Category Archives: Catastrophe
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.
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!’
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.
I LITERALLY DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS REAL OR UNREAL YET KNOW I AM ABSOLUTELY SANE. THE MEDIA CONTROLS US: WE KNOW EVERYTHING: WE KNOW NOTHING.
…….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.
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……