Monday, April 11, 2011

Sakura and Masks

As of today, it has been a month since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and as I write this my study is being shaken by a succession of shocks severe enough to make me look very warily at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves surrounding me. The preliminary news reports are saying that it's a Magnitude 7.1 quake, 6-lower on the Japanese shindo scale, centered off Fukushima Prefecture, and that there are tsunami warnings and cautions in effect along the Tohoku and Kanto coasts. Under more normal circumstances, that would be a significant earthquake;  now it's "merely" another in a long series of aftershocks.

A couple of hours ago, there was a brief but intense thunderstorm, also sudden after a mild, sunny day. That's more common here in the summer, but not unheard of in the spring; in retrospect it seems as if it was a loud herald for yet another demonstration of Nature's violent side.

I haven't written about the multiple disasters that struck Japan since my post last month on dealing with the immediate post-quake transportation problems. I haven't really felt as if I had anything worthy of adding to the many opinions and descriptions and discussions, at least not at this still rather early stage. I will probably have something to say later, when more accurate information is available for all of the affected areas and their inhabitants.

Just before the aftershocks began today, though, I was reminded that it was 41 years ago today that I arrived in Japan. That day also started off sunny and mild, but there were showers later in the day then, too. The cherry blossoms had bloomed somewhat earlier that year than this, but there were still plenty of them on the trees, along with petals dancing in the wind or swirling in rivulets of rain on the streets. As I rode in a van from where I'd landed at Yokota Air Base to my new duty station at Yokosuka Naval Base, my attention was certainly caught by the sakura, but it was also caught by all of the masks I saw.

At the time, I had never seen anyone wearing a surgical mask outside of a hospital. As we drove through what was probably Yokohama, right around rush hour, it seemed as if at least one of every 10 people we passed were wearing masks. It was inconceivable that so many doctors and nurses had forgotten to remove their masks before starting for home, or even that such a high percentage of the passersby could be medical personnel.

After a moment's consideration of whether I might be hallucinating, I asked our driver, another sailor but one who had at least been here long enough to be able to drive skillfully through Japanese traffic. At first, he didn't understand the question; I immediately revised upward my estimate of how long he'd been here.

"Oh, yeah...the masks. They wear them when they have colds, or hay fever, or when they figure that others might. I guess you could say it's a combination of caution and consideration. Avoid catching something, or avoid passing something on to others. You'll get used to it."

And of course I did. I hardly noticed the masks anymore after a few months, just as I hardly noticed the occasional mild earthquake--having been born and raised in quake-prone San Francisco helped with that. I've been seeing more masks than usual lately, but regardless of what some of the more sensational--and irresponsible--journalists have been saying, that's much more because of the very high levels of pollen in the air this season than because of any fear of wind-borne radioactive contaminants, at least for most people in the Tokyo area.

The sakura blossoms are admired for their ephemeral beauty, but also because they return, brilliant and lovely, each spring. The sakura fubuki--cherry blossom blizzards--of petals blown from the branches are sad but beautiful, yet carry a promise of next year's glory. The masks that so many people wear are a sign of temporary discomfort, even misery, but they, too, are impermanent.

Beauty, and health, and happiness will return, to the sakura, to the people, and to the country; recovery will take time and effort, but it will happen, and probably faster than expected.

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