KILLED BY PERFUME – a tale of Japan, earthquakes, and my potentially toppling, lethal, perfume cabinets






Tomorrow will be the second anniversary of The Great Tohoku Earthquake, a day that all Japanese, and all people living in this country, will never forget. It was a catastrophe of such destructive proportions that almost 20,000 people were destroyed and entombed in the devastating carnage that was wrought by the unprecedented tsunami that tore the north of the country apart; footage of which, unlike my family and friends back in England and elsewhere, I could never bring myself to watch because it was too horrific, too close to home.


It was a completely surreal and terrifying experience. One day we were going about our daily business, the next we were being told that we couldn’t go out in the rain in case it was radioactive because of the fallout from Fukushima: we found ourselves sealing up windows, stuck inside like some B-movie, shielding ourselves from an invisible threat; the aftershocks continuing for a very long time afterwards, constantly rattling everyone’s nerves; we had no idea what to do, whether to leave the country or stay, assailed on either side by the hysteria of the western media, family and friends; contained, on the other, by school responsibilities and the eerie reassurances of the Japanese authorities. I have never been so confused in my entire life, and was only kept afloat by phone calls to my mother who somehow managed to absorb all the information that was being given and relay it back to me in calm, objective fashion: you don’t have to flee…..yet. Wait it out. See what happens…
There we were, stuck inside the house, not sure what was going to happen, bunkered down, unsure of whether the air was safe to breathe, or whether a nuclear disaster of cataclysmic proportions was about to rain down on us if the nuclear reactors at the Daiichi plant did, as threatened, explode and destroy everything in their wake.


I was for fleeing (though what to do about the cat was a huge, boiling point of contention between us that made Duncan refuse to leave and me hysterically exasperated….)


We didn’t have to stay. We had friends in England and Australia offering to put us up, even fly us out if we didn’t have the cash immediately to hand, as hordes of foreigners panicked and rushed towards Tokyo Narita airport. There was even a message from the British Embassy saying that there was a charter plane TONIGHT which can get you to Hong Kong, and from there you can ‘get to’ Britain, as though we were part of The Great Escape. All this while the Japanese around us went about their business as usual, stoically (or brainwashed? we didn’t know), and the teachers at my school continued to go to teach. For the first time in my life I really felt totally at a loss.







Apart from my mother’s brilliant handling of the situation, the other thing that truly saved me was Facebook and the support and advice of my friends within and outside of Japan – it really was a lifeline to sanity (and yes, I realize, I realize guiltily, profoundly and completely that what we were going through was NOTHING compared to what the poor people freezing up in the north were going through, those whose families had been washed away, homeless; bereaved, in situations beyond imagining, but this only added to the weird emotional maelstrom. Even though you yourself had thought you were going to die in the earthquake, because it really did feel like the building I was in was about to fall down, as parts of the ceiling started to collapse and I clung to the wall praying that it wouldn’t): despite all of this, you knew that you were so lucky in comparison to all the others who were going through unimaginable sufferering in the affected areas that you felt you couldn’t moan or complain in any way. You had to pretend, almost, that nothing had happened.


It was a noble collectivism that the Japanese in the streets around me evinced, and it was profoundly impressive, but at the same time disturbingly coercive, especially to someone as childishly in need of self-expression as myself; I am a person who, if forced to contain strong emotions too long, feel as if I could go mad. And at that time, I really did feel as if that were a distinct possibility.


Aside my mother, then, the other thing that saved me was Facebook. Really. There were so many people giving us encouragement and advice, or just allowing us to vent with dark humour if necessary; just the very spontaneity of having that connection to the outside world at your fingertips was an outlet that allowed me to see, feel, process and interact with my friends and family and in the process try to understand what was going on and what we should do next. Flee? Stay? (We went on an eight day ‘adventure’ down south, to Atami, Nagoya and Osaka as a compromise in the end…, and it was only once I got away from the immediate confinement of the house, and the seemingly imminent dangers, that I could finally come to terms with what a dreadful calamity had happened to the country, and all those poor people and families,  and, seeing the first cherry blossom trees of the season, break down properly and grieve for them.)




