Category Archives: Observations: Writing, History, Travel and Culture
The Pearl by Marco Lobo
Kaidankai: Ghost and Supernatural Stories
Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. In reflection of the episode, I share my personal thoughts and learnings of that period, and of the time since.
We found her in the dark, cold apartment, hunched over, cooking on a small camp stove, stirring a pot of instant noodles. The gas, water and electricity had been cut off and Miyoko, my deaf-in-one-ear, eighty-year old mother-in-law, had her transistor radio turned up loud. It was March 12th, 2011, a day after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, unleashing a tsunami that caused immense damage along Japan’s eastern coastline, in places reaching as far as five kilometers inland.
The day of the earthquake, a Friday, we had taken the day off work and headed for the ski slopes of Nagano. After a couple of hours of skiing, a few minutes before 3:00 pm, the ski lifts stopped running. High winds, I thought as we trudged back to the lodge, hoping to continue our fun later in the day. It soon became clear that something was terribly wrong. People at the lodge were gathered around a television set watching news of the damage caused by the earthquake, and of the tsunami that had slammed into the coast of Miyagi Prefecture a mere 30 minutes after the main seismic shock. Miyagi, more specifically the town of Shiogama, was where my mother-in-law lived. We knew we had to get to her, but with the images of destruction on the TV news, we decided to first return home to Tokyo to plan our next moves.
Miyoko had first been evacuated to a school gymnasium, but with the place having no electricity or running water she returned home, deciding that being surrounded by her own things and the butsudan, the altar set up in honor of her recently deceased husband, was a preferable option.
This is a tale of sorrow, but also of hope and resilience, of how living alongside my community in Tokyo as well as the wider Japanese community has allowed deeper insights into Japanese culture and behavior.
After the earthquake struck, phones were not working. Already a day had passed without our being able to contact Miyoko. Eventually, through contact with a policeman at her koban, neighborhood police station, we received news that she was uninjured and at home. We threw sleeping bags, torches, bottled water and a first-aid kit into the trunk of our car and set off for Tohoku. The main highway north was closed due to earthquake damage, so we drove the 400 kilometers from Tokyo to Miyagi via local roads, through the countryside and small towns. Signs of devastation grew the further north we went and our sense of despair rose along with it. Witnessing the aftermath of the tsunami was terrifying. Sendai Port had been flattened. Cars and boats sat upturned on each other and atop buildings. Plumes of black smoke from oil and chemical fires darkened the sky. Helicopters thumped overhead. Japan Self Defense Force trucks roared here and there, heightening the sense of being in a war zone.
As harrowing as the experience was from witnessing nature’s destructive power, we also felt a sense of hope. People we saw along the way had already started to dust themselves off. Road crews were already out making repairs. In some areas, water was running again. Long orderly queues had formed in places where vital supplies were available.
Nowhere did we see panic. That’s not to say there wasn’t fear — we saw it and felt it each time he earth trembled with an aftershock. Above all, we saw people doing their best trying to restore a sense of order to their shattered world just as Miyoko had been doing in her collapsing apartment building. Even in such dire circumstances, there was no cutting in line in front of the hundred-car lines waiting for petrol at every gas station. The drive back to Tokyo took us fourteen hours, two hours longer than the trip up to Shiogama. The car’s navigation system repeatedly beeped warnings for us not to get within twenty kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Shortly after the disaster, a Japanese newspaper printed a story that provided a glimpse into the Japanese psyche. It reported that when the earthquake struck, patrons of a Tokyo restaurant fled out into the street. When the tremors subsided, many diners went back into the restaurant and settled their bills. Some of those who had run for their lives returned the next day to pay for their meals.
A week after the devastation that we now know claimed many thousands of lives, as the weather warmed, with the first promise of cherry blossoms — that Japanese symbol of transience, but also of life and rebirth, I took my white-haired mother-in-law for a stroll. She was then as she is now a decade later, imbued with a sense of hope that things will turn out for the best in the end. She is my moral compass, guiding me with words of wisdom such as ‘Sekizen no ie ni wa yokei ari’ — The family that has done many virtuous deeds has abundance.
It is through sharing experiences with my Japanese family and community, joyful ones such as the approach of spring and anticipation of cherry blossoms, as well as the painful ones like natural disasters and the ongoing Covid pandemic, which have helped me more deeply appreciate this country, its people, and my place in it.
I was invited to give a short talk at this year’s Tokyo Writer’s Festival. For anyone interested in the subject of doing research for writing, please feel free to watch the video via the following link.
There have been suggestions that the Covid 19 virus originated in a Chinese laboratory. Though these conspiracy theories have all been debunked as speculative nonsense, notions of the Chinese creating poisons and potions have been around for ages. In the novel JINCAN, I describe how a shaman concocts a venom-based toxin in his laboratory — a poison that mimics a real-life disease, in this case, cholera.
Jincan, sometimes referred to as Gu, was an ancient Chinese poison created by combining the venom of various creatures — placing the animals together in a closed container and having them fight to their deaths, consuming each other, with the final victor retaining the concentrated poison of each combatant.
Here is the description in the book:
The shaman’s heart quickened. Jincan, Golden Silkworm, he thought gleefully; an ancient method of creating a powerful venom. Not a silkworm at all, the name was reputed to have originally come from Kashmir. A funerary decoration made from pure gold.
