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"Low Tide"

The New York Times Magazine, February 2012

There are two sayings in Japan for when bad things happen: shikata ga nai, an idiom that means “it can’t be helped”; and gambaru, a verb translated as “to persevere against adversity.” When life doesn’t go your way — a job loss, illness or a romantic failure — your friend is likely to say, “Sho ga nai” (a variation of shikata ga nai), it’s out of your control. If you need a boost before an exam or when your favorite team is losing, you hear “gambatte,” you can do it. The Japanese rely on the same aphorisms to cover much more disastrous events.

The survivors of the 9.0 earthquake, catastrophic tsunami and Level-7 nuclear-reactor meltdown last March, which killed more than 15,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes, were all told “sho ga nai” or “gambatte,” reminding them to carry on or try harder. Those who live outside Tohoku, the area hit hardest by the disaster, praised the restraint of the survivors and encouraged them to endure, but it seems a bit cruel, I think. It is preposterous to tell a man who has lost everything to give it his best. Except what else can you say?

On that Friday last March, my husband, son and I spent the evening watching televised images of houses, trucks and cars bobbing along black waves like lost bath toys. We had lived in Tokyo for almost four years. As a Korean-American, I passed undetected as a foreigner, and I could stare and study the infinitely varied faces of the Japanese. My mother used to say a person’s face was a map of his life — each wrinkle a road, each brown spot a locale with a story. You could tell if a woman had a good life by following the lines around her mouth. Sometimes I would see a white-haired woman across from me on the Shinjuku train and recognize my mother in the laugh lines radiating across her face.

Several survivors shown here, their faces carved deeply like woodblocks, withstood wars, rationing, atomic bombs, postwar reconstructions, economic booms and busts and now an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. From the outside, it looks as if the Japanese accept all things with equanimity. But we cannot know if inside, the survivors want to spit at another well-intended sho ga nai.

The photographer Denis Rouvre spent a month last fall traveling the coast between Ishinomaki and Minamisoma, photographing the devastation, visiting the temporary housing and speaking to the survivors. “Sometimes, I wake up at night because I fear another tsunami might be coming,” Tomoko Ujiie, 77, told him. “Even now the earth is still shaking.”

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