Between Lesser and Greater Catastrophes in Japan

While the villages were busy clearing away ruins and rescuing bodies - and increasingly high levels of radiation were measured - it seemed like life as usual in Tokyo.

There was a blast at another reactor on Wednesday. A photograph taken from a distance away - as is necessary in such instances - showed a relatively small trail of smoke and a tiny object flying up to the sky above the reactors. The photo was especially blurry, as was reality. And it sowed yet more fear and terror this week.

From an earthquake to a tsunami, from a tsunami to a nuclear disaster and perhaps from there, heaven forbid, to a holocaust. The Japan Times covered everything with characteristic restraint: black-and-white photos and dry headlines. But the headline on Wednesday did not leave much room for doubt: "Radiation fears grow after blasts." From there, the paper went on to all the other pleasant news of the day: "Radiation levels spike in Tokyo"; "Thousands swamp immigration"; "3,373 people confirmed dead, 6,746 missing." Alongside the headlines were charts - of evacuation zones, of areas in which it was recommended to stay indoors, and of Tuesday's atomic "timeline": 8:31 A.M.: 8,217 millisieverts of radiation per hour at the entrance to the reactor; 10:22 A.M.: 400 millisieverts of radiation per hour near Reactor No. 3; 5 millisieverts of radiation at Tokaimura near Tokyo.

Japan earthquake
Alex Levac

The previous day we had been fairly close, in the area of Chiba. I had finished reading the paper over breakfast and had gone out into the cold to breathe the fresh, and apparently radioactive, air.

There is a huge catastrophe behind us and apparently an even greater one ahead of us.

I awoke last Friday to the first reports of a major earthquake in Japan. In the afternoon they phoned from the editorial offices and that night we were on a flight. The pilots deliberated about whether to take off. The many Japanese passengers who filled the plane were preoccupied with their own thoughts: purchases at the duty-free, a wallet that disappeared in the bathroom, in-flight beverages. Fasten your seatbelts for landing and thank you for flying Austrian.

The modern, sophisticated Japanese airport did not hint at anything at first. Passport control, baggage claim, customs forms. Passengers on blankets on the floor of the terminal and the appearance of the first of the aid teams from abroad with their uniforms, equipment and dogs were the only signs of what had happened.

Along with a reporter and a photographer from Germany, veterans of wars and catastrophes, and a young Brazilian journalist, we looked for a way to get closer to the disaster. The Brazilian and the Germans had slept that night on the airport floor. The German told me that in Afghanistan "the despair is more comfortable," as Chava Alberstein's song about London goes. It's easier to work when there is anarchy than in an organized country.

It is not possible to join up with the Turkish, Swiss and German rescue teams; where is the Israeli team when it's really needed? There is just one small car left to rent but without an international license we can forget it. And actually, the rental agency wouldn't give you a car anyway, lest you drive to the disaster zone.

After five hours of despair at the airport and a phone call to Anat Parnass - a charming Israeli woman who loves Japan, and is doing her doctorate here on the subject of feminism in photography - we are off to Tokyo for our first night in the largest metropolis in the world. There are 34 million inhabitants in the greater Tokyo areas, 12 million in the city proper. An abundance of glaring colored lights, still, and many people going out at night, still, as though nothing had happened. But in the subsequent days the streets of the huge city will empty out.

Aviran from Rehovot stood in the cold street near his silver-jewelry stand, and showed us the wind-direction map on his iPhone. One of the very last Zionist trinket-mongers in Japan, which has deported nearly all of them, Aviran tried to reassure us that the radioactive gusts weren't heading anywhere near here.

"Where were you when the big one hit?" Anat's boyfriend, who sells felafel at the local Chabad House, asked Aviran. By that time, those three young Israelis had already been subjected to heavy pressure from their families to get out of here. Two days hence Anat and Ronen will have departed for the southern city of refuge, Osaka. An e-mail: "I've been reading your articles for years now and I would be glad to meet you. My bar is about 17 minutes from Shinjuku. In principle, the bar is open between 7 P.M. and 2 A.M., and I am there during all hours of business. Avi, from The Barn."


