In the summer of 1945, my Grandma finished her very first semester in grade school near Hiroshima. Grandma was born and lived in the outskirt of Hiroshima during WWII. There were hundreds of thousands of Koreans living in Japan at the time–most of them conscripted to forced labor due to Japan’s domestic labor shortage. Grandma’s family crossed the sea and her father, my great grandfather, worked an oil factory. All the Koreans in the area settled in a slum with no street address, where clusters of tin-roof shacks huddled together. The children grew up reciting the lyrics of Kimigayo and playing under the muffled thuds of bombs in the distance. That spring, Grandma’s older sister was married off as soon as she finished 9th grade. There were too many girls in the family and there had not been enough to feed them anyways. The newly-weds moved to Hiroshima and Grandma went to go spend the summer with them in the city.
Under a scorching sun, the siren would ring and housewives would come to form a long line with their toddlers wrapped on their backs. A thousand times already, they practiced evacuating into areas safe from air raids. Grandma had never seen a massive bombing ravaging her surroundings, but she had seen hunger doing the job. One time, hundreds of them were underground and they were not released for days and days until it was thought to be safe. With thrashing hunger and looming darkness, war did not care whether you’re Korean or Japanese; everyone was prone to suffer. There was nothing to drink nor eat. Grandma lay hopelessly like a dried squid next to the sick and the old as they grew feebler and some drew their last breath. She doesn’t remember if that time was August 1945, when her family stole into a nearby tunnel just like the drills she had practiced before. Soon after Little Boy was dropped, they left the tunnel to find their loved ones and homes completely demolished and contaminated. Only one of Grandma’s cousins ‘saw the light’.
And life went on. The end of the war gave the family few reasons to remain in Japan. Some twenty years later, most of Grandma’s siblings were living in South Korea. After they moved back there, there were Vietnam, dictatorships, revolutions and Olympics. It never showed anyways. Nobody talked about it. All of them married and had children and grandchildren. The cousin who was directly exposed to radiation had a family in Japan. Each of her children had two arms and two legs. You could never tell. The women suffered thyroid cancer. They believed it ran in the family. Grandma had it when she was 40 and had her thyroid removed. Grandma’s siblings have had different kinds of cancers but so did everybody else of that age. Grandma’s first child suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He could never walk until he died at the age of 12. But that was just bad luck. Even Stephen Hawking has it. There was little time to reminisce about Hiroshima. It coincides with the years of shame — the time when their tongues and names changed to Japanese, the time when they were less of human beings. Now their hair greyed and their minds blurred. Each of them had a pretty good shot. They’ve traveled to places and their children went to universities — it never showed.
Tokyo is bustling as ever and tiny quakes still occasionally quiver. Little has changed since the Tsunami last year and the traces of March 11 lay low. The city glows at night just like it does in the movies; Shibuya Crossing gets washed away by seas of people at every green light and Akihabara is full to the brim with throngs of nerdy techies. Thirteen million people pass by the raucous glares of shop lights and gabby billboards. The most bizarre creations rush in as all kinds of oddity become the norm. Ramen shops open and close and before you know it, you are about to enter another izakaya or karaoke. Virtually nothing about the city resonates last year’s apocalyptic crisis.
In subway stations, the air reeks of exhaust and tobacco. A few neatly-designed ‘Let’s go to Tohoku’ posters cover one wall. A bit desperate, cringey effort oozes out of them like when the most unpopular kid in 4th grade tried to invite everyone to his birthday party so his mother wouldn’t think he is socially inept. But they might be right — Tohoku needs support. Every weekend, buses loaded with volunteers are sent to northeast Tohoku to help with cleaning and rebuilding. Devastation lingers but radiation remains invisible. Your face won’t melt when you go there. A nationwide campaign ‘Let’s Eat and Support’ tries to help the farmers and fishermen from the polluted areas. Pictures of deformed animals and fruits have been gone around on the internet, but it never shows here. We don’t feel it here. One television commentator who gulped down bowls of Fukushima vegetables on TV as part of the campaign resigned after he was diagnosed with leukemia. That might have been just bad luck. People get sick all the time. You would never be able to tell what’s in the bowl of soup you get at the restaurants anyways. You can’t smell it. You would never get sick from it the next day. In the meantime, the country tried to ‘exit’ nuclear energy. The upcoming election parades with political platitudes. A renowned Japanese actor who is openly anti-nuclear energy also endorses the ‘Let’s Eat and Support’ campaign. The amount of cesium found in rice from Fukushima was apparently at a tolerable level. But Greenpeace is inspecting it now. Dissonance and ambiguity prevail. But among all, a controlled silence seems to triumph.
Yet every household keeps an emergency backpack, equipped with a lantern and water and some food. Since the government foresees a 70% chance of an even larger quake with its epicenter in Tokyo in the next 30 years, some say Tokyo is a perfectly romantic city for an apocalypse. Earthquakes are like bombs; they are palpably daunting. We leap under the tables and desks just like we practice. Gas and electricity would be turned off and nothing but some bookshelves would collapse. When we come out of the shells and walk back to our homes, we find broken dishes and glasses on the floor. But we wouldn’t see the pollution. Life keeps us busy and one day we will have children with four limbs. There is little time to reminisce Fukushima and we will grow old. Japan would again prove strangely resilient as we unwaveringly grip on life on the cusp of a slow calamity.
But then, it never shows. You could never tell. It might be just bad luck.