By Jim Sullivan
The train to Narita airport rolled forward, though nowhere near quickly enough for my comfort, shaking through turns like the earth had quivered day after day since the earthquake. Trembling had become a dark motif over the past week—legs that shook long after the surrounding buildings in Shibuya had stopped, my rented room in a small house that rattled with the frequent aftershocks for days after the first earthquake, the wavering tone of my parents’ voices when I’d called home. I had made the anguished decision to return to the United States after weighing my tenuous job situation in Tokyo, my tentative employer’s silence about my contract since the quake, the uncertainty in Fukushima, my depleted bank account, and my family, sick with worry and sleepless for days.
I pictured my plane landing in Omaha, Nebraska more than thirty hours later, my father waiting in a used car with South Dakota license plates, having come to pick me up and bring me back to my hometown, Yankton, where, on my way out, my parting memory had been a pickup truck loaded with deer carcasses. While I had escaped the place for four years of college, this time I had been gone only a month.
All my life I had wanted to escape that town, nestled against a winding river among other even smaller villages. I had promised myself I wouldn’t become the kind of person who was trapped in South Dakota for life, settling for what seemed like miserable mediocrity after failing in the outside world. Compared with Tokyo, where my $600-per-month room was the size of a modest closet in the US, rural South Dakota seemed like a deserted wasteland, Deadwood without any of the romance.
It had felt like that to me even before I experienced the Tokyo metropolis. Years earlier, a campaign aimed at curbing gun violence warned would-be criminals that courts wouldn’t just send them to prison—they would send them to Yankton, a place none of their friends knew about that had no train stations, no buses, no airports, and a lot of angry mosquitoes. The billboards read, “Commit a gun crime, and you’re alone. In Yankton.”
After having worked full time on the overnight shift in a local Walmart to afford a move overseas, the foreign land I had sought out seemed to have rejected me. Could the two-headed catastrophe of the earthquake and the Fukushima meltdown have meant anything else? I knew about and understood earthquakes, but as I’d walked deserted Tokyo streets, wondering how far radiation could drift, it had seemed even something in the air would repel me. In the end, I traded the smells of fresh curry and grilled fish wafting from open windows for air sour with “the smell of money,” as Yankton locals called the drifting stench of stockyards. I knew a statue of a cow painted in red, white, and blue would welcome me home, a sign proudly declaring it the “Cow Capital of the USA.”
Delayed by unexpected express line service interruptions, I was running so close to departure time that I couldn’t afford to waste time getting off at the wrong stop. Most of the other passengers had gradually left the train, leaving only me and a couple with two children headed toward the airport. The man was likely Japanese, but the woman with him—and their children—had a darker complexion. They were different, perhaps not totally at home in any one place, I imagined. I felt I could talk to them.
After confirming which stop I needed, the woman continued talking with me, patient with my imperfect Japanese. Are you leaving because of Fukushima and the earthquake? she asked. Yeah, sort of, I told her. She expressed some of the same fears I had felt: doubt about the media’s and the government’s forthrightness in their reporting of facts, concern over the possibility of increased radiation, the unspoken potential for total nuclear catastrophe and evacuation of Tokyo. Perhaps our fears had been misguided, as no evacuation or worst-case-scenario had come to pass, but almost a year later, I’d learn in the New York Times that Tokyo evacuation plans had been drawn up in the midst of the crisis: Tepco barely averted a “demonic chain reaction” of meltdowns that could have resulted in the loss of Tokyo, and they averted it not of their own volition but under duress, forced to maintain work on their Fukushima reactors at the direction of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
As for my own decision to leave Japan, I still find the dizzying array of contributing factors difficult to synthesize into an honest answer. Do I confess my fear about radiation? That I had not saved up enough to cover myself in the event of an emergency? Can I admit to myself that, had I stayed, things probably would have worked out? How can I explain the contradictory pangs of regret and relief? When asked, I tend to pick whichever angle seems most likely to satisfy the person asking and leave out the rest. On my way out of Tokyo, several Japanese people in shops asked if I was leaving because of the earthquake and the threat of radiation. My Japanese vocabulary failed me in those moments as I tried to string one fragment of language to another to convey the complexities of my circumstances to people who likely already saw me as a Flyjin, a neologism coined by the Japanese media to describe foreigners fleeing the country and deserting jobs, homes, and even families. I wonder, when I’m unable to produce a full and truthful account of my reasons for leaving even in my native tongue, which is greater: the distance from one language to another or the distance from language to feeling.
