Japan's well-built society

I recently returned to my home here in suburban Sendai, Japan, having fled with my family soon after the earthquake and tsunami. Everything changed for this region on that afternoon of March 11. People lost their lives and their homes, and that should not be minimized. But what impressed me most on coming back alone to pick up the pieces was how few homes were destroyed, and how rapidly life here is returning to normal.

Three weeks ago, kilometer-long lines of desperate motorists had blocked roads near gas stations, nearly preventing us from driving out. Now the lines are just a dozen cars deep, and moving. Also gone are the lines of people that once snaked for hundreds of yards from the entrances of blacked-out grocery stores. Gone are the harried store clerks fumbling with megaphones as they explained rationing rules. Simple inconvenience has replaced a sense of impending panic.

I pulled into our driveway, scanning the walls for cracks, then visited neighbors to give them customary gifts and to chat. The ongoing return to orderly life outside our home contrasted with the remnants of chaos we'd left inside. Wall hangings were strewn everywhere, and a chair from one room had inexplicably migrated to another. They were reminders of just how severely this place had been shaken, and what a wonder it was that so many homes here were left standing.

Having lived in Japan since 1989, I've spent decades nonchalantly riding out minor quakes. Now I jump at each of the frequent aftershocks that bring back the experiences of March 11. On that quiet Friday afternoon, a routine window-rattling rumble grew into a rolling, jerking ride as the walls seemed to dart out and snatch at us. Try to recall your worst falling dream and you'll have a sense of what it is like to lose all sense of confidence in your walls, floor and ceiling, and then even the ability to stand.

When the shaking finally stopped that day, I jogged out into a light snow to collect my daughters Tina and Elena from their nearby elementary school. As I arrived on the playground, I was frustrated at how difficult it was to find my children, or to distinguish any of the faces of the children I knew. There was something common in their appearance. Every kid had the same mask-like facial expression — a thousand-yard stare that is astonishing to see on a child.

My 10-year-old, Christina, later gave a glimpse into the experiences that produced those shocked expressions: "It shook from the floor, and almost everybody was crying.... And our teacher said, 'Duck down under your desk and save your head!' It was like we were on a big boat and we were holding on to the feet of our desks and it was going back and forth and back and forth, like rowing a boat." The shock and terror were real. But not one child or teacher at the school was seriously hurt.

As the assembled children waited for their parents, we looked across the playground, watching long, low, quick swells pass across the surface. Sometimes the ground seemed to rotate around us in impossible ways. We heard a series of distant explosions, and a few much closer. How, I thought, had the school building remained intact? Shouldn't there be rubble?

The March 11 quake produced some of the most intense ground shaking and tsunami surges ever to hit a populated area. I have seen the areas where entire towns — and the families who lived in them — were literally washed away. It is hard even to grasp destruction on that level. It is harder still to grasp how much more of the earthquake zone remains totally intact. And I don't just mean physical structures; our societal structures have held fast as well.

On my return, I am not having to sift through rubble; I'm only having to get the gas reconnected. This life-and-death difference was made by things that we usually regard as mundane: building codes, evacuation drills, honest contractors.

On the day of the quake, after our initial relief at having survived, we had to improvise sources of heat, light, sustenance. Almost as bad as the lack of electricity, gas and water was the lack of knowing. This gnawing uncertainty grew over the next few days, especially after cellphone service was restored and we began to learn of the overheating nuclear reactors in Fukushima, about 50 miles south. News reports showed a bull's-eye of concentric circles on a map of our region, with red in the middle, where the reactors were burning, and shading to orange and yellow farther out. We were outside the yellow part, but not far enough. In the end, it was that expanding bull's-eye map that clinched our decision to leave.

Hours of searching yielded four seats on a flight out of the local airport in Akita, but to get there meant a drive of more than six hours on mountain roads. We had about 23 liters left in the tank. But was it enough? In deep snow on uncertain roads, there would be no margin for error.

We set out, driving first through town and then on rural roads that gradually climbed into low mountains. Around dark, I watched the odometer and fuel gauge pass the point at which we could turn back. More miles and hours passed, eating up precious fuel on the climb. I became so focused on mileage that I even slowed the windshield wipers down, hoping it would save fuel during the trip.

We made it. But after a period of relief, I began to feel a little guilty. Had I left others behind to manage when we should be pitching in too? After 17 days away, it was time to go home.

I returned to Sendai in advance of my family. It seems that many families with young children also left after the earthquake. Now they are trickling back in, still a bit nervous as they monitor news of the nuclear plant cleanup and ride out frequent aftershocks, sometimes rivaling the original quake in intensity. School administrators are scrambling to figure out how many students they will have for the new academic year, which started April 11.

People talk about where gas lines are the shortest and where fresh eggs are on sale again. Friends pull up in front of my house asking me to grab a shovel and join them in a day of volunteer work clearing debris in the nearby tsunami zone. There are no stories of looting or violence, because those things would be unthinkable. The Japanese people and their culture have a tenacity and resilience that come out in times like these. And barring some massive failure to contain the nuclear mess in Fukushima, we may very well look back on the aftermath of this disaster, despite the tragedy and loss of life, as a societal success story.

Braven Smillie, who was born and raised in San Diego, is a freelance translator in Sendai.

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