The Japanese word ukiyo-e has been forcing itself into my thoughts these past few days. I try to keep it out because there is something mildly inappropriate about it. But it keeps darting back in. Usually after I watch the news. Sometimes, too, after my wife, who is Japanese, reports back from one of the interminable telephone conversations she has been having with her family in Tokyo or her Japanese friends in London. Yumi’s lunching buddies. The ladies who bento.
Kaoru has been describing the cows in Miyagi and the pain they have been in since the electricity went and the milking machines stopped. Before that, Ritsue telephoned to say she was going back to Kyoto. It’s safer there. No news, though, from Tokiko.
Ukiyo-e means “the floating world”. It is usually used to describe the beautiful dream depicted in Japanese prints: the picture-book Japan of courtesans and geishas, peach trees and cherry blossom. It’s a mildly inappropriate word because, of course, this is no time to be thinking of art. But ukiyo-e is not a style or a look. It’s a world view. A Japanese way of understanding. In the floating world, nothing lasts. Everything changes. As the Edo poet, Asai Ryoi, put it, life is “like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world”. Cherry blossom comes. Cherry blossom goes. Enjoy every day as if it were the last.
My wife’s father was a poet, too. He wrote a column in the Yorimuri newspaper. His chosen style was tanka. A tanka poem can be almost as short as a haiku. And when Yumi and I married, Teibi wrote a special one for our wedding.
Its meaning had me scratching my head for years before the shadows finally turned into something almost graspable. Loosely translated, by me, the poem went: “Some boys were playing on a beach. One of them was wearing thick glasses.” That was it. That was my wedding poem.
Teibi died two years ago. He had been out drinking with his old poetry buddies, got sloshed, as was his wont, and on the way home sat down on a wall outside the station, fell off and smashed his head open. He was 87. Everyone agreed it was tragic, but also a superb way to go. He was buried in the family plot at Choshi, in Chiba prefecture. The tsunami was 3ft high when it finally washed over Choshi. Yumi’s uncle was able to report that the grave had not been swept away. There was somewhere left to visit.
At the embassy the next day, on Japanese television, Yumi saw a woman who was from Miyagi prefecture, the worst hit part of Japan. While she was at work, the tsunami killed her three children. Her husband was still missing. So were her parents. The family house had been swept away. There was nothing left of her past. No house. No photographs. Nothing.
Yumi’s mother is in hospital. She has been there since last summer, her memory going, her timescales jumbled. Her hospital has its own generator and even though the rest of Kunitachi is plunged nightly into darkness when the electricity is turned off, Yumi’s mum has her own dim twilight to lie in. A year before Teibi died, Yumi’s sister, Fuyu, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was the same age as me. Now her husband, Naoki, lives on his own in the family house and when the electricity is turned off, he goes to bed and tries to sleep. What else is there to do?
Atsuko was in the street when the earthquake started. She had to hold onto a tree. She put her arms around it and clung on for dear life. On and on and on it went. And seemed as if it would never stop. Akiko called as well to tell us the ground in Tokyo is moving again. These days it’s always moving.
To me, listening in on these fragments of communication between comforting friends, it seems as if an entire Bible’s worth of plagues has been visited upon Japan in a single week. Earthquake. Tsunami. Radiation. Which one to fear next? All three have so much dark previous in the Japanese psyche. The earthquake was the biggest yet but it was still an earthquake and every Japanese kid has been brought up to expect them. Yumi was born in a wooden house. In the old days, houses were expected to fall down. The wooden ones were built to be rebuilt. There was no bread then, either. No cheese. No breast cancer. Kids were brought up on boiled rice and omega 3. Fish in the morning, fish in the afternoon, fish for dinner.
To me, a gaijin, or foreigner, the Japanese language seems unusually well prepared for these moments of apocalypse. Tsunami is a Japanese word, after all. “Tsu” means port. “Nami” means wave. In the ukiyo-e the sea was always capable of throwing up monster waves. And tornadoes. And hurricanes. You cannot live on an island floating perilously above the world’s busiest junction of tectonic plates without having a word for kamikaze. “Kami” means divine. “Kaze” means wind. A kamikaze is a divine wind.
Teibi was in the war. Once, when the two of us were watching the sumo on the telly, feet up, a couple of beers cracked open, some dried fish flakes on the table, I asked him about it. He looked back at me with bolts of pure anger in his eyes. The only time I ever saw them. The rage wasn’t directed at me but at Hirohito, who was still alive and who had once convinced his nation that their emperor was the sun god. Yes, Teibi fought in the war. But as soon as it was over he became an atheist, a communist, a poet.
And, I feel a powerful need to add, a superb welcomer of gaijin. Not for one minute, not for one second, was I ever made to feel anything but welcome in his house. How I miss those Saturday afternoons in front of the telly, feet up, beer on the table, fish flakes in the bowl, watching the sumo. Poor Naoki is lying there on his own now, in the dark, waiting for the lights to come back on.
Of the three plagues visited upon them in one terrible week it is the third, radiation, that the Japanese fear most. Unlike the earthquake, unlike the tsunami, radiation isn’t local to the floating world. For us in the West, it is impossible to understand fully the impact that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese psyche. Only they know, really know, about radiation. The cancer. The mutilation. The perpetual invisibility.
Eventually, the Japanese will deal with the terrors of the ukiyo-e. They always do. It is the new terrors, the ones we sent them, they are unprepared for.