Monday, June 27, 2011

Sulfur and salt burned all its soil

Piza with tuna and corn. Not bad eh? It was one of the best pizas I've had in Japan. Nothing close to Partenope's, of course, but I was almost willing to call it "pizza." Or maybe I was just trying to be nice, given the situation.

So here's the story.

On the way back from Miyagi-ken we stopped in a city called Koriyama. The evening before Pastor Heo had asked me "Are you ok stopping over at Koriyama for a couple of hours?" "Yes..." "You know about Koriyama, don't you?" "No..." "In Koriyama the level of radiations is 3 to 5 times higher than the safety threshold" and then he went on telling me numbers of becquerels and God knows what else, but all I could hear was the blood rushing through my veins and my heart drumming. Finally I reemerged: "I have to stop and visit another pastor who has to move his church to another location because of the radiation level in town. He feels alone and I wanted to give him some support. Is it ok if we stop there for a couple of hours?" I did not have the heart to say no to such an awful situation. How many radiations could I absorb in two, three hours? Much less than the people of Koriyama who have no other place to go. In the previous days I had already been rained on; we had drunk tap water most of the time; we had used it to make miso soup and cook, so what difference would a couple of hours make? "We all die once in a lifetime, so just do it" said the little voice inside.

During the trip I heard the word "kosher" in the middle of a long conversation in Korean and I knew exactly what they were talking about.

After a two-hour ride we arrived at Koriyama.

Koriyama looks exactly like every other small Japanese city: really high and low buildings, a mixture of new and old, of real and imitation wood, of single-family houses and small housing complexes; fake Edo Era business stores next to sleek modern ones. The other pastor, Pastor Pak, who would take us for lunch, was waiting for us in the lobby of the fanciest hotel in town, and from there we went to a very cool Italian (sic!) restaurant and bakery where we had to wait online. It took half an hour before we could be seated somewhere, as the place was packed. The whole menu was a feast of shrimp and other treif delicacies, but there was also the piza with tuna and corn. And all you can eat radioactive panini fresh out of the oven and really tasty.

My two companions kept chatting in Korean, and Pastor Heo often translated their conversations. Pastor Pak also every now and then would switch to English for my sake and so during that meal sadly I got myself an education about Koriyama.

There is one part of the city where radiations are really not too high and one where radiations are really high: This latter part of town was where we had to be, of course, and that’s where Pastor Pak's church is. He is looking to relocate it, but not too far away, because he wants to keep his flock.

From the conversation at our table it emerged that everyone in town knows, it is not a secret, but people don't have another option. Young children in town have become increasingly sick, suffering from bleeding, breathing difficulties, lack of energy and other kinds of illnesses that some doctors connect with the high radiation-levels. Other doctors don’t. And everyone is left to their own devise, abandoned by the central government. What could Tokyo do, anyway? Where could they put all 350.000 people? With cash taken from which prefecture’s empty coffers? The enemy is invisible, so in a way it doesn’t exist. Why worry then?

Those who could, left, especially if they had family in another prefecture. According to Pastor Pak 10% of the population has moved. In some cases the working spouse is here, while the other spouse with the children are gone. The foreigners, mostly English teachers, have packed and left unless they had other personal reasons to stay in town.

From the window I saw young, little girls in their school uniforms trot along. They are a common sight in Tokyo too, on their way to and from school in the big city, alone despite their young age. When I see them I usually think of my nephew and niece, who live in a much smaller city but will never enjoy this kind of freedom and I feel envious of them. There, however, all I could feel was pity, sadness and a sense of relief that my nephew and niece are not in Japan. Because God only knows what will be of these 5, 6 y.o. girls with their cute hats and braids, who now wear also a mask as if the flimsy cloth could protect them and their young lungs. On top of the mask many parents have apparently decided to have their children wear always long sleeves and a hat. But what about the water they drink? The food they eat? The soil they walk on? By the way, City Hall has given school principals instructions to scrap the soil in their school yards, 3 to 5 cm to remove the radioactive particles. Now in those very courtyards mounds of soil await the day when they will be buried 3 feet under. Parents of the school pupils did the scraping, of course. The truth unfortunately is that no matter how much they scrap, more radioactive material gets there constantly, and what is already there will not disappear just because they shuffled them around in the court-yard. Unfortunately this plan of removing dirt and burying it under more dirt it’s only a way to feel they are doing something, all they can, to protect their children.

The stories told at our table were in complete dissonance with what was happening around us: customers apparently enjoying relaxed conversations and good, old, Italian-style treif; waiters and waitresses serving one dish after another and pampering the clients, in the usual Japanese way: “More water? Let me change this for you. Another panino?” What else is there to do when you kind of know what life has in store for you and you don’t like the cards fate has dealt you?

What I wouldn’t do for a piza…