Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

From Tokyo: April 2nd and All’s Well

First, more thank-you’s: to everyone who’s occasionally emailed, messaged me on Facebook, or Skyped me to check in, thank you. I feel very loved and cherished.

To all the workers at the Fukushima power plant, many of whom are resigned to the fact that they will likely die–thank you isn’t really enough, but thank you.

Here in Tokyo all is well. Really, you’d hardly know that anything was amiss. Well, except for a few things.

Everyone’s doing what they can to conserve electricity, meaning that the city’s a lot darker than usual. The signs in subway stations aren’t lit up, the trains themselves are sometimes dark during the day, and Shibuya looks downright odd with all its huge liquid crystal displays gone dim. I actually find the effect pretty peaceful, though. And while train service isn’t operating 100% on schedule, a few fewer trains and a schedule that’s off by one or two minutes are hardly reasons to complain.

Random things (yogurt, crackers, certain varieties of cup noodle) remain gone from the store shelves, but everything else is pretty much back in abundance. Restaurants are starting to feel the pinch from the radioactivity detected in spinach produced in Fukushima–a few have taken salads off the menu altogether.

The bottom line is that Tokyo is fine–and it could really use your tourism. So if you’ve been planning a trip to Japan and are thinking of canceling, you really shouldn’t. Yes, I know that the word “nuclear” conjures up all sorts of scary images, but radiation levels in Hong Kong are actually higher than those in Tokyo (and have been since the quake first hit). In Tokyo, and most definitely in Kyoto and other areas west, it’s very much business as usual.  Except that the local businesses are really suffering with the lack of tourists and the mass exodus of foreign nationals. Hotels and restaurants are empty and some may not survive if business doesn’t pick up soon.

So come on over–I’ll be your very enthusiastic tour guide.

As usual, from the way the U.S. media is reporting things you’d think that the nuclear power plant is the only crisis Japan is facing, but the situation in the northeast is still really dire, and it may take years to get things back to normal. It’s hard to comprehend the extent of the devastation; in an earthquake you’d have damage, but the tsunamis–some as high as seventy feet–literally wiped out everything in their path, not only destroying buildings but leaving people without so much as a blanket or an extra pair of socks.  The continuing effort to house, feed, bathe, and treat the medical conditions of more than 200,000 people is enormous and a logistical nightmare given the unreliability of phone service, roads, and overall infrastructure. Every effort is being made to move as many people as possible into more permanent housing, but the task is huge–so far just a few hundred temporary housing units have been built, and thousands of people have applied to live in them.

So if you have some extra cash, please consider donating to Second Harvest Japan or Peace Boat–two local organizations that are getting food and other essentials up north on a regular basis with minimal bureaucratic fuss. Or contact me, send me some money and I’ll use it to buy stuff and send it directly to Tokiko Kitano, the woman who’s housing 17 refugees in her home.

For those in Japan who want to help out, I know there are a lot of people eager to go north, but at the moment NGOs and local governments are advising everyone to stay away unless they’re part of an approved group. So sign up with Peace Boat, or if you can drive a truck contact Damian at damian@japanrefugee.org–they’re renting trucks, filling them with goods, and sending them north on a regular basis.  And hang on to that volunteer spirit–northeastern Japan will likely need plenty of volunteers in the coming months to help with clean-up and rebuilding.

For those who want to make donations of used goods here in Tokyo, the general news I’m getting is that shelters have plenty of clothes–what they really need is food (several shelter directors told me that the evacuees are essentially living on instant noodles, so anything other than that would be welcome). Canned stuff, pre-packaged meals, anything that can be eaten with rice. Check the lists of places like Second Harvest to see what they’re currently asking for.

On a side note, the Japanese propensity to not want to bother anyone apparently doesn’t vanish even during a once-in-a-millennium-level disaster. When I ask shelters whether they need anything, their first response is usually, “We’re fine.” When I press and mention things like canned food or kerosene, there’s usually a pause and an “Ah….,” at which point I jump in with, “We can get you some if you need it.” And then there’s usually a polite, “Well, if it’s really not too much trouble, we could use some condiments…”

At some point I’m sure I’ll get back to writing about grad school and books and cooking, it just hasn’t happened yet.  There was actually a lot of upheaval in the “gradland” portion of my life right before the quake hit, and there’s plenty to write about, but it’s kind of on the back burner at the moment.

The video I posted is a fairly straightforward account of what things look like in the northeast right now, and what groups like Peace Boat are doing to help out. The final section–of a man describing what he lost–breaks my heart. It might seem like a silly detail, but having taught English for so many years, it’s moving to see someone trying *so hard* to clearly convey in a foreign language the gravity of what happened to them, even if they  don’t know the exact words to use–and when words as a whole seem insufficient. In the end, this man gets his point across just fine.

And here’s a link to another amazing series of photos and writing from two Tokyo-based photographers. It’s long, but worth it. My favorite section is the story of the woman who’s living with her 93-year-old grandmother on the second floor of a house that was almost completely  destroyed by the tsunami. When the photographers head upstairs, they’re immediately offered pickled plums and tea.

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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