Imagine, for a moment, that you know nothing of what is happening here, or what is to come. Imagine that this is all still in the yet-to-be, or never-was, and that this is all you have to go by: this random clip on YouTube—digital, of course, and hauntingly crude. A “home movie,” it used to be called, back in those touching, innocent days when there were homes.
The title heading on the clip tells you that what you are watching is a scene at Sendai Airport. A “live feed,” as it were. The original title, in Japanese, is there too, palimpsest kanji
. The date attached to the footage is March 11, 2011.
Someone is holding the camcorder, or phone; you will never know who. Maybe it doesn’t matter. For a good minute or so, the public scene is so calm, so indifferently banal—the wide-open, expansive mouth of the Sendai terminal, with its huge wall of glass designed to beckon the natural world in, populated by people standing and walking, apparently without urgency—that you think there must be some mistake: what you are watching is . . . nothing.
The view is fixed, passive. As if the camera itself, to begin with, has no idea that any possible subject, or object of interest, is even in the vicinity.
It is a sound first, a low and faint rumbling that has you fiddling with the volume control on your laptop, trying to adjust away what you assume to be artificial white noise, because, whatever its source, the sound is not particular or recognizable in a human sense.
The people visible on screen—travelers, commuters, the odd uniformed transportation worker—produce their own noise too, an absentminded hum. It takes a while for these two noises to meet, and then separate. The first distinguishing moment arrives when one person—then two, then five—turns his head as if to listen to some song he thinks he might remember, but otherwise didn’t catch.
What song? We can only try to imagine.
The sound becomes a gathering roar. The roar grows louder and more imminent, pressing invisibly on the scene we’re witnessing. And now the first small cries of alarm can be heard inside the great space. A woman wheeling a carry-on whirls around to face the huge window. Then others do the same, staring out at the cold white glare of the tarmac that, in the construction of all this, has been poured over every inch of green. In the upper corner of the screen, a father picks up his small child. A few people begin to run, disappearing out of frame. The camera moves to catch them; then, perhaps sensing something, it scurries back to the great glass wall, and freezes there in terror.
A wall of water is surging past the terminal. It is a meter high—then, very quickly, two—washing baggage carts, a boarding ladder, a yellow car along its path.
Inside the terminal, screams can be heard now, above nature’s roar of destruction. People are running, though there is no place to go.
The footage does not so much end as stop.
The stories begin.
—John Burnham Schwartz Brooklyn, New York
March 11, 2011. An earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan—magnitude 9.0, duration six minutes, type megathrust—unleashes a fifty-foot tsunami that within fifteen minutes slams its way ashore, surging inland six miles, crushing all in its path, and triggering the slow, relentless leak of radiation from first two, then three, then five nuclear power plants. In one’s wildest imagination, this is beyond conceivable.
But this is just the beginning. The waves do not stop; they recede and rush back in without ceasing. Nor do the aftershocks, which are themselves rolling earthquakes of terrifying magnitude. Nor does the death toll, or the number of missing, or the danger from radiation, which seems to be controlled incrementally, until the meltdown begins. Nor does the overwhelming sense of loss and despair.
Life goes on, indifferently and pitilessly, but life is not the same, and life will have been reconsidered. Here, a wideranging selection of writers offer their response to this uncharted moment—significant for the double blow we have sustained from both nature and man—a portentous marker in modern human history. The pieces—nonfiction, fiction, including a manga, and poetry—with perspectives near and distant, reconceive the catastrophe, imagine a future and a past, interpret dreams, impel purpose, point blame, pray for hope. Specific in reference, universal in scope, these singular heartfelt contributions comprise an artistic record of this time.
Some of the pieces were written for this anthology, some were first published in literary magazines in Japan, all amid the initial horror and uncertainty immediately following the disaster when lives, seemingly secure and in forward motion, were in a matter of minutes altered, thrown off course, beyond repair. This theme is most evident for writers from Tohoku, in northeastern Japan, which bore the physical (let alone emotional) brunt of the disaster. But no writer from Tokyo—the uncomfortable middle ground—or, for that matter, elsewhere distant (and safe) went unaffected or untouched. Life might have seemed to go on, but not without evacuation packs, aftershocks, brown-outs, unwashed clothes, empty store shelves, worry about contamination, worry for young ones—and elder ones, and our future—as well as nightmares, depression, worst memories, and prayers.
In this anthology, Tohoku natives Hideo Furukawa and Kazumi Saeki draw upon the immediacy of family and locality, where history provides a sense of continuity, however tenuous it may be under the circumstances; while Natsuki Ikezawa, who himself spent weeks delivering emergency supplies in stricken areas, focuses on the unexpected scope of emotions of those who give care.
From Tokyo, Mieko Kawakami depicts poignantly, if painfully—in the story from which the title of this collection was taken—how an earthquake far away can change the terms of something as “simple” as pregnancy. Similarly, with Mitsuyo Kakuta, for whom the entire notions of intimacy and dependency are called into question.
Hiromi Kawakami, whose work represented here was the first literary piece to emerge in Japan from the stunned silence after March 11, revisits the story that launched her career eighteen years before—with a landscape physically and emotionally changed. Her “updated” story is accompanied with a postscript and the original story that the new work was adapted from.
Kazushige Abe takes us to a place where we are perhaps most reluctant to go—into the ocean and beneath the waves—in an ironically positive tale about the irrational obsession to prevail. And Tetsuya Akikawa, in a tale lined with bureaucratic obsession, suggests redemption where we least expect it.
From the greater distance of western Japan, Yoko Ogawa writes of repose—and our need for it. David Peace, who has returned to Tokyo after several years in England, inhabits the world of Ryu-nosuke Akutagawa as he experiences the social trauma of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Barry Yourgrau, sitting at his desk in New York, connects fragments of the Japan of his imagination to create a dreamlike narrative of post–March 11 life. Meanwhile, Ryu Murakami seeks meaning—and hope—in the twigs from a felled eucalyptus tree that he has stuck into dirt.
In Yoko Tawada’s “The Island of Eternal Life,” a group of doctors gathers fire flies to harness for evening light as they seek a cure of radiation sickness, while in Shinji Ishii’s “Lulu,” translucent women descend each night to comfort children orphaned by the disaster.
Then, in a change of pace, the Brother & Sister Nishioka team have drawn a cautionary manga for the day, and the poets Shuntaro Tanikawa and J. D. McClatchy remind us, in the depth and breadth of their response, of the value of words, simply written, gently spoken.
The idea for this project took gradual shape as we traveled among Tokyo, Tohoku, London, and New York, watching from near and far as March 11 and its aftermath unfolded. A thought became a shared idea that was developed further as we shoveled debris into the back of trucks in Tohoku, as riots racked London, as storms struck the East Coast of the United States, as a heat wave hit Tokyo, as floods raged through Bangkok, even as the cleanup in northeastern Japan proceeded but radiation continued to leak. It has been that kind of year.
We wish to thank the writers who have seen through the thick haze of the moment to clarity to offer us these pieces. We thank the translators who responded with care and generosity to their tasks. We acknowledge our excellent editors—Lexy Bloom, at Vintage; Liz Foley, at Harvill Secker; and Kazuto Yamaguchi, at Kodansha—for their patronage, encouragement, and advocacy of this project on three continents. We wish to acknowledge the Read Japan program of The Nippon Foundation for its support of the publication of this anthology. Proceeds from the book will go to support charities that have been sparing no effort in helping to rebuild towns, homes, and individual lives in Tohoku.
—Elmer Luke, New York David Karashima, Tokyo