Dear Gerpan Fans, Friends and Freeloaders,

In the wake of Liz’s literary absence, I have established an emergency petition to help Liz get off the streets and back behind a writer’s desk. If you or someone you know has ever experienced long-term writer’s block, then you know of the adverse affects it has on the people that depend on your writing for entertainment. Please take a minute to sign the petition and help Liz.


P.S. Let’s try to build as much momentum for this petition as the Prohibition Movement. If we can acquire nine signatures by tomorrow night, Liz will bound to take notice.

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The Great Quake struck at 2:46 pm on Friday, March 11th. The senior class at my junior high school had their graduation ceremony earlier in the day and the school was empty save for the teachers. I was in the staff-room at the time, doing Kegels.

When the earthquake began, I assumed that it was another ho-hum tremor but within seconds the quake intensified exponentially. The floor yawed and pitched and I felt I was going lose my lunch. It was as if the school had been placed on the lid of a lively clothes dryer or in the hands of someone with extreme alcohol withdrawal.

I was going to sit this one out and wait for the shaking to subside but a coworker instructed me to shake a leg and get under my desk. I did my best to fold myself into a fetal position but I am pretty long-stalked and could only fit my head under my desk while the rest of my body lay exposed in a prone position. I lay there wearing my desk as a helmet for about twenty seconds.

Later that evening I told that story over Skype to a correspondent for BBC World but she did not think that it was newsworthy.

Side note: Off the coast of Sendai, the quake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale but was 6.0 here in Ota. This interactive map visualizes the numerous earthquakes that we have experienced since the Great Quake two weeks ago. I recommend syncing the visualization with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

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I am back in Ota, kicking back with my Japanese aunt and uncle after a day’s journey from Hiroshima. I am staying with them tonight and the power is out, so we are lounging around with flashlights and entertaining ourselves by playing Scrabble with Edif Piaf providing a soundtrack from my laptop speakers. It is like a sleepover but without the retainers and lesbian experimentation. I brought my hosts a pair of baguettes and some batteries from Hiroshima since both are scarce in Ota. Not having electricity forces us to be creative with our time but the food shortages make me feel like I am in the London Blitz and I am scavenging for supplies for my destitute family.

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This morning I am heading back to Ota from Hiroshima by way of bullet train. I am banking my trip on the hope that I will arrive at Ota station just before it shuts down due to a scheduled blackout. My grandpa used to say that ‘nothing is worth doing unless there is a risk of not arriving at your final destination because of a scheduled power outage.’

I postponed my journey for one day based on concerns over the rain (apparently radiation gets concentrated in the rain). I was eager to get back to school and back into the English education trenches, so this was not an easy decision. On one hand I am being reassured by coworkers that the rain is safe and on the other, I have Japanese friends telling me to throw away any clothes that come in contact with rain water.

Yesterday I was bedridden from a headache. When my host-sister, Yuka, came to check my temperature, I stuck the thermometer in my mouth. Yuka screamed. Apparently the thermometer was meant to be put in your armpit. The thought of tasting every family member’s fevered armpits (especially Ojichan’s) made me retch but at least it was not a rectal thermometer.

I am glad to have been in Hiroshima this weekend. Being distanced from the situation unfolding up north has given me some fresh perspective and given me time to relax. I am no longer worried about a nuclear meltdown and although the blackouts, earthquakes, contaminated water and food and fuel shortages are concerns, they are manageable and nothing in comparison to what people are experiencing in Tohoku.

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This weekend I am visiting my host family who I stayed with during my brief stint as a foreign exchange student during high school. They are the Kitamura family and they reside in a quaint little suburb on the outskirts of Fukuyama city in Hiroshima-ken.

