Photo © Max Hodges,

Photo © Max Hodges,

I’ve got death inside me. It’s just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.

— Don DeLillo (White Noise),

It’s in the air, it’s all around you. You can try and brush it off, but it pervades your body willfully, silently. It accumulates. It makes you sick.

I’m not talking about radiation. I’m talking about pain. They’re checking the soil, the air, the sea for those tiny particles of death, the iodine, cesium, plutonium- but there’s no Geiger counter for pain. Could we invent some complex equation to detect it instead? Is losing your husband ten times more painful than losing your home, and the loss of your child the square of that? And does hunger and cold multiply it all?

Grief can be more lethal than radiation. Widows and widowers give up, slaughtered by sorrow. Mothers, bereft of their little ones, find little point in living any more. What is a lethal dosage of pain? Is it determined by length and intensity of exposure? Is it contagious? And if we could detect it, would the meter whine or scream around Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Kesennuma?


Photo © Max Hodges,

Photo © Max Hodges,

This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.

– Don DeLillo (White Noise)

We spent the week worried, sleepless, earnest: constantly plugged into the information flow that floated, ethereal and intangible, around us. But gradually, we became blasé. And exhausted: the aftershocks and the endless explosions- albeit 150km away- barely ruffled our sleep, snatched as it was between televised updates from the government.

Thoughts came fitfully, as insolently separate as baubles of mercury. We lurch from panic to calm like a car grating from first gear to fifth. And as the foreign film crews retreat to the Middle East, we’re left with the aftermath, wondering: when will this end?

Their grief is too quiet for television. Stoicism refuses sympathy, and denial delays the shock. After a week of no supplies, we suddenly have images of incredibly organized havens of seemingly ordinary life, with cleaning duties and barbers and hot communal baths.

I feel guilty for all the times I have criticized the way that Japanese people work: slowly, doggedly, by consensus and communally. It can be frustrating when no one wants to stand out by taking the initiative, or to blaze a trail. But watching how the refugee centers have sprung into action, with ordinary teachers and office workers doing a stellar job of rationing, administering aid and giving people a sense of responsibility and self-worth by delegating tasks, I realize the point of this working system. They seem born to deal with crisis, born to persevere and to cope with very little resources. Watching events unfold, I don’t doubt that a team of 70-year-old Japanese women could whip any refugee camp into shape within a week, with shoes off at the door and lights out by ten.

Photo © Max Hodges,

Photo © Max Hodges,

The only shame is that their apparent strength, coupled with the perception of Japan as a rich country (although it is), dulls the empathetic response abroad. Donations from abroad have been only a sixth of those given to Haiti after the same time period, and Twitter is full of ineffectual pleas to “pray for Japan,” rather than the “pay for Japan” that might actually get something done.

The media has several ways of dampening public interest in new stories after they have occupied the headlines for a few weeks. With the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, it was stories of looters and violence: unfair and irresponsible reporting that made hungry and desperate people into criminals for stealing powdered milk. The recent Tohoku earthquake captivated the world for a few short hours before the nuclear crisis stole the front page. And then, as Gaddafi’s lunatic regime notched up its barbarity, the world’s eyes shifted, consigning Japan’s ongoing misery to the secondary, then tertiary, newspaper sections.


The Specter of Fear

The Specter of Fear

Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.

— Don DeLillo (White Noise)

Ironically, even as the seriousness of the situation deepened- it’s in the water supply, the milk, the vegetables, the sea–media outlets quietly closed down their 24 hour live feeds and the public’s panic duly subsided. Some stragglers are tiptoeing back to Tokyo, having run out of clean underwear and things to do in Osaka. They look bewildered at the altered capital: occasionally empty shelves, the shut-off neon signs, and the silence in the streets. I long stopped noticing any of those things. I haven’t felt aftershocks in a few days now. Perhaps I have become immune–or apathetic.

But the scares go on: iodine found at 1000 times the normal level in seawater a mile from the plant, plutonium in the soil, although similar level as those found in the past caused by nuclear testing abroad. But something the foreign media don’t tell us is that The US Environmental Protection Agency would deem soil with this level of contamination fit for farming.


TEPCO chief speaks on NHK

"Since the radiation has already spread, we expect the concentration to lessen quite quickly."

There’s only so much panic we can take. Are we supposed to accustom ourselves to a new reality, in which we tally up glasses of milk until we reach a fatal total, or switch from feeding our children green vegetables to protecting them from them? I don’t think so. Japanese television is quite content to return to normal programming, perhaps relieved to be excused from making plastic models of helicopters and nuclear power stations and wheeling out nuclear experts with bad hair every night. So we carry on working, sleeping, drinking. We turn off our electronic devices and pretend for a few hours that nothing is wrong.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

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