Read the first part of this excerpt here.
We took off in the middle of the night. Four of us stuffed into a small car with a license plate from Kashiwa, in Chiba. A rental car. For the people from Shinchō publishing this was just a continuation of the evening. Not for me. For me, following one or two hours of sleep, it was morning. So the ideas that come in the early morning hours and the kind of topics that get passed around in the middle of the night were all mixed together. Nonetheless, outside the window it was nighttime, clearly it was the middle of the night; inside the car the screen of the car navigation system was lit up. Up on the dashboard. This was no “spirited away time,” but there were time slippages. Time for us—the four of us—began to mix in a 3:1 ratio, and the days of the calendar too were beginning to slip. S was driving, in the passenger seat with an open map was another S—young S—while Y and I were gathered in the back seat. We left Tokyo and headed out on the highway. The route was entirely overland so we got on the Tohoku expressway. I didn't really expect the roads to be open all the way to Fukushima. But they were, from Saitama Prefecture, way up to the northern part of Fukushima. I was quite sure that for some time now all but emergency vehicles were being prevented from passing. But many places, wherever they could, had already returned to normal operations. We pulled into a service area somewhere in Tochigi Prefecture. Filled the car with gas. I was surprised when S told me that it looked like gasoline would be available when we got there. There was a cat at that service area. A female cat. A fat one. Y was petting it on the head. It seemed to me that if the cat was fat the area must be safe. I had packed a bunch of fish sausages to feed to animals. That, along with other stuff in the luggage, like cotton work gloves, rain ponchos, and liters of tap water that I had run through a water purifier and put into empty plastic bottles. In the lavatory at the service area were notices about the power outages scheduled to take place. But of course: these power outages were scheduled all through the Kanto area. I saw how electric conservation reached into everything, darkened all sorts of areas, including these expressway facilities and service roads. I told myself not to get depressed about that. Eventually, dawn. As this little car with a Kashiwa license was running down the highway it was bathed in day’s first light, directly from the side, from the east. “There it is,” I thought, “the sun is out.” For me it was the second morning (second for this day). Next stop was the Abukuma Service area. White breath in the air, 5:44 in the morning. Even with the slippage of days the hours tick of with precision, just like it is when you fly to another continent.And seeing the white of our breath, it felt exactly like winter. “Just like an early daybreak in winter,” I thought. But this was early April. “Beginning of the fiscal year,” stern note to self: You can’t be late with this.
Bright rays of light—shooting rays of the sun—bounced off every surface of the service area, the metal surfaces of walls and pillars, the glass of the windows. Flying off at crazy angles.
Off at the edge of the parking area I discovered an old stele. It was, had to be, a replica of the ancient Shirakawa barrier gate, very impressively inscribed “This way to enter Michinoku.” That brought a wry smile; at the same time, a floaty feeling. Where are we? Where is this?
We had entered the Fukushima prefectural limits.
We headed out again on to the Tohoku Expressway. Seemed to be floating along, smoothly, like an object in flight. The car’s navigation system was set up to play radio frequencies as well, so we also listened to NHK radio at low volume. Mainly so that we wouldn’t miss any emergency broadcasts. The morning news program,of course, started off with news on the current situation at the Daiichi plant. We were listening to it on the radio as we headed north into the prefecture. Deeper into Fukushima.Then the NHK morning exercise program came on the air. An air of calm, sense of comfort and familiarity, from those everyday songs.
They were like those choruses we all learned in elementary school. Or maybe Japanese folk songs. Not sure what to call them. They brought tranquility to Fukushima as well. Spreading tranquility, across the entire nation of Japan.
