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Dialogue of Calamity: The Great Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake Disaster
March 15, 2011 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 3 comments

As the northwest coast of Japan has re-emerged, desolate from the great Tohoku-Kanto tsunami, those of us looking on have only our words and the stories to comprehend the incomprehensible, this vast landscape of heartbreak. So this post is not so much about the disaster unfolding in my beloved second home, but about the way we talk to one another about this sort of thing.

But first, I am compelled to honor the grief of those who have lost all that is dear. Of all the pictures that I’ve been poring over so obsessively in the last few days, the one accompanying this post, of a couple in Yamamoto discovering that their daughter did not survive her driving lesson when her car was caught in the great wave that hit her driving school.


Withered and bowed
The world turned upside down
Bamboo under snow

-Basho, on the death of a child.

We witness the worst moment of this couple’s life through the lens of a wire-service photographer. A couple of the shots he took have been published, but I can’t tell the sequence. I’m guessing that the one below is next, as the rescue team leaves mother and father to grieve in private. The photographer was shooting through a long lens—maybe he had been chased off by the cops, or backed off on his own—but his telephoto is dagger to my heart, as I bear witness with the rest of the world.

For these two, next is the wake, in black-and-white-striped sorrow, if they can even get a slot, followed by the funeral and cremation. Then the ashes of a beloved daughter will be gathered after the cremation, although all the crematoriums are full, and finally home at last to a silent house, if it still stands, to sort through her possessions, perfumed with her scent, if it has not been washed away in the mud. Will they find comfort in the boundless compassion of the Amitābha, who has released so many Japanese souls from the suffering of existence?

No matter, as the unendurable will be endured.

I found out early on that my own loved ones have been spared. But my worries grow as disaster and revelations of disaster unfold. I search the Web for news, for feeds and video, for the level of water in containment vessels.

What would wise Basho have inked of the compassion and curiosity that drives me to seek out this world of hurt so far away? Is it because I’ve kneeled around the kotatsu with folks like these, and shared laughs and late nights at work with them? Or is it because I’ll be teaching my own daughter to drive this summer? My compassion, I must confess, is un-Buddha-like, born of my own selfishness and fears.

I woke before dawn to the news on Drudge and figured that the epicenter was far enough north to spare my friends and in-laws. As I got on YouTube, my wife wandered by in the hall. “Yoko, I’ve got bad news for you. There’s been a terrible earthquake in Japan,” to which she responded, “Have you seen my alarm clock?” This, I though, was kind of a funny answer, but she was still asleep and your everyday earthquake in Japan is, well, an everyday kind of thing.

After she woke up, we couldn’t reach anyone due to jammed phone lines, but my brother-in-law, who matches Basho in brevity, if not poetic elegance, soon responded from Yokohama, with a text message that brought a smile to my wife’s face: “Big shake, but I’m OK.” So we are in the clear for immediate family, and remain hopeful that more distant cousins were inland, out of harm’s way.

Then from 7:30 a.m. onward, the phone started to ring, and our inboxes filled up with messages of concern and curiosity. Everyone was calling to check in, even those we hadn’t spoken to in years. Surely it is our nature as social creatures to share in this need to do something, to say something, as we watch the helpless passengers on the grinding bones of our planet.

That evening, I received a call from an old college buddy while I was waiting for my wife in a Japanese bakery in Midtown. I retreated outside because I was embarrassed to debrief in English on the latest from Sendai in front of the Japanese patrons. When the missus showed up, I handed off the cell, and we entered the store as she gave my friend her version. After she hung up, the baker smiled, “Another call, right? I’ve been getting them all day.”

I remember the same kind of reaching out after 9/11, but the new media allows us to share the experience of people around the world living the most dramatic moments of their lives in near-real time. The more heart-wrenching, the harder it is to tear our eyes away. It makes us all participants, in a way, and we want to do something. So we call to connect, to touch, and to add the stories of our friends to our own stock of tales to share again.

And now, stage two of this communication ritual begins, at least for those in Japan far from the calamity up north. The questions asked by our friends are now answered by other friends. Everyone in Japan now has a story to tell. They will trade the tales of what they were doing when the earthquake hit, and bear witness to a moment that changed their lives, and may well change ours. (Is there a nuclear power renascence in your future?) The counter -stories we are hearing now come from Tokyo, of endless shakes and nightmarish commutes. But for those caught up in the tsunami, cold, hungry and thirsty, with everything they hold dear swept away, their moment of terror stretches on and will last for days and years more.

Meanwhile, as news from the north turns from calamity to meltdown, a question to my readers. Since the Japanese government has wisely opened its doors to foreign assistance this time around, how is translation and interpretation being coordinated for these diverse groups? I am interested to learn more about how/if this is being facilitated. I know Jeff Allen has done a lot on this for the Haiti earthquake for machine translation, and I wonder if the situation is analogous. Japanese-English MT is pretty good, but I can see a crying need for on-site human interpreters in short notice, but I don’t know is there is a process or best practice for this in place for Japan, or even in general. The Japan Association of Translators is assembling a list of volunteer interpreters. Translators Without Borders? What are they doing? Anyone have anything else?

Searching for relatives or ways to help? NYT has a good page.

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