Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Quake crackers

"Do you remember the name of that naughty boy in your class at the German School in Tokyo? The one who ate the emergency rations in his earthquake backpack?" I asked one of my brothers on the phone last night.

"Erm..." he hesitated. "I think that was actually me."

The boy who ate the quake crackers was one of many anecdotes from our first stay in Japan, when I was about three years old. My brothers went to the German School, where they were given proper earthquake training and a backpack with water, a blanket and crackers. I was probably too small for that. All I remember is crawling under the table whenever the floor started shaking.

Those well-prepared schoolboys with their little backpacks were on my mind when I spoke to my uncle, who still lives in Japan, on Saturday. He was in the middle of bundling his wife, two sons and various suitcases into a car. Several German families had already left Tokyo, driving south, away from the nuclear reactors that were hit by the earthquake.

At that point, none of my other friends in Tokyo were considering leaving, but Germans are particularly allergic to nuclear news because of our memories of the Chernobyl disaster. I still have vivid memories of people in my German hometown walking around the supermarket with Becquerel tables - mushrooms and lettuce were off the menu - and being told not to play in the garden, as the rain had contaminated everything. TV showed an elderly lady in a nursing home happily munching her salad. "Radiation causes cancer in the long term, in about 30, 50 years," she said. "I'll be dead by then anyway." I remember being impressed by her logic.

During my second stay in Japan, from 2007-2009, when I was working for Reuters news agency, I would still feel earthquakes that locals no longer noticed. Sitting in the Reuters newsroom on the 30th floor of the Akasaka Biz Tower, I would feel an unpleasant tremour and shout "jishin!" - "earthquake" - to puzzled stares all around. Minutes later, the local wires usually confirmed that there had been a very minor quake. It was a bit like being Cassandra, or a cockroach.

Being in that newsroom on Friday, when the big quake hit Japan, must have been terrifying. Former colleagues told me that people were grabbing their helmets and diving under their desks, and that the shaking was so bad it made them feel sea-sick. As journalists, their next step was not to rest and recover but to head straight to the disaster zone and tell the world what had happened. Reading their stories, part of me is in awe of the reporters' strength and courage; another part wants to grab all of them and pull them away from the contaminated area.

And yet, despite all that chaos and uncertainty, my friends in Japan remain astonishingly upbeat. Melinda in Tokyo fought the doom and gloom with an impromptu Champagne potluck.
Hanae in Yamanashi prefecture wrote in an e-mail: "Life goes on...it is important to keep calm especially in a confusing situation like now." 
Juni, who is also moving south, wrote in another e-mail: "For the Japanese people, natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunami, typhoon are sadly part of our fate. But we didn't expect a nuclear catastrophe...I'm wondering, what's safe? Now I don't care whether it's organic vegetables, organic tofu. Yesterday I bought seaweed (nori, konbu etc - contains iodine) in a supermarket...we pray to the universe for south wind."
Kyoko posted a video on facebook with the following comment:

"Synopsis of the video: You'll see news of a rescue scene. The man interviewed was saved with 2 others after being stranded for 3 days. He is asked if he's daijobu (ok). Gleamingly, he answers, "Daijobu! I experienced the Chile tsunami too! Let's rebuild!" Man of steel!!"

In that spirit, here is how we can help the Japanese rescue effort: the Red Cross is one of the main aid organisations working in the area, and it's really easy to make a donation through their websites. www.redcross.co.uk for Britain, www.redcross.org for America. 

My brother will be making a particularly large donation to atone for those stolen emergency crackers.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Bang! Smack! Wham-bam!

"I'm a poet. I know bugger-all about boxing," said my fellow judge, got up, put down his scoring pad and walked out.

"But we all know bugger-all about boxing!" I called after him. "I thought that was the point!"

At least I hoped that was the point. Admittedly, we were all a bit surprised by the fact that there would be real, actual boxing. As in: mouth guards, padded head protection, a makeshift ring in a dark Parisian basement, vicious blows to the face, a punch in the stomach that landed with a loud "smack". I thought that only happened in films where they'd gone a bit overboard on the sound effects.

"Let's take into account the poetry as well. Just to encourage them not to blindly smash each other up. We should judge the overall package of the performance," I said in our pre-match judges' conference. We were crouching on a low wooden bench, our noses inside the ring, the beer-sipping crowd pressing up against us.

"I like that," said Terry, a cheerful book-seller who revealed an unexpected fondness for martial arts. "I like the idea of the overall package. But I'm also hoping to see some good action." He punched his palm.

"Perhaps we should move away from the ring a little."

In the end, the idea of the "overall package" went out the window because we were too busy counting blows. This was a bit of a shame, as the theatrics before the fight deserved a special mention. Jess "Sleazy Martini" read out "The Glove Song of J Alfred Prufrock" ("Find blood in this tedious argument of pure and violent intent... There's a time to create, and a time to murder."). Georgina, dressed in a natty brown suit, listed all the problems she'd faced for saying yes too easily: "...you're tied to a bed and not only is the other person holding a whip, but he's forgotten the safety word." Peter and Chris slipped in references to a mysterious episode in which a cow was (accidentally) killed. Beth "Silver Spandex" had dug out an early poem that began: "I want to hurt". Kirsten, wearing an enormous Sid Vicious style wig, speed-read a piece about a brawl in a supermarket. Her coach dabbed her gloves with Marmite for good luck.

As for the bang, smack, wham-bam: I'd expected it to be a bit like a ballet brawl. You know, two men in tights dancing around each other, until one pretends to be mortally wounded, does a pirouette and falls over. It wasn't like that though. The gong went, Georgina punched Jess's head, Jess countered with a left hook, Georgine landed a smacking punch on Jess's stomach, and I sat there and winced throughout; although, in a perverted and horrible way, I was kind of enjoying it.

Afterwards, I asked them if they were ok. Yes, they said, totally fine. "I was just amazed by the violence," I said to Jess. "And you're from Kent! I always thought of Kent girls as being nice and sweet and going around picking strawberries - but then you had such a vicious fight."

"Oh," she replied laconically, wiping some smudged mascara off her cheek. "That's easy to explain. I went to an all-girls school."