Cheerful stoicism that cloaks deep anxiety

Cheerful stoicism that cloaks deep anxiety

Surviving on pittance: Seiko Taira with her grandson Riku Kanno, daughter Satomi Kanno and son Hiroyuki Akimoto at their home in Ayukawa, Japan. The family members have been surviving on rations of one meal per day since the tsunami hit on March 11. NYT

Seiko Taira and her family have settled into a grim routine since the tsunami struck: Her sons forage for firewood; she and a daughter lug water from the marsh; and her grandson waits for their one meal a day, a package from the town office that usually contains a piece of bread each, a few cans of tuna and one cup of instant noodles.

This day, her 4-year-old grandson found an unexpected treat: three containers of yogurt, a first since the waves struck. “Mommy, can I eat yogurt, too?” he pleaded. “If you eat it now, you might not have anything to eat tomorrow,” his mother answered. While hundreds of thousands of Japanese have sought help in well-stocked evacuation shelters, those stuck in their own homes fear they are at risk of falling through the cracks. Many have been left essentially marooned by the waves that knocked out roads, electricity and water. True to a Japanese ethos of “gaman,” or endurance, they are maintaining a cheerful stoicism that cloaks deep anxiety.

“When I see the older folks, and how happy they are to get even one meal a day, I can’t complain,” said Taira, 54, who kept a determined smile on her face. “In this part of Japan, we are strong in enduring.”  The hardships are particularly keen for those like Taira, who lived at the edge of Japan’s official poverty line to begin with, leaving her with no savings or reserves of food to fall back on when the waves struck. Even if she had money, many stores are empty, or washed away by the waves. This has created scenes of deprivation that seem out of place in this affluent nation. “It is hard to believe this is Japan,” said Taira, who earned the equivalent of $1,500 per month as a part-time assistant at a home for the elderly before the waves came. “I never imagined we would come to this,” she said.

Survival instinct

Some days, Taira and her younger daughter, Yumi, 17, comb the wreckage left by the tsunami for anything they can use, especially washed-up cans of food. Taira guiltily described how she claimed a large pot from the flotsam, which they now use to boil water. “Is taking a pot considered looting? We need it to survive,” she said worriedly. “It’s not looting, it’s recycling,” her eldest son, Hiroyuki Akimoto, 28, a fisherman, jokingly reassured her.

Taira said she remembered the waves that came on March 11 as black walls of water that quickly consumed this town of 1,400, one of Japan’s traditional whaling centers. Stranded at first at the town office, she finally reached her home a day later by hiking over a mountain. There, she found not only Yumi, who lived with her, but also both sons, her other daughter and her grandson, who happened to be nearby for work or shopping and were stranded when the waves destroyed the only road out. For the first week, they survived off the food in her kitchen, which was more ample than usual because she had happened to go grocery shopping the morning before the earthquake. But as the cupboards grew bare, she agonized over whether to ask the town office for help.

As first, the family refused, saying that people in this region of northern Japan were proudly self-reliant. Then they heard on the radio about evacuation centers in other hard-hit towns, which were getting assistance. She said no officials had even checked on her neighbourhood, which was safely perched up on a hillside near a Shinto shrine. “It began to rankle me that there were inequalities in assistance,” Taira said. “That is when I decided to go for help. If we suffer, we all want to suffer at the same level together,” added her elder daughter, Satomi Kanno, 33, who worked at the same facility with her mother. Officials responded with one food drop-off per day. When a recent one came, Kanno’s son, Riku, leaped into motion, roaring in glee and yelling, “I’m a dinosaur!” He grabbed the single piece of bread and quickly began devouring it. Later, when Riku could not hear, Kanno confided quietly that the adults made sure he got more food than they did. But she wishes she could give him a candy bar or some juice – luxuries not in the daily deliveries.

Building reserve of food

Then she called him over. “Riku understands he has to endure, like all of us,” she said, gently rubbing his hair. “Riku will endure,” the boy said, speaking of himself. “There’s nothing in the stores anymore, right, Mom?” Kanno said the family was trying to build a reserve of food by setting aside a portion of what came every day, just in case the food shipments were cut off. “We are entirely dependent on the town now for our food,” Kanno said. She also confided her fears about her health. She suffers from Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, which involves a small tumor in her intestines, and has only four days worth of medicine left to treat it. Riku, who has a hole in his heart, was also scheduled for a regular checkup, and she is worried about the stress that the tsunami and refugee lifestyle have put on his heart. “If we only had 25 liters of gasoline,” she said, referring to the roughly 7 gallons needed to drive to the university hospital where both are treated, in Sendai, the nearest large city. When they are not foraging or washing, they spend much of the time waiting indoors, wrapped against the cold. But when asked, they are not really sure what they are waiting for – for things to improve, or for some signal, perhaps, that previous, more comfortable ways of living can be resumed.

As snow fell outside, Taira looked forward to how her family would climb the mountains behind the town to pick wild vegetables later in the spring. “I haven’t had a vegetable since this happened,” she said, in a room cluttered with laundry hung to dry. “Older neighbours have been teaching us how to live off the land.”