Travelling With a Geiger Counter

Its past considered, things get weird when you have to take refuge from radiation in Hiroshima. It is a beautiful, lively city, with wide roads and the centre for Mazda production, but – as the Lonely Planet Guide does not fail to point out – it will always be known mainly ‘for that terrible instant on 6 August 1945 when it became the world’s first atomic bomb target’.

It was not so lively when I visited it, though. Hiroshima or not, Japan became a grieving country, still counting its dead. And amidst nuclear fears, this was the very place which could understand its consequences.

After spending a week in front of the television watching the smoke coming up from the Fukushima Daiichi plant reactors, I was not so eager to undertake any trip at all. My day plan was, like, to stay in a hotel room in Yamaguchi, with my head under the duvet. But Masahito, our friend (and an absolutely lovely guy), offered to drive us, so I remembered that I always wanted to go there and should grab the opportunity when it presented itself.

Being physically in the same room does not mean we actually are in the same place. Usually, we are in our different worlds, belonging to different networks. But there are times when you look at the people on the street and you know exactly what they are thinking about. It is like you are suddenly all in the same mental space. I have observed it after 9/11, and last April in Poland after the presidential plane crash. Here, I could almost see the melting reactors in people’s gaze. There is something very positively collectivistic in this kind of togetherness, even if the situations that throw us into it are usually rather grave. But the atmosphere could not be a happy one, even when we take into account that the usual atmosphere in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is not cheerful at the best of times.

People were crying. The exhibition was horrible and sad: children’s charred little school uniforms, fingernails, pieces of flaying skin, broken sandals, bicycle and a helmet – all that was left of three year old Shinichi Tetsutani. Ironically, the codename for the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima was ‘Little Boy’ – it was just three meters long and less than a meter in diameter (in contrast to the ‘Fat Man’ that landed three days later on Nagasaki). We were staring at the replica as you would on Ebola: how can something so small be so deadly?

Also, there were life-sized wax figures of people escaping from the ruins, their hands stretched, their skin flapping like a torn shirt. Because of the lack of medicines, cooking oil was put onto the wounds. On the survivors’ drawings you could see what kind of hell Hiroshima became that morning, with the ‘procession of ghosts’ wandering in shock under the black rain. Now, we all know what has happened. But to see these artifacts with your own eyes, in the very place of the disaster, is a totally different experience. Naked facts you have always carried in your brain suddenly acquire flesh. Even, if all we see is a shadow – like the one left on the exhibited stone steps. The person evaporated, the shadow remained. I imagined myself sitting there, waiting for Sumitomo bank to open, not even dreaming that in a minute or two everything will end for me, and the rock steps I am sitting on will be put in a museum.

Or a wrist watch, which stopped at 8.15. It makes you think – only five millimeters up, and things would be fine again. Why did the hand have to go down?

There is a place in the Museum, where you are allowed to touch melted roof tiles, deformed by the explosion. Why is it so fascinating? It was a bit strange to see people in their face masks, taking into their hands things that were probably still more radioactive that anything coming out of Fukushima. Alice Sebold, in a book ‘Lucky’ (1999) describing her rape, noticed that being a victim is like being a celebrity: people want to be associated with you, and they suddenly remember that a brother of their friend’s cousin was in the same group in school. I was horrified and very upset. I felt compassion. But at the same time, I could not help thinking that I came so far, to such an important and famous place. And to think I have almost missed this trip!

For the whole time in the Museum my husband, Masahito and I had not spoken. The exhibition about radiation sickness was the most difficult to watch. People were anxiously peering at the chart with the radiation levels explained, calculating – as I imagined – micro and milisieverts in their heads. The same chart had appeared on the BBC site three weeks after we visited Hiroshima, after Fukushima’s status has been upgraded from 5 to 7. But the living hibakusha (被爆者, ‘explosion affected people’) are still dealing with the consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How must it be for them?