A Who’s Who of the Kitamura Family:

Otosan (Dad) is like Benny Hill but taller and with less teeth. I spend most of my time with him working on projects on his farm as he jabbers about I am not sure what.
Okasan (Mom) is the head nurse at the city hospital. She is cheerful, rolly-polly and under constant stress over if I am getting enough to eat. She and Otosan met through an arranged marriage.
Ojichan (Grandpa) spends his days sleeping under a heated coffee table in the living room. At night he sleeps in a small room beneath the staircase.
Mami is the oldest child and is also a nurse. She is a bit of a Boo Radley and will only venture out of her room for work.
I shared a bedroom with Fumi during high school. Back then he was somewhat of a playboy but now has settled down with a wife and a kid in another part of town. His room is decorated like the set of Apocalypse Now.
Yuka is the youngest and my only conduit with rest of the family. She speaks English, rides a Harley and is usually chastising Otosan for changing his clothes in front of everyone or making fun of him for having a barcode (comb-over).

The Past 48 Hours

8:10 — I turned up in Fukuyama having stayed in a cafe in Okayama the night before. I was a little ripe.

9:00 — Slept for three hours. Was abruptly awoken by Otosan, who was very concerned that I had not eaten lunch yet.

13:08 — Painted a picture of a kappa (a Japanese mythical creature that looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle but with a Friar Tuck hairdo) for Fumi’s new baby. The title was “Ganbaro Kappa” (‘I will try my best’ Kappa).

15:30 — Dug irrigation trenches with Otosan on the family farm which is tucked away on a hillside about a mile or so away. Whenever I think of Japan, I think of this farm, which has been in the Kitamura family for four generations and looks like it was used in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. Ojichan’s house had been bulldozed since the last time I visited as he is no longer able to live on his own, which made me sad.

17:25 — Convinced Otosan and Okasan that I could walk back to their house on my own. I wanted to stay put for a bit to view the sunset. They were both worried and skeptical that I could make the fifteen minute journey back on my own, so Otosan insisted that I take down his cell phone and memorize the two turns to take to get back.

18:35 — Got lost.

23:40 — Slept.


9:50 — Woke up to an empty house. Everyone had gone to clean a grave.

10:12 — Informed that this evening that we will be driving to the sea to look for edible seaweed on the beach. Or we might be buying it. I never really know what is going on.

11:00 — Spent the afternoon planting apple saplings. It was refreshing to be outdoors and not be concerned about inhaling radiation particles – even if they are not harmful to your health.

19:48 — Decided to return to Gunma tomorrow.

21:10 — There is no hot water in the house right now so the family and I went to a public bathhouse (onsen) to get washed up. I got a massage but I was afraid the whole time that the strain of holding back my farts would exacerbate my already high stress level.

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It is 3:00 AM and I am shacked up in an all-night (I hope that it is an all-night) music cafe in Okayama. I missed the connection to my final destination (Fukuyama) and I am spending my early morning listening to enduring Japanese covers of old Johnny Mercer tunes like “Moon Liver” and “Skyrark”.

It is hard to describe what is going on in my head right now. I am trying to think of this trip as a three day holiday. The relief of being away from all of the stress from up North that I should be experiencing is instead replaced by a strong sense of abandonment. All of my Japanese friends, coworkers and students are still back in Ota, carrying on with life as usual. I said goodbye to the staff of my Junior High School today confident that I will see them again on Tuesday and I hope that is the case.

Even though interactions with my students are usually limited to “hello” and I sometimes feel like a social pariah in the staff-room and some of the townsfolk fear me, I still felt a sense of unity in my community. I guess what changed in the past 48 hours to make me want to leave was the breaking point of my mental health.  The stress from the developing situation and from concerned friends and family back home was compounded by an overwhelming sense of isolation caused by me not being able to speak or read Japanese (my fault, I know), living alone without a car, in a town out in the toolies that lacks a train station and foreign embassies have been calling for the voluntary evacuation of its citizens. I guess I just needed a short mental health vacation and wanted to vacate early, should the (radioactive) dam actually break.

Looking back on today, I am grateful to have left when I did. From a logistical standpoint, it was a challenge just to leave my prefecture let alone find a working ATM to retrieve enough cash. If it had been an actual emergency, I would have been in the doghouse for sure. It took four hours to travel to the nearest working train station, Takasaki, which is normally an hour and a half trip. All of the train stations within a 17 mile radius were closed. To get there I travelled by foot, bicycle, taxi, bus and on the back of a pterodactyl.

