JOK Notebook

Kanji in the Time of Catastrophe

The past week was about power—or the lack thereof.

In Northern and Central California we received dire warnings about how PG&E (our gas and electric company) would be turning off power to large portions of the state and leaving it off for nearly a week. A barrage of notifications came from two fire departments, the police department, and the county, as well as "breaking news" emails from local newspapers, sometimes every 10 minutes. The messages made it clear that this would definitely be happening, and soon. "Make plans for food and water for up to six days without electricity," the notes said.

The goal was to prevent wildfires. In recent years PG&E's faulty equipment sparked fires that swept across the terrain with terrifying force, destroying hundreds of houses, killing scores of people, and even wiping out a whole town. For the 2019 fire season (as we refer to our hot, dry autumns), PG&E apparently decided that it would be better for everyone to do without electricity for long stretches than for the company to face yet another lawsuit.

When someone else can flip off the switch and decide that we will live without light, refrigeration, Internet, or even the ability to open the garage door easily (not to mention pumping gas, buying groceries, and so on), it's very hard to feel in control of one's life.

While I still had an Internet connection and a functioning monitor, I raced to finish writing essay 2118 on 麺 (noodles) so I could send it to my proofreader. And as the cutoff time neared, I heard an ominous "tick tick tick" in my mind. I felt as if, when the outage came, doom would be upon us—something like a sudden death or the end of the world. 

The outage never did happen at my house, though millions of homes and businesses lost power. The lights are now back on, but the crisis is far from over. The current plan is for this to happen again and again whenever we have hot, dry, windy weather. And this miserable scenario may be preferable to what happens when the power stays on in such conditions; while large swaths of the state were in the dark, three infernos erupted in the Los Angeles area.

Just after our blackout ended, Typhoon Hagibis descended on Japan and wrought all kinds of horrors. Climate change plagued either side of the Pacific in mirror images. 

Sunday brought a welcome change of focus here because I had bought theater tickets a month before. The Great Wave by Francis Turnly (a Northern Ireland–based sheep farmer with an Irish father and a Japanese mother!) was a must-see for me, as it's a fictionalized take on this topic:

拉致問題 (らちもんだい: abduction issue (esp. of those Japanese abducted by North Korea))     abduction (1st 2 kanji) + issue (last 2 kanji)

I feel a connection to this extremely bizarre and troubling situation, having written about it in essay 2128 on 拉 (to abduct; pull; crush; ラ sound). Here are excerpts from that essay:

From 1977 to 1983, the North Koreans abducted young Japanese people (mostly in their 20s), taking them from various parts of Japan to North Korea. It’s difficult to say how many were abducted. In 2002, after decades of denial, North Korea finally admitted to having taken 13, but there may have been about eight hundred.

North Korea carefully chose the victims and forced them to teach Japanese in North Korea to spies or spies-in-training.

This unresolved matter has fueled tension between the two countries, prompting sanctions and negotiations but not the results Japan wants. My Japanese-language partner is a diplomat who participated in several meetings about this issue, and during our Skype chats in 2014 he kept giving me updates in Japanese. 

My conversations about this with Kensuke provided another strong sense of connection to the topic. How thrilling it would be to see it brought to life on stage.

Four days after I bought the tickets, the San Francisco Chronicle printed an extremely negative review of this long play. Talk about a loss of control; I had nonrefundable tickets and a husband who wouldn't be too pleased if he knew what the night had in store for him. I told him nothing of the bad review until a half hour before the play began.

But it was great—moving, riveting, and beautifully realized. And coincidentally, powerlessness was a major theme. As the playwright depicts it (and this resonates with what I've read), the abductees' relatives spend decades banging their heads against walls in attempts to rescue loved ones. The mother and sister of an abducted young woman repeatedly appeal to an unmotivated Japanese civil servant who conceals information from them and sends them away with platitudes. As if dealing with bureaucrats weren't sufficiently unrewarding, there's also the matter of trying to get the North Korean government to be honest, trustworthy, and accountable.

The mother in the play channels her grief and frustration into action by stuffing "missing person" messages into thousands of bottles and throwing them into the sea, hoping that even one reaches North Korea. One actually does make it across, but all for naught.

In the face of so much powerlessness, it's easy to give up on just about everything. Why bother trying if efforts don't produce results? And if our planet becomes practically uninhabitable in the near future, what will happen to our motivation then?

One could certainly feel that studying kanji won't help. It's definitely an ineffective way to stop climate change! I sometimes wish I had the sort of brain that could find the scientific answers we need, but I don't.

Strangely, even with so much misery afoot, kanji turns out to be my salvation.

I spotted an article about the typhoon and became excited by two words in the title:

堤防決壊や土砂崩れ 写真で見る台風19号の爪痕

I should probably apologize for my reaction. Floods have swallowed parts of Japan, and I should feel nothing but sorrow about that. I do feel sadness, frustration, anxiety, and much more. But I'm still stoked to see these words:

堤防 (ていぼう: embankment)     embankment + embankment

爪痕 or 爪跡 (つめあと: (1) fingernail mark; scratch; (2) scar; ravages; aftereffects)
     nail + mark

It's not that the word 堤防 is witty or fascinating, but I wrote about it in great depth in essay 1620 on 堤 (embankment), covering everything about embankments from their history in Japan to embankment-related legends to engineering concerns, so I feel a sense of ownership over 堤防. I also discovered how carefully the Japanese have built embankments to prevent deadly floods. It's tragic, then, that 決壊 (けっかい: burst) follows 堤防 in the headline.

As for 爪痕, I included that term in essay 2071 on 爪 (nail, claw, talon; hoof; “claw” radical), but on seeing 爪痕 again, I feel as if I'm encountering the figurative wit for the first time. That is, when a natural disaster (or war) claws through an area, it's as if it leaves a claw-shaped mark or scar on the place. I wonder if a bear attack inspired the metaphor.

Here, then, is a translation of the title:

堤防決壊や土砂崩れ 写真で見る台風19号の爪痕
"Burst Embankments and Landslides: Looking at the Ravages of Typhoon 19 Through Pictures"

決壊 (けっかい: burst); 土砂崩れ (どしゃくずれ: landslide); 写真 (しゃしん: picture); 見る (みる: to see); 台風 (たいふう: typhoon); -号 (-ごう: number)

The Great Wave brought more kanji-related joy. I delighted in the abundant writing from start to finish. Sometimes it flashed before me in supertitles. I couldn't recognize everything but relished the challenge. At other times kanji appeared in "missing person" signs that said 探しています (さがしています: We are looking) and in labels on bins of documents. The labels featured prefecture names, and I could read every one! 

I also felt a moment of delight when characters referred to a ramen vendor. After all, I've just finished the noodle essay, in which 拉麺 (ラーメン: ramen) plays a big role. What fun to realize that 拉 factored into this play in two ways—in both 拉麺 and 拉致 (らち: abduction).

I realized that all my kanji efforts have mattered a great deal. They have brought me to a point where I can easily decode some of this enticing script and can understand things that many others in the audience could not. 

Kanji will never lose its power to thrill me. I can't control the weather or PG&E, but I can at least feel effective in one arena that's crucial to me.

Speaking of kanji, here's a sneak preview of essay 2015 on 采 (dice; appearance):

Catch you back here next time!


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