He slipped off the stool and picked up a large earthenware pot from a corner of the room. Grabbing it by its handles, he struggled back to his workbench and lifted the pot onto it. Incantations were painted across the container’s rough beige surface. Under a glass lid, the pot’s flat base was separated into five compartments like upright walls of a five-pointed star, designed for ease of removal as a single piece.
Wu turned to the jars lining the walls, he ran his gaze over them. Five animals were needed. The task was to combine them, creating a poison that would hold the potency of all five creatures at once. The next step was to select which creatures were to be used to create the Jincan.
It was to be a gladiatorial contest, each of the quintet fighting for survival by using its particular lethality. For it to be a proper battle, it was essential to select creatures that were well-matched in size and potency. His excitement mounted at the thought of watching such a competition. He went to his jars of animals and peered into each one, moving sideways slowly, occasionally pausing to touch a jar and consider the suitability of its inhabitants.
Selection made, he picked up a pair of bamboo tongs and went first to a container that had been fashioned into a terrarium. He removed the dewy enclosure’s glass cover and used the tongs to brush aside thick leaves inside it. Not seeing the animal he wanted, he turned the leaves over one at a time until he spotted a frog hidden at the bottom of the miniature rain forest. The bright blue amphibian with a blackish mottled back was no larger than the upper section of his thumb. It didn’t try to escape when he gripped it with the tongs. The little frog’s back contained a powerful venom that native tribes of China’s mountainous areas used to poison the tips of their arrows. A speck of it was enough to kill a man. He released the frog into a compartment of the the pot and covered it.
Wu chose a wolf spider next. It took more effort to catch the fleet-footed arachnid. But with the aid of a set of smaller tongs, he managed to grab hold one of its legs and tug it from its lair, a small hole in a rock. He examined the feisty warrior before putting it into a compartment next to the frog.
The next two creatures were a centipede with a red back and yellow legs, and a black scorpion. As his final competitor, Wu selected a creature that lived in his garden: a wasp. Wu went out to the hive that was in a tree in the far corner of his garden. He lit an oily rag below the hive, grey smoke drove off most of the hive’s residents; the few left behind were dazed and docile. He grabbed one carefully by its back and returned to his workroom. At his bench, taking great care not to injure the body of the sluggish insect, he carefully snipped off its wings and placed it in the last compartment.
In nature, these animals, each from quite a different habitat were unlikely to come across one another. If they did, their instincts would likely be to avoid each other. Except for the wasp that had woken up and was batting the stubs of its clipped wings about angrily, ready to jab its sting into anything and everything, they had no reason to fight. Wu had to give them one. He hopped off his perch and went to his medicine cabinet. This yaochu had been passed down through several generations of medicine men. It held 42 drawers each marked with what it contained. He hooked his forefinger through a metal loop and pulled open one of the square drawers. Rifling through a stack of neatly arranged paper packets he found one with the character chán 饞, gluttony, written on its front.
Wu uncovered the pot and sprinkled a substance resembling white pepper onto each of his combatants. The powder’s odor made his stomach gurgle. His mind filled with images of his favorite dishes, those of his childhood prepared by his mother and meals shared with intimate friends.
The animals reacted instantaneously, moving about their little cells in search of food. Wu lifted the glass lid and removed the partition before quickly closing it again.
The frog, normally a creature that waited patiently to flick its tongue out at a passing ant or baby cricket, was first on the attack. Oblivious to its own safety, it went for the noisy wasp, clamping its toothless mouth over the head, intent on gobbling it down. The wasp moved its tail around and jabbed repeatedly at the frog. The black scorpion rushed at the fighting duo and grabbed the business end of the wasp with its pincers and began to gnaw at whatever part of the animal it could, striking and injecting venom from its own tail. Locked in combat, the three creatures rolled about. All the while, the frog continued to secrete poison from sacs on its back, smearing the pot’s bottom with a toxic paste. They tumbled into the centipede which wrapped itself round the scorpion and attacked indiscriminately with its poisonous bite. The eight-eyed wolf spider leapt onto the centipede, and now the combatants were a writhing ball, gnashing, stinging and biting — entangled in spider silk, thrashing about in poisonous puddles. They fought until one at a time, each of the animals succumbed to its wounds. Even as they died, so strong was the desire to eat that through their dying breaths, they continued trying to gorge themselves on one another.
In the end, the Pyrrhic victor was the wolf spider. Wu sprinkled more of the powder onto it. Though nearly dead, the spider continued eating, well beyond what it was capable of. This was the important part, for after gorging itself on its foes, the main ingredient of Jincan had to be harvested: the victor’s feces.
… Everyday Is Mine – The Life Of Pedro José Lobo
The title of this book about the story of Pedro José Lobo’s life, born in East Timor in 1892, is the last line of a short poem by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
Sent to Macau for schooling in 1901, Pedro José Lobo began his work life as a mathematics teacher and then a bank employee, rising to the position of chief of Macau’s economics department from where he guided Macau through some of its most difficult times such as the virtual Japanese occupation during the World War II, the refugee situation and the Border Gate Incident that took place in 1952. He knew that Macau’s survival meant that it had to stay independent and be useful to all parties as an independent entity.
Readers of this book will have a better understanding of Macau as seen through the eyes of those who lived through some of its most important moments.
Here is an interview of Marco talking about the book:
Here is a book review in Portuguese