The following is written by my friend Chris Messer, who lived with his wife in the area of Japan where the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant meltdown happened in March 2011. When I read Ghosts of the Tsunami in September, I reached out to Chris to see if he would be open to writing a firsthand account of his experiences during that time. The rest of this post is his response, a beautifully written essay on the experience from the point of view of he and his wife, Hiroko.
The Chris and Hiroko Messer Version
Amanda asked me to give a bit of my perspective on the events of the earthquake, tsunami, resulting nuclear disaster, and recovery that ultimately happened in Japan. I thought about this a lot. As someone on new medication for sciatica, this has been a dreamy task and some thoughts that come to mind are the excitement of the middle school children practicing their graduation ceremony, the lunchroom tables dancing around like football players on one of those mid century vibrating game boards, my suspicion of the youth making chemical batteries in the science lab with no supervision, or even climbing the tower to find a cell signal to email anyone to say I was alright and we would not be having our seminal Dungeons and Dragons game on Skype that evening. I want to move past all of that.
I lived in this part of Japan for almost 10 years. It had snowed a total of 4 times, always in January or February. It snowed once, that afternoon, briefly. This was my only night in Japan where I saw stars, constellations that were usually hidden by light pollution were clearly visible to the naked eye. From the tower I could see Yuriage burn, propane canisters flying into the sky. I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing at that time. It was a time of humanity, sacrifice, humility, and understanding.
I don’t want to talk about insurance, property, or law. The way that things work really comes down to how people agree, and I have seen a lot of different agreements. The pressure of disaster can cause agreements to take a lot of different shapes, and it really just comes down to your ability to produce what people need.
A Cup of Coffee
18 hours after the water had come in, we were okayed to leave. I was able to get my bike through the water back to town. Hiroko, my wife of just 4 months to the day, was just returning to our cafe when I arrived there. She had just arrived from our apartment. The last words I spoke to her on the phone were, “Tsunami! Tsunami! Tsunami!”
We set everything up as best we could. I had recently prepared for just this type of thing, and we had a camping stove with some butane canisters. It wasn’t proper restaurant code, but this was a disaster and there wasn’t a restaurant inspector coming around anyway. We started making coffee, and opened the shades on our kiosk and a line formed immediately. In line to our shop the 7th, 8th, and 9th customers were men from the propane facility across the street. They were in for a lot of work as they would surely have to go to every house and reset every propane tank on every residence they service. My first move was to go up to them directly and proposition them with free coffee if they turn my gas back on.
Now this kind of thing is totally unacceptable. You don’t bribe Japanese people. Especially professional Japanese people, and especially in front of people in public on the street. But, I had a couple of simple things working for me. Number one, it’s coffee. Number two, it’s no more than 12 feet of line that needs inspection. Number three, they can bring their boss over if they want, I’ll give him coffee too. Everyone agreed to keep quiet about it, and with that, we were the first restaurant open in town.
When you are in business, you take advantage of every situation you can. You find a good location. We had the first business location off the west side of the train station. It was tiny, but it was convenient. You make sure you have a product people want, something quick and convenient. To go coffee and food. Something you can eat/drink in 2 minutes. Something we have ready on the go. We did hamburgers, if you wanted to take 5 minutes, and they were, heck they still are, worth it.
When everything went wrong, everything closed down. Our landlord had a bar just next door that couldn’t open because everything was smashed. We had a fridge full of meat and eggs and cheese, but no power. Our meat was frozen hamburgers, our cheese wasn’t going to go bad, our bread was the only problem, because we used to run out every night and had to get more every day. It turns out that not only is Hiroko a licensed Japanese chef, she’s also a baker. Without using a book or the internet, we talked to our landlord and went into his bar. Using the flour from his bar and a couple other ingredients she snatched, I wound a hand powered flashlight while she made bread from scratch.
I suppose at this time I should tell you we didn’t have running water. I probably should have mentioned that before. We had to ride our bicycles 10K to Hiroko’s uncle’s house. He had running water. We filled up a bunch of bottles and brought water to our shop, where we would make bread dough. Then, I would press the dough on our flat top grill with a hot pot, and these flat pieces of bread would become makeshift pizzas.
Were they the best pizzas? No! Did people care? Not at all!
Soon people would line up just to buy something. People had money, but there was nothing to spend it on. We weren’t gouging people, we never adjusted our prices different from what they were before the tsunami, and the people in the neighborhood knew it. They insisted on paying us something, and for the most part they just wanted to feel normal. So you’d sell a little 8 inch pizza made with hotdogs and colby jack cheese, you’d talk about the weather, and who had what services, and you’d wish them luck. Heck, one day a guy stopped in to announce he was alive! He had been trapped between the sea and a mountain, and was trying to get back to a place where people knew him, and he just wanted everyone to know he was alright.
