Letters from Japan

Sayuri Okamoto

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

11 March

I was sitting on my sofa at home, reading a book, when all at once the whole room began to shake. Half shocked but all the same prepared, I said to myself "Again?" and "Finally!" at the same time. For thirty years we had been told that a quake with Shizuoka as its seismic center would be occurring within "the next ten years".

But was this it? Probably not—the tremor didn't last too long; all in all, it was short and light. The quake must have hit another area, I thought, from under the table, where I had run to take cover. This may sound strange but through my past experiences, I felt like I'd acquired the ability to sense my distance from the seismic center of quakes, as some people do, I suppose, for thunders. I could not know, however, that the center of the quake was some 800 km away in Tohoku, and would be accompanied by a massive tsunami; in fact, the latter had not yet occurred when I dashed to the next room and switched on the TV.

On NHK, a male reporter in the studio was announcing: "It seems a big quake has just happened in the Tohoku area. No details are known yet. Prepare yourself for aftershocks. I repeat. A big quake seems to have happened in Tohoku just now. No details are known yet. Prepare yourself for aftershocks." Impatient to know what happened, I jumped from channel to channel. I can't remember how long it took till I was finally informed of the facts: where the quake's center was exactly (72 km east of Tohoku's Oshika Peninsula), its degree of intensity (8.8). Suddenly, the reporter on the channel that I settled on went white from a piece of paper that someone gave him and sputtered: "Everyone near the coast must be evacuated to higher ground. Everyone near the coast must be evacuated to higher ground."

By then, every channel had disrupted its scheduled programming to broadcast the emergency news, showing a map of Japan with the coastal lines marked in red, orange, pink, and yellow, denoting to the emergency level and the projected height of the tsunami hitting the coast. I had never seen such a sinister map before. Seeing the first televised image of the tidal wave, my jaw dropped; I felt utterly cold in my stomach. The water, moving as a wall, must have been swift. It must have made a huge sound. But from where I was, it seemed slow and soundless and all the more dreadful for it. On the live telecast, I saw cars, to the right, driving along the coastal roads, while to the left, the water moved in fast. "Get away quickly!" I shouted, though I knew my voice would never reach the drivers in those cars.

Bound to the TV, I tried to get in touch with family and friends, especially those whose homes were in Tohoku, but I couldn't: the telephone lines were down from the surge in calls or else physically snapped by the quake. In the end, I found out that my family was safe—everyone came home earlier than usual that day, none were injured. It took three days, however, before my best friend from Sendai was able to find out that her family had survived. We cried together over the phone.

11 April

Spring is the season of rebirth, and its messenger the sakura, a tree we admire every spring. But the sakura itself only blooms once a year. Central to how we welcome this yearly change of seasons, the sakura is the tree most people associate with hanami—a festive picnic whose sole purpose is admiring cherry blossoms.

This year, however luxuriant the sakura may be, the mood in the air was different. Along the moat of Sumpu Castle and in its park, none of the lamps are lit, in honor of the tsunami victims. No mellow flavor of sake fills the air, nor rowdy sounds from picnickers. In past years, armed with snacks and canned drinks, I would go into the Sumpu Castle park with friends or family to visit the fair. We would go from stall to stall sampling yakitori, wataame, jagabata, yakisoba, and ringoame. Once when I was a child, I went just with my friends. Our parents allowed this unaccompanied excursion only once a year. The sakura trees were beautifully lit up. My parents had given me enough for a candied apple as large as my face. I licked it, dazzled by the lights and drunk from the scented air of the spring and sake. On another, later occasion, I went with a boyfriend after school, my first boyfriend. After he found us a bench, he took my hand in his and tucked them both into the pocket of his out-of-season navy pea-coat, where they slowly grew moist. We looked up at the rising moon through the blushing branches. Engrossed by the sight of falling petals, we overshot the time of the last buses that would have taken us home in opposite directions.

This year, and for the first time I have ever known, thinking it inappropriate in light of the suffering in Tohoku and Kanto, the city committee called off the festival. Still, taking the long way home, I have come to walk along the moat that is lined by sakura. Against the dim moonlight, the trees cast stout, solemn forms onto the still water.

Their long white arms were hanging heavily over the water, as if they were trying to drink from the river, as if they were trying to see their reflections in the water's dark surface.

Ahead of me, an office worker carries a small plastic bag in his left hand. He stops at the corner of the moat. I stop too, and watch him. From the plastic bag, he fishes out a can of beer, then, opening it, holds it up to toast the pink crown of the trees. A jogger passes both of us by. And then the man is gone too.

Next to come is Hanaarashi, the merciless spring gale that sweeps through the trees, scattering petals into the air, leaving a heavenly white carpet.

Falling cherry blossoms,
remaining cherry blossoms
also be falling cherry blossoms.