Japan earthquake continues to shake up Vancouverites
When Kozue Matsumoto went back to her home in quake-ravaged Matsuyama, Miyagi prefecture in January, she was shocked by the chill inside her parents' house. Even sitting a half-metre from the heater, her breath came out in white puffs. Her fingers became painfully cold after just a few minutes of typing on her computer.
"The quake had shifted the alignment of the walls and floors, leaving gaps everywhere for the wind to whip through," Matsumoto said.
"At night, you had to sleep with the duvet pulled over your head -- there was no way you could leave your face exposed at night, or you would freeze.”
Winters in her hometown were always harsh, but the earthquake had made the season even more difficult to endure for its inhabitants.
Matsumoto, a local musician, had actively organized aid for Japanese earthquake victims in 2011, but this was first time she had set foot in Japan since the disaster.
“The last few years, I'd become so accustomed to the milder winters here in Vancouver...It just struck me, how different things were over there."
Still feeling the earthquake's effects
For many, the great earthquake of March 11 has become a thing of the past. Newspapers around the world show triumphant images of Japan's post-quake recovery through before-and-after photographs of quake-hit areas.
“For the big cities, everything is now 'back to normal',” Matsumoto reflected.
“But for smaller villages like mine the disaster never really ended. Every single day, my town's website has some new update related to the earthquake. Rubble is still piled up everywhere. People are still feeling the quake's effects every day.”
For many in Vancouver, as well, the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath is not just a distant problem thousands of miles away-- it's a personal concern, often involving family members.
Kiyoshi Ikenaga, founder of the Canadian College of Shiatsu Therapy, has a sister who lives in Kooriyama, Fukushima prefecture. Sitting outside his facility in Yaletown, he explained his own harrowing near-miss experience with the quake.
“My wife and eight-year-old son were actually scheduled to fly out to Japan on March 11,” he recalled.
“But it became clear that evening that something was very wrong. The flight was canceled."
Ikenaga found out later from his parents that his sister and family had survived the quake, but had to cancel his own plans to go to Japan in April because of the warnings issued by the Canadian government.
Terry Greenberg, a former Canadian diplomat to Japan, was living in the northern city of Sendai (Miyagi prefecture) until mid-February, and returned to Vancouver last month. As a long-time Japan resident, Greenberg remembers the devastation of the earthquake on his community.
“On the surface, life in Sendai returned to normal,” he said. “But there is an undercurrent of anxiety, initially about the radiation coming from Fukushima, but also about the economic future of the region.”
“It has a depressing feeling, because less than a year ago the same area was packed with one and two-storey houses. Now, there is nothing except a few fishing boats sitting in the middle of the fields where the tsunami dropped them.
They are probably too big and too damaged to move back to the sea.”
Radiation: the 10,000 mile diet and the lack of food options
After the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began, one of the most immediate concerns was radiation contamination in the food and water. Even here in Vancouver, people were concerned.
"Customers would pick up a food product and ask me, 'Is this from Japan?'" said a Japanese food store representative who asked not to be named.
"When I said yes, they immediately placed it back on the shelf and went looking for food from China instead. It made me a bit sad."
There was good reason to be wary: on several occasions, Japanese authorities asserted the safety of products such as rice and vegetables that were later found to be contaminated.
“We were very concerned about food and water in Sendai," Greenberg said. The government insisted it was safe but we, like most people in Sendai, did not believe them.”
“Most people are still eating local food, but my wife and I only consumed food items sourced from far away. I joked that instead of a 100-mile diet, we had a 10,000-mile diet. This was definitely not environmentally friendly, but we just did not trust local products. We even used bottled water from Canada and France for drinking and cooking.”
Matsumoto, however, said such options were not available to people in her hometown, who were aware of the radiation risks but had little choice.
“If you're in the rural areas, you often just have that one store, and it sells local products," Matsumoto said. "Most people I knew just stopped worrying about radiation, because once you start, there's no end to it.”
Ikenaga echoed the same sentiments, even though he was speaking of the food situation in Vancouver, rather than Japan.
“My family eats Japanese food three meals a day," Ikenaga said. "I heard that Japanese food stores in Vancouver had to have a lot of their shipments stopped after the earthquake because of the nuclear situation. But we're not about to change our whole diet just because of that earthquake."
The impossible escape to Canada
After the earthquake, some Japanese Canadians in Vancouver asked their relatives in northern Japan if they wanted to join them to escape the nuclear radiation. But more often than not, quake victims found it difficult to leave their homes.
"I had asked my niece in Fukushima if she wanted to come live in Canada," said Ikenaga. "But for many, there's just no reality in this idea of fleeing the country. Their whole life is in Japan: job, family, friends, school -- and as for my niece, she can't speak English, so it wasn't a practical option."
Matsumoto knew of a family in Squamish who called upon a relative to live with them, away from her quake-ravaged home.
"For her, it wasn't so tough. She was older and single, so it was better for her to live with relatives in Canada. But for others, even moving to a new home is a big deal. How can you move, while everyone else is suffering? In some cases, people had to convince entire groups of neighbours to make one big move out to a temporary residence, together, so that they could keep solidarity."
"There is a sense of regional patriotism and group responsibility which prevents people from abandoning the others and being the first to run for safety," said Greenberg. Even though many foreigners fled the country, he stayed with his wife in Japan until his planned date of return to Canada, almost a full year after the disaster.
While international media has been critical of the Japanese authorities' handling nuclear fallout after the earthquake and tsunami, Ikenaga hesitated about voicing his own criticisms.
"I think it's better that we focus on what we can do, right here," he said.
“Anyone can criticize the Japanese government, but the fact is that we do benefit hugely from Japan's reputation as an economic power and stable country," he said.
Ikenaga is volunteering his shiatsu services for a fundraiser on Sunday for an organization helping Japanese orphans who lost their parents and family to the tsunami.
"Like many people, I believe TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and its whole system has to change," Ikenaga said firmly."It's currently a system that makes it mandatory for the company to make a certain level of profit. That has to change, but change on that level can take years."
Matsumoto, at the time of this writing, is busy preparing for a concert at the same fundraising event. She remembers the powerful outpouring of support at the time of her last benefit concert for Japan, and is hopeful that the event tomorrow will raise a lot of funds for the quake-affected regions.
“Canadians here are always ready to help," she said. "I think they tend to realize how lucky they are in the scope of things.”
“After my visit to Japan, I really began to appreciate the small things that I used to take for granted living in Vancouver. Like being able to sleep without freezing. Like walking five or 10 minutes and having access to any kind of food you want to eat."