Apologies in advance for mentioning shojo manga only once twice in this column.
It was either January 15th or 16th (my wife insists it was the 16th, I thought it was earlier) that I complained (!?) out loud that in all my time in Japan I had never experienced an earthquake. My mother-in-law responded that if I wanted to experience an earthquake, I should go to Tokyo. I should have taken my wife and son and gone right away. As you no doubt know, at 5:46 a.m. on January 17th, southern Hyogo Prefecture, where I currently live, was struck by an earthquake that measured 7.2 on the Richter scale.
Those twenty seconds of mind-boggling violence were the most terrifying of my life, but they proved to be far more devastating for far too many others, and every day since I have thanked fate for sparing my family, my closest friends, and myself from death or serious injury. Since the foreign press apparently stopped reporting on the quake after less than a week, you probably don't know that the death toll has more or less leveled off (I'm writing this on February 8th) at 5276 (six are still unaccounted for), and at least 110,000 homes have been destroyed or rendered unsalvageable. Our own home is still without water and gas, but our apartment building bears the green "INSPECTED" notice that marks it as free of any serious damage.
For the first two weeks I was occupied with caring for my own family (including my wife's parents, who live in the same city), but my son's daycare center, run by an older woman of awe-inspiring character, has reopened, and since my research on shojo manga has come to a standstill, this week I began working as a volunteer. I'm part of a team that helps coordinate the distribution of water in a section of Ashiya City and delivers water to the elderly and others who cannot get water themselves. It's hard, heavy work, but it's fulfilling, and it feels good to be surrounded by people—mostly college students—who have come from all over Japan to lend a hand.
Everyday I see or hear something that brings tears to my eyes (sometimes tears of sadness, sometimes tears of joy), but mostly I and every other survivor are getting on with our lives. Though it's difficult to express without resorting to hollow cliches, it really is inspiring to see people "swallow their tears" (as the Japanese put it) and struggle stubbornly—even cheerfully—for normalcy. And it's moving to see how kind people are to each other...
I wish I could break the limitations of this page and make you see and feel what I'm seeing and feeling here in Hyogo, Japan. I wish I could make you cry. These days when I see people from Tokyo and other parts of Japan talking about the quake on TV, I sometimes find myself thinking, "Cut the rhetoric and the 'hang in there!' cheerleading and just shed a few tears." (And occasionally a journalist or commentator does break down and cry.) Not everyone can volunteer and not everyone can donate money, but surely anyone can really feel—if only for an instant—what has been lost here. (But then again, until a month ago, how many times did I myself ever cry over the news of a far-removed tragedy?)
Oh, I almost forgot my second mention of shojo manga. On the third day after the earthquake, after visiting a local refugee center and seeing how bored everyone looked, I donated about twenty of my shojo manga paperbacks. I'm pleased to report they were received enthusiastically.
©Matt Thorn 2004