* * *




With the recent ‘timeline’ function on Facebook it is possible to revisit exactly what you wrote at particular times in the past, rather than those impressions immediately flying off into the ether, never to be retrieved.


I have not looked at the conversations from that time until now, but have just scrolled down to the posts from March 2011 and all is raw and vivid. I can feel it all coming back as though it had just happened . There is a lot of humour, but also unkempt, intense feelings…..



Is it emotionally pornographic of me to want to publish some of that here on The Black Narcissus today? Possibly. But I don’t really care. I find that now I have started writing about this subject I don’t have the desire or ability to stop, particularly considering the date. This time two years ago the country was functioning as normal; the next day it was to be ripped apart and come to a virtual standstill. No trains, electricity, rations in the supermarkets, the dire and very real treat of radioactive poisoning, bodies still buried under mud. It feels right, somehow, to revisit it.






March 15th: My Facebook status was:




COCKTAIL CHERRIES. Apparently the red food colouring contains large amounts of iodine, something we all need against radiation. This is a product unlikely to be swept from the shelves by the panicked..



Reading this strikes me as bizarre; I had totally forgotten about it, but I am writing, apparently seriously,  about cocktail cherries, and how we could surreptiously secure ourselves supplies of iodine if it ran out (or if foreigners were somehow excluded from getting them). But we really were deeply worried about radiation, and still are to a large extent. I don’t trust the government and have no idea if the air we are still breathing or the food we are eating is in fact safe.




Another post from March 15th:




In terms of scent, Demeter’s Pina Colada is working for me right now.




Funny how perfume could work its way in there…anything simplistic, charming, stupid, was quite good at this time in the days of the aftermath…banal TV drama box sets, sweet scents, just things to relieve your mind and nerves.






The same day:


The poor people! I am sorry: I have been selfishly cocooning myself in pop irony and all, but I think me and the D are just in deep shock, like most others. It is only starting to dawn on me how much people are suffering around the country. We actually realized it was real only this Sunday morning.







When the earthquake happened, and I was evacuated from the building I was in, I had to walk home, alone, for three and half hours, along the river, just following people as I wasn’t sure what direction we were supposed to be going in. Looking back I think I was in a trance, as I remember stopping to take pictures of plum blossoms and noticing how beautiful the sky looked. And standing next to the railway lines, seeing old ladies being lifted down on emergency ladders from the carriages, but watching from below, these people huge and cinematic, the sun glinting through the pine trees as they walked slowly and warily along the tracks. By the time I got from Fujisawa to Ofuna I saw that there was a blackout there, and that there were no traffic lights; cars making sense of it all but in danger like some 80’s horror movie. I kept walking, and up the hill where I live which is always dark but which was now almost completely pitch black except for some very faint emergency earthquake lighting, and some Japanese voices droning through speakers placed somewhere that intoned advice on what to do next. I still hadn’t heard from Duncan, but for some reason, which I am ashamed to admit now, all I could think about was Hitchcock. I HAD to see The Birds.







My first reaction when it happened was to come home and watch The Birds.

Because I am, how can I put it, cold perhaps? The Birds was so right you can’t imagine. Because when I was walking home, in a daze, everything was extraordinarily beautiful. The light was obscene. And there was a row of cormorants, about twenty, perched weirdly on a telephone line across the river. I was in a strange state. The earthquake was real, but The Birds is so abstract, just fear manifest, that it was perfect.



* * *



March 13th:   I had a japanese lesson yesterday in Kamakura. It was like a ghost town. And in a chichi cafe, quite empty aside me and Ms Nagai, I learned all the vocabulary. Radioactivity, leak, and three words for dead body. ‘itai’: corpse (polite nuance);’shitai’:  ‘corpse’: (a bit direct) and ‘shikabane’ (which i already knew): dead body, a bit old, with fishy circumstance.





Seriously, we feel a bit seasick. is the ground still moving? this is HIDEOUS



Can’t sleep. Panicked.




Duncan is so exhausted he is zonked out: I am lying there in a froth and no sweet marjoram is going to change it



Just awoke from a dream in which I was pushing my mother from an earthquaking hotel in Paris.




