Children Of The Tsunami

Since publishing has become digital, I have on occasion bought individual essays or short stories online rather than forking out for an entire anthology. A single as opposed to an album, you might say. I did so this morning. It cost me less than a dollar and I read the entire thing over my lunch break, but it was worth every cent.

The book, if it can still be called such, is Children of The Tsunami by Patrick Sherriff, and it is the tale of the author and his family taking a short trip into the disaster zone of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, four years on.

Early in the story, the author expresses concern that he may be engaging in some sort of disaster voyeurism, but his fears are unfounded. He strikes the right tone in his storytelling. He tells the facts as they were on his trip and he does so without being maudlin or overly dramatic. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have power. It does. He talks with people who survived; teenagers who have lost parents, a mother who lost her young child, a grandmother who lives alone in a tiny prefabricated house hundreds of miles from any remaining family members. You can’t help but be moved by their stories and indeed the kindness that the author’s family, particularly his wife, appears to have shown to the victims of the quake and tsunami since that dreadful day.

As the author drives through the disaster area, the polite female voice of the car’s satellite navigation system urges him to turn left at petrol stations that are no longer there. It demands he turn right onto roads that are now just figments of a ghostly computerised memory. It is a reminder that the area is not what it used to be.

And the story is a reminder, too. It is a reminder that while we are back to shopping in fully lit convenience stores with working automatic doors, while we have long ceased feeling guilty at switching on the air conditioners or heaters, and while we have resumed living reasonably comfortable lives, there remain many who have not. I am sitting with my wife and a beer watching television in my snug living room. Elsewhere, a pensioner is sitting alone in a tiny cramped room of just 7.5 square metres with paper-thin walls. She once had a living room ten times that size. Things aren’t like they used to be, though.  Not for those who were there.

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Lake Towada

The rather lovely Lake Towada at sundown.

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Nice way to spend a day

Came across this old fellow yesterday, spending his afternoon just reading in a  field of purple flowers:

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A Minor Bump With Stupidity

Last weekend , I was involved in quite the ridiculous traffic accident. My wife and I had been invited to a family hanami party along with my parents-in-law. My father-in-law reached the limit of his lifetime’s allowance for booze a few years back and thus is now the designated driver for all occasions. It is an arrangement I like very much; he never has a reason not to drive, I never have much of an excuse to refuse a drink. Anyway, I was sitting in the back of the car as we drove slowly along one of Japan’s many narrow streets and our conversation was interrupted by a small bang. It wasn’t the sound of a great collision but was loud enough for us all to turn and ask what it had been. I looked back up the road and noticed our wing mirror casing lying in the road and a small car which had been travelling in the opposite direction pulling over to the side of the road.

My father-in-law pulled over and we got out to inspect the damage. Nothing much – just the wing mirror casing. From the other direction a young man approached with a jauntily angled baseball cap and one of those faces that says, ‘Not much point having sensible discussion with me – I’m as thick as they come.’

The man called the police. Then he said, ‘I’ve called the police. It will take them an hour or two to get here. That’s no problem, is it?’

‘One or two hours?’ said my wife.

‘Of course!’ he said. ‘That’s normal. Of course it will take one or two hours. Maybe more.’

He sat down on the kerb and pulled out a cigarette.

‘Maybe I should call an ambulance,’ he said.

‘What for?’ asked my wife.’We’ve just bumped wing mirrors. We barely felt it. Nobody’s hurt.’

‘What about my kids?’ he said.

‘What about your kids?’ asked my wife.

‘They’re in the car.’

Are your kids injured?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘That’s why I should call an ambulance.’

‘Nobody could possibly have been injured by that bump,’ I said. ‘We barely felt it and the cars are hardly even damaged.’

‘If my children die will you take responsibility, then?’ he said.

‘What are you talking about?’ asked my wife. ‘You think your children might die because we bumped wing mirrors?’

‘It’s possible,’ he said.

‘It’s not,’ I said and we all began walking towards his car to check on his kids.

He had a tiny crack in his wing mirror. His wife was in the driver’s seat of the car and his two young children were sitting happily in the back. If they were hurt, they were remarkably good at smiling through pain.

‘Are you all okay?’ my wife asked his wife. She smiled a timid smile and said, ‘Yes.’

The man called an ambulance.

Meanwhile, some fifteen minutes after the collision, the policeman arrived.

‘Can I ask you something?’ asked my wife.

‘Go ahead,’ said the policeman.

‘Did somebody tell the other guy that you would take an hour or two to come?’

‘No,’ said the policeman.

The policeman had a look at the cars and said it just seemed like a minor bump, nothing major, and the insurance companies could sort it out. He asked the guy to move his car slightly.

‘I’ve been drinking,’ said the guy. ‘My wife was driving. She will move it.’

His wife moved the car. I don’t know if she had been driving or not. None of us had noticed and by the time we had pulled over and checked our car the man was already walking towards us. She could easily have changed position in the car. There was no way to say, though, and we had to take him on his slightly inebriated word.

An ambulance came screaming down the street, lights blazing and siren sounding. The policeman looked surprised.

I pointed at the chap with the cap. ’He called it, ‘ I said.

‘The paramedics got out in a hurry. ‘Where are the injured people?’ one asked.

‘There aren’t any,’ I said. ‘We bumped mirrors.’ I pointed to the crack.

The paramedic looked at the policeman as if to say, ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’ The policeman shrugged.

The guy explained he was worried his kids were hurt and thought an ambulance was required. The ambulance took the somewhat bemused children and their dad to the hospital to get checked out, leaving just the man’s wife and us to sort out this overblown mess.

