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A new and unexpected twist to life in Japan: tornadoes

by Thomas Dillon

Special To The Japan Times

Tornadoes don’t often stand as a topic for humor.

Perhaps Pecos Bill got a kick out of riding one, and maybe Dorothy Gale enjoyed her higher-than-sky journey as well — and her little dog, too. But “tornado” is not one of those words — like “brouhaha” or “diphthong” — that begs an instant smile.

I myself hail from the so-called Tornado Alley that stretches across the American Midwest, and I know that funnel clouds aren’t things you spin jokes about. Rather, they’re to run from.

Yet the other day, someone asked what was new about life in Japan, seen from the context of almost 35 years of residency. And it hit me like a wall of wind: Tornadoes are new. They weren’t here when I first arrived.

Well, of course, they were here. They were just rare and drew little attention. Sort of like — in a bit of a stretch — avocados.

In 1980 in Japan you had to hunt to find an avocado. More than that, you had to hunt to find someone who even knew what an avocado was. And now avocados are as common as bananas. Almost.

Let’s hope tornadoes never reach that level. Yet, in an awareness sense, they already have. In the last few years, a number of Japanese communities have suffered nasty storms.

Enough to make everyone alert — enough that during foul weather, TVs here sometimes broadcast those words that I used to dread so often during the summers of my boyhood: “Tornado warning.”

“Want to hear a funny story about a tornado?” The speaker is my mother. “A tornado once blew a refrigerator out from the kitchen of one house right into the kitchen of the house next door, as if it was just redecorating.”

As you can tell, my mother is a card. She had other stories too, back then: of forks being blown from pantry drawers and launched into the trunks of trees half a mile away; of cows being scooped up to go dancing in the clouds; of chickens being plucked clean by the breeze.

She always told these stories in the cellar, while she, my older sister and I played with real cards — Crazy Eights and gin rummy — until far past our bedtime, until the thunder at last stopped, the wind subsided and the severe weather warning ceased. If we were truly unlucky, the electricity would go out and we would have to play by candlelight.

Words of Tornado Alley wisdom: “When one comes, you go to the southwest corner of your basement. And if you don’t want your house to explode, you first open your windows.”

As an adult, I was stunned to learn these two old saws were nothing but wives’ tales. Growing up on the Midwest plains, I took them as gospel. Not that they would do any good in Japan: too many windows and not enough basements.

A tornado hit my town the day my mother carried me home from the hospital as a baby. No one was hurt, but the cloud ripped the roof off city hall. As a boy, I had to hear the story of my birth and the tornado each time we drove past the patched-up building.

Another storm hit when I was in high school, and again no one was hurt, yet several houses were smashed and giant oaks were uprooted and tossed about like twigs.

The stone cap off the chimney of one of those damaged homes ended up in a cornfield over a hundred yards from the residence — so heavy it took two guys to lift it and carry it back, stopping twice for breaks.

I know; I was one of the guys.

So Japan, which so loves it seasons, now has another time of year to highlight: tornado season — those hot, humid months of summer.

Which is yet another old wives’ tale. For while tornadoes prefer the heat, they can hit whenever they please, not unlike their ugly brother in mayhem, earthquakes.

Quakes, tsunami, typhoons, volcanoes, mudslides and now tornadoes: Japan seems to be its own Catastrophe Alley.

What’s next? Meteors? Godzilla? Little men from Mars? Let’s hope these are just bad jokes.

“It’s global warming. And things are just heating up,” says my wife, with a comic sense to rival my mother’s. “The storms of today are going to be blown away by the storms of tomorrow.”

I hope that’s wrong. For Tornado Alley-cats all know that, when it comes to twisters, Japan has had it easy so far. The tornadoes of last year were mere runts compared with the monsters of the American prairies.

And some reckless souls actually try to follow those things: Witness the Discovery Channel program “Storm Chasers” or the 1996 film “Twister,” in which Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton were both out-acted by a funnel cloud.

It would have been funny if it wasn’t so stupid. And deadly.

Let’s leave such shenanigans to Pecos Bill or Dorothy Gale. For in fiction, those storms all have a sense of humor. Real tornadoes do not.

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