news and views from michael rollins in tokyo

A Lament for Those Left Behind

The events of March 11th are already beginning to recede into memory, nudged along perhaps by the weighty demands of the work that piled up in the week that followed, a week now essentially a wash. Once back home, however, one need only watch the evening news  to see that the horrific reality of it all lingers still .

From improvised shelters scattered across Japan, the gymnasiums and classrooms and community centers now home to those displaced by 3/11’s destructive waves, come the voices of the hapless throng with the dubious good fortune of having returned from the front lines of a battle with nature they never stood a chance of winning.

In these on-camera moments it is for me the unique Japanese-ness of those interviewed which comes through most strongly. Though clearly beaten and battered, these correspondents–at turns young and old, male and female–somehow have the capacity to face the camera and their futures with calm resoluteness and a resilience which belie their precarious station. They symbolize the indefatigable spirit of the Japanese people, and set the bar for the rest of us out here watching, safe at home.

Cut away from the news desk to an indoor basketball court, now housing hundreds of evacuees. A stoic woman faces the camera, flanked by her young son and daughter. “Our home, everything we had, it’s all gone. But we all made it out alive.” No defeat, no tears, no wailing accusations or blame. She’s lost everything, save the few things she values most. You don’t have to look too closely at her face to find an incongruous thankfulness glowing therein.

Scene change to three teen girls who take turns to explain their (now familiar) plight. “Our houses were swept away in the flood, but we’re all okay. With effort we’ll rebuild, and put things right, just like they were before. Right now we really just want to see our classmates.”

And then to the mother with her daughter who–still fearful–clings close to her side. They stand in front of a shelter in Mie Prefecture, now far removed from the carnage. “My name is Akiko Iishida from Miyao City, Iwate Prefecture. Our family is safe, but we are unable to locate my father…” she says, and continues by supplying a name, his neighborhood, other details. She is perfectly composed, enunciating each keyword slowly and carefully, as you can imagine she has done hundreds of times already. Her eyes tell you she will continue reciting these details at every opportunity, for as long as it takes, hoping against hope that her words will fall on ears that know.

Watching them I see the Japanese in them, the upright, steady, implacable resolve that will carry them through–and eventually far beyond–the incalculable hardship they confront today. But then it occurs to me. I remember that for every one of these heroic figures selected by the evening news to lift our spirits with their message of proud hope, there are ten, hundreds, even thousands of less fortunate others for whom even these tragic stories might seem a fairy tale. For them the prime time coverage is minimal at best, and not because the footage of them is hard to find, but because these scenes are just so painful to show.

A rare exception featured a young girl but a couple years older than my own, standing on the edge of that now-familiar endless wasteland of mud and splintered homes, tears streaming across her smooth, red cheeks, crying “Mama! Maaamaaa!” again and again into that hopeless void, never knowing when–or even if–an answer would come. Chances are good she’ll be calling out to her mother in one way or another for the rest of her life.

Or the old man picking his way slowly along the edge of the carnage, pancho and hat soaked and dark, his gloveless, uncertain hands trembling with cold. He surveys the scene like a pensioner wandering lost in a vast parking lot having forgotten where he parked his car. For him, there will be no going home until he finds it. All the while fresh snow continues to fall, draping the macabre tableau in a blanket of frozen finality.

We admire and celebrate the heroes who made it out alive, cheering their brave resolve in the face of such adversity, but what of these others? Who can endure watching these tragic souls–no less heroes themselves–pick through, dig, and crawl atop the rubble, all hope lost, with no new day waiting somewhere ahead? How do you celebrate the heroism of their relentless searching amid the inexorable whittling away at the list of possible good outcomes? With what other than profound despair can you follow their tireless efforts, persisting even in the face of a sole remaining positive, a step away from hopelessness, where happiness only comes with the discovery of a loved one’s lifeless body, buried deep in the wreckage that was once your life? I can think of nothing.

These stories–and they number in the thousands–are just too painful to share, and for this reason most will never be told, and never be aired. But spare a moment, if you will, for these unsung heroes, and remember: so many are still out there.

1 Comment

  1. I wish I had your gift with words. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations of this event. We have followed closely as this has unfolded and been humbled by the Japanese ability to deal with thier continuing lives and by courage of the people trying to regain control of the nuclear plants.

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