I looked hard at the road following the coast. We went past the major interchange at Sukagawa. My older sister and her family live in Sukagawa, on a strawberry farm. Thanks to her, I have three nieces. Then there was the rest area at Asaka. I looked hard. I concentrated on the scenery outside the window and I was able to see the farm where I grew up. That farm was devoted to shiitake mushrooms so there were many vinyl row houses constructed on the property. Because of them, I could find it. Further, the Tohoku expressway ran right next to it. It it appeared unchanged. A sigh of relief. I had been in regular phone contact with them (since the phone circuits had been restored). My older brother—and by older brother I mean the eldest son of the family—lived there with his family, my niece and two nephews. I got an e-mail later from that niece saying “The hot water has finally been restored to Kōriyama.” I thought of the concentric circles. This was in the fifty-kilometer range, maybe sixty kilometers. I considered that arc. Since I have begun writing this, that being the 13th of April, the government prevented transportation of shiitake mushrooms grown in open fields from sixteen villages and towns in Eastern Fukushima Prefecture. This just feels wrong.
We passed through Kōriyama and got off the highway at the West Fukushima interchange exit. That took us into the center of Fukushima City, right into the area of the prefectural government buildings. Then we picked up National Route 115. After only four kilometers this linked up with National Route 4. It caught me by surprise when the Japan Racing Association Fukushima horse-racing course came into view. I knew there was one there, but still. We cut east. National Route 115 heads straight east. Out toward the Pacific Ocean.
As we passed from city center into the Fukushima suburbs I surveyed the landscape for face masks. I wanted to see how many people were using surgical masks, and calculate in what ratios. The fact is that the concentric circles were useless. Measuring amounts of radioactivity show these arced lines to be ineffective: in the northwest part of the prefecture the levels were reported as “high,” while they were also relatively high in Fukushima and Kōriyama, in the Nakadōri section, but that’s outside the circles. I was trying to determine, consciously and unconsciously, what people were doing in response. So, among people walking along the roadway, and people driving vehicles, I saw none wearing masks. Even those official crossing guards outfitted with yellow flags and banners, none. All was bright and calm. What was I hoping for exactly, anyway? The guilty conscience again.
But then it was time for school to start. We began to see groups of kids on their way to school. They were wearing masks.
Radioactive material is most damaging to infants, children, and the young.
That’s what we were hearing.
And about the ingestion and inhalation of contaminated materials (what they call Internal Radiation Exposure).
We began to see trucks on the road, more and more of them, with signs announcing that they were disaster aid vehicles. Young S was driving. National Route 115, which crossed through the Abukuma plain, was known in this region as Nakamura Highway. We also began to see middle-school students bicycling to school. One-third of them were without facemasks, which led me to feel a sense of normalcy. A strange trip. Feeling like brain overload. It was now a little past eight in the morning. A sign at the side of the road advertised the famous milk from this village. Made me think of cows. From there we entered the heart of Sōma city, this part of the city known as Nakamura. That’s the same Nakamura as the Nakamura Highway. The streetlamps were designed with horse hooves and horses. Made me think of horses. In Sōma, with horses.
We now turned onto Route 6. We were now there. The JR Jōban train line runs alongside the national highway. We had arrived at the Pacific coast. I told S to keep heading north out of the city to a place still within Sōma County, called Shinchimachi. Y was looking at the map. Shinmachi is right on the border with Miyagi prefecture. Fukushima prefecture ends there.
We parked the car at a convenience store in Shinchimachi.
It was still early, too early, to talk about overloaded brain circuits. The store exceeded my expectations: ample stock, not to mention the fact that they were still in business. Cigarettes, for example: I had heard that in the disaster area that was one of the things in shortest supply. But there they were, on sale. And face masks, which I assumed would be hard to get as well, were not just not sold out, but they were stocked in multiple styles—and in large quantities too. From the parking lot in front of the convenience store I—and the other three too, of course—looked out at the sea. Even though the shoreline was only about three kilometers off, it seemed beyond sight. We could see what looked like the smokestack of a fuel-powered electrical plant. There in the parking lot we were bathed in what seemed like first-summer light. A mere three hours after feeling like it was wintertime it now felt like the beginning of summer. I was feeling the time shifts. I was feeling that time had not yet shifted back to normal. The sky was so blue it took my breath away. My shadow was sharply outlined on the ground, dark and black. The temperature was just over ten Celsius. Route 6 was busy with traffic and the convenience store was filled with customers. All locals, I thought. I turned to the other three and said, “Let’s go.” Then, just a few minutes after leaving, there on the right-hand field of vision, on the east side of the road, like a surprise attack, appeared the terrible landscape of the tsunami’s damage. Appeared? Maybe; showed itself, for sure. And the scars of the massive earthquake. The map confirmed that a river was here; the tsunami probably followed the path of the river and surged inland. We turned right off Route 6. We turned right at the intersection in front of Shinchimachi city hall. We felt, all of us I am sure, overloaded brains shutting down.