When it comes to nuclear rain, i could do without the exquisite japanese ambiguity. Fuck! Another aftershock.




….as i write!


This country is prone to cover ups and anything to avoid losing face: then the bastards at the helm apologize sometime later at a news conference; a hypocrisy i DESPISE!






It’s like my internal calibration system is all wavy; an unpleasant drunkenness.









D has gone out to scope for supplies (March 14th)


We are in bunker mode!




Status: “Earthquake?” “No: two eggs.”



This is a conversational exchange D and I have just had. Our brains have turned to gelatin.






March 14th:


it’s like living in a Frankie Goes To Hollywood song. My piano teacher just said ‘don’t get wet in the nuclear rain!’



‘Ok!’ I cheerily replied. ‘I’ll try not to!’


March 15th:


Dare we emerge?


Seriously, my friends: if you have any information regarding radiation and nuclear bullshite, feel exceedingly free to share it with me. Particularly if it is reassuring (you may edit apocalyptic broadcasts accordingly).




 ….and I don’t watch any TV either: just snippets of internet news. Who wants to continually watch death and destruction? Just voyeuristic vultures. I feel for those people so much but feasting my eyes and soul on it for hours and hours at a time seems pointless. Masochistic. 








Neil Chapman : Hanging my shirts out in the nuclear air.







bring em in you tit!




Just opening the window to get some ‘fresh air’ has suddenly taken on                sinister implications. should we be sealing ourselves in a la Sylvia Plath?









And so it went on and on, trying for a bit of levity, and trying not to let too much of the horrifying information get to me. Having friends to talk things through with ( I haven’t put up much of that here as they might not want it to be made public) but in any case it kept me feeling more balanced.



There was one post,  though, something I wrote on a day going back to work in Fujisawa, when my senses were simultaneously dead, yet more alive than they have ever been, which captured precisely what I was feeling. I have just found it:






Neil Chapman:  Plugged In To The Matrix.




Now where shall I begin?





          There is no doubt that this has been one of the most surreal and extraordinary weeks of my life, 

           and today I felt myself confounded and actually unable to comprehend the world around me. It is hard to explain, but I have spent the week, as you know, in this melodramatic swirl of hysteria, though I was never as close to ‘breakdown’ as I may have appeared: this is just how I choose to express myself, or rather I don’t ‘choose’ anything: it simply comes out the way it comes out. But there is no doubt that the country is traumatized, and I know I am, mildly. For a few days, though the emotional core was ultimately safe, I did find myself in unfamiliar waters of panic and shutdown (rarely do I go to bed at midday to avoid the world but on this occasion I did), and would spring from relative calm to spiralling anxiety the second I read news reports, or, ill-advisedly, looked at images of the tsunami. Believe me it is much easier to do so when you are out of the country than when it is in the place you live, just further down the coast. The devastation, on loop, just created a maelstrom in the brain you couldn’t wash away; it was buoyant under everything else even when you slept, and then this nuclear reactor thing which, obviously for us personally, it is a literal threat. 










          Or is it?










          And this is where The Matrix comes in. The last two days have seen our parents pleading with us to leave; terrifying reports on TV, and you lovely people sending us advice or more often ordering us to leave. By Wednesday night I was whipped up into a frenzy again and was utterly incapable of even imagining going into work and thus we began the escape plan. I wrote a well-worded, but clearly boilingly concerned, e-mail to my boss saying I couldn’t work today but as you know, just as we were about to join our friends in the above adventure I called my school manager and really, the sound in his voice when I told of my radiation fears really was one of total puzzlement.


          What are you talking about?


          Everything is fine.


          The air is fine.


           Everyone is at work, your students are waiting for you, we would really prefer it if you would come in (silent pressure, like a megaphone)…..





So I finally leave the sealed up stuff-chamber we have been inhabiting; dark, unsound, all the past week’s mad feelings still floating about uninhibited in the rooms, and I dragged myself out of my clothes: shaved off the beard, and became Mr Chapman again.










Outside was blue; bright, a typical, beautiful cold Japanese spring day.

           I boarded the bus, and caught the train to Fujisawa. Nowhere was anyone wearing masks, except for the usual ones for hay fever. And yes, the lights were dimmed in the stations and vending machines, and yes, people were collecting for charity, but otherwise, everything was utterly normal. Gleaming, happy reality, not an iota of the armaggedon panic of the computer and the pleas and the oodles of milliverts about to subvert our biochemistry and turn us instantly cancerous.





And i stood there, with my coffee in hand, and actually had the sensation of not being able to mentally compute the astronomical difference between my life on here with you, and all the internet reports, and all the foreigners fleeing the country in charter flights, and my dad writing DISASTER in my in-box, and the swirls of atomic clouds and dust in my mind, and the absolute NORMALCY of what I was perceiving before my very eyes.


          And I experienced some form of split down the middle of my consciousness as if indeed, this were The Matrix that those in the world, the real world, the dark world, were plugged into.


          Happy, bright, everyday boring life. not even a JOT of darkness in the air. (March 19th)







          But it is not that simple.




          What I have realized is that possibly neither of these worlds is correct. Most of you on here are seeing this hypohysteria news reports which play the greatest hits of horror over, and over, again. And I don’t doubt they are true for a minute, when hordes are streaming out of the country and losing the Japanese respect (if they had any to begin with.  





But you step into work, and it’s all subverted.





          There is nothing to worry about.





           All the foreigners leaving are being panicked by leftist anti-propaganda: the dangers are no way near as acute as being reported:

         the US navy is reporting nuclear particles out of spite…..





I have never, ever, in my life, felt so incapacitated in my ability to distinguish fact from fiction and reality from irreality, hyperbole; information from misinformation;  and just stood back from my own perceptions and watched them all, fascinated.  









          …….two absolute, sharply cut realities: a collage of panic and drummed up horror, vs sublimated trauma and a fierce, fierce desire to get back to that shiny surface where Japan thrives best. I am defeated.  




 But I did my lessons, and enjoyed them. And managed, a little, to salvage the Vivian Leigh I have descended into this week. Got back a bit of respect, just about, as if I represent the foreigner in capital letters.



          And then walked home up the hill, convinced I could smell it in the dark, and something metallic, and something like a sunburnt feeling on my cheeks; but then I am a hypochondriac neurotic so discount what i have just written: (don’t)  




Anyway: we head south, the D and I, tomorrow; hopefully it will be fun but everything feels different once you get out of the glare of the shop windows and the urban sun: there is a watery, pale vulnerability in the air: we are shellshocked.












It really was a time when I felt that there was no link between the Japanese and The Foreigner. Never have I felt more estranged:








          The Japanese create a force field around themselves; unite their egos, or dissolve them at will: it is something we in the west simply cannot do. They can make an atmosphere so powerful that everything wilts in its path. Seriously. It is both highly admirable and somewhat terrifying to me, so obviously self-centered and egocentric. I do not WANT to disappear. They can.  





          What I don’t understand is how much of today was forced. I can’t quite get to the bottom of that: is it sheer willpower forcing normality to the surface?



           …I was talking to my friend Setsuko on my cellphone earlier, trying to get a grasp on what i was experiencing, and, I quote: “….we also pay little attention to something intangible, such as radiation.




          If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist…”



I am not sure if this is interesting for anyone out there reading this, if it all just seems far too self-indulgent, but I think the above illustrates quite well the extreme confusion that being a foreigner in Japan after such a terrible disaster entailed.



It took a long time to recover (again, I realize, of course, that relatively speaking I suffered nothing and have nothing, absolutely nothing to complain about). Yet I felt terrible, so deeply unsettled.




April 6th:


Even today I could have sworn there was an aftershock as I sat outside in the sun. And then maybe again this evening….just a weird feeling that you never know is real or not. The ground has not felt the same since…all those idioms…..’he is very grounded’…’she has her feet on the ground’…. have suddenly stopped making sense.


And I know that it was nothing compared to up north but the shock of that quake at the gym brought tears to my eyes and left me very shaken (like everyone else: people were screaming in other rooms as I clung to the walls…). and then no phones working…and the immediate huge aftershock…and then that walk home…tomorrow I go back to work: maybe that is a good thing.



