A World Without Pain Is a World Without Heroes

Five months after an earthquake shook Japan, I visited Tokyo — and witnessed how a country copes with tragedy

TThe fishing village on Japan’s northeastern coast existed until a few minutes past 8 p.m. on June 15, 1896, when the people inside their wooden houses opened their eyes to darkness — and a rumbling noise drowned out the sound of dogs barking, the crackle of fires settling to ash.

Four months later, an article in National Geographic described what happened next:

Only a few survivors on all that length of coast saw the advancing wave, one of them telling that the water first receded some 600 yards from ghastly white sands and then the Wave stood like a black wall 80 feet in height, with phosphorescent lights gleaming along its crest.

Those lucky enough to spy the tsunami ran for higher ground — or their roofs — except one nameless man:

A half-demented soldier, retired since the late war and continually brooding on a possible attack by the enemy, became convinced that the first cannonading sound was from a hostile fleet, and, seizing his sword, ran down to the beach to meet the foe.

The wave hit. It smashed houses to kindling, carried boats a mile inland, snapped trees at the roots, tore away a temple’s stone crossbeams and hurled them the equivalent of three football fields. It killed more than 27,000 people by some estimates, and left the survivors to struggle with the wreckage and bodies. One of the latter, presumably, was the half-demented soldier.

Japan sits on the circum-Pacific seismic belt, with a network of deep-sea trenches and volcanoes that earns it an ominous nickname: the Ring of Fire. When the unstable crust trembles, it shifts millions of tons of water, which crush everything in their path. Your only options are escape, or death.

II.

On March 11, 2011, another earthquake shook Japan.

In video after video, people step beneath doorways or stop to crouch as the ground shakes, as lights swing wildly, as boxes and books tumble from shelves. Minutes later, a tsunami barrels into the coastline. Television cameras in helicopters capture the wave as it makes landfall, dissolving the countryside in brown water foaming with wreckage. Far below, survivors on rooftops record footage of flooding streets.

In one clip, a white van drifts down a two-lane street on boiling whitecaps, followed closely by a small fishing vessel. Windows shatter before the force of water. The tide rises faster and faster, higher and higher, lifting parked cars by their trunks, dragging them into the new black current.

We point to heroes as if to say, ‘This is how we survive. This is how we come back.’

A camera operator climbs atop a flight of concrete stairs set into a hillside, swinging his lens to the right. One block away, a two-story building spews brown dust — and then starts to move, buoyed by the flood, crunching against the structures hemming it in. Separated by time and distance, confined to a tiny window on a computer, the destruction takes on the surreal quality of a fairy tale: the scene, perhaps, where an evil wizard waves his wand and unleashes a dark force on the land.

That force left wrecked cars, cored-out homes, fishing boats stranded inland, power outages, and radioactive water gushing from a nuclear plant. Whole mountains of debris had to be excavated, bulldozed, and carted away. Search teams found bodies and pulled them from the cool mud back into the heat and light.

The world is a ball of unseen cracks capable of spurring disaster at any moment. Los Angeles can shake itself to pieces, though it often prefers to burn. Hurricanes whirl through the Caribbean, stripping islands clean in their path. Then come man-made tragedies: broken drilling platforms that gush fish-killing crude, jet bombers flash-frying the surface of a distant desert.

Every time, the survivors bury their dead and figure out how to regain normalcy and create a new home; a comforting bubble in which life can happen. You clear the rubble. You hammer fresh planks together. You set marked stones at the tsunami’s highest watermark to discourage building beneath that point, knowing full well that people will eventually set roots again in the danger zone — because that’s what we do. We let ourselves believe the next disaster will never come.

In the meantime, we find heroes: the woman who pulled two or three others from the path of the disaster, for example, or the man who treated wounds until he collapsed from exhaustion. We point to them as if to say, This is how we survive. This is how we come back.

III.