Things did get tough though, and a lady one day bought everything we had. We sold it to her, and realized that might have been a mistake, but we all learn from our mistakes. There was enough for everyone in line, and she bought it all to take away. That was a mistake. We shouldn’t have allowed that. We know that now, and she still comes up from time to time when we think about bad situations. Bad situations don’t mean you are done though. It just means you have to reevaluate what you have left, what options are still on the table.
Now, it just so happens that I almost fell out of my chair the first time I was given sweet tea in place of tea. I did complain, and I still prefer tea, thank you very much. This doesn’t preclude the fact that I am aware that sugar is an easy way to make money. I also had a kiosk type cafe on a walking path between a train station and a high school. One where girls dawdle, and complain. They had just recently become confused by a large foreigner and interested in french toast and toad-in-a-hole. So I just happened to look up the recipe for sweet tea the very afternoon that the earthquake struck.
People did not like sweet tea. When we did eventually run out of food, there was nothing to do. We couldn’t sit at home, it was so boring. We stayed in our community instead. Being social was good for us and the cafe became a kind of hub. A friend who evacuated had given us a tub of popcorn. I would put the popcorn on the flat top grill, and put a bowl over the seeds. This would make a terrible mess, but it made popcorn. I would hand out free popcorn, and sweet tea for children. Eventually I realized I hadn’t seen clean fingernails for many days.
The first movie I remember seeing at a theater setting is Raiders of the Lost Ark. We were at the drive-in theater in Bemidji, Minnesota. I remember it well, because that was a good movie. I remember the sound not being great, the box hanging off the window, like we were at the A&W. I remember how glassy everyone’s eyes looked. I remember the waxy way the nazi’s faces melted when they looked at the spirits that came howling out of the ark. Woooo!
Hiroko had gone to get more water from our apartment now. They had fixed the water at least that far. We no longer needed to go as far as her uncle’s house, still, it was quite a bit of a drive to get somewhere. We had found some hot dogs, and a new way to make pizzas, so that was back on. I was running a cafe, the sun was shining, it was windy, and cloudy, and just a nice day. Joe, our landlord, had his Winnebago, his Humvee, and his smart Car set up at the Taxi Pool by the Train Station; he was kind of the unofficial mayor of this side of town. Our restaurant looked right at his encampment. Due to his generator, he had power, the rest of town did not. People would come by and he would give them the news, etc. It was a little luxury he was providing people, and I appreciated it because it indirectly brought us business.
It was probably around 10 am when he came up to my window and used a word I shouldn’t know along with a gesture. He was speaking only Japanese. Difficult Japanese. The kind of Japanese that belongs in colleges, that someone like me who learned Japanese drinking with people at parties shouldn’t know. But in 3rd grade I had written a book report about Hiroshima, and for some reason when he said Hibaku, and made a gesture, I remembered the word Hibakusha from that book report, and face melting off Major Arnold Toht, and knew exactly what he was talking about.
I asked him for some more details, and he showed me the news report. I took in the news, and went back to our shop. For 5 minutes I thought, “It doesn’t get more punk rock than this, I’m running a cafe at the end of the world. This is it, this is what the 80’s were all about, the fallout, the everything.” Ride this out, this is my bomb to ride, like Slim Pickins.
Except it isn’t.
I packed up everything. Everything edible in the shop. I put it all on my bicycle. Hiroko wasn’t there, and I decided to ride home the one way we rode to the shop. On the way I ran into Adam, a friend. I told him the news. I explained he could come with me. I was going to evacuate, and follow fallout protocol, since he was younger he might not know, but I would take care of him. He understood, and turned to his Japanese girlfriend, she shrugged and said, “It can’t be helped, it’ll be whatever it is.” He didn’t like that any more than I did, but he said he could take care of himself, and went on to do that.
On the way home I met Hiroko. I explained we needed to turn around and go home. We did go home, we got home, and closed up the house. I used everything I ever learned. Closed all the windows, sealed any air gaps, washed or threw out our clothing, filled a tub with water because the water we have comes from an open air reservoir. And waited. Eventually the power came back up. When the internet was available, I got in touch with friends. The first one to be helpful was from Australia, they were able to help us get out. In time, Hiroko and I adapted to be of one mind, and trust in each other, before all others, and move on our own, before trusting in organizations.
Am I better now? Are we better now? Could we be in Japan today? Should we? Are we better here? Is there a better? There are so many questions, but looking back doesn’t help any more than looking forward. Today we have a daughter, Jessica. She is wonderful. She makes us happy, if not a little hairbrained, and strung out. We have our concerns, and we worry but try to keep that to a minimum, because we have learned that you can only control what you can control so we spend a lot of time making sure we know what that is.
Thank you again, Chris, for writing up your experiences. I appreciate it, and I hope my readers do as well. Love to you, Hiroko, and Jessica!