershocks can’t budge me, the coverage is that compelling. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, I grab my young son’s hand and we head to the local park for our weekly ultimate Frisbee game. At first I’m disappointed because it’s only the two of us that show up. But then the tragedy I’ve been watching takes over and soon I’m hitting the streaking young man with passes that are worthy of writing home about.

Nothing since the atomic bombings at the end of World War II compares with what the Japanese people now face. Undoubtedly, thousands have died, many more are homeless, and billions will be needed to repair the damage. Nevertheless, if anyone could put Humpty Dumpty back together, it would be the Japanese. They repaired Tokyo after the great quake of 1923 and again, after the fire bombings. Somehow, they rebuilt Hiroshima and Nagasaki without demanding revenge. Once (If??) everything settles down – the nukes are brought under control, the families learn the fate of their loved ones, the ultimate cost is tallied – the people of Japan will again demonstrate to the world… Ganbatte. On the surface, ganbatte means doing one’s best in the face of adversity. But like everything else in the land of the rising sun, there’s a deeper meaning, transcending precise definition. A boxer whispering ganbatte to an opponent; a salaryman repeating ganbatte to himself; a mother including ganbatte in her prayer to her lost child. One thing for sure, ganbatte is the glue that binds the Japanese people and will be at the core of their recovery.

Ganbatte Nippon!

D. B. Guidinger © All Rights Reserved 2011