The aftershock

In the wake of disaster, playwright Terry Watada remembers his time in Japan

The aftershock

David Guttenfelder/AP

It was startling to wake up to CBC Radio spewing the news. I quickly submerged within the depths of cotton sheets, blankets, pillows and comforter as the details filtered through the haze of my half-sleep. 8.9-magnitude earthquake. 130 km away. Sendai affected. Tsunami warning.

The facts did trigger a dream: the water choking my seven-year-old self as I fell into the river flowing by my mother’s house in Fukui prefecture on Japan’s west coast before the images folded into the modern canals of Otaru, an artists’ village up in the northern island of Hokkaido, with a guitarist playing Fire and Rain. Everything came to a crashing stop and I found myself standing in the Peace Plaza in Hiroshima.

When I was fully awake, I turned on CBC Newsworld and CNN to see the black tsunami sweeping across the landscape like some evil Hayao Miyazaki monster laughing at seawalls, tossing vehicles aside like toys, and stripping buildings, boats and livelihoods to the bare bone. I kept flipping from one channel to the other. The horror was so intense, I felt the water gushing into my living room, grasping at family portraits, swelling saturated books, sliding across the floor in its unrelenting thirst for destruction.

My mind then swirled around to think about those I know in Japan. I have not been in touch with my relatives in Fukui since 1959, when my parents took me. In my mother’s childhood house, my aunts told me the story of their youngest sister, who fell off a low-lying bridge to a death by drowning in the river below. I, of course, wandered to the same bridge and slipped off, falling into the swift-running river leading to the Sea of Japan. If not for the quick actions of my adult cousin, I wouldn’t be alive today. I was severely punished, though I felt my mother’s warm arms around me and her body shaking in fear. Not unlike those on television.

My son was in Uryu, a farming village in the middle of Hokkaido, back in 2006, for a student exchange. At the Chitose airport, my wife and I met the host family, the Kanayamas, and apologized in anticipation of our son’s enormous appetite. The father in his gracious way said that was of no consequence since he has four sons and works a rice farm. We laughed. He then invited us for a visit. We said no since our son was already upset that not only were we in the same country but on the same island. “The other kids came without their parents!” he complained. Mr. Kanayama smiled knowingly and suggested we sneak into town. We laughed again.

Then I saw the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Plumes of smoke rose in the air, vaguely reminiscent of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I felt the chill of the past settle in my stomach. My parents took me to the Hiroshima museum during that 1959 trip. I absorbed the photographs of the victims, their charred bodies with melted skin hanging off useless arms and legs. I was too horrified to cry. I was told of my mother’s cousin, my father’s relatives. Did they suffer long with radiation poisoning or did they disintegrate into shadows on concrete like so many others? My wife’s family was saved by a mountain on the outskirts of Hiroshima, except for Aunt Chiemi, who worked in the hospital near ground zero. Remarkably, she survived the initial blast. She dragged herself for miles and hours through devastated, unrecognizable streets until she arrived home and found her two babies alive and well. She then collapsed and died. Could it happen all over again?

By the end of the weekend, with the endless loop of footage of the tsunami’s assault and aftermath burned into my brain, I suddenly envisioned a desolate land with only a hollow feeling left inside me. Will I never again taste the oyako donburi with salmon eggs, crab meat and rice of Sapporo? Will I never get to roam the back alleys of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district with its yakuza bars and disaffected youth squatting on the streets? Will I never tear up in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where my wife’s and my relatives are memorialized?

Irrational thoughts, an overreaction, but the effects of this earthquake and tsunami are more far-reaching than can be anticipated. The black waters, blotting, soiling and ruining everything they touched, jolted the sensibilities; in the aftershock, I realized all those I’ve known and all that I’ve seen in Japan will never be the same.

Terry Watada, 59, is a Toronto playwright, poet and novelist currently finishing a novel about Japanese-Canadian resistance to internment
during the Second World War.

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