‘Well,’ said the policeman. ‘This looked like a simple bump, but because an ambulance has been called it is now an accident with injury to people so I need to call a superior from the station.’

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ I muttered in my native tongue. I bought a coffee from a vending machine and we waited some more.

The senior policeman arrived and we had to explain everything again in laborious detail. He examined the cars and noted that there didn’t seem to be much wrong. He told the man’s wife that if this is treated as an accident involving human injury then one or both parties could get points on their licence. If, however, it is simply a bump with no injuries nobody would lose any points and it could be sorted out simply with the insurance companies. ‘It seems your children are probably fine,’ he said. ‘If that is the case we don’t have to treat this as a human injury case. Are you sure you don’t want to just treat it as minor bump?’

She didn’t know what to say. ‘I’ll talk to my husband,’ she said.

‘Yes, do that,’ said the policeman.

Both policemen basically said everything seemed to have been blown out of proportion and told the wife of the man that after he gets back from the hospital he should call my father-in-law to tell him how the children are.

An hour and a half after that initial bump, we were back on our way to the hanami. Whilst there, the guy called. My wife spoke to him.

‘How are the kids?’ she asked.

‘They haven’t found any problems, so far,’ he said. ‘But we should probably wait two or three days in case anything shows up.’

My wife explained the situation to her parents and we all carried on trying to enjoy the party and hoping there would be no fatalities from a minor touching of wing mirrors.

Three days passed and the children hadn’t died. Phew!

I fear, however, there is little hope for their father.

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The Stories He Can Share

Every year at around this time, I attend the annual family hanami party. I always enjoy it. I get to see my wife’s uncles and aunts, cousins and not-quite-sures, and we sit outside and have a barbecue and get steadily merry. Yes, I occasionally get cornered by the old uncle who peppers me with questions like, ‘Do you have rain in Britain?’ or expresses considerable surprise that I can eat fish but, generally speaking, it is a pleasant experience. What I look forward to most, however, is a chat with my wife’s oldest surviving uncle, a man approaching his 90th summer and, if his baseball cap is to be believed, a great fan of something called a ‘Violent Circuit Cornerwalk’.

The last time I spoke to him he had told me a little about his wartime experiences as a young man in Manchuria. He recounted a tale of coming face to face with a great Siberian bear when he was just 18. This time he talked about digging graves for the dead and how wild dogs would come and unearth the bodies. He talked of how relieved he was when the war ended as he felt things would surely be better. They weren’t. He spent his time worrying about getting enough food to survive. He told me how the Japanese soldiers in China were delivered letters from schoolchildren in Japan offering support and encouragement. One child had sent him a picture of Mount Fuji and he had wept wondering when he might see the mountain again. He told me he still has dreams where he wakes up reaching for a gun above his head, and his son, already a man in his sixties, interrupted to say there are many things his father still won’t talk about; that these stories are the memories he is happy to share. These stories are the stories he is able to share. I asked how old he was when he was sent to Manchuria. He met the bear at 18, but he had arrived in China when he was in the second grade of junior high school. About fourteen, then. Fourteen. I teach fourteen-year-olds and they are, quite simply, children. It is almost impossible for me to imagine any of them in control of guns in an unfamiliar world. Jesus, many of them give up completely when the meet an unfamiliar word.

‘So young,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I had an older brother so he was chosen to stay at home and help the family. I was sent to serve my country. I cried when I saw that picture of Mount Fuji,’ he said, ‘and I decided I wanted one day to paint a picture like that myself.’

Many years later, as an old man, he did. It hangs in our house now and it’s a beauty.

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Tenniscoats – Ue wo muite arukou

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How to be wrong when you are right.

Sometimes my students of junior high school age bring me their school tests to have a look at. I praise or commiserate as appropriate and then, when they have gone home, I go bright red and get all blustery and angry as I rant to my poor wife about how it is little wonder so few people here develop any confidence in speaking English.

Today’s blood-pressure raising annoyance was the all too common occurrence of a student writing an answer that is absolutely correct and being marked as wrong because it isn’t the answer the teacher had in mind. I have seen a child have the word ‘dad’ marked wrong (it should have been ‘father’), and the answer, ‘I am from Tokyo,’ marked wrong as an answer to, ‘Where are you from?’ (it should have been ‘I am from Japan.’) to give just two previous examples. This time, a student was supposed to answer a question on a test with the phrase,  ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ but the student wrote, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ and was marked wrong. Now perhaps, perhaps if what they were doing was attempting a direct and extremely inflexible translation (and those certainly seem to be the most popular kinds here) I could see the teacher’s point. But they weren’t doing that. They were asked to insert an appropriate phrase for asking if the caller wanted the unavailable person to return the call. And I think, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ is just fine in that regard.

Now, I know teachers have to teach to tests and have an eye on entrance exams and whatnot. I don’t blame them for an educational system that means communicative competence has to take a back seat to fill in the blank exercises or the existence of ‘oral communication’ classes in which there is no speaking. I’m not ranting that everything must change and now! I am simply stating that students who are at least making admirable attempts to do well and writing good, correct English should be allowed the small joy of being rewarded for their efforts. What good is there in knocking the confidence out of a teenager who comes to realise he not only has to learn a language, he also has to guess the one and only correct answer out of many possibilities? Or perhaps he doesn’t have to guess. I haven’t checked but perhaps the question, ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ was the one in the textbook and therefore the correct one to remember. But you just can’t be that rigid, for heaven help the students when they try to speak to real people and discover that those people might not engage in conversation entirely in phrases from a Japanese English text book. Mind you, I suppose it might be quite nice if they did, as Japanese people’s English communicative ability would suddenly improve immensely, almost like a magic.

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