From Griffith REVIEW Edition 35: Surviving
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Colin Mills
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Colin Mills’ biography and other articles by this writer
I DIDN'T want to go back to the town that wasn't there. It was three months after the wave receded, and the network wanted a report on conditions in the north. They sent me in the first time, just after the wave struck. I saw the bodies in the mud and the survivors on their knees in the freezing cold. Their eyes were squeezed shut, their hands clasped over white cotton facemasks. Their shoulders shook. The other reporters and I walked around in our hardhats and pointed our cameras at splintered buildings and overturned vehicles. Then we went home.
In Tokyo musicians held concerts to raise money for the survivors, and people said how awful it all was. After that, I didn't feel qualified to go back. I could do nothing for the people there. There was no way to describe the lives of the survivors on a piece of paper or squeeze it through a lens. My boss said if I wasn't qualified, nobody was. And he was right: nobody was. But it was my job, and I thought I might stop thinking about Yuko if I spent time with people more unfortunate than myself. I decided to dilute my misery in the collective sorrow of others who had lost far more.
When I arrived everybody was living on the high ground. The international film crews and relief teams were gone. Most of the local reporters from Tokyo and Osaka were off covering the radiation leak at the nuclear power plant to the south. There was still something happening down in Fukushima, something to tell people. Events were still unfolding. Perhaps it was because the news from the leaky reactor remained so bad the network wanted to know if things up north were getting better. I didn't want to be the one to tell them the truth.
I arrived with a box of canned food and juice. Takeshi's sixty-year-old mother accepted it with a deep bow. If someone cared enough to come here, she was appreciative. The survivors didn't want to be forgotten. After what they had been through, it was their greatest fear.
‘Thank you very much for coming,' she said.
In the evening Takeshi and I sat on fold-up chairs outside the temporary shelter the government had built for his family in the grounds of an elementary school. Each room was fabricated in a factory and transported here for assembly. They had refrigerators and washing machines from the Red Cross, toaster ovens and rice cookers from the municipal government. The little house smelled of resin and new tatami. Takeshi and his family were glad to have it after three months of living with a thousand others on the floor of the city gymnasium. I had a room at a local guesthouse that was not damaged by the water but Takeshi and his mother offered me a futon, so I slept there. The futon was thin and I was uncomfortable on the floor of their little unit. Being there made me feel better, as if I was sharing their suffering.
Takeshi and I propped our feet on a plastic beer crate. Another upturned crate sat between us as our table. We worked our way through a plate of skipjack tuna and got pretty drunk. The fish had arrived in the harbour that morning, part of a forty-tonne haul landed by a trawler that came up from Shikoku; all of the fishing boats from this area were lost to the wave. Takeshi's mother seared and sliced up the fish for us with some daikon and perilla. Then she sat on a cushion on the floor of their prefab shelter, the laptop open on the low table in front of her. She still looked for her friends. Takeshi had shown her how to go online, so each day she could check the updated list of identified victims. The list for Miyagi Prefecture alone was over two hundred pages. She gripped the mouse in one hand and held a cup of tea in the other. Occasionally she found the name of somebody she knew. She rocked back on her cushion, said ‘ah' and nodded.
Takeshi's father was one of five thousand still missing. He and Takeshi's mother had evacuated to high ground after the earth stopped shaking, but he had gone back into town to look for his son before the water arrived.
THE RAINY SEASON was ending. The drizzle that began in the morning lifted when the sun went down, but left the air heavy with humidity. During the day we heard the rumble of heavy vehicles moving debris from the worst hit areas near the waterfront. The sound of hammering echoed across the high ground as teams of workers hurried to build more prefab units for the evacuees still left in the gymnasium. But the night was quiet. To the east the ocean glinted in the moonlight. Where once a carpet of lights would have twinkled in the town below between us and the sea, now there was darkness punctured only by the muted red glow of emergency lights left by the recovery teams. We sat on the edge of the abyss and poured more shochu into our plastic cups. I knew I shouldn't be drinking.
There was a shout from one of the kids in the unit two doors down.
We got up and walked over to the little stream that ran down the hill alongside the school. My head swam. Beneath the trees, the darkness was a curtain I pushed at with my hands. I heard one of the parents caution a child not to fall into the water.
‘Fireflies! Can you see them?' another kid shouted. ‘Fireflies!'
A dozen tiny yellow-green lights drew circles in the black air. The kids thrust up their hands but were not tall enough to catch them. I extended my arm and in a moment one of the insects was on my palm, the lamp in its abdomen flashing every few seconds. The soft light expanded in my vision, absorbing the darkness around it. As I tried to focus, the glow made me think of the burning oil slicks on the harbour after the wave receded three months ago. They, too, had seemed larger in the darkness. For days afterwards the fire shimmered through the night like monstrous eyes glowering back at the shore.
I HAD MET Takeshi when I arrived two days after the wave. He was wandering through the rubble. I showed him my press badge and introduced myself. I didn't know what to ask him, so we just walked. He didn't seem to mind my presence. It was very cold. The grey sky and flickering snow sucked all the colour from the landscape, except for the red flags stuck in the debris marking the locations of bodies. Teams from the Self-Defense Forces in camouflage uniforms and facemasks searched the rubble for survivors. From time to time we came across groups of them, standing with heads bowed and hands together over a human form wrapped in a tarpaulin.
Takeshi used to work in a machining shop that processed metal parts for a subcontractor to one of Toyota's subcontractors. Or something like that. He was a long way down the food chain. He showed me what was left of his company's little factory. Two of the four walls were gone, the blades of the lathes red and rusty. Somehow the force of the water had bent one of them.
I saw a lot of Takeshi in the days that followed. He told me what had happened. He was my proxy. I lived it through him. I used him to make my own words more plausible. After the earthquake he and dozens of others evacuated to the local shrine on the hill overlooking the town. A kilometre from the sea, the wave didn't look like anything to fear. From such a distance it seemed to move slowly, filling up the harbour on the far side of the ten-metre-high concrete sea wall. It made no noise. When the water came over the top of the wall, it slopped into the street like water overflowing from a bathtub. For a second it looked as if that would be the extent of it, as if the ocean would pull back. But then the second wave came and the water stood up. It surged over the barrier, sliding off the top of a sea that didn't have enough room for itself. Pushing cars and boats ahead of it, the water built momentum, crunching and swallowing as it moved.
As the water sloughed off the sea there were gasps and even laughter at the sight of cars and buildings sailing along the streets of the town. Takeshi was embarrassed as he told me.
‘We didn't realise what we were seeing,' he said. He twirled his finger in the air next to his ear. ‘Your mind sometimes can't process things. We've had disaster drills since we were kids. I think we just, you know, forgot what they were for.'
In those few moments - the last in which there was any hope for the town - the people on the hill assumed everyone must have made it out, that there was nobody left down there in the hospitals and nursing homes. They waited for the black water to stop, for it to drain back into the sea after swamping the two or three blocks closest to the breakwater.
But the wave kept coming, filthy and boiling. By now it was roaring. Takeshi said he remembered the noise most of all: the rush of the water, the monotonous wail of the siren, glass shattering, metal bending. The water wanted more of the earth. The onlookers began screaming. They saw people down in the town running ahead of the water. They watched cars driving along the road knocked sideways and flipped over as the water poured in. Reaching out like a huge hand, the wave crushed the town in its fist and flung it up the valley.