Particularly with relatives, but also with superiors at work, tradesmen and so on, it is customary to address people by their title, so Mrs M genuinely doesn’t know the Christian names of some of her aunts and uncles, and where I would say ‘Uncle Dave’ or ‘Auntie Dave-ette’, for example, her family have attached names to their relatives based on where they live, or other seemingly random criteria. So instead of saying ‘Uncle Ken’ and ‘Auntie Rika’, Mrs M talks about Yui-chan-papa and Yui-chan-mama (Yui being Ken and Rika’s eldest daughter), and when I asked what her mother’s older brother was called, Mrs M couldn’t remember. ‘He’s just Oji-chan (uncle),’ she said, although more importantly, he is the choh-nan (eldest son / 長男), and as well as being responsible for looking after his ninety-year-old mother – Mrs M’s maternal grandmother – the ownership of her house in Ajigaura will one day automatically revert to him (a system that rather neatly bypasses any family squabbles about who will inherit what when their parents have passed away).
The Ajigaura clan has its fingers in plenty of pies, including a car park opposite the beach, a kiosk for refreshments, a shower block for those customers who need to wash the seawater out of their hair after going for a swim, a camp site, and a business making kansoh-imo (dried potatoes / 乾燥芋), which believe it or not are quite a delicacy in Japan. Their house is at the end of a long driveway among an assortment of greenhouses, garages and outbuildings, and when we turned up, there were still large cracks in the steps leading up to the front porch. Having sat down around the kotatsu – which as well as giving off its own heat was positioned on an electric floor blanket, no less – talk soon turned to the earthquake.
‘The front door wouldn’t open at all until I repaired it,’ said Oji-chan ‘and the whole house moved about thirty centimetres, so all of the water pipes had sheared off. I managed to repair them as well, although it took a while to get hold of the parts. They were all sold out at Joyful Honda [for some reason, DIY superstores in Japan are often prefixed with the word ‘joyful’], and at the ironmonger’s down the road, he had the parts but he couldn’t get at them straight away because everything had been turned upside down in the earthquake.’
When the radio began broadcasting a tsunami warning, Masao-oji-chan – Oji-chan’s younger brother, who also lives in Ajigaura – began chauffeuring everyone to higher ground, taking one vehicle at a time.
‘We’ve got seven or eight cars and vans, so I was going back and forth, back and forth… From where I parked them at the top of the hill, I noticed the tide going right out. You could see the sea bed in the harbour, which has never happened before. There were a couple of ships further off the coast, and once the warning sounded, they headed north.’ (I’m pretty sure this is what Masao said, and I suppose it makes sense to head towards a high wave rather than to have it hit you side-on or from behind – there was some eye-opening footage of a ship in the tsunami that illustrated this point, although it doesn't seem to be available any more on the BBC homepage.)
The harbour faces south-east, with a long concrete wall stretching around its northern perimeter, and it was probably this that saved Ajigaura from more serious damage.
‘There were three or four big swells,’ said Masao, ‘and the tsunami reached right up to the coast road. It stopped there, though, so we didn’t have to evacuate completely.’
‘We used the stream that runs behind the house when the mains water was cut off,’ said Oji-chan, ‘and once word got around, people were coming from all over to stock up. We’ve got a petrol generator as well, so we managed to get the bath going.’
‘One of the bathrooms is out of action because all the tiles are broken,’ continued Masao, ‘but the other one is OK. The bath is on a bit of a slant, mind you – probably about two centimeters off, I should think.’
‘How about the aftershock last night?’ said Kikue-oba-chan, Oji-chan’s wife. ‘Were you OK?’
‘That was scary enough for me,’ I said – whilst it was probably only a four or a five on the Japanese version of the Richter Scale, it was still the biggest I had ever experienced.
‘He was straight up out of bed and standing by the front door ready to leave!’ said Mrs M.
As our futon began to shake from side to side and the sliding doors and windows began to rattle, Mrs M had stayed put, contemplating whether or not to dessert the warmth of the duvet, but I wasn’t going to take any risks.
‘That’s what they say, though, isn’t it?’ said Masao, laughing. ‘Don’t worry about anyone else, just save yourself!’
A couple of kilometres inland at Hara, we found the usual scene of Yaeko asleep beneath the kotatsu (Yaeko often does night shifts at an old people’s home, and the last time we visited, she had worked from 3pm the previous day until 9am) and her dad (Shuhzoh-oji-chan) watching their enormous flat-screen TV, which is permanently switched on, and at probably forty-eight inches across completely dominates their modest front room. Yaeko’s mother, Taka-oba-chan (aka. Hara-oba-chan – it took Mrs M several minutes to remember her Christian name when I asked later on) had her leg in plaster from falling off her bicycle, but still insisted on hobbling through to the kitchen on crutches to make us a cup of tea. This being Japan, there was no chance of her husband offering to help, so Mrs M went instead, which left me and Shuhzoh on our own together.
Shuhzoh looks permanently dishevelled, with his baggy clothes, ruffled grey hair and one or two missing teeth, and while he never drinks alcohol, over the years he has apparently gambled away ‘enough money to buy a house’ on pachinko. Possibly because he used to work as a fisherman – seafaring types often seem to have developed the strongest dialects – his Japanese is extremely difficult to understand, and without Mrs M to chip in as interpreter, I tried my best to nod in the right places as he rattled on about the earthquake and its aftermath. He said something about Fukushima in relation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, something else about politicians (derogatory, as far as I could make out), and something about what happened when the earthquake struck as he was working in the factory next door.
‘I was standing at my machine and this big chunk of metal came shooting past me from behind. It only missed me by this much.’ He pinched his thumb and forefinger until they were almost touching. ‘Must have weighed about thirty kilos – I’m lucky to be alive, you know!’
I understood this last bit a little better, because Shuhzoh repeated it for Mrs M’s benefit when she and Taka returned with the tea. Shuhzoh and Taka’s other daughter Yumiko then appeared with several children in tow – both her own and Yaeko’s. As the chohjo (eldest daughter / 長女), Yumiko – like Oji-chan in Ajigarura - is responsible for keeping an eye on her parents, and although they don’t live under the same roof, Yumiko and her husband have built a house directly next door, while Yaeko and her family will soon move to another house down the road, where we had all congregated for the tatémaé ceremony before Christmas.
At this point Yaeko finally stirred, and was soon urging me to give her children English lessons. ‘Go on,’ she always says to them when I am there, ‘say hello!’ At which point they invariably run from the room in fear, and on this occasion, with the house now full of people, Mrs M and I soon followed suit, although not before Mrs M remembered what she had been meaning to ask Shuhzoh all along.
‘Was the TV OK in the earthquake?’ she said.
‘Oh yes, it was fine,’ said Shuhzoh, and pointed to its base, which was firmly fixed to a glass-fronted unit with four large screws.