Like most news, it came filtering through friends and acquaintances, Japanese families where dinner is chewed to the rhythms of the NHK anchorman’s voice. It was dropped by people I’d just met, hearing I hailed from America. “How is your family taking the hurricane?” They ask me for information, and I don’t even own a television. I smiled and brushed away their concerns. Japanese news loves a natural disaster, the drama of a windbreakered reporter struggling to maintain his clean diction and formal verbs while being slapped by the drippy fingers of a typhoon. A few houses are flooded in Florida, the Japanese nation will be chewing their rice to UP interviews with the survivors, and I hear about it the next day. I remember my basement flooding when I was twelve, swimming down there among the furniture, the August we lost power for three days, the TV muffled and mute, the family living by candlelight after dark, reading and playing checkers before bedtime.
It was when a friend who just moved to New Orleans last week emailed me about the people trapped in the city looting supermarkets for food and profit, about the unclaimed bodies floating in the streets, the bulk of her possessions abandoned, that steely cold horror sunk itself six inches into my belly. From there it was two clicks to the New York Times online and their artfully framed and lighted photos of people (black) trapped on the upper levels of apartment blocks, couples (black) huddling in the Superdome among a few thousand others, of a thick armed volunteer (white) with a thoroughly American face helping to carry a refugee girl (black) to... somewhere. And I started to get a little bit fucking angry at the New York Times and the whole goddamned international community of photo-journalists, squeezing out the horror in their scramble for the dramatically lit angle, the exquisitely framed instant of Suffering and not just the suffering of New Orleans. The article talks of thousands pressed into the stadium, sore, sweaty and dehydrated, and you see the silhouettes of a man and woman against the exquisite pillars of sunlight shooting through the damaged roof. I read of the uncountable number of bodies floating in the streets, too numerous for the rescue workers to bother with, and see a picture of a lone man in a boat, drifting exquisitely amid roofs and telephone poles.
I’ve never been to New Orleans, but it always seemed to me like one of the few American cities worth visiting even if you didn’t know anyone there. You heard the stories about Mardi Gras, and that didn’t sound like any America I was familiar with. It wasn’t a city where the tourism bureau and middle class descendants of the original settlers desperately cling to old immigrant traditions, which eventually come out glossy twenty-first century versions of their original selves. It seemed to be a genuine black sheep in the family of American cities, the odd Creole aunt that slightly unnerved stuff shirt New York, schizo entrepreneur LA and manic depressive Seattle. There was one excellent piece in yesterday’s NY Times penned by a guy involved in architectural preservation projects in New Orleans, lamenting not just the extensive damage to many of the cities beautiful old neighborhoods, but the unknown damage to the cultural fabric of its communities. According to the article the city has one of the highest rates of folks staying put of any American metropolis, folks staying in the neighborhood they grew up in, an old world node in the transient American landscape.
The images and stories coming out of the South the past few days have stirred up some more local fears as well. For years the ash faced men in white lab coats have been terrifying the greater Tokyo area with their warnings of the big one. The Kanto Daijishin is expected sometime within the next fifteen years or so, and this is the sucker that is going to level Tokyo, churning this warren of steel and concrete into the Pacific Ocean. I sometimes wake up, wondering if the room is shaking or if it’s just my heart throwing the blood around my body.
This year there’s been a string of major quakes along the main island, the earth snake cracking his ancient spine. A few weeks ago I was holed up in a fifth floor internet café when the air began to groan and the whole building started whipping back and forth, heads twirling and twittering, partitions snapping against one another. I clutched my bag and tried to remember what in the hell you were supposed to do when that happens. I stood in a tensed crouch, ready to sprint in five directions at once for about a minute or so, the whole world shaking around me. Of course it just slowed down and stopped, but of the few dozen earthquakes I’ve felt in my years here it was the most aggressive, the most vindictive quake I’d felt. I checked out with about half of the café and wandered back to my house, the streets level as always, people shaking off the tremors in their legs and heading back to their business. False alarm folks. No one died except for a few abandoned houses which made the news. The nation resumed it’s scurrying.
Japan lives with images of disaster, this shiny new world still seems so fragile, so unreal. They say Godzilla was about the atom bomb, so why did everyone love him so much? Every nation clings to its innocence, its memories of suffering with a black pride. We remember the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and the black day in September which really did change everything. Japan can remember Tokyo crumbling twice in the past eighty years, grandparents tremble at thoughts of the war years, living on millet and wild grasses, every major city burned black. Japan quietly gave more to this year’s tsunami relief than any other nation, the bulk of it from individual donations. It seems like only last month that nightly news was commanded by stories of Niigata families driven to school gymnasiums by last October's earthquake were moving into pre-fabricated housing units.
We do what we can. Houses are stocked with water and canned goods, a friend of a friend has been perfecting a pulley device so he can rappel off his balcony. Japan’s bestseller list has recently been topped by a new up-to-date guide with maps of the danger levels of different Tokyo neighborhoods, and the best routes to designated emergency shelters. Many of the city’s major centers lie on the ghosts of rivers and valleys that were loosely packed with earth early in the last century, the water characters in their names their only claim to the past. They’ll be jiggling like long strips of molded jello when d-day hits. Scientists have perfected detection equipment to sense earthquakes a good fourteen seconds in advance. I talk with friends and the conversation ends with shaken heads and shrugs. I type this and I look out my fourth floor window at the children walking from school, the mothers with bicycle baskets loaded with groceries, the groups of men laughing over Friday afternoon beers. These millions of us skittering on this treacherous earth like drops of water on an iron skillet, praying for the strength of the levy’s and our chances for deliverance, televisions flickering with the images of our nightmares.