Filed in Environment

Facing the Wave

A journey through the devastation of Japan’s tsunamiGretel Ehrlich

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Uncle Kazuyoshi shakes out a bag of peanuts onto the low table between us, opens four cans of beer, and watches me drink. We sit on the floor and sweat in the midsummer night’s heat. The cold stream of liquid feels good going down. We’re at Kazuyoshi’s house, my friend Masumi’s uncle. A farmer, he has a sun-roughened face and there’s dirt in the deep grooves of his palms. Before the earthquake hit, Kazuyoshi was planting his fields in rice and flowers. He smiles: “I lost everything. Now I feel better.”

He grins, drinks, and empties more peanuts onto the table between us. Masumi, her mother, Kazuko, and I are in his ground-floor apartment donated by the German company BASF. In the tiny garden space outside he’s already planted tomatoes, onions, greens, lettuce, and flowers. He shows me an especially rare kind of gerbera daisy, a spiky miniature red bloom. “I grew these when courting my wife,” he tells me. “I delivered bucketfuls three times a week until she consented to marry me.”

Kazuyoshi squints. In a deep, hoarse voice he says: “Springtime, I used to get in a bad mood. No more. I don’t want to be a bother to anyone; I don’t want to be a big farmer. Just treat plants and flowers very nicely so my wife and I can survive. If others are happy eating what I grow, then I’m happy.” He finishes off a third beer.

The ground begins to shake. Kazuyoshi grabs the edge of the table but doesn’t move. Masumi and I jump to our feet. The tsunami siren sounds. We’re only a mile from the ocean. Masumi fishes for her car keys, and I gather my notebooks. We stand, all except her uncle. He’s scared but calm, or else frozen in place. The shaking subsides.

We sit again. The mood has changed, as well as our heart rates. Kazuyoshi turns serious. He leans forward: “Do you want to hear my story?” Without waiting for an answer, he begins: “On March 11, I was making compost when the jishin [earthquake] came. I couldn’t stand up, so I sat down on the ground and waited until it stopped.”

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