'The Rose': Living after Japan's disaster

A red rose is left in front of the Japanese embassy on March 13, 2011, in Berlin for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

Story highlights

  • Yoshimoto writes about a March day not long after the disaster
  • Her thoughts returned often to all those who lost their homes and lives
  • She writes of the fear of saying goodbye to loved ones, of connecting with people
  • The experience has changed her; a rose stands as a singular image and metaphor

Tokyo was unbelievably cold, even though it was March.

It looked as if it might snow. Even inside, my breath was white.

We had hardly been using our heater, and we'd turned off the lights, assuming there would be another power cut. Burning candles wasn't an option since there could be more earthquakes. We had a small flashlight turned on, and we were wearing our coats, and the house was dark even though it was daytime.

My thoughts returned again and again to all the people who had lost their homes in regions much, much colder than here -- though somehow it felt wrong to focus too much on total strangers. It's always seemed to me that you have to care all you can for the people you really can care for. I feel like each of us has been given a certain, fixed amount of caring. As if each of us has certain connections that just matter more. If you feel that connection, you have to act immediately, without hesitating; if you don't, you shouldn't worry.

But the sudden loss of so many lives had left me stunned. I was so shocked my heart settled into an unexpected calm. I found myself praying for the repose of their souls, looking up at the window and the cold scenery outside like someone lying motionless underwater, eying the surface. There was a flowerpot on the windowsill, and in it a small, dazzlingly red rose. Just one, uncannily red, glowing against the background of an unusually clear sky on this day when none of the factories were running.

Banana Yoshimoto

The air could be heavy with pollen, the rose's petals could be covered in the yellow dust that blows over from China in the spring or exposed to radiation; when the time came for the flower to bloom, it would bloom. As long as we're alive, we go on living.

I thought about our dog that had died the month before. Maybe it was fortunate that he was no longer alive because he couldn't stand earthquakes.

We only die once. Why is it then that there are so many ways of dying, and that we're made in different ways and feel so many different things?

I hardly shed a tear when our dog died, and yet I couldn't stop crying when this boy in some movie I saw decided to take his dead dog on a trip, and he came out cradling the body in his arms.

"It's no good," the boy said. "He isn't coming back, he just gets harder."

He was so totally right.

And I was still alive, and I could feel the warmth of my loved ones.

Late in the afternoon, the people in our neighborhood, who had all been feeling ill at ease, gathered in the dimness of our house to share a meal. We ate sautéed lamb and buttered bread. When I told them I didn't have any butter because people had bought up all there was in the stores, one of our friends confessed, looking a little abashed, that she had six packs at home. She loved butter, she said. She brought some. Grateful that she had thought to stock up, we used as much as we wanted. The supermarkets had nothing to sell anymore, so I put out some wine, prosciutto, and senbei that I had gotten earlier.

As we ate, it felt sort of like we were all holding hands in the dark.

Ever since that day, I've grown a little bit afraid of connecting with the people I love -- with my heart, my hands, even my eyes.

It scares me, just a little, to send them off to work or school, to say goodbye and wave, to hug.

But it's okay: I don't care if I recover from this. I wouldn't go back to my old life if I could. I'm happy being the person I am now, having had this experience. Being afraid.

Staring at the rose, I found myself singing a song called "The Rose."

We're relaxed now, let's take a trip . . . we'll laugh and cry as hard as we can . . .

The lyrics were totally inappropriate, but as I kept singing, I began to feel better, as if a tiny hole had opened in my heart, letting in a breath of freedom. My prayers changed into a song, dispersed through the sky. And that was good enough. Useless enough.

Living our lives so we can have bread with butter again sometime together.

      Rebuilding Japan

    • This picture taken by a Miyako City official on March 11, 2011 and released on March 18, 2011 shows a tsunami breeching an embankment and flowing into the city of Miyako in Iwate prefecture shortly after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the region of northern Japan. The official number of dead and missing after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that flattened Japan's northeast coast a week ago has topped 16,600, with 6,405 confirmed dead, it was announced on March 18, 2011. AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS (Photo credit should read JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

      Did events on March 11, 2011 affect your life? Share before and after photos of your area, or grab a video camera and let us know what life is like today.
    • An aerial view shows the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Japanese town of Futaba, Fukushima prefecture on March 12, 2011. Japan scrambled to prevent nuclear accidents at two atomic plants where reactor cooling systems failed after a massive earthquake, as it evacuated tens of thousands of residents. Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the plants, said it had released some radioactive vapour into the atmosphere at one plant to relieve building reactor pressure, but said the move posed no health risks. AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

      A Fukushima Prefecture evacuee made a brief visit to his radiation-contaminated home, walked to his shuttered shop, and then hanged himself.
    • Tourism in Japan has been badly hit by the quake.

      See how areas hit by the tsunami looked just after the disaster and how they look today.
    • The morning sun shines on the Kamaishi Bay while a huge buddha statue of 'Kamaishi Kannon' stands on the top of the mountain at the tsunami-devastated city of Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture on May 12, 2011.

      Scientist Ken Buesseler looks at what's known -- and not known -- about the largest accidental release of radioactivity into the ocean.
    • A TEPCO worker explains the situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, February 28, 2012.

      Twisted metal beams still jut from the top of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi stricken reactors, almost one year after a massive tsunami triggered nuclear meltdown.