Here and There

By Kenneth Masaki Shima on Thursday, March 17, 2011


On Wednesday morning I saw the ordinary and familiar: my cat lounging in the dirt, old men on constitutional, deliveries made with expediency and politeness. All of these things tell me to relax, try to persuade me to settle into the unsettling.

From my phone, the TV, and the computer screen, cries resound, „duck and cover!“ competes with „we’ll be fine.“ We freeze and think, „where to?“ „what’s coming?“ Speculation undermines my being. Speculation is the moisture creeping around my friend’s eyes as she smiles and worries that we will be irradiated martyrs to the rest of the world, that she will live on a lonely island. Speculation is the knot in my stomach every time I read another embassy report. What do we learn in realizing that all of the work toward clean agriculture is ruined, that our nurturing actions toward the earth and each other are invalidated? That things may not recovery for a long time and that things will never be the same.

I cannot overcome a sense of abandoning parts of myself, memories that no longer match reality. My sense of place is formed upon these memories that each day are caste to the void without ceremony. I think this is the sorrow that people speak of when they mourn Japan: the unrememberability of the traumatic break between now and then. Through media we try to represent and grasp what happened, but our ability to transcend these events is caught in the twilight that is trauma. The wide reaching power of this event renders us emotionally powerless, yet we throw our best punches trying to prove we’re still alive and that we can save what’s in danger. People tell me to drop everything and just „get the fuck out!“ It would be easier to react if we had no home.

—All clear?—

When will this disaster finish so we can start again? Following 3/11, many including myself have embraced Japanese society as resilient and felt hopeful. However, in order to start rebuilding we need a starting point, a foundation upon which to build. It is beyond a matter of extinguishing fires or cleaning up ruble. This disaster has not ended and the call of „all clear!“ seems perpetually held hostage by geiger counters, sea water, and politicians in jumpsuits.

Today we are in a hotel room in Kofu, Yamanashi prefecture, two hours west of Tokyo, separated from Fukushima by large mountains and hundreds of kilometers. Even here streets are empty. Gazing out to the street, a local acquaintance said, „no one is out, they’re all eating cup ramen sealed in their tiny apartments.“ It’s less obvious but fear is here too.

Setō sunset

Setō sunset

Tokyo’s geiger counters were calm over the last day and a half and I wonder if our trip, this gamble for escape and a sense of relief, was well timed. Will distance alleviate our mental and physical stress? I asked before: how would it feel to not be here? In that case, ‚here‘ was Tokyo, but for many people abroad, ‚here‘ is Japan as a whole. People all fear for the safety of their loved ones but how far do we have to go, how much do we have to abandon to get ‚there‘? Unfortunately, coming to Yamanashi provided only temporary relief, much like what I would felt days ago in Tokyo as the sun sets and we can tell yourself, „we made it through another day.“ But the sinking feeling returns as I gaze up at my wooden ceiling in morning’s sun. What seeps in? The problem is that once you start seeking for ‚there‘ you feel that home will never be the same and therefore any resuscitation of life as you knew it is also lost. A very empty feeling.

Prior to the quake we planned to leave Japan at the end of this month. Our tiny house, filled with half-packed moving boxes, feels dark and cramped. Not organized, not ready to go. For close to five years I’ve tried to make Japan my home: to make this place, my place. But now we want to go if only to feel relief, to feel safe. But ‚leaving‘ now means something different than a change of venue.  We can place distance between here and there (us and them?), but where is safe, where is relief? How far is ‚there‘ from ‚here‘? I feel like I’m sabotaging something: my sense of space falls apart in this suspended disaster. Today boundaries of safety and judgment are built and destroyed with each article, email, or memo. But even as I flee, judgment or action becomes no easier. This is what plagues us, lack of respite, lack of finality to confirm the effects of our action. We can judge the chance of dying in a car crash or from cancer because there are countless other examples of that risk. We cannot point to what „a 99% chance of safety in Tokyo“ begets us in a nuclear disaster.


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.



March 15th and 16th in Tokyo

By Kenneth Masaki Shima


Yesterday was bad. Grey and colder than the previous: a misty slate-colored sky that felt welcoming to nuclear wind. City life felt muffled as the normal drone and brightness of the metropolis was tempered by electricity rationing. Fewer trains, fewer commuters, people quiet with their coffee and cigarettes as if neither had flavor but we suck it down anyway, for comfort. Shopping bags spill onto the sidewalk, fallen from a goods-laden bicycle, it’s Japan so no one bothers to steal, yet no one picks up either.

People in Tokyo hastened plans to move to the west. From abroad more messages of care urging us to move somewhere else. From Tokyo friends I read messages of safely arriving elsewhere: Paris, Seoul, Okinawa, Osaka, or Kyushu.

I went out, took care of paperwork at the town office, had a burger with Mo, then made dinner for my co-workers at the bar, and dinner at home. I don’t remember falling asleep. All of this normalcy is interlaced with moments where we feel compelled to make decisions for our own safety, and ultimately, decisions we feel could effect our mortality. Passing toilet paper lines twenty deep at the drugstore I can feel the growing tension. I wouldn’t call it panic, rather the consumer-provider relationship is breaking down. You can’t simply buy what you want when you want it, yet we’ve grown up in a world where the most common response to anxiety is to consume.

The geiger counter spiked in mid afternoon and we too thought of how we could flee and not be here. I wonder what sense of relief comes from not being here? This question made the day more difficult than any aftershock, grey sky, or consumer hoarding. People are getting out, on trains, planes, and buses. I found myself rushing to finish cooking the staff meal at the restaurant. I rushed because at that moment dusk arrived and the divide between „life as usual“ and „we’re getting the fuck outta here!“ resounded in my mind causing a sense of limbo, of fear of rain, of exposure, at the same time spiriting me toward home but away from home.


Today is a beautiful spring day and businessmen push baby carts in the clear(?) morning air. As I take out the trash a dolled-up girl fingers her cellphone while piloting her bike with the other hand. Birds sing, peach trees are in bloom.

There are many things I need to do in preparation for moving home but the pace of progress has turned glacial. I don’t want to ride trains and my normal alternative, a bike, also bears a sense of exposure. I will spend today packing, cleaning.

Watch minimal news and read few articles. If my friend’s emails are too panicky or too detailed about the „hanging in the balance“ state of the meltdown I pass over those too. I watch the geiger counter. I am unable to make the „next step“ come to fruition.

„liftoff“ (Photo by Motoko Jumonji)

„liftoff“ (Photo by Motoko Jumonji)


It’s necessary to go out and see that 33 million metropolis of Tokyo continues to flow. Shops are open, papers are delivered, trash is picked up. If we stay inside closed rooms, illuminated by news screens and a solitary fear of irradiation, we might go crazy. We don’t have it so bad in Tokyo. As the center of the country, as the metropole, we are also centered on ourselves. We are turning the disaster in on ourselves with our escape plans and stockpiling. My Japanese relatives are all staying here and this makes us stay here. This stubborn sentiment is of a sense of place. Foreigners are quicker to move elsewhere, we are already temporary, but Japanese friends and family (and myself too) are tied to each other in a net that binds our world, this place, together. It is relationship of emotional, biological, give and take of energy that is the basis for a sense of place. Place make us reluctant to tear that net, for to depart from that relationship undermines our being.

Aftershocks continue with some force. Even in our current earthquake-acclimated state, one tremor last night sent us into doorways or out to the streets. We are plagued by a phantom wobble that could always become something greater.

Motoko’s brother said something interesting on the phone yesterday that I’ve been trying to understand: he doesn’t mind being swept away by a tsunami or crushed in an earthquake, but he cannot forgive or accept death by an unnatural disaster like radiation. I think I’m starting to understand what this means: to be killed by a random act of nature retains one’s balance with earthly existence but in the man-made causality of a nuclear disaster we can find no such randomness or balance. In this sense, people’s fear is tied to a much deeper sense of regret at our human condition itself: as progenitor and failed master of a world we created.

The last few days have been…

By Kenneth Shima, Monday, 14. March 2011 (16:31)

It’s been a strange couple of days: image after image creating and transplanting trauma. In Tokyo, I see crisp clear spring days that we hesitate to go out in, crowded streets, and empty shelves. I feel that things will either rise to a panic or subside. It’s like aging three months in the last three days. And seeing the aerial photos, the barren city, the road carved out of ruble, scarcity of basic goods, and nuclear reality, one thing keeps coming to mind: August 1945, war’s end in Japan. Call it some loose reasoning but it’s something about the level of destruction, the images of the tsunami-flattened town echoes firebombed cities. The voluminous but inconclusive information filling our eyes and ears brings about a state of impotence, like being unable to leave a cycle of trauma. In imagining my state of things as similar to a country after war I could be falling into the same trap of narrativizing history into a story that fits well to assuage the seriousness or immediacy of the current situation, that I’m creating a certain view that tries to manifest itself as victim who is entitled to recover. But I wonder, does this comparison between the earthquake/tsunami/meltdown of today and the immediate postwar of of late 1945-46 gives us a bit of hope for the a next step and the future: some strength found in the ability of rebuilding and rebirth that occurred before? Anyway, this isn’t really a question because the current situation is mostly out of our hands, more complex and not to be overly simplified, but it’s also a unique state of mind and being I’ve never experienced. And for that I’m strangely grateful. In the meantime, all of the ups and downs of the news are not helping: better to watch/read less sometimes.

(Rather, I get more peace of mind from this geiger counter here in Tokyo and the fact that it continues to read radiation levels unchanged from before the quake: )

Letzte Artikel von Kenneth Masaki Shima (Alle anzeigen)