Japan, After the Wave

Nearly three years after Japan was rocked by an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency, its people are rebounding, its culture healing the wounds of disaster. Author Gretel Ehrlich, a passionate student of Japanese theater, poetry, and art, visited the country to bear witness, listen to survivors, and tell the stories of communities and towns where all hope seemed lost. Her book Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami is out now from Random House.


On the eleventh day of every month, police in Japan’s Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures search for the thousands of people still missing after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown on the country’s Honshu Island. In rural Buddhist temples, incense is still lit in front of photographs of those taken by the massive waves in Rikuzentakata, Kamaishi, Miyako, and hundreds of smaller villages on a coastline as ruggedly wondrous as California’s Big Sur.

The morning I heard news of the disaster, I knew instantaneously that I would go. I had been a frequent visitor to Japan, had wandered the northeast coast and the sacred mountains that look down on it, and had written about the aspects of Japanese culture that besotted me since I was twelve, when I was given a book of Japanese uta.

And so I went to see, to listen, to help if I could, and my nikki no michi—my diary of the road—began: three months of travel, three seasons. (Everything in Japan is calibrated by season: what you eat and wear, which flowers you buy, what scrolls you hang in the tokanoma.) Three seasons and three disasters, three moods, and the one glaring constant: shunyata—nothingness.

During much of my three months there, I lived with my translator and driver at the driver’s rustic hut far up in the mountains above Kesennuma. The driver’s nickname was Abyss. He was an activist, a drum-maker, and a long-haired hippie who volunteered his time helping tsunami victims in order to “pay my respects to all those who lost their lives here.” Abyss-san, Nikki (my interpreter), and I drove long hours every day to find and talk to survivors.

There was no plan except to find out the ways in which people had faced the wave. Around a bend we’d come, and the village or town that was once there was completely leveled—so many towns, villages, humans, animals, boats, temples, houses, cars were washed away.

Nothingness can be physical.

Some fishermen we spoke to had driven their boats out into oncoming waves, some more than a hundred feet tall. One boat ran out of fuel, so the fisherman in the boat ahead threw a line and pulled the boat up the wall of water. Others simply flipped over and died. The wave deposited three and four feet of muck containing fuel, bodies, and all sorts of debris on top of rice fields. Farmers wondered how they would ever grow food in such a place again. But they were hungry, and they imported dirt and manure and planted again. There was confusion and sorrow but never a sense of desperation.

One elderly farmer said, “We need food, but we have to have flowers!” His nephew said, after surveying the bare place where his mother’s huge house had stood, and where the extended family lived and farmed: “The more I lose, the happier I am.”

A spunky, eighty-four-year-old geisha only wanted to pass her song onto someone else before it was lost, the song that brought fish into nets and which she’d been singing for seventy-five years. A woman who had lost one of her children hired a backhoe and dug for the remains of others’ children, determined to continue until everyone was found. A fisherman who had been washed off a seawall, watched his father drown, and swam in roiling tsunami waters alone for over five hours and survived, was thrilled to be getting a boat again.

Story after story. Everyone wanted to talk. Sometimes I composed on my Blackberry. There was no time for paper and pen.

Another fisherman I talked to said, “We’ve had earthquakes and tsunamis before. We know how to rebuild. But the meltdown at Fukushima Daichi has stolen all our happiness. There is no coming back from that.” Radioactive water is still leaking. The rate of thyroid cancer in children is steadily rising. Vegetables, rice, and fish are being harvested from radioactive water and soil. “We’re at a plateau,” one man said. “We’re afraid we’ll never get out of our temporary housing. About the radiation—there’s nothing that can be done about that now.”

The concept of shunyata—or nothingness—also refers to the “emptying of self,” and that’s what I found everywhere I went. No one was a slave to sorrow. To face what is, that’s what the survivors were doing. Clear-headed, practical, without sentimentality. Deep grief, yes, but no self-pity.

Reflected in this response was everything I had observed about Japanese traditional culture from my first visit, in 1968, when women and men wore kimono and geta to Noh theatre on April evenings, when shakuhachi music could be heard down the cobbled streets of residential areas of north Kyoto, when priesthood and work was passed from one generation to the next. Reflected too was the national character I remember of that time, if such a thing can be summed up, which was a world where beauty was framed by impermanence, perishability, and an elegant simplicity. It was a world reflected by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoch, the Buddhist teacher, when he said: “Every instant is dying, every instant is living. The rebirth is the continuity of it.”

Gretel Ehrlich is the author of thirteen books of poetry, essays, and stories. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. Her essay “Where the Burn Meets the Dead” was published in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion.