Tom Paine

Fukushima Mon

Last month, by Gmail, I got the invi­ta­tion to your funer­al in Japan on March 11th.  It took me a few breaths to remem­ber that was the first anniver­sary of the 2011 Tohoko earth­quake and tsuna­mi. It would seem impos­si­ble to forget—even for the span of a few breaths–one of most the pow­er­ful earth­quakes ever record­ed, or a tsuna­mi with waves 140 feet high. It would seem impos­si­ble to for­get a force pow­er­ful enough to jilt the earth itself four inch­es off its axis, or leave us with days that are short­er. And then the melt­down of three of the sev­en reac­tors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Could I for­get that for a moment? Or the hero­ism of your father Masao who saved the north­ern third of Japan?

And then there was you, Himamari.

Could I for­get you?

That this was your funeral–and not one of the memo­ri­als tak­ing place in Iwate pre­fec­ture and Sendai for the fif­teen thou­sand or more killed in the Tsunami—and that you were not gone yet—yes, that took anoth­er cou­ple of deep breaths. It is unusu­al to be invit­ed to a funer­al before there is a death, but as you said, “it is a Alice world now”. Knowing about a planned sui­cide does not mean you don’t try to stop it. So I left my ketch Sunflower stern anchored to some man­groves and got on the first of sev­er­al planes that took me from Jamaica to London to Tokyo. And I brought you a copy of Alice with the orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions by Tenniel, although I pre­fer your illus­tra­tions. For the last year I have slept with your hand-drawn “Animé Alice” under my pil­low, and when I can’t sleep sit up on deck under the stars and touch each page with my fin­ger­tips, while the boat rocks in Kingston har­bor, and I lis­ten to your CD play­ing in the cab­in below deck. Your cov­er of Judy Mowatt’s “I Shall Sing” makes me hang my head. I keep your Alice wrapped in plas­tic as much as I can, as the salt air is hard on the rice paper.

 

There are fac­tu­al things you nev­er knew: in February of 2011, a month before the three-act dis­as­ter, I was sent by GE back to Japan to help upgrade the emer­gency response at Fukushima Daiichi. Although the TEPCO (Tokyo Power) report of ear­li­er that year said there was “no need to take prompt action” about vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties at the plant, GE knew if Fukushima had a Three Mile Island, it would hurt the mul­ti-tril­lion dol­lar nuclear pow­er mar­ket for the next fifty years, and they pres­sured TEPCO to accept me as a con­sul­tant. I had a twen­ty year his­to­ry in Japan, and first went there after grad­u­at­ing from Brown with a degree in East Asian stud­ies. It was a pret­ty good deal: I was hired by JET in 1992 to teach Japanese high school stu­dents on Okinawa to speak English, but most­ly I was sent from high school to high school to stand around and speak English as a mod­el American, and so I talked about the Red Sox. After school, I played base­ball or bas­ket­ball with the kids or wind­surfed over the coral reefs with some Japanese friends. I made $45,000 a year, paid no tax­es and had no real expens­es, drank sake every night, and slept on the beach in a ham­mock.

And then, one day, I dug in the sand.

This was one of the beach­es in Okinawa where the marines came ashore in WWII, and the white sand I walked on bare­foot was, in truth, soaked with blood. There were still the remains of tanks in the sand, and crum­bling con­crete for­ti­fi­ca­tions that waved rust­ed rebar like a lunatic waves his arms. One day I moved the stones of the bur­ial cairn of a Japanese sol­dier and dug down in the sand until I scraped at a pit­ted white bone with my fin­ger­nails. That night I end­ed up in surgery with an emer­gency appen­dec­to­my. The appen­dix burst just as the sur­geon sliced open my abdomen, and I got a bad case of peri­toni­tis, and almost didn’t make it through the night. Then I was sick for weeks in the hos­pi­tal, and for the last week, I was next to a fel­low gai­jin with an arrhyth­mic heart, a guy named Bob McCormick from North Dakota who worked for GE at Fukushima, and when he saw me speak flu­ent Japanese with the nurs­es, he hired me.

And that was how, twen­ty years lat­er, I was back at Fukushima in the month before the March 11th dis­as­ters. Most of the two decades were spent at var­i­ous Japanese nuclear reac­tors, because they all were pret­ty much built with GE parts. I was a worka­holic, and nev­er took time out to even see Japan, or get mar­ried, or have a girl­friend. In that last month of February I worked eigh­teen hour days on emer­gency pre­pared­ness with every­one from fire­men to engi­neers, right up to your father the plant man­ag­er Masao, so the plant would be bet­ter pre­pared in the event of, say, a 9.0 earth­quake twen­ty miles away and fif­teen miles under the sea that would send a forty-six foot wall of water crash­ing over the sea wall that took out the back-up diesel gen­er­a­tors by sim­ply wash­ing away all their fuel.

It was on March 9th—two days before the earthquake—that your father Masao hand­ed me a tick­et for the bul­let train to Tokyo, and booked a week for me at the Ichiban Sheraton. Your father, as you know, loved all things Italian, and had been hav­ing me to din­ner a cou­ple of nights a week. In a lot of ways, he wasn’t very Japanese, your father. He drank whiskey hard, called out the stu­pidi­ties of the Japanese gov­ern­ment, TEPCO and GE, and over­all, was far from a com­pli­ant salari­iman: and it was only while stir­ring a mari­nara sauce with his left hand, soon after he hand­ed me the tick­et on the bul­let train, that I learned he was hibakusha, the child of one of the sur­vivors of Nagasaki, and had grown up with all that prej­u­dice against the ‘con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed ones’. It is strange to think a hibakusha would chose to make a career out of work­ing what are real­ly slow-cook­ing nuclear bombs. And it is stranger still to think that if Nagasaki radi­a­tion made him an out­cast hibakusha, it was per­haps his hibakusha sta­tus that mold­ed him into a man able to defy the Prime Minister of Japan’s direct order, con­tin­ue to cool the three reac­tors melt­ing down with sea water, and save Japan from an explo­sion at Fukushima the size of a dozen Nagasakis.

Your father sent me to Tokyo because he knew some­how after almost twen­ty years I was tired in my bones from over­work, but also because he had heard me lis­ten­ing to Bob Marley on my iPod one night when we were work­ing in Diaachi Three. We were both re-inspect­ing vent­ing pipes for micro­scop­ic weld cracks. He tapped me on the shoulder—it was two in the morning—and I jumped a foot, and he thought this was hilar­i­ous. Then he yanked my ear­phone out, put it to his ear, and said, “Bob Marley?”

He looked mur­der­ous.

He pulled me to his office by the elbow, we drank Jim Beam and talked again about the crim­i­nal nine­teen foot sea­wall, and final­ly he reached in his brown steel desk and took out your school­girl pho­to and slid it across the desk. And then your father’s eyes moist­ened, and he said, “would you go see her?” And it came out over the next hours how your moth­er Sachiko had dis­ap­peared when you were three when your father left her family’s farm and took his first job at Fukushima Daiichi, and how at four­teen you ran away from home with the lead singer of a local reg­gae band called Sanshin Nanjaman. He said you were a dancer then, but now, three years lat­er, the lead singer in a band called Fukushima Mon. And then he made me answer a ques­tion: why did Bob Marley come to Japan in 1979? I didn’t know Marley had, but then had to lis­ten to your father give a short his­to­ry of reg­gae in Japan, from record­ings of Marley play­ing in 1979, on his first vis­it, with the band Pecker Power and the Flower Travellin’ Band, to Joe Yamanaka and Mute Beat, and the ‘tin­ny rid­dims’ of Naoya Matsuoko Minako. He was sure I would have met the singers in U-Dou or Platy, as he equat­ed me with Okinawa. Your father knew everything—in his method­i­cal engi­neer way—about reg­gae in Japan, but he also despised reg­gae, and as he played record­ing after record­ing for me, he burned me with kamikaze eyes, and he kept drunk­en­ly chal­leng­ing me (once I thought he was going to punch me) to answer the ques­tion again: why did Bob Marley come to Japan in 1979?

Then at dawn, he slammed the old paint-stained CD play­er in the bot­tom draw­er of his desk, and took out a pho­to framed with pur­ple wood and met­al gold stars, and gen­tly placed it in my lap. He motioned to it with a jab­bing ges­ture, and gri­maced at the ceil­ing. The arter­ies were pop­ping in his thick neck. I looked down at the pho­to. You were sit­ting in a gar­den fenced with sticks at about age five. You were plump with black bangs that almost cov­ered your pret­ty eyes and naked but for a lit­tle pur­ple kimono. Someone—was it you?—had made a per­fect cir­cle of a hun­dred toma­toes, and you sat in the cen­ter of them, grin­ning at the cam­era with your mouth wide open as if you were singing, hold­ing out two of the juici­est red toma­toes to the cam­era, and then I saw that it wasn’t a cir­cle of toma­toes around you, but a heart.

As your father sipped, I stud­ied the pho­to. The gar­den was dis­ci­plined, but brim­ming with the ingre­di­ents for an Italian meal: in addi­tion to hun­dreds of toma­toes bend­ing the vines, I spot­ted aspara­gus, broc­coli, egg­plant, bell pep­pers, hot pep­pers, zuc­chi­ni and a neat­ly stoned off sec­tion of herbs like pars­ley, oregano, thyme, and basil. (I took my time study­ing the pho­to, because your father was weep­ing.) It was all farm­land in the back­ground, but on the hori­zon, no big­ger than the toma­toes in your lit­tle hands, I saw the grey box­es of the six Fukushima Daiichi reac­tors. There were shov­els and gloves and wood­en bas­kets, a wheel­bar­row, and down in the cor­ner of the pho­to, a long knife was plunged into soil that was like choco­late with a fresh till­ing.

A few hours lat­er, I was on the bul­let train to Tokyo, slic­ing through the rice fields at 150 kilo­me­ters per hour. In a fold­er on my lap I had direc­tions to the Sheraton in the Mikano dis­trict, and to Babylon 666, the club you would be play­ing at that night. Someone had left a paper­back nov­el on the train—a nov­el by Mishima–and I tried to read it, but it caused me too much anx­i­ety to be existing—even for a few hours—without the frame of a job. The last time I had just read a nov­el for plea­sure was when I wind­surfed in Okinawa that year after col­lege.

I dumped my suit­case on the bed in the Sheraton, and yanked shut the cur­tains, as the light was severe that day. But I yanked the cur­tain so hard it ripped its lit­tle wheels out, and so I just ripped it the rest of the way down, and then stood there with this awful shroud over my fore­arms, look­ing out over the traf­fic of a Tokyo work­day. Until evening, I lay on the bed and looked down at my Thom McCann dress shoes. Then I got up, took a show­er, and lay naked on the bed look­ing at my red­dish toes for a cou­ple of more hours. The fact that I had a goal: to find you at your club, Himamari, was a very good thing. I dug in my suit­case and pulled out a sun-bleached t-shirt—it was a favorite back in my Okinawa days—put on a leather jack­et, and head­ed into the night.

There was a big crowd out­side the indus­tri­al garage doors of Babylon 666, and three naked to the waist bounc­ers. One of the big guys with an ear­phone and a Muslim skull cap pulled me from the crowd. I paid the cov­er, and fought my way to the bar, and then the emp­ty stage.  I could see back­stage behind the yel­low cur­tains from my angle, and spot­ted you right away. You had the same bangs, and you were the same exu­ber­ant child as in your father’s pho­to. But what I rec­og­nized most of all was your mouth: you were singing back­stage, warm­ing up, and jump­ing up and down in that springy Rastafarian way, but your open singing mouth was so you. Something about it was so ecsta­t­ic.

You took the stage and said:

Ikkyoku me, kore wa Kami no koto

You had me from those very first words.: This first song is about divine issues. I’ve learned a lot about reg­gae and its sense of the divine in nature since mov­ing to Kingston—you could say I moved to Kingston for reggae—but I have nev­er felt as, to put it sim­ply, hap­py as I did that night, lis­ten­ing to your band Fukushima Mon, crushed so hard against the band­stand by Japanese ras­ta-lov­ing teenagers that I had to push back to fill my rib cage with a breath. Every time you stopped bounc­ing up and down across the stage, threw your arms open like you were rejoic­ing in sparks thrown down from Bob Marley’s big spliff up in heav­en, pulled the micro­phone up to your mouth, every time you sang a note, I got this elec­tric pulse that trav­elled from the soles of my feet up through my chest and out the top of my head. It was about in the mid­dle of your sec­ond set that you looked direct­ly at me, and you smiled in a way that was so gen­tle, that I mouthed, “I love you.” It was not like me at all—in fact it was the first time I had ever said those words to any woman–and I left the front of the stage and tried to hide in the danc­ing crowd.

I remem­ber this lyric from near the end of your show. You sang:

Shiki ga irodoru yuta­ka na col­or

Daichi ga umi­da­su minori no aka

Wakai ibu­ki ga hanat­su pawaa wa mugendai

I carved it in English on a mahogany plank I found drift­ing in Kingston Bay, and now it hangs in the gal­ley of my ketch:

Rich col­ors of the four sea­sons

Red of the har­vest that the earth bears

The unleashed pow­er of the breath of youth is infi­nite

As I said, there was a huge crowd, so I was sur­prised when your long show was over, and every­one was milling around, that you found me at a table in the back.

I saw you,” you said. “Singing in Japanese.”

I admit­ted I had tried to sing along, but stopped because I want­ed to hear your voice.

I said your voice made me see rice fields.

It was the most poet­ic thing I could think to say, and I want­ed to say the right thing.

You bowed your head. “That is my goal.”

Rice fields?”

Yes,” and then with a smile added, “Or maybe toma­toes.”

You played with your dreads, which were paint­ed gold. “Do you like the gold?” you asked.

I said that no gold would suit you, too.

Thanks,” you said. “I’m think­ing of wash­ing it out. I’m more roots reg­gae than rap­per-dance­hall.”

The guy I took to be your boyfriend or just your bass play­er was now star­ing me down from anoth­er big table where he sat with the rest of the band and a lot of groupies. All the girls had some gold in their dreads, and wore daisy-duke cut off jeans and knee high socks.

You sang a few bars of Bob Marley’s Exodus:

Open your eyes and look with­in

Are you sat­is­fied with the life you’re liv­ing?

I was caught look­ing at the medal­lion dan­gling between her breasts. Your white school­girl shirt was open, and you had on a pur­ple bra. The gold medal­lion was as large as my fist, and at the cen­ter was a disk of jade.

You took the disk in your two hands and stretched out your long white neck to look down at it with the­atri­cal­ly wide eyes. “My father had it made when I was born. He came from a fam­i­ly of met­al crafts­men in Nagasaki. My name means Sunflower.” Then for a long time you looked down at the disk, and then rais­ing your eyes—and I saw for a sec­ond a sad­ness that scared me—you asked, “Would you help me write a song I’m writ­ing in English?”

I said I’d help you, but that you spoke English very well. I said I wasn’t much of a writer, and that if I had any train­ing, it was in sys­tems man­age­ment.

Not American English! I want it to sound Jamaican.”

You shook your head and sighed deeply.

I’m work­ing on a song called ‘Durty Gul’.”

Dirty Girl?” I said, and you said, “Dirty. Like the dirt. I love dirt.”

I want­ed to know more, but your boyfriend/bass play­er was play­ful­ly punch­ing my arm. Then he was less play­ful­ly grip­ping my arm at the bicep. “Who da mon dat kill Bob Marley?” he asked sud­den­ly, sev­er­al times, and flashed a gold tooth.

Why would he know?” you said, slap­ping his chest. “Let go of his arm, Yoshiki.”

He glared at me, but dropped his arm.

Yoshiki’s crazy,” you said. “He’s sure the CIA killed Bob Marley. And he doesn’t like me talk­ing to men, either.”

I stood there and looked at Yoshiki, who asked angri­ly if I knew “Tony Rebel” and then sang: come, come, come, judg­ment a come, come, come while all the time mak­ing an inven­to­ry of his dreadlocks—which went to his waist–inch by inch.

Then he dropped his dreads and got in my face and sang:

Minna akog­a­re­ru no kuni

Nihin ni gen­baku oto­shi­ta Americka

Which he sang then in English, not trust­ing my Japanese:

The free coun­try every­one love

This America drop the bomb on Japan

You pushed Yoshiki away from me and said, “We’ve got to go. I’ve got to get these guys to prac­tice my new songs,” and then you added, “Do you speak Chinese, too? Next year, I plan to take the band to Beijing. They need songs about dirt.”

I said I just knew a lit­tle Chinese, but told you how much I’d enjoyed your music.

You closed your eyes. “You’re the first one,” she said. “All the oth­ers just want to fuck me.” You did a vocal exer­cise, and I saw your pret­ty mouth open in that way, as if you were singing the world into exis­tence. “You’d think he’d not send old American men to check on me,” she said, touch­ing her white shirt. “They all have a thing about the Asian school­girl look.”

You knew all the time?”

You closed your eyes for a moment and then reached out and touched my hand, “Why don’t you come to anoth­er con­cert?” you asked. “We play here every Wednesday, and at Bushido’s on Saturday night.”

I lied and said my trip to Tokyo was about over.

You have to get back before the plant blows up,” you said. You didn’t look like you were jok­ing.

Of course, this was the day before, so look­ing back, well, what can I say, Himamari?

You took the medal­lion off your chest and kissed it. “It will some­day, you know,” you said. “I’ve known it since I was a lit­tle girl in Fukushima. I saw it in night­mares that start­ed a few years after my father went to work there. He wasn’t sup­posed to work there. We lived on my mother’s fam­i­ly farm in Tomioka, and he was sup­posed to be a farmer. But he looked at Fukushima Daaichi every day plow­ing in the field, and it took over his brain. I could see the reac­tors from my bed­room win­dow, and I didn’t want that to hap­pen to me, so when I was eight I papered over my win­dow and from then on, even when I was in the yard, or the gar­den, or get­ting in and out of the car, I’d not look over there. I walked around for years with my eyes on the ground, and my father thought I was just being a good Japanese girl.”

It seemed for a moment you were in a deep trance, but then you looked at me and said with a small amount of alarm, “You do work at Fukushima, right?”

I thought we had estab­lished that, but you looked so wor­ried that I reached out and held your arm and said, yes.

Of course,” you said nod­ding, “It shows in your face, and in your hands.”

It struck me that this couldn’t be true, but I drank my beer and looked at my hands.

But you like reg­gae music,” you said, as if I was a big ques­tion mark.

You stared into my eyes, and said, “Sometimes men who worked with my father at the nuclear plant would come after work to our farm­house. We had a stone path to the front door my moth­er put in when my par­ents were first mar­ried. It was like a Zen gar­den. You had to step from stone to stone, or you stepped on dirt. And those nuclear men treat­ed it like a mine­field, like if they stepped off the stones they would be blown apart.”

You held my eyes my eyes for a moment, and then went on: “Just before I left home for good with my boyfriend at four­teen, when I wasn’t prac­tic­ing my music, I liked to work in the gar­den. I was very upset at the time because I knew I was going to have to run away from my father, and the only things that calmed me were reg­gae music, and hav­ing my hands in the dirt. Sometimes my first boyfriend would stand there with his gui­tar and sing to me as I plant­ed and weed­ed and watered the gar­den. It made me very hap­py, and the plants liked it too. He was twen­ty-two, and had been to Jamaica, and had dreads to his shoul­der. He thought my father, and any­one who worked at Fukushima, was a true cit­i­zen of Babylon, the oppres­sor, and to be hat­ed. And he talked Jamaican ras­ta patois. So my father’s co-work­ers came by, and they would be mak­ing their way across the stone steps, and he—his name was Hibikilla—would sing loud­er and shake his dreads, and they knew he was curs­ing them. Rastas do not believe the meek shall inher­it the earth, but that it is right to stand up to Babylon’s injus­tice, evil and oppres­sion with the strength of a lion. So he shook his dreads—his lion’s mane—at those nuclear engi­neers and work­ers, and then final­ly one day he and my father got in a big fight, and I walked down the road with Hibikilla—we see cars as instru­ments of Babylon—and so, now I am in Tokyo, in exo­dus from the dirt of my ances­tors, but I sing about the dirt of Fukushima, and I know some­day I must return there, and place my hands in it again, and grow things again in that dirt.”

And with that, you low­ered your head.

I ordered anoth­er beer and watched as you, and then the rest of your band, got up to leave. Yoshiki stormed out first, spear­ing his gui­tar case into the crowd. Kazuhiko fol­lowed wav­ing his drum sticks mag­i­cal­ly in the air, then you, Himamari, turned back and flapped your medal­lion at me. It caught on the lights and sent a dozen reflec­tions skit­ter­ing across the black ceil­ing like fish.

A minute lat­er, you came back into Babylon 666 with Yoshiki. You came up to me look­ing exas­per­at­ed, and Yoshiki came right out with it and said, “Who killed Bob Marley?”

A glance at you, and I knew to say, “The CIA.”

Yoshiki grinned and nod­ded and put out his fist, and we bumped them sev­er­al times, and then he pulled me into an embrace and said all was “Irie” between us now. As Yoshiki turned to loud­ly pro­nounced to some oth­er ras­tas that all was “Irie” with the gai­jin now, you whis­pered in my ear, “Tell my father he is to be a grand­fa­ther.”

I looked at Yoshiki, and you nod­ded.

And then you were gone.

And ear­ly the next morning—five days ear­li­er than planned—I got back on the bul­let train, and head­ed back to work at Fukushima Daichi. At noon on March 11th, I got off the train at the Fukushima sta­tion, and instead of going to work, I drove along the coast­line, and pulled over at Tomioko. It was a qui­et day, but the sea was ashen in col­or. And then sud­den­ly trucks raced past me, and as I looked down at the har­bor, I saw fish­er­men leap­ing into their boats along the dock, and with­in min­utes, twen­ty boats were head­ing straight out to sea. This was still an hour before the earth­quake. I learned lat­er that ani­mals had been flee­ing to high ground all morn­ing. Maybe the fish­er­men took cue from the ani­mals, oth­er­wise, how did they know? Only three of those fish­ing boats made it up and over the 100 mile an hour wave of the tsuna­mi that was soon to head toward the coast­line.

Back at the nuclear plant, it was eeri­ly peace­ful, and birds were singing as I head­ed into build­ing A. But as I walked toward the main con­trol room, there was an incred­i­ble rum­ble, and I was thrown against the wall. The shak­ing got stronger and stronger, and as I stum­bled to the con­trol room, I saw pipes rip­ping off the wall. Workers were flee­ing all around me, yelling about the com­ing tsuna­mi. In the con­trol room, your father bowed to me for­mal­ly, and not long after the tsuna­mi crashed over the sea­wall, and plucked up the 5,000 ton fuel tanks for the back­up diesel gen­er­a­tors. Your father and I stood togeth­er out­side and watched them sink into the sea. We both knew that with­out the back­up gen­er­a­tors, when the main pow­er died and there was no way to pump cool water into the six reac­tors, we would have no way to keep the nuclear fuel from melt­ing down.

It was dark and silent in the con­trol room. Then some of the senior nuclear engi­neers found a few flash­lights. No one was speak­ing, but I heard a mag­ic mark­er squeak­ing on a white board, and a flash­light played over it:

15:42 Nuclear Emergency

15:48 Loss of pow­er

And the engi­neer was adding:

16:36 Cooling Systems Shut Down

The last line was the ‘Chernobyl’ line.

A glance at our dosime­ters told us, as expect­ed, the radi­a­tion lev­els were ris­ing rapid­ly in the con­trol room: nuclear melt­down had begun. But we didn’t know any­thing else about what was going on inside the reac­tors, because with­out elec­tric­i­ty, none of the gauges were oper­a­tional. Every engi­neer in that room knew not only were they doomed when the six reac­tors blew up, but the north­ern third of Japan would be unin­hab­it­able for 30,000 years.

The engi­neers turned to look at your father. He was silent for a minute, and then told the men to all run to their cars. When he said that, I saw a few of the engi­neers head toward the doors. But he explained he want­ed them to: run to their cars and bring back their car bat­ter­ies. When they did, lug­ging them in one by one, he used them to pow­er up some of the pres­sure gauge in reac­tor one, and we learned that the over­heat­ing rods were turn­ing the last of the cool­ing water into steam and hydro­gen, and that the pres­sure in the reac­tor was already in the red zone.

The car­di­nal rule in nuclear pow­er is: nev­er vent into the atmos­phere. But it was either vent this hydro­gen and steam—and all the radi­a­tion that would escape with it—or wait for the reac­tor unit to explode. But the vents, too,  oper­at­ed on elec­tric­i­ty. And there was no elec­tric­i­ty.

Once again, the engi­neers looked to your father. He grabbed some man­u­als, motioned to me and two oth­er engi­neers, and we poured over them by flash­light. And then your father said loud­ly: “I need a vol­un­teer to go with me.”

There was silence.

It was pos­si­ble to move the vents by hand by turn­ing two steel wheels. But to do so meant enter­ing the reac­tor core, and that was prob­a­bly a sui­cide mis­sion. Your father at this point sent home—if they still had a home or fam­i­lies with fif­teen thou­sand dead and hun­dreds of thou­sands of homes lost—over two hun­dred and fifty work­ers. And then he asked again for a vol­un­teer. I raised my hand, but he shook his head and said some­thing about “47 Ronin”.

I have since read a great deal about the “47 Ronin” and how these forty-sev­en samu­rai avenged the death of their Lord after two years of care­ful plan­ning, and then com­mit­ted mass seppeku on his grave, after show­ing him the head of his ene­my. It is a true sto­ry that gets at the heart of bushi­do, the samu­rai code of hon­or.

An engi­neer by the name of Kazuhiko Kokubo raised his hand a few moments lat­er. We all watched your father and Kazuhiko put on haz­mat suits, and I walked with them as far as the steel door into the reac­tor.

At 67 mil­lisiev­erts, your father and Kazuhiko had nine min­utes to get to the wheel. It was done, but while in the reac­tor core, your father took—on top of the gen­er­al extreme radi­a­tion expo­sure– a beta radi­a­tion burn when he stepped into a pud­dle and the water breached the seal on his right boot. He nev­er spoke about this burn at the time.

It was after this that your father led a group of Tokyo fire­fight­ers (lat­er called by the media the “Fukushima 50”) in the plac­ing of a pipeline from the ocean into the reac­tor core. I helped with this oper­a­tion, and at times we were spied on by American drones fly­ing low over­head, as we in turn watched our dosime­ters spike wild­ly, at times into the dead­ly 1000 mil­lisiev­ert zone. Your father dragged the final length of fire hose into the actu­al reac­tor core. It was the plac­ing of this hose-which poured sea­wa­ter around the over­heat­ing nuclear rods—that kept the reac­tor from explod­ing like ten Chernobyls. The use of this pipe defied the direct order of the Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, to not use sea­wa­ter to cool the reac­tor. Perhaps the Prime Minister was think­ing of the twelve thou­sand tons of radioac­tive water that would spill back into the sea: most peo­ple seem to have for­got­ten about the cesium, stron­tium and plu­to­ni­um in all those thou­sands of tons of glow­ing water, more than fif­teen thou­sand terrabec­querels of radi­a­tion, now swill­ing around the world’s oceans.

Just as few think any­more about the tens of thou­sands of terrabec­querels of radi­a­tion released into the world’s atmos­phere when we vent­ed the reac­tors.

 

But I know this, Himamari: not one per­son thinks–except me–about the day your father walked into a hos­pi­tal lob­by in Kyoto two months lat­er.

Kazuhiko Kokubo, the engi­neer who vol­un­teered to enter the reac­tor and turn the vent wheel with your father, was dying of radi­a­tion poi­son­ing, and your father went there to hon­or him and say good­bye. The offi­cial line was that Kazuhiko had a pre-exist­ing ill­ness. When your father arrived at the hos­pi­tal, he was told in the lob­by that Kazuhiko had died an hour ear­li­er, and that he could not see the body, as it was clas­si­fied as radioac­tive waste. On the way back to his car your father col­lapsed, and from his hos­pi­tal bed, he called me on his cell phone. The call wasn’t a sur­prise. For two months your father had done noth­ing but work to sta­bi­lize Fukushima Daiichi. I worked along­side him, and saw his hair fall out onto the desk in his office. But he just swiped his hair into a trash can, and refused to see a doc­tor. The only thing on his desk now—and it was always piled high with reports in the past–was the child­hood pic­ture of you with the toma­toes. When I arrived at the hos­pi­tal the doc­tors told me he had a few days to live, per­haps even just hours.

I found your father naked on his hos­pi­tal bed, his legs and arms spread wide. His skin—which was cov­ered in pim­pled red sores—was open and ooz­ing. There was grey skin falling in sheets off his foot that had tak­en the beta burn.

He—through blis­tered lips–asked me to find you.

I sprint­ed to the park­ing lot.

In Tokyo, every­one was wear­ing masks. At Babylon 666, the own­er told me you had quit your band, and were work­ing at a “Citizen’s Radiation Monitoring Station” and gave me direc­tions to a local super­mar­ket, where I found you run­ning a prim­i­tive geiger counter over the gro­ceries of a long line of fright­ened moth­ers, many with masked chil­dren in hand. Two of the chil­dren had nose­bleeds while I stood there wait­ing for you to fin­ish your shift. I helped one of the moth­ers with a bleed­ing child. She was so upset she could not even think to sit the child down and have her tip her head back. But then the child’s nose didn’t stop bleed­ing, and I said some­thing to the fran­tic moth­er like, “this works nor­mal­ly.”

And then you looked over and said, “Normal is no longer nor­mal.”

The child’s moth­er was break­ing down as the nose­bleed was get­ting worse, and the hys­te­ria was spread­ing to those women in line to have their gro­ceries checked for radi­a­tion. I sug­gest­ed we take the child to a hos­pi­tal, and the four of us got into your father’s car.

And it was then I told you about your father.

And it was then you told me about your abor­tion.

The gold was gone from your hair, and you were wear­ing jeans, a t-shirt, and a cot­ton haki-maki that held your hair back neat­ly from your face.

You spoke non­stop all the way to Kyoto Hospital of the cesium in breast milk, of thy­roid expo­sure, of wild­ly fluc­tu­at­ing lev­els of radionu­cleotides on fruits, veg­eta­bles and rice, of how moth­ers-to-be count­ed the fin­gers and toes on the ultra­sounds of their babies-to-be, of the uncer­tain­ty and invis­i­ble threat of stron­tium and plu­to­ni­um break­ing DNA strands, and how the slow, creep­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure and lack of con­trol was push­ing peo­ple you knew into list­less­ness, depres­sion and addic­tion, about how every con­ver­sa­tion was about: where were you on March 15th when the radi­a­tion reached Tokyo, and what did your chil­dren eat and drink that day?

You spoke of gov­ern­ment lies and cov­er-ups, and how the Japanese were cursed by a con­for­mi­ty such that no was sure what to do for them­selves, and how you didn’t know what to do, and how that was killing you. At the time it didn’t cross my mind that when you did decide what to do, it would kill you.

As I sped north to Osaka—hoping we made it in time for you to say good­bye to your father Masao—I remem­ber you kept repeat­ing under your breath: the ordi­nary is over.

It was just as I turned into the hospital—almost hit­ting an ambulance—that you turned to me and said, “I don’t even know your name.”

I was about to tell you, but you sud­den­ly held your hands over your ears and said not to tell you.

You then looked at me after I parked the car and said, “I will call you ‘Eri’.

I liked that name: My Protector.

That was the first of two names you would dub me with over the next months. I wish you had nev­er giv­en me the sec­ond name.

Your father was not dead, but when we entered his room was ful­ly dressed, sit­ting in a yel­low chair, wait­ing for you, Himamari.

He bowed to you, and asked to be tak­en home to his farm. His desire to check out caused a small uproar at the hos­pi­tal, and in the end I had to ram your father in his wheel­chair past a crowd of doc­tors, nurs­es and hos­pi­tal exec­u­tives. He laughed about it as we drove north, and asked over and over in a whis­pery voice if I was in the mafia. It was his Italian thing. But I had signed in when I went to the hos­pi­tal and put down that I worked for TEPCO at Fukushima Daiichi, and there would be swift fallout—so to speak— from my actions in free­ing your father.

An hour lat­er we came to the police block­ade at the edge of the twelve mile radi­a­tion evac­u­a­tion zone around Fukushima Daiichi, and I rolled down your father’s win­dow, and he flashed his work badge at the police­men, and they salut­ed him as a high exec­u­tive and said: hai and raised the bar­ri­er. We passed towns that were noth­ing but wood and rub­ble, and we stopped for cows lying in the street. The cows had been freed before the farm­ers fled, and now many were fat on the grass, and enjoy­ing the warmth of the road.  What we didn’t know was how many hun­dreds had died of star­va­tion, chained in their stalls. We also saw dozens of orphaned dogs and cats roam­ing the ruins.

And soon after that an ostrich blocked our way. The ostrich was the sym­bol of TEPCO, and this ostrich was kept around for cor­po­rate events, but some­how had got­ten free.