Déjà vu

Three types of people can claim hibakusha status (Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law, 117, 1994): those who were in the two kilometer radius from the epicenters up to a week afterwards; helpers, volunteers and medics; and unborn children, carried by the above. This status entitles some survivors to a monthly allowance and – in special cases – free medical treatment, but it also became a stigma, followed by discrimination and rejection. They – and sometimes their children – were not hired and could not easily marry, as their irradiation was thought to be contagious and hereditary. They were socially excluded – and we are not talking only about the times straight after the war, where the knowledge about radiation was scarce. For those around Fukushima it hopefully should be different. Or so I thought, until I read in ‘The Dominion Post’ (14/04) about Fukushima escapees being turned away from the evacuation centres, and children refused treatment until their parents provide radiation screening certificates.

Radiation is psychologically difficult to deal with. We cannot see it, its long-term effects are scary, and there is no cure. I remember being given iodine after Chernobyl – but were we even in danger? And if so, did the iodine help? When confronted with an invisible threat, people start to panic. Kenji Sasahara, quoted in ‘The Dominion Post’ as head of the Minamisoma screening centre, noticed that ‘of more than 17.000 people who were screened there, no-one was at risk, except for three plant workers’. But the knowledge from the intellectual level does not always translate to our emotions, and an atavistic fear of the unknown takes over. Still, is there any justification for those who were queuing to buy iodine in Słupsk (Gazeta Wyborcza)? I am aware that the trust levels of Eastern Europeans are known to be low (at least according to the World Value Survey), especially after 1986. But, for God’s sake, people, you are almost ten thousands kilometers from Fukushima! What are those living in the safety zone to say?

Confronted with something we have no impact on, we often start to create an illusion of control and engage in magical thinking. It is a well known coping strategy, and one easy to understand. Everything is better than being powerless, and even if we know that our actions are futile, they somehow keep us sane. Sadako Sasaki, a girl suffering from heat radiation, held to the legend about the crane, which promised to grant one wish to all those who fold one thousand origami cranes. She started to fold them, using paper and medicine wrappings, until she died aged 12. You can see her statue in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It is a sad view – still, she never gave up, even if her fight was lost before she began.

‘Origami for Japan’ is something I have seen in Wellington as well. Outside the ‘Japan City’ shop, or in the local supermarket, I came across young Japanese collecting money for the earthquake and tsunami victims, selling small paper cranes. Again, Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes to mind.

Shigeko Sasamori, interviewed by CNN (18/03), says she watches the news with the heavy heart. For her, and other hibakusha, it is like a nightmarish déjà vu, which awakens all the old fears. What for me is ancient history, confined to the museum’s walls, is everyday reality for them – after all, you cannot escape your own damaged DNA.

Before and after

So, we saw the museum. Then we walked in the Peace Memorial Park: a beautiful and calm place, with the Japanese flag on a mast, and a fire constantly burning since the 1964 – it is supposed to be there until there is no nuclear threat on Earth. Then there is a Cenotaph, with the names of all the victims listed, protected by an arch. The park itself has been built in the place where, before the bomb, the busy city district used to be. I am always curious how it must be for the young people to live in a place like this. Do you go roller-skating near the Peace Bells? Do you hang around with your date near the A-Bomb Dome skeleton? How to keep the memories of the past alive, and not being overcome by their shadows?

The Dome itself is an iconic building, and I recognized it from afar. I went all the way around it, my imagination going wild. When the evening came, it looked beautiful and ominous in the setting sun. That was the very epicenter, yet the building withstood, and is now protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Still, for all the sins of war, what shocks me most is the bigotry (interesting fact: Henry L. Stimson, a man supervising the Manhattan Project, and responsible for the choice of target cities, was a strict conservative, especially priding himself on never touching alcohol and not allowing divorced people into his house).

When evening came, we headed back to Yamaguchi. A few days later, we decided to wait for the situation to improve while travelling a bit more. We wanted to make some trips anyway, and it seemed that this was the right time. Of course, we were convinced that we would be going back to Tokyo. On the 21st of March we passed the radiation control checkpoint on the Korean border, and were let into Busan.

world famous designer, and a hibakusha

More about Hiroshima’s aftermath, and the drawings made by the survivors

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – virtual tour available

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – more pictures


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The Shock Wave Domino

When the house rocked and I did not recognize this as an earthquake this was not the only thing I did not realise. The first hours after the shock were quiet. When I was waiting for my husband and joking with my Swedish neighbour, thousands of people were dying. When I was watching the students drinking sake and playing cards, darkness was falling over the rubble of what only a few hours ago was neat and ordered Japanese neighborhoods. We were all excited and surprised. We were laughing at the funny looking TV presenter and – when the phone connection was back – shouting to our parents all over the world that we were fine and why on earth should they be worried? During the aftershocks people pretended to be dancing. But slowly, after time, it sank in.