Just seeing footage of the tsunamis, the little I did see, left me with nightmares for the last few weeks, as well as endless ones about radiation and losing Duncan. I cannot begin to imagine the psychological damage of those actually devastated by those waves…God.








April 15th: What it feels like tonight: five minutes off a rollercoaster, still unsteady on your feet; rolling, rolling rolling, nice and slow: lurching. Like a huge hull of a ship in the moonlight. You are in your cabin and it is CREAKING. These floorboards are creaking. And it might just be the wind but you know it isn’t.



:somehow not an earth’quake’ but a gargantuan rock-a-bye-baby;cradling us all: malignly imperceptible, almost: but vast and uncontrollable.


And disconcerting in the strange depths of your being you never knew existed; that you had this barometer connected to the ground and what lies beneath it; that you resonate together..




*  * *




I am sitting here, looking at keys dangling and wondering if they ARE moving. Seriously: there is a beast beneath! Growling very subtly.


And i am starting to not be able to entirely see or walk straight but am now seeing a profound beauty in it.




The fucker is taunting us.



Now it seems to have stopped. But it has got to the point where I just think. Yes. I am mad. It is that. And I was in the other house for about fifteen minutes, and it was honestly like being in some haunted ballroom of an abandoned, huge, cruise ship. And it is interesting: perhaps if you ARE mad; do you just go with the, er, flow? But still hugely gratifying to come in and find duncan in bed, saying, yes yes it has been rocking for about half an hour now: I can feel it.








There are pink earthquake clouds in the sky tonight. don’t be surprised if something happens tomorrow. This isn’t me: it is several women friends who always comment on these particular, perpendicular lantern-shaped clouds that often appear the night before.



At this point i am not even complaining: merely observing. Because it is so odd, and so monumental, to have the earth no longer solid, for so many days consecutively. With the imaginary quakes to fill in for the time when the earth itself is not rocking.
       April 16, 2011, at 1.55am.


A constant, neverending circle.



*  *











March 10th, 2013 :




Tomorrow is the second anniversary of all this. Reconstruction is taking place, although not as much has been done for the people from the affected areas as should have been; charity and volunteer work still continues, as do the aftershocks and tremors, which we were told would continue for years.




In fact (and now I am finally coming to the story suggested by the title of this post), the other night there was a minor earthquake in the middle of the night and the first thing I did was to leap up and hold onto the perfume cabinet. Not because I am so shallow that I think that my perfume collection is the most important thing in the world – much as I love it, I do realize that it is merely a collection of delicious, ephemeral pleasures and memories – but the old, wooden Japanese antique cabinets they are housed in, I realize, could in fact quite easily crash down and kill us in the night. We foolishly sleep on futons directly beneath them.




It had been on mind anyway, that we might need to move these vertical treasure chests, but there was a news programme on the radio yesterday as well which was warning about the dangers of having heavy furniture in your bedroom, especially when it is not properly secured to a wall…    It has struck me that this huge thing, which I love, and which suits the tatami style room perfectly, could literally be lethal.



The threat of another major earthquake never goes away. But the least we can do is to avoid being crushed full of a huge, grande armoire of Guerlain, Balenciaga, Dior….





The irony of it; a perfume lover being killed in the night by the thing he loves most……







Filed under Catastrophe, Japan

38 responses to “KILLED BY PERFUME – a tale of Japan, earthquakes, and my potentially toppling, lethal, perfume cabinets

  1. ginzaintherain

    Alas the wonderful comments left here before disappeared when I edited something : it was not intentional. I blame the giant catfish.

  2. This is so beautiful to read Neil. Utterly so. And very healing I think to those caught up in the events of that terrible, terrifying time. This is a fantastic, very honest and very respectful post. It is totally insightful. I didn’t watch any of the footage at the time, but of course was glued to facebook as so many of us were, talking to you and D (feel free to use any of my natter from this in anyway you see fit). Apparently (according to J and the kids) I cried at the laptop for days, but I can’t recall this. The photo on this blog (also on my current fb profile) was taken the day after the earthquake. Thinking of who still grieve with love. It’s great that you’ve written this. xx

    • ginzaintherain

      Thanks love.

      Funnily enough, you WERE on here yesterday, along with others like Marina, as I actually just pasted bits of our Facebook dialogue onto the post. It was all very Soderberghian; quite cool I thought. But then when I actually posted it up, all the dates and names were highlighted and ‘clickable’, which meant that people would have been clicking on dates and names thinking it was leading to something, and it would have ruined the flow, not to mention endangering privacy. So then I deleted all that, which took ages, and ended up with a strange, disembodied thing that I thought also had its own appeal, even with the mistakes and missed punctuation and so on.

      You were so ESSENTIAL to us at that time; everything you said was so supportive…

      Yesterday being the day before, somehow I had to write about it all, to revive it and somehow settle it in my mind. I am glad you think it is effective in some way. As you remember, the whole experience was such a shock, the guilt being one of the biggest aspects of it. That week when we were stuck inside going mad though was truly a mindfuck of the highest proportions, and I don’t think I have really captured that here, but that’s ok.

      The most interesting aspect of it ultimately was the difference in response: the Japanese response was amazing but utterly disturbing to me at the same time. A level of control that was something to marvel at, but for the western psyche, unfathomable.

  3. brie

    I did indeed leave a comment on the original but failed to remember what I wrote…
    a part of me feels that I am a bit Japanese (my extreme discipline) but yet I am also a very sensitive and emotional individual as well so I am not sure how I would have fared in your situation.
    Yet I am glad that you and Duncan (and the cat! did not know you had one-I have had three in my lifetime-love those felines) survived…
    Do find another place for your perfumes…otherwise they might very well be the death of you ( would be like an episode of Midsommer Murder..the murderer finds a way to disengage the perfume cabinet of a perfume obsessed individual which topples on the poor victim!)

    • ginzaintherain



      It is true that we have to do something about it. There are four days until the spring holidays, when I will have the chance to properly take everything out and re-organize the collection.

      Right now, in the working week, that is just not a possibility. Just have to risk it until then (stupid though this is, considering what I have written above…..!)

      The question of whether one is Japanese in certain respects or not is an interesting one; that the country is controlled and disciplined is unquestionable; the people have an amazing ENERGY and ability to just pull together in a way that is impossible to even imagine in the west (we co-operate and help; here it is more like a hive, the instincts of the bees…) though I don’t like the sound of such racial generalizations even when I think they are true.

      On the other hand, the Japanese are also HIGHLY, extraordinarily sensitive I would say, and this is one of the misconceptions about the country; that ‘they’ are somehow expressionless and unfeeling, yet I would say it is the opposite. Everyone was feeling such trauma and shock and sadness and yet almost NONE of it was shown on the face, to try and sort of ‘bear everybody else up’.

      But to not say a single thing about it at work, only two days after the fact, despite my appreciation of the reasons for this, was, to my instinctive self, SHEER INSANITY, and horrible, toxic, even if morally it was good. Because the feelings were present anyway, in the rooms like ghouls, and to sugar coat them with cheeriness struck me as the highest of perversions.

      The whole thing was just deeply confusing and highlighted so many differences.

      And yet, here I am……still here……

  4. Still lost in Japan

    Painfully honest. Brought back memories of that week, month, year, we thought we’d never see the end of. And it still isn’t over. Take care of yourself and Duncan.

  5. Tokuko Tanabe

    Thank you for writing your story. I wish I could read and understand English faster….and I wish I could write my feeling in English…

  6. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    It felt very eerie.

    I was just walking past some classrooms and saw that the teachers were stapling up the school pamphlets for the new term. That was exactly what they were doing three years ago when the earthquake struck. It really hit me, like painfully acute déjà vu.

    I felt compelled to repost this now, even though the anniversary is not for four days…

    Re-reading it brings it all back so vividly.

  7. I watch so much of this horror on TV and had so much respect for the Japanese people in the way they handled this tragedy. Thank you for sharing this…it puts everything in a different perspective when reading of someone’s actual experience.