I do not know how to wrap up this post, so I guess I will finish it with a quote from General Douglas MacArthur: “I shall return.” (I hope.)




As of this moment, I am still in Ota, although I can’t say for how long. Tomorrow night I had plans to travel to Hiroshima to stay with my Japanese host family for the three day weekend but I may be leaving sooner rather than later. Being here feels like holding a lit match and it is only a matter of time before I get burned. [ by radioactive fire ]

Last night I had a discussion over the phone with a Japanese friend, Keiko, (that’s not her real name) to discuss an emergency escape plan. She and her husband are like my Japanese aunt and uncle. They are amazing people and took care of me last year when I had swine flu but I get the impression this time around that should a catastrophic nuclear explosion occur, that I would be on my own. They would go to help Keiko’s parents and she would need to carry her aged mother on her back.

I have two contingency plans.

PLAN A: Should power still be intact and the nuclear blast be contained to a local area, I will calmly head West to Hiroshima through the mountain pass by way of local trains.

PLAN B: Should there be no power in the greater Tokyo area and the blast is greater than expected, I will cover my body from head to toe to prevent radiation poisoning. I will hop on my bike, Shadowfax III, and ride towards the sunset until the point of exhaustion. Then I will ride some more. And more. Until I reach Hiroshima.

Last night I also packed my radioactive emergency survival bag. This was a first experience for me.

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School is back in session despite the fact that the situation in Fukushima is still not under control. I only have one class today so I have ample time to catch up on dry washing my hands and sighing.

I broke uniform today and chose to wear jeans instead of slacks to go with my shirt and tie. It is business on top and casual on the bottom. My lower half is anxious to flee while the top part of me is adamant about staying. The real me is somewhere around my midriff.

All of my foreigner friends have left my city already.

There are many conflicting reports regarding the situation. I was reassured last night after reading an article posted by the Japanese British Embassy but today the New York Times is reporting that the situation is a lot more dire than what is being reported by the Japanese government.

As of this moment, the U.S. and British embassies have expanded the evacuation perimeter surrounding the power plant to 80 kilometers.


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Being alone in a foreign country where you are unable to speak the language in the middle of a crisis, is probably what it was like to be Frodo when he was bearing the Ring through Mordor and he was left for dead by his gardner, Samwise. It’s not good.

Staying put for the moment and suppressing my knee-jerk reaction to flee is probably one of the toughest things I have done but with each passing hour, it gets a little easier (or harder – it depends on the hour). When studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, a good friend of mine, Rhea O’Connor, advised me when I was upset over a school project gone awry to visualize the worst possible scenario and then work my way back from there.

In this instance, the worst case scenario is a nuclear meltdown. Ahh hell. I will finish this post later. I’m tired.

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If you are in Japan right now and like me, you are an English teacher struggling with your decision to stay or leave, here is a simple equation to help put your mind at ease:

If A is greater than B, then you should leave.

A = your proximity to Fukushima + skittishness over aftershocks + anxiety over food and fuel shortages + annoyance over blackouts + lack of sleep + paralyzing fear of a nuclear meltdown + discomfort over having to stay indoors/protect yourself from radiation outdoors + the stress of emails from panicked friends and family back home + 2 + frustration of not being able to understand Japanese + anxiety of knowing that many of your friends have left + loneliness + health concerns + fear that if you wait too long you will have no way of leaving should things get worse.

B = stress of trying to leave + sense of duty + anxiety over leaving friends, coworkers and students + logical, unbiased analysis of current situation + comfort of being in a safe and familiar place + trust in the Japanese government + procrastination + misplaced sense of adventure + high cost of plane tickets + lack of vacation days + 2 + hope that this whole thing will blow over soon + excitement of being in a nuclear meltdown crisis + willingness to hold steadfast and be cheerful for the sake of your students, who are probably a lot more scared than you and don’t have another country to escape to. ]


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