I first traveled to Japan in October 2011, on assignment to see how the electronics factories in the Tohoku region, north of Tokyo, were recovering from the disaster. As an editor at a technology news website I had received reports about lost chip-fabrication capacity, offline manufacturing units, and time needed to return to full production: ruination reduced to the driest possible terms, numbers arranged in neat black-and-white columns.

After landing, I puzzled out the bus system and made my way to a hotel in Chiba, on the curve of Tokyo Bay. Once there, I learned the government had decided to cancel our planned trip north. I still had a conference to attend and a talk to co-host alongside three other British and American journalists, but it looked like I would be in the Tokyo area for the duration.

I kept a lookout for signs of the earthquake: cracks in the roadways or windows, an imploded building or two. Years before, I’d traveled to Nicaragua on assignment and seen rubble allegedly left by an earthquake that struck 40 years earlier. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, friends had returned from New Orleans with cameras full of photos of torn-away bridges and stores reduced to teetering facades. Damage lingers.

But not in Tokyo. By the time I got there, the city had smoothed its cracks, repaired its roadways, cleared away broken glass. If any work was still in progress, it was lost amid the tarps and scaffolding of regular construction, the cycles of buildup and teardown that serve as any big city’s respiration.

Instead, the damage manifested itself in other ways. The conference was a chance for Japanese companies to display their latest technology. In America, these sorts of events feature consumer gizmos, tablets, and phones. The emphasis is always on the newest and coolest.

Everywhere you looked, Japanese companies were creating ways to survive, to keep your life charged even after the whole electrical grid collapses.

This Japanese event, however, overwhelmingly featured the sorts of devices you stockpile in event of disaster: batteries, waterproof communications gear, technological innovations that allow your electric vehicle to power your home. Everywhere you looked, Japanese companies were creating ways to survive, to keep your life charged even after the whole electrical grid collapses.

The Japanese executives muttered a single phrase over and over: “March 11.” They did so the same way Americans intoned “9/11” in the decade after the twin towers collapsed in piles of rubble. Four syllables meant to convey an infinite amount of pain and loss.

Societies are people, and they work out their wounds like people: once the bandages come off, there is scar tissue, sensitive and red and barely healed. It takes time for those scars to blend with the skin, until you can tell the story of that wound at a party and make everyone laugh.

IV.

While wandering through Tokyo alone at night, I thought about that old soldier, the one who charged into the face of the wave.

I thought about the term “half-demented soldier.” I assumed the “late war” referenced in the article was the First Sino-Japanese War, which ended in April 1895. Illustrations from that conflict suggest the brutality with which the Japanese and China’s Qing leaders fought. Maybe the soldier’s dementia was actually post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including guilt, bursts of anger, and exaggerated reactions to events.

Trauma or not, I imagine the sight of that enormous wave stopped him in his tracks. Horrified, he could have turned and tried to run, despite the tsunami’s lethal speed.

But that version feels uncharitable. Instead, picture him charging across those white sands, hand on the hilt of his blade, screaming into the watery thunder, knowing the full import of his suicidal gesture before the wave’s shadow blots him from existence. That would be the Kurosawa ending: a samurai-style refusal to yield, even in the face of certain annihilation. A human icon of that desire to protect home, the most ephemeral thing, which too often disappears in an instant. It’s a heroic ideal, and a comforting one. Exactly what anyone might need to hear in the face of Armageddon.

V.

These days, I’ve been thinking often about heroes and trauma. You can’t have one without the other. A story of a hero is therapy for a society; these tales show that values endure, even at the worst moments. But the cost for the heroes themselves is great — often too great.

In some ways, it would be preferable to live in a world without heroes — dull and gray, but also safe and calm. The world will never allow that. We have to continue on, no matter what looms above us; we need heroes and their stories, the better to soothe us with the illusion that our lives have weight and significance. That we can stand — or try to — against titanic forces that crush us without mercy.

Writer, editor, author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday' and 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club.'

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