  8. Lilybelle

    How horrible for you and the people of Japan. What a terrible time. We can never forget those devastations. They are seared on our hearts and memories. It changes your world forever. I’m so glad you are here to share your story! xo

  9. Truly such a harrowing thing to go through. I was actually just thinking about it this morning,; realizing the anniversary of it was nigh. Amazed at how much has been done, but also realizing how much further the country has to go. It really makes one realize how fragile we are.
    The whole situation makes us realize how truly ephemeral our lives are, very much just like the fragrances we love so much. Maybe that is what makes us [ fragrance lovers] such an interesting group; we love, and pay top dollar for (especially vintage Guerlain) something which is truly fleeting and the epitome of the word “ephemeral” .

  10. (Note to self: no more coffee in the afternoon)

    Around this time of the year, it will always be x anniversary since the earthquake/tsunami and the All News TV stations will keep looping footage of that day and subsequent relief efforts. I can totally relate to feelings of being unsettled and even the cover-ups hold true for the 9-11 attacks as well with the after effects of the debris.

    Last year, at a networking luncheon after a crisis management / mock disaster exercise, one of the people who was (and still is) one heartbeat away from our CEO sat at my table (my luck…I am but a lowly peon). He mentioned that the Japanese regulators had issued a requirement for businesses with offices in Tokyo to have a fully functioning disaster recovery site several hours away from Tokyo at some city where there was no public transportation infrastructure. When asked how the workers are supposed to get there, the answer was that the Japanese government will provide buses for employees to get there. Pssst: And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

    So what have you done to protect your collection?

    • I know, I know….and living in the Tokyo area, we live with the threat of imminent destruction by giant earthquake at any moment. Sometimes I wonder why we still live here, when we know for a FACT that it is going to happen….

      As for the perfumes, after writing this piece we actually did take constructive action and nail the cabinets to the walls. The fumes themselves may do a bit of shake, rattle and roll, but at least the furniture they are housed in hopefully won’t topple over and kill us!

  11. I like the use of “constructive action”!

  12. Natalie

    Thank you for such a funny and moving post. I hate Facebook, but that timeline is pretty much awesome.

  13. Neil, what an interesting piece and so well written. I felt like I was watching a movie and was actually in it. My older son lives in Los Angeles, CA and there is always the threat of a massive earthquake. I truly enjoy your blog. You are a terrific writer.

    • Thank you. This one was wrenching for me. It probably needs editing, but I literally can’t bear to go back and look at it.

      At the same time, I feel that I have to reblog this on this day every year for a while, as it was such a momentous experience, and is ongoing still for people in that area. This is absolutely me, probably my most personal piece, so I am pleased that you respond to it in this way. x

    • Ps I understand your son. It is a strange thing: knowing that it could happen, and the next Tokyo one is meant to be huge, and we could die, and yet not moving because you want to be where you are.

      The human brain is strange.

    • Also, feel free to share. I would love to have some extra feedback about this and anything else. I sometimes feel constricted, as I am aware that I am too ‘weird’ or out there for a lot of people, but that a lot of people would connect to what I am writing about if they knew about it.

      • I do not think you are weird in the least bit. You are unique and you put your true thoughts into prose which we can all experience. I truly relate to everything you write but perhaps I am “weird” as well. However, I like to think I am “real” and I feel that you are too.

  14. Georgayne

    Neil, this was a tremendously powerful piece in that you so eloquently expressed such raw emotions, which are difficult at best to speak or write about, because they are so very personal. I worked for better than a decade in disaster services, in the epicenter and the aftermath of Hurricanes Wilma, Katrina, Rita; tornadoes and earthquakes, ravaging forest fires and floods, and the worst, 9/11. The surreal quality is very real and present with the survivors and the places they live. Life becomes so focused and narrow that seeing the whole scope is impossible. Their slice of life is all that matters- how to shelter and feed their families and where to get information about what is happening. I know first hand how incongruous it is that “normal” life goes on while so much death and destruction is in our own backyard.
    I believe that what you wrote was an honest accounting of how you and Duncan felt about this horrific disaster, and the effort it took to make sense of it all. I believe that your writing was not a catharsis that you inflicted on anyone, but rather gave a rare insight to how life changes in the blink of an eye and how we cope. You are correct, there are innumerable people who could connect with your experience and I for one, am grateful that you continue to post this. I would love to share this with my International Services Disaster team members, retired and active, that worked with the Japanese, Haitians and the citizens of Sumatra and Indonesia.

