A Return to Normalcy?
By Kenneth Masaki Shima on Thursday, March 24, 2011
Lying in bed, I mistake the reverberations of my own heartbeat for tremors in the earth below. Sometimes the phantom ripple in my chest is answered by creaking beams and barking dogs that confirm something beyond my imagination. I think everyone in east Japan must suffer from such a feeling. An unsettling sense that our own bodies are not trusted: the ground beneath our feet is the new phantom limb of our earthy existence.
Many people have left Kanto to escape this shaken state of being, to regain their peace of mind on firmer ground south or abroad. Or arguably, more have left from the fear of radiation. Governments, universities, and companies were quick to move people out, and over the week following the quake, no information could appease this nuclear panic. However I sense this was more to protect liability, a „Get out now or you’re on your own/Better safe than sorry“ stance provided a quick handwashing of the situation for the administrators. We see the shallowness of corporate and diplomatic bonds in crisis. Don’t forget you have to sign an agreement to absorb whatever price tag they put on your evacuation. Life continues in Japan with a slightly depleted population and plenty of people who still need help, peace of mind.
Our heads seem loose on our shoulders. We are still shaken regularly, and it’s no surprise people took to imbibing more, self-medicating you could call it, because it seems the world itself is sloshing drunk in its geologic infidelity.
After a dry spell following the quake, it started to rain on Monday. Pollen allergies this year are horrible, tens of millions of cedars shaking their dusty yellow gametes on the wind only to find home in our eyes, nose, and throats. The rain provided respite but also filtered out that which invisibly floats above. Stepping out of the rain that fell yesterday, some drops from my umbrella fall toward a bag of fresh bread in my hand and I wonder: did any drops got on the food? Can I eat this?
Radiation breeds irrational fear: invisible and carried on the wind, Gamma rays flow through wood and concrete with ease. Flow through our bodies to embed intangible seeds, the fruit of which takes years to ripen. What defense is there against such an agent? Many sirens sing from abroad about this threat, yet radiation levels in Tokyo remain lower than Los Angeles. However, we are far from unscathed. The new sadness is more systemic, food and water now bear detectably higher radiation. Flowing up from the roots of life, from water to soil, rain and produce, we count particles. Adjustments by government bodies redefine „acceptable levels for human consumption“ in figures I cannot equate to the coffee in my hand and the food on my plate. From now, we have to be careful about where spinach and milk comes from, and the water from my tap. On the other hand, I wonder what kind of readings you would find on oranges in Southern California, or rice is west China in the 1950s? Winds from the Gila Flats and Semipalatinsk test sites blew across the US, Russia, Europe, and China. Bikini, Nevada, northern Kazakstan all experienced many times Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, we weren’t measuring spinach and milk then. What remains unspoken today is the history beyond Three Mile Island and Chernyobl, the nuclear weapons testing history. What were the radiation readings from the foodstocks of the baby-boom generation? Would they meet „acceptable human levels“ today?
As the Japanese disaster ebbs out of international news for the new US aggression, we move toward recovery and problems of deep ecology. Solar, Hydro, and Wind power are the obvious solutions for the energy future but the still nuclear plans move ahead. The wind power stations on the eastern coast of Japan survived the tsunami and continue to produce power. And even if they’d been destroyed, no one would have fled their charred remains.
All the while, I pack my belongings and prepare our life for travel to a new home that was planned long before the quake. We try to maintain a sense of routine in the non-routine. Try to say goodbye to a changed place. Try and re-tune my heart to a new seismological reality.
Text und Foto: Kenneth Masaki Shima
Born in San Francisco at the end of the 1970s, Ken migrated up the west coast of the USA to dwell in Seattle from 1999 and then moved to Japan in 2006. With a curiosity for film, literature and intellectual history from the 1950s, he now spends most of his time turning pages in a Japanese graduate department. Fascination with visual relations sometimes leads him to write about art, although his gaze is still seen through smudged cinematic glasses. He is often found rubbing elbows with cranky Ojisan in the dark of Tokyo’s repertory theaters or searching the suburbs for rivers and architecture on his bike. Ken calls a thoroughly Showa styled house in sleepy yet literary Asagaya home.