Sunday, November 17, 2013

Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, Gretel Ehrlich

When the "three sorrows" of March 11, 2011, struck Japan, American author Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to visit the affected area and tell the stories of the people who endured that terrible day and the difficult months that followed. From June through December 2011, she spent most of her time traveling through Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, where the devastation was nearly incomprehensible.

Ehrlich tells the stories of people who lost everything in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami--homes, loved ones, livelihoods, literally everything except their lives. Many showed immense courage during these events and in the days afterwards. But it is the pain and sorrow that linger--the mother who rents a back hoe and, day after day, searches for her daughter's body in the wreckage of an elementary school; the older man who plants a garden post-tsunami only to have it wiped out by the torrential rains of a typhoon; the elderly people who see no better option than suicide. And always there is the the fear--many who survived the tsunami now understandably feel panic at even a small tremor. Ehrlich intersperses her own observations and responses with the blog postings of a Japanese fisherman, Hirayama, who, along with his boat, survived the tsunami. These excerpts provide a much-appreciated Japanese perspective.

Layered on all of this is the radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant--as people struggle to rebuild their lives, they are being exposed to elevated levels of a variety of radioactive materials while being lied to by their government. One can only imagine that the long-term health effects will be serious, widespread, and possibly denied by the Japanese government.

Ehrlich's book is an eye-opener for someone who has followed the events in the newspapers and through occasional Facebook posts from a friend in Tokyo. Oddly, I found myself slightly torn about the book. I appreciated Ehrlich's effort to make readers outside of Japan more fully aware of the magnitude of this disaster; she certainly put her own health at risk by choosing to travel in the area for an extended period. At the same time, I feel slightly disturbed at the notion of the American journalist prying into the personal pain of Japanese people (and, from time to time, ignoring people's warnings not to try to get to one place or another)--perhaps irrational, but it is there.

My hesitations notwithstanding, Facing the Wave will deepen virtually any American reader's understanding of the three sorrows (I much prefer this phrase to the alliterative "Triple Tragedies").

Side notes: If you are wondering why I have recently read two books about this topic, it is for a work project--but it is turning out to be rewarding. Also, my son, who has been in Tokyo for the past 14 months (and has lived in Japan for five of the past 12 years), reports that the awarding of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo may cause further setbacks in the rebuilding efforts, as there are expected to be shortages of building materials, and Olympic building will take priority.

Favorite passages:
I'm looking at fiction; I'm looking at truth; my eyes are wet from the downpour.

To say that the tsunami survivors' attitude toward their tremendous loss is stoicism would be to underestimate the complexity of their response. Courage and self-discipline are evident everywhere in this deeply traditional culture, as well as an ability to accept "what is"without sentimentality, even as the government persists with its numbing denials. But the pain of loss is staggering; there's confusion, nightmarish fear, and there are suicides.

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