At first light, we again wanted to travel to the disaster zones. At the hotel, they were also not renting cars to journalists, lest they drive to the catastrophe. Yaakov Eilon from Channel 10 news said on the phone that it took him eight hours to get out of the city. Don't dare leave without a local escort, warned American TV journalist Tom Brokaw in his authoritative voice. Meanwhile, Anat recruited Kazo, a Japanese friend of hers, a fisherman who lives outside of town in a house facing the sea, where he prepares anchovy delicacies. He was to rent a car for us and drive us to the north.

Until we meet up with them it will take about another six hours, two of them spent trekking on foot through the garage district of Tokyo because of the huge traffic jams at the entrance to the city.

When we reached Asahai, a remote fishing hamlet on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, we saw only a road that had buckled and a house listing on its side. "Maybe that's Japanese architecture," suggested Alex Levac upon seeing the greenish shuttered, crooked house.

But the jokes stopped here. Here it wasn't the killing that spoke; only one of the village fishermen had lost his life in the disaster, in his boat. Here the destruction did the talking. And the destruction was terrible. About three months ago we, Levac and I, covered the disaster on the Carmel. But Asahai had been swept away by the tsunami - as was Ikuwa, a wealthier resort village, which we reached later in the day. As were the humble homes of the fishermen and the vacationers' bed-and-breakfasts, and even more so, the dwellings of hundreds of quiet and wretched inhabitants. People returned to the uncountable ruined homes here on Monday and stood among the rubble retrieving remains of their meager property with their hands and wheelbarrows.

The authorities were represented here by only a few traffic policemen. Who will come to Asahai and Ikuwa when radioactive rain is falling in Sendai, and Fukushima is in flames?

The fisherman's widow, Fusei Owasa, searched among the ruins with the help of her daughter and grandson. A tiny woman of 78, who has seen her whole life sink deep into mud and debris, digging and burrowing with her own hands in the off chance that she might succeed in rescuing a dish. Owasa was the only Japanese woman we saw crying. The first crack in the defensive wall of impressive Japanese restraint. She told us her family had lived in this house since the 19th century; now only the fragmented wooden walls remained. The wave had swept away even the floor.

Japan's half-million newly homeless people are a horrifying statistic. Fusei is one heart-wrenching embodiment of this, more powerful than any number. She told us the history of her home and family as her grandson bowed in the dark, loading more and more mud onto the wheelbarrow.

At the entrance to every home the former contents had become piles of rubbish. Hardly anything remained intact. Young and old people stood in what until last week had been their homes and put their remnants into plastic bags. Pieces of life that had been torn asunder - books, beds, armchairs, everyday objects. From time to time, some ornamental bird peeked out from among the ruins, its head held high. Or the remains of some comic books or a teddy bear.

Scores of vehicles that had been flung and battered created hallucinatory scenes: an automobile on the roof of a house, another car in a living room, a van with its belly sunk in the mud. Boats had been swept up onto the shore, roads gaped open, fences were uprooted and buildings were crushed beyond recognition - monuments to the tremendous destructive force of nature.

Maybe the most powerful monument was the Shinto shrine in Ikuwa. The huge wooden gate was still standing. Behind it was the not-temple, heaps of rubble in which there was no hint that a place of worship was once here. God is great (or not ).

Silence prevailed over everything else. Only the thump of the small bulldozers, the shovels and cries of the gulls rising from the sea disturbed it now and then. There was a forklift at the ruined fish cannery, upended with its lights still on, and a shabby tin roof that I pulled away with my own hands, under which I found a car. Among the debris were generations worth of receipt books relating to someone's pension plan, arranged in perfect order by year.

No one complained. The faces said it all: Those of the elderly couple who carried Mumu, their dog, in their arms as they ran hundreds of meters from the rising tide, and have not let go of him since; of the group of young Indonesian fishermen who were caught in the area; of a villager who this week remembered how to say "ma nishma [what's up]?" in Hebrew, from his days as a volunteer on Kibbutz Yakum about 40 years ago; and of the woman who managed to rescue a bottle of oil from her pantry and stood there cleaning the mud off it.


Tokyo sank this week into a depression that grew deeper from day to day. As of now its inhabitants have confined themselves to wearing cloth masks on their faces and making a desperate attempt to find gas for their cars, fresh food for their families and a train that will take them home from work. While the villages of the north and the east have been busy clearing away the ruins and rescuing the bodies - and increasingly high levels of radiation have been measured at the nuclear reactors - in Tokyo the appearance of life as usual has been maintained.

But the land of the rising sun, which this week seemed to be setting, is sinking.