Just what had the tsunami destroyed?
It took me some days to put together that this entire area had been submerged, took more than ten days. And what we saw was after things had been largely cleaned up. At the very least, debris had been cleared away and one lane of the road had been opened to traffic. But I,none of the four of us, saw any bodies. Nor any recognizable body parts. We were overwhelmed by the sense of how powerful it was. Everything in the field of vision wiped clean. Everything washed clean away. Such power, to wipe out everything. There are no words for it. Not just that we felt it, but it was like having it pounded into one. I am ashamed to admit it—I want to spit at myself in disgust—but I had approached the scene as though it were a great spectacle. I thought of air raids. And atomic bomb sites. It hit me like a smack to the side of the head: it’s just like a city in wartime. I couldn’t help it, I said it out loud: “This is just too damn much, goes much too far.” Said to people who weren’t there. Maybe said to gods and spirits. Cars that looked like they had been crumpled and thrown, vehicles lying on their sides, vehicles stuffed full of debris. We got out of our car with the Kashiwa license plate. We got out, walked, faced the seashore. This was the eastern edge of Shinchimachi. Seemed to have been a harbor for fishermen. The asphalt ripped up in ribbons. Impossible-to-bend steel girders were bent. We saw cross-sections of concrete. Should not be able to see, of course, cross-sections of concrete. Buildings of which only the steel skeletons remained. Were they really buildings? Hardly any structure remained. A helicopter flew overhead. I assume it was from the Coast Guard because some days later I heard reports of Coast Guard divers, too, who were surveying the sea and the sea floor. Looking for missing persons. As in bodies. Yet the flight was nearly soundless; the extensive scene carried an otherworldly stillness. There were salty breezes. From time to time the sounds of birds. Groups of two or three crows. Carrion crows. Some skylarks too; their chirping was quiet. No gull-like birds though. We appeared to be on a bathing beach. Used to be a beach for swimming. A woman’s handbag lay there. A hand mirror.
The sea was calm.
What can one say?
Sand dances from the debris. It slowly becomes apparent that this debris is not just “debris” but the collection of parts from hundreds and thousands of other things. A house of which nothing remains except for the tiled walls of the bath; a house that is just barely such, of pillars and roof; or the house that is only roof resting flat on the ground; a pile of roof tiles, strewn around heartlessly. We got back into the car and took off again, moving south within Shinchimachi. Stopping and getting out here and there. And then, there it was again. The JR Joban train line. But the branch lines were all gone: just the stump ends of the lines, disappeared, destroyed.
A guardrail that abuts the railroad crossing is twisted every which way, it disorients vertical and horizontal, the direction all messed up, angrily twisted. A bright red metal box is lying on its side, a vending machine. Coca-Cola written on the side. Legible, but reading it holds no meaning. A white box of almost the same size, a refrigerator.
Next to the train line was a housing development, and an electrical substation was nearby as well; it, and any number of houses, had also been destroyed. A broken record lay on the ground; obviously, no sound to be heard from it. CDs spread everywhere, mute as well. Around a dozen golf clubs looking like nothing more than blue-green walking sticks. Uprooted plants and shrubs—roots and branches, all pulled out—withered. Or, if not withered, muddy brown in color. How far should I go in describing all these thousands, tens of thousands, of parts?
And this is just the beginning.
© Hideo Furukawa. By arrangement with the author. Translation adapted from Hideo Furukawa's forthcoming book Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka, to be published by Columbia University Press in Spring 2016.
Doug Slaymaker is professor of Japanese at the University of Kentucky.