Your father said qui­et­ly, “The ostrich is like TEPCO: it sticks its head in the sand when there is dan­ger.”

He looked at me and laughed qui­et­ly, and I saw that even laugh­ing was caus­ing him a great deal of pain.

At your fam­i­ly farm, you and I helped your father from the car. For a moment he stood erect, but then slumped against you and slid to the ground. You got the wheel­bar­row from the gar­den and filled it with pil­lows. I placed your father in the wheel­bar­row, and tak­ing the two han­dles, rolled him up his dri­ve­way. Your father raised his hand as we turned toward the farm­house, and you bent down to his lips, and then said, “he wants to go to the gar­den.”

You took a han­dle of the wheel­bar­row, and togeth­er we rolled your father to the gar­den. When we came to the wood­en gate, he raised his hand and point­ed, so we pushed the wheel­bar­row over the soft soil, between the rows of toma­to plants. The garden—despite the earth­quake and tsuna­mi and nuclear meltdown–was neat­ly plant­ed and grow­ing. Your father must have tend­ed it when he got home from work each night, but he must have done it at times by the light of his truck head­lights. I saw you look­ing around, and then bend over and cup a tiny, green toma­to in your hand.

Your father motioned to get out of the wheel­bar­row, and you ran to the farm­house and returned with blan­kets and more pil­lows, and we made a bed in the gar­den, and togeth­er placed him gen­tly on it. And it was late that night, sur­round­ed in the dark by green toma­toes, with you hold­ing his hand, that he died. I lay on the hood of the car that night, close enough to hear you singing to your father. I remem­ber you singing Judy Mowatt’s “I Shall Sing” over and over, and you told me lat­er your father pressed your hand as a sign to sing it again.

In the morn­ing, I walked over to the gar­den and found you asleep with your head on your father’s chest. I stood and looked at the gold­en sun­flower medal­lion around your neck as it glit­tered in the sun­rise.

You awoke when a three legged dog—with the bone showing–ran bark­ing past the gar­den, and went in the farm­house and brought out tea. You said some­one need­ed to care of all the ani­mals left behind, as they were ‘sen­tient beings’. I knew the water in your well was prob­a­bly very radioac­tive. We sipped the tea and you told me about the Rastafarian idea of ‘sit­ting in the dirt’: a way of awak­en­ing to nature and get­ting away from the cor­ro­sive ‘doing’-oriented mind­set of all that is Babylon.

Then you told me about the Japanese idea of teikkai, of know­ing where your food was grown, how it was grown, and who grew it. You plucked a green toma­to and bit into it. I want­ed to stop you, or tell you to wash it with bot­tled water from the car, as I could almost see the radioac­tive iso­topes.

I sus­pect­ed then how this would end. That in less than a year I would return here, and alone dig a sec­ond grave in the gar­den.

There were blue flies land­ing on your father, and I told you about Kazuhiko Kokubo, the engi­neer who entered the reac­tor to open the vents, and how his body was clas­si­fied as radioac­tive waste and tak­en away. You stood and walked to an out­build­ing and came back with two shov­els. Together, we dug a grave in the path between the toma­toes. As I dug I thought about how we were at the very heart of the twelve mile radi­a­tion exclu­sion zone, and how the Japanese gov­ern­ment said no one would be able to live here again for thir­ty years. I had glanced at my dosime­ter back at the car, and your farm was at 45 mil­lisiev­erts, and so was one of the hottest spots in the hot zone. Raising my eyes as I dug, I could see what you avoid­ed look­ing at as a lit­tle girl: the six grey box­es of the six nuclear reac­tors at Fukushima Daiichi.

Your father was placed at the bot­tom of the grave in a sheet, and you turned away as I cov­ered him with dirt. When the dirt was lev­el, you replant­ed six small toma­to plants in a neat row down the length of his body.

You got a gui­tar from the house, and sang a song over the grave. It was your song “Durty Gul”, and I remem­ber the lines:

I walk on air
From moun­tain­top to moun­tain­top
Dirt in my hands
I walk on air with flow­ers in my hair

~

TOM PAINE’s short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Pen/Hemingway Award final­ist, a Village Voice “Writer on the Verge” pick, an Esquire “Hot List” book, a Barnes and Noble “Discover New Writers” pick and was fea­tured on National Public Radio. Stories in this col­lec­tion were pub­lished in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, The Boston Review, the New England Review, Zoetrope, the Oxford American and Story as well as in the award antholo­gies The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize (twice), Best New Stories from the South, American Fiction X: Best Stories from Unpublished Writers, and The KGB Bar Reader. His nov­el The Pearl of Kuwait (Harcourt) was fea­tured on pub­lic radio, reviewed nation­al­ly, and was recent­ly optioned. A grad­u­ate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA pro­gram, he is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the MFA pro­gram at the University of New Hampshire.