    • This is very interesting to read, and I am very glad that you have written this, although obviously I feel that I didn’t actually suffer anything, not really, and it is strange in that today no-one mentioned it: it wasn’t even that widely covered in the newspapers ( I suppose they are waiting for the ‘fifth anniversary’. )

      It was an intensely weird time, though, even if it is NOTHING compared to what people who lived in the nations you mention must have experienced. I saw not a single injured person, nor a dead one. For me it was more just a total and intense mindfuck.

      • Georgayne

        You know I think sometimes that it is almost harder to deal with these “long distance disasters” (and by this I simply mean that it did not affect you directly and in person) because you feel guilty in a way that your life wasn’t impacted. You are correct in that there seems to be some strange etiquette about disaster anniversaries and how much “air time” is given. 9/11 was the aberrant disaster because it took on the mantle of “Remember the Alamo” characteristics and it did affect a global audience. Consequently, it took ten years for it to be quietly recognized each September on one day only.
        Do not discount the fact that regardless of seeing the death and destruction up close it was intense and weird (dealing with both natural and technological disasters at the same time) and I would imagine will be a defining event in your life from now on. Your story is important in the way that most people in the West will not likely ever experience.

  15. I reread this whole piece, as I probably will as long as you repost it over the years. It is simply one of the most insightful and powerful things to read. It doesn’t fail to send a chill down my spine, especially because I adore Japan and to be reminded of how all of its Zen like aura is on top of a serious fault in the crust of the earth.
    I really appreciate that you shared this intensely personal and traumatic experience with us, your followers.
    It is a good thing to remember, for all those sad souls lost in the tragedy.

  16. My last sentence did not come out

    To remember those lost is to keep their memory alive.

  17. Feeling the earth move under your feet seems to be one of the most terrifying experiences in life. You are literally out of balance! And then the fear of poison, of dying slowly, … Of not knowing whether you will or can live on. Should or should you not go away. Being a “foreigner” always leaves you with two options: stay or flee. When you are born where you live all your life, there are not many options. I think that is true for any country.
    How much is remembered, and maybe grafted in the minds of people of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb?
    I cannot even begin to Imagine it …. Read it with horror …
    But you brought it all beautifully back together in the end, almost like a sonnet with the turning point in the sestet. Killed by the things you love, not in themselves, but in their protective habitat. Shattered by a butterfly in a iron harness …
    There’s the irony, that you do go on living and filling more cabinets with more scents! Don’t put them in The domino position: falling like a carefully constructed scheme in tumbling over .. Maybe a little Feng Shue?,
    And I agree totally with watching The Birds, would have done the same after carefully closing all doors and windows. The terrifying quietness of it all with the birds gathering. No reprieve, not even at the end.
    Glad you are here And there. And that D And the cat are there with you, and the monks and the jasmine, the plum blossom …. and indeed what Brielle wrote, how fragile we are, just like your perfumes in our big boxes that can topple over and crash us.
    PS Irrepressible afterthought: how would it smell? One huge unbelievable hallelujah cocktail? Or like a Wagner symphony all gone wrong?

  18. Neil, I think I got even more out of your post re-reading it now, than than I did before, if that is all possible. You definitely should write a book. Your prose put me on the edge of my seat even though I already had read it and experienced from afar what that horrifying earthquake did to the people of Japan. I think that lots of us get through disasters the same way as the Japanese do—by not acknowledging that they actually happened. Yet our subconscious and conscious mind know that they did.We compartmentalize things in order to get through them. I have never been through an earthquake, but over 10 years ago I went through a life-threatening personal horror story that I not only survived (due to my own survival instinct) but went through the next 10 plus years as if it was an out of body experience and never dwelt on it although I remember to this day every thought that I had in my head when it was happening. It all comes down to our innate desire to survive and whatever works for any of us is what still keeps us on this planet. Thank you again for this wonderful prolific piece of prose.

  19. Oh, and by the way, if there was a disaster in my area, I could also be a victim of “death by perfume”!

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