Japanese stoicism gives way to despair as breadth of disaster sinks in

Fusai Iwasa stood yesterday at the entrance of her ruined home and silently wept. Monday Japan began to show its emotions; the business-as-usual facade that had prevailed since Friday cracked all at once. Tokyo emptied out: the bars desolate, the neon lights extinguished, even the movie theaters were closed yesterday. Most of the trains were idled, the gasoline stations shuttered. There's no gas. The news reports – another explosion, another quake, another leak, another tsunami warning, hundreds more bodies found – finally drove home, even in Tokyo, the realization that the fabric of life in Japan has torn.


Supermarket shelves were bare, the interminable lines of cars at the few still-open gas stations recalled anything but Japan's prosperity. True, none of the passengers moved a muscle when the subway loudspeaker announced the train was halting due to a 6.0 quake, and on the surface life went on, but we found the words of one old man who stopped us in a remote suburb to be more convincing: "We're all panicking," he whispered into my ear.


And Fusai Iwasa, 78, wept. When we met her she was rummaging through the wave-ravaged ruins of her home, trying to salvage fragments of her life. All the surrounding houses had also been destroyed on that blacker-than-black Friday four days ago.


Monday the residents returned, removing the sludge by hand and with wheelbarrows, and forming mountains in front of each house from the contents. The junk dealers loaded everything onto ancient pickup trucks. Only relatives and neighbors were there to help, a few traffic cops the only sign of officialdom.


A two-meter-high tidal wave smashed into Asahi, splintering the homes of this poor fishing village, ripping off their roofs and doors and tossing cars against their walls before moving on. Iwasa says she will never reopen the tiny noodle shop she ran in front of her home. Only one person in the village died, a fisherman.


I will probably remember these sights of destruction, of hundreds of people burrowing through their wreckage, each to their own ruins, forever. Television doesn't cut it: Until you see it in person you haven't seen anything, haven't understood anything.


After waiting in stalled traffic for hours at the exit from Tokyo, we reached Asahi. The first crack in the road and a house lying on its side only hinted of things to come, and the ruins of Asahi only hinted at what we would see in Ayoka, a slightly more well-off resort village whose homes and hotels were much more ruined. This tsunami didn't discriminate: Simple shacks and grand houses were affected in almost equal measure. The wave made a crazy path for itself and destroyed only the buildings that stood in its way, leaving adjacent ones alone.


As I stood in the path of the destruction I thought I heard the roar of an impending wave. The radioed tsunami warnings of Monday only heightened the panic: People still fear the next tsunami, the really big one – five or 10 meters high, not just two – that will wash away everything someday.


A chill wind blew in from the ocean as I picked my way through the huts and toward the cruel sea just a few hundred meters away. I sank into plaster walls, stepping blindly on the domestic wreckage, silently watching people whose world had crashed around them. An old man whose left arm and leg were paralyzed struggled to drag a plastic bag with his belongings to what was once his front door. Taxidermy birds poked through the debris, making for a particularly ridiculous sight.


Foreign workers – young fishermen from Indonesia who have been here for two years and missed the great tsunami in their own country, only to get caught up in it here – sat and joked loudly among themselves on the beach. When the tsunami struck they were on their fishing boat, far offshore, trying to catch mackerel and sardines. The canning factory was behind them, a huge tin shack that had been upended, the ductwork spilling from the ceiling and swaying in the wind. The debris hid a smashed forklift truck, its brake lights still glowing three days later. The reek of fish still hung in the air.


A flock of seagulls hopped along the beach, screaming. A wrecked Nissan, a flattened Toyota, a red sports car lodged within a wall. A splintered guitar, a smashed computer.


A woman wrings out what remains of her clothes, in vain; another tries to salvage the contents of her kitchen pantry, and the Indonesian fishermen proudly show off a photograph of their boat, which survived, wiping off the mud from the picture. An entire village that even in its destruction protects the nobility of its traditions.


"Ma nishma," how's it going, someone says suddenly in Hebrew: The speaker explains that he was a volunteer at Kibbutz Yakum around 40 years ago; the Indonesians, in contrast, know how to say "Salam Alaykum" in Arabic.


Receipt books from Hotel Mokumasu lie in the mud of Ayoka; a display case of spectacular antique Japanese swords peeks out from the pile of the house next door. The ruins in Ayoka attest to its higher standard of living. A colorful raccoon sculpture in one house, a life-size plaster statue of a man in a suit lies on its back, in a living room spilling into the street, its severed head alongside. Here a boot, there a stuffed giraffe, and the seawall separating the village homes from the ocean did not save a soul.


I lift up a tin roof that had fallen, and find a car buried below. Nothing remains of the house itself except for four cans of Suntory beer standing on the kitchen floor. Toshiko Kalsutoshi, 66, and Namikaw Kalsutoshi, 65, embrace Momo. When the tsunami struck, Toshiko picked up Momo and ran 500 meters to escape the tidal wave, she told me yesterday. Now she and her husband hug their brown dog, who has not recovered from the trauma. Three survivors.


Everyone here wears the same expression that betrays shock and despair.


The marina at the edge of the village, that had been protected on all sides by breakwaters, is now a boat graveyard. There is nothing like this monument of big fishing boats that lodged in the walls of the harbor after being dashed against them to bring home the force of the tsunami.

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