On Friday, I wake up early, eat a bowl of cereal and put on my suit to go to the Graduation.
The suit is a charcoal pinstripe, which I bought at the annual Daimaru Department Store suit sale. The cut of the suit is conservative, the waist a bit higher than suits are cut nowadays, the better to contain the shape that, for better or worse, I am. I guess I look more business-like in it, more official (although I teach in a shirt and tie, I’m not required – yet – to wear a full suit when I’m teaching). So why don’t I particularly care for the suit? I kid myself that it’s because it makes me look old. Actually, it just makes me look my age. But who wants that?
You can get a lot of wear out of a suit if you only wear it twice a year, so this is my fourteenth time putting it on. This being Japan, it was probably cut for a man with slightly shorter arms and a somewhat smaller chest. Well, my arms haven’t gotten any shorter and my chest certainly hasn’t gotten any smaller since I bought it, so I leave it unbuttoned (oddly, the waist is no problem at all). I look in the mirror and note how much more I look like my father than last year and the year before. I put on my coat and walk down to the subway station; a chilly March morning in Osaka.
Because I don’t normally wear a suit, I feel different on the train and imagine that I’m seen differently too. I arrive at Nishi-Umeda station and hang a left and head to the graduation: March 11th, 2011.
The graduation ceremony had just ended. I had been helping to emcee and had just directed all the students out of the banquet room and into the hallway.
As you do, you chat, and pose for countless pictures. In the midst of all this, my knees felt odd. I felt as though I’d taken medicine that was too strong. But I hadn’t taken any medicine, and alcohol wasn’t served at the graduation banquet. It was then, when I looked up and noticed the chandeliers swaying ominously, that I realized it wasn’t my knees that were wobbling – it was the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Students, staff and teachers, in suits and kimono were posing for photos below the chandeliers, talking, saying goodbye, and almost nobody seemed to notice what was going on. Those of us who did began gesturing to the others, pointing out what was happening above them. I wouldn’t want to be under one of those things if it gave way. People began arranging themselves along the walls. A few were still oblivious, happily snapping away, and had to be shouted at.
And it just kept shaking. Even those who weren’t normally fazed by tremors were getting decidedly uncomfortable at just how long the thing went on. The Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 seemed like about 2 minutes, but was actually about 30 seconds. Time expands when you’re in a situation like that. This one went on for well over a minute, and seemed like five.
When it eventually petered out, there was an eerie silence as people waited for what, if anything, would happen next.
Another reason for the silence, the great unasked, was “where did it happen?” Nara? Kobe again? Eventually, iPhones were whipped out, headlines checked. Tohoku? But that’s on the other side of Tokyo, hundreds of kilometers away. Must be wrong. But no. It was right.
The above was written a week after the events in Tohoku. I had planned to write about the shocked reactions, the people lost and all the rest, but that would have been dishonest: that came later. For the most part, since it was too much for most of us to comprehend, we did nothing. A few of us left the hotel, went to the Sherlock Holmes nearby, and over pints, tried to figure out where Miyagi was (I had confused it with Miyazaki, nearly as far away, but in the other direction). Periodically, a PA announcement from the building management told us that there appeared to be no structural damage to the building. We wondered if anyone had been killed, but didn’t think much of it because the image of Tohoku to people in Kansai was of an empty rural expanse (the Earthquake aftermath was nearly as much of a geography lesson to urban Japanese as it was for the rest of the world).
Whew, we thought, that was a close one.
Then I went off to see a tango performance, as previously planned (I found out later that the performers had debated whether or not to cancel, but concluded that, like in wartime, you had to keep up people’s morale, so dance they did). The place was packed, as though all were trying to preserve a sense of normality for as long as possible. It was a good show. Excellent music.
I then continued on to have a drink with the graduates at Hub. As we talked, I noticed on the television in the background scenes of seawater lifting up what looked to be toy vehicles in a diorama town and washing them away. And it dawned on me that it wasn’t a movie or animation or an artist’s conception of what could have happened: it was the real thing. There had been a tsunami and Sendai was being flooded.
And we began getting emails from friends in Tokyo, saying the city had shut down and people were having to walk home for hours. And we talked some more and had another pint. And the place was full.
It was only when I got home, close to midnight and turned on my computer and saw my mailbox and Facebook full of messages from around the world that I realized the magnitude of what had happened, how many towns had been obliterated, how many tens of thousands had been washed away. I had actually felt the quake and seen snippets of activity on TV sets here and there, but had never seen, as those who had seen the headlines and heard the newscasts elsewhere, the big picture.
I sat up until two answering messages, calling home, still in that suit which, when the day began, had been my biggest concern.