Around the first anniversary of the earthquake and Fukushima incident, a local Yankton reporter found me working back at Walmart and requested an interview for an upcoming story. At one point, he asked if I liked Japan better than “America.” There was no intelligent answer to a question like that, but I don’t think he wanted one. I’ve so often heard Americans call the United States the Greatest Country in the World that it has begun to sound like a fairy tale. Which America? Whose experience? For those of us in Yankton, “America” was surely nothing but a dream. Most of the world doesn’t know Yankton exists, and most people in Yankton never leave the Midwest. Even with a lifetime of travel and experience, the idea that one could weigh an entire nation and culture against another was pure fantasy, so I stammered and dodged instead of saying anything substantial. Even if we were using the same words, we would have been talking about two different imagined Americas.
I would hear questions like that reporter’s for as long as I stayed in Yankton, and I’d repeat the same stories to people who’d forget them and ask again, as if recounting my failed escape from the town were my penance, the price for returning after having turned my back on my home. Not understanding my shame, coworkers would continue to ask these questions, and the plants in Fukushima would continue to leak radioactive water with no sign of stopping.
As I sat in that train to Narita, the woman’s daughter ran about the inside of the car, stopping to stand on my shoes and tug on my pant leg. The son sat between me and his mother while we talked, staring up at me with the open, unabashed curiosity allowed only to young children.
“They’re citizens of Spain,” the mother told me in Japanese. “They haven’t been back for several years, but we’re afraid of what the radiation could do to them, so we’re leaving Japan for a while.”
I thanked her for her help with my train confusion and turned to the boy staring up at me.
“Supeingo wakarimasuka? Español?” I asked him. Did he speak Spanish?
“Hai, supeingo wakarimasu,” he answered affirmatively in Japanese.
Like most adults, I imagine, I don’t spend much time talking to children. When I have to, I find myself at a loss, particularly in the case of strangers. Looking over at this boy’s mother, I wondered if it was appropriate for me to carry the conversation any further. As a boy in the US, even in little Yankton, I had been taught to regard any stranger as a would-be kidnapper and to check my Halloween candy for razorblades. How much of my world would be forever shaped by these lessons, often dubious, that turned people into perpetrators and possibility into danger? Many Japanese children take the train on their own from the time they’re in elementary school, and I didn’t see the apprehension I’d come to expect reflected in this boy’s eyes, so I continued talking to him in spite of myself.
“Eigo wa?” I asked, wondering how much English he had learned in school.
“Hanashimasen.” That one he hadn’t learned yet.
We traded words among three different languages like we were playing linguistic rock, paper, scissors. How do you say this Japanese word in English? That’s this in Spanish, right? Bits of my years of Spanish classes in the US started to come back to me when the boy spoke, and we piled up lists of signifiers.
“Densha, nan to iimasuka?”
“Train,” I answered him and paused, realizing how much I had lost since high school. I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for train, but I was sure I had known it once. “Y en español... yo no se. Nan to iimasuka? Supeingo de.”
“Naruhodo!” Of course. I had forgotten the easiest one. All I had to do was twist the sound of my own word.
I asked the boy if he had been to Spain before, and he didn’t seem to remember. What would Spain mean to him? He might have eaten tapas in Tokyo, but would he like the ones in Spain more? The train rocked gently, and a Japanese voice announced the next stop, a station name I didn’t recognize, and for a moment my mind went blank as it tried to thread the meaning of tren, the name of this unfamiliar place, and my anticipation of Yankton together. A word and its concept were supposed to be linked merely arbitrarily, but I wondered if the nature of a thing could change if its signifier shifted—even slightly. I imagined Yankton spelled out in katakana, a syllabary usually reserved for loan words in Japanese. This set of sharp, dynamic characters instantly conveyed difference and newness and would alter the sound of the town’s name by a degree. Could my own feelings about Yankton, like words transliterated between languages and transposed between mental spaces, change just as easily? I wondered.
The boy sat reciting the English words I had just taught him, and I imagined how these new words, this minor shift in his perception might color the Japan of his imagination from then on—and also the Spain he would meet once more, or, perhaps more accurately, for the first time, just as every time is the first. I wanted to share something more with this boy, the last friend I’d make in Japan for the foreseeable future, so I dug out my US passport and showed it to him, explaining it was one from America. He responded with the Japanese-accented Amerika, phonetically almost exactly the same as our “America,” but when he said it with my passport in hand, it sounded like a mysterious foreign land—even to me. I sat back in my seat and tried to imagine America, but each image I conjured slipped away like the name of a place I’d never been.
Jim Sullivan is a writer and teacher.
"You Are a Visitor" is a regularly recurring column on The Intentional about identity and the environment. Have an essay that would be a good fit? Visit our submissions page.
Photo by Moyan Brenn on Flickr.