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Through the shaking, Japan comes together

by Kaori Shoji

For centuries, Japan had operated on the unvoiced logic that the only certainty in this world is disaster — specifically, tensai (天災, heavenly disaster). Four centuries ago, Edo (江戸, Old Tokyo) citizens said to each other that they had four major things to fear: jishin (地震, earthquakes), kaminari (雷, lightning), kaji (火事, fire) and oyaji (親父, fathers). These four were the major culprits to wreak havoc but at the same time there was little anyone could do to prevent them. Jishin heads off the list as a matter of course — accordingly, Tokyoites approach earthquakes with a particular mindset.

First off, they are prepared. As soon as Tokyo children can walk, they become equipped with a bōsai zukin (防災頭巾, safety hood) to ward off flames and flying debris, and a small rucksack packed with emergency food, bottled water, a towel and first-aid paraphernalia. And when they mature into adulthood, they know that a good employer always keeps stocks of these hoods for its employees. When the devastating quake struck Japan on Friday, many men and women started their long walk home wearing them.

Speaking of walking, many Tokyo companies assume there will be a time when trains stop, the subways close down and employees will have to walk. There’s a word for such people, kitaku konansha (帰宅困難者, those who have difficulty making it back home), and employees are encouraged to participate in simulation drills (sponsored by the company but more often by the Metropolitan Government) where everyone gathers at a preordained meeting spot (the favored choice is around the Imperial Palace) on a weekend, and walk their way back carrying emergency backpacks. The distance varies between 15 and 21 km — this will usually take people out of the city and into the suburbs of Chiba or Saitama prefectures, where they live. Last Friday, the streets were full of kitaku konansha, but it was indicative of the Tokyo disaster psychology that a lot of the ippai nomiya (一杯呑みや, drinking bars) and yakitori stalls in and around major train station terminals were open late into the night, catering to people who didn’t or couldn’t make it back on foot, but chose to get plastered and immerse themselves in grilling fumes. Great move.

It’s said that the Japanese woman shows some fine stuff in the event of a disaster #8212; from time immemorial, women have rolled up their kimono sleeves, somehow managed to procure some rice and done the takidashi (炊き出し, cooking out) for the injured, wounded and hungry. In Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, where 70 percent of the populace are now in hinanjo (避難所, evacuation facilities), the few wives and daughters whose houses were left unscathed immediately got together, raided their own rice bins and made hundreds of onigiri (おにぎり, rice balls) — the traditional takidashi staple — to distribute among the needy. The men, on the other hand, have turned into kyūjo (救助, rescue) heroes, and tales of great courage, snap decision-making and sheer altruism are enthralling people across the nation.

In the Kanto area, the keikaku teiden (計画停電, planned blackouts) are forcing people to leave work early, or in the case of Ibaraki Prefecture, succumb to the jitaku taiki (自宅待機, wait at home until further notice). This is not all bad: Husbands and fathers are home, maybe for the first time in their adult lives, to share the crisis with their families. Wives and mothers are also staying home to be with their kids, and since the shokuzai busoku (食材不足, shortage of food supplies) in the metropolitan area has resulted in kyūshoku katto (給食カット, cutting school lunches), a lot of school children are also going home early and sticking close to their parents. To save on power, there are fewer people glued to their mobagē (モバゲー, mobile phone games), more people engaging in actual conversation, and there’s a newly sprung camaraderie in the workplace. The disaster and subsequent tragedy have resulted in some enforced downtime, and families are reporting with some surprise that they are sitting down to eat together for the first time in many years.

The blackouts and yoshin (余震, residual quakes) are expected to last throughout April, and as of Tuesday the 15th, the number of confirmed dead and yukuefumeisha (行方不明者, missing people) was reported to be well over 6,000.

Keisatsu (警察, the police), jieitai (自衛隊, Self Defense Forces) and jichitai (自治体, local governments) are making efforts to sōsaku (捜索, search) for people who are alive.

The most frequently sighted word these days is buji (無事, safe), comprised of the kanji characters mu (無, nothing) and koto (事, incident). Without incident: It’s a state we’re all praying for.