When I was running down the swaying stairs I did not know that this was the beginning of the end not only of my Japanese adventure, but so much more. Once it started, the shock wave induced a chain of events no-one could foresee. After the first excited reaction weariness came to us all. First we started getting texts from our local city council that the water could be turbid and we should switch to bottled sources. Then there were power outages and local shops closed. Tsukuba express, our electric train, became unpredictable. We were asked to save the energy. And then radioactivity reports measured at our campus started to be spread by official mail. They were fine, nothing to worry about: only three … four times the background level. But even ten times more is still safe and ‘there is no need to take any emergency measures at the moment’. Lectures about radioactivity effects were organized, slides and articles circulated, prayers and counseling offered. People started moving south, leaving their stuff behind and not abiding to the leaving procedures. My Polish friends began giving interviews to the media: me too. That kept us busy and proved to be a good coping strategy: while reporting, we were not ‘in’ anymore, but merely observers looking at our crumbling normality through the camera lens.

Still, nothing has happened to us and Kashiwa remained as beautiful and calm as ever. But the uneasiness crept in. What should we do? Our friend invited us to Yamaguchi – just for a few days, until the situation improves. So, we packed our rucksacks, put face masks on, and travelled to the airport, where we experienced another aftershock. Looking at the swinging electric signs, suffocating in my mask, for the first time in my life I was not anxious to board a plane. I could see that other people – mainly mothers with small children – were having similar thoughts. Just take off, for God’s sake! Off that shaking ground!

And so, flying away, we expected to be back in five days or so, and resume our normal life and traditional Japanese dancing classes. Instead of which, we ended up first in Korea, and then in New Zealand, visiting Malaysia on the way. Sitting under the Southern Cross, I am contemplating the unpredictability of life, going through my notes to report all our adventures from Yamaguchi onwards. But for now, let’s stay in Kashiwa, from where I still receive e-mails and news from my Japanese friends. One of them writes that they cannot use air conditioning anymore, and she has to bring hot water bottle and blanket with her to work. She also started cooking in the mineral water, as the radioactivity in the Tokyo water supply increased. Another one is washing her clothes all the time, and wears gloves and a mask always when outside. They are worried, and we worry about them too. At the same time, I have faith in the resilience of the Japanese people, and I am very impressed by their response to this crisis.

And I will be back. If not this time, maybe later.  But, after all that happened, I will never stop thinking about Japan and hoping to settle back there, drinking my vitamin jellies and bottled green tea.

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5- out of 7.9

On the first page of Sean Malloy’s book ‘Atomic Tragedy’ (2008), describing the political processes behind the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is an erratum. Pictures of the nuclear attack victims’ bodies were identified erroneously. In fact, the images show the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake.

I have seen the footage from Haiti and Chile, and read about what happened in Lisbon in 1755. I know that trying to outrun the tsunami is like turning your back on a mushroom cloud. But when I look at the old and new pictures of devastation, my brain deceives me. I mean, come on … these small swirling boxes could not seriously be trucks, could they?

I was sitting on my computer when the doors banged. It could be my husband coming back from the bank, or someone knocking. Suddenly, I felt strange.

Ever since I put my foot down in Japan I expected the ground to move underneath me. I placed my earthquake kit near the door, and I took to wear decent pajamas in case of a night evacuation. But when the house swayed, and I heard the slamming doors of my neighbors’ flats, I did not recognize it. There must be something wrong with me, I thought. Too much vitamin jelly – thiamine overdose? But then I saw things falling from the table. An earthquake! What now?

According to the information given out by the local authorities I should get under the table and cover my head. The corridor was wavering like a ship on stormy waters. This is normal on the third floor during an earthquake, and it is usually not dangerous at all. I knew all that, so I cannot really explain why I ran outside. This was not easy, with the whole building shaking. At the reception people were sitting under the desks and were clearly not impressed by me moving around. There were others like me, though – ok, just one guy, and we went out, far away from the windows and possible falling glass. Our legs were trembling. Well, actually not – it was an aftershock.

What happened next was far from dramatic. On a wobbly bus, my husband arrived. We went back home. I washed my hair. I did not want to be evacuated – or die – unprepared. The sink was swaying. The Internet was down. The phones were not working. We went to the common room, where the students were playing cards and drinking sake, and only then my heart froze. On the screen, there was a river of flowing houses and people waving white sheets from the roofs. Is this what my parents – my still uncontacted parents – are watching in Gdańsk?

Twenty four hours have passed since then. My parents, family and friends know we are fine. The ground is still shaking and we are on the verge of being sea-sick. We stored some water, in case of a radioactive leak. But we were the lucky ones. Our thoughts are with those in the north, and those affected by the tsunami. We were just badly scared and shaken – but so far, nothing has happened. And let’s keep it that way!

What to do when an earthquake strikes?

Japan Meteorological Agency

Thanks to all of those who worried about us yestarday and went out of their way to contact us. It was worth experiencing a small shake to realize how many friends we have!

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The Cats About Town: JaLaLa Neko Café, Akihabara

We all know that cats specialize in manipulating humans. Japanese cats, being on the top of the evolutionary ladder (scientific source underneath)

found a way to combine this pleasure with business.

First, they tried it in Taiwan, where in 1998 the first cat café opened. The idea was simple and ticked all the boxes: small flats, aha, long working hours, aha, no time for pets, aha, stressed businessmen, bingo! When this beta version was approved, the Cats Business Association decided to extend their influence to other parts of Asia. The first cafeteria of this type was  launched in Osaka, in 2004. Since then, more than thirty bloomed and are functioning in Japan.

JaLaLa Neko (which means: cat) Café is one of the most popular ones, and it features in most travel guides. It is about ten minutes walk from Akihabara station, near the very heart of the Electric Town (now, not that I am paranoid and suspect the cats are plotting, but it is an area famous for personal robots and robotics. So, make your own conclusions).

Do not assume for one second, that you can be passing by and just enter on a whim.  JaLaLa is a busy place, so it is best to book your appointment in advance, even if it means letting the staff know an hour or so beforehand. That was what we did not know about, and we knocked to the cat-theme decorated door only to discover the place was full. It is no more than one, medium size room, and it cannot easily contain more than 10-15 people, and about 15 cats. We begged. Then we went on a tour through Akihabaras’s many anime stores. After an hour of growing despair someone from JaLaLa called and said they had a free slot, and the cats are waiting.

Almost there! But before you are introduced to the cats, you are faced with the RULES. First, you need to agree to a special code of conduct regarding the treatment of the kitties, pictures taking (no flash!), and general behaviour. Then you are asked to take off your shoes and wash your hands in a three-step procedure. Only then you are handed a Menu: the lovely booklet in which you can find a picture of all the cats hired, and their descriptions. These can touch your heart deeply:

‘His good figure is far from that of munchkin’ – one entry says. ‘Many people become crazy about her sexy eyes’, states another one, comparing their owner to Marylin Monroe. One cat is labeled ‘The Tokyo Tower’ – and truly, he is so impressive and huge, that you can just say ‘I am sorry I sat on your place, Mister’, and humbly bugger off.

The cats certainly know what they are doing. If you aspire to be a hostess, you must be cute beyond average, with the sweetness pouring from your every pore. And it works. People seem to lose their minds. They crawl, quite literally, on their knees, forking 500¥ (a bit less than 5 pounds) for the first half an hour in cats’ company, and spoiling them rotten. But the cats are not amused. They have seen it all already. So, they stroll gracefully, oblivious to people trying to get their attention and just continue to look very, very cute.

I drank my tea. I tried to groom the cat beauties with a plastic bird on a stick. I did not want to leave. I could not – I was in love. When my husband was dragging me to the door, the sleeping cats suddenly came to life. Their big eyes were full of sadness. Stay, they were saying to me … don’t go! So, what are you to do? You hand over another 150¥, for the next ten minutes, and come back to your position on the floor. Then they ignore you again. But awww, aren’t they lovely?

How to get there? (the cats are waiting!)

JaLaLa is between Akihabara and Suehirocho Station, and it takes about 10 minutes to get there from either of them.

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