Inside the Zone

Catherine Browder

1. The 7 Ronin

You are the one who suggests an age limit, for health reasons—the older the better. You’re thinking of the university students, young enough to be at risk. Still, you’re taken aback when the group decides the age cut off should be 40 until Dr. Kimura, the veterinarian, arrives and tells the group she is 34—your age exactly. The Old Lady—Oda-san—and group leader, consults her middle-aged son: The age limit to enter the exclusion zone is now 34. There was never any intent to mislead the group, but the others have no way of guessing how old you are. Besides, you’ve always had a world-weary look. A beloved grandfather once called you, at ten years of age, “the old man.” To this day you wonder what the others truly think, but Oda-san finds you both entertaining and useful. A Japanese who really isn’t, she jokes.

The group would be nothing without the Old Lady, and everyone defers to her better angels. The group considers itself a rescue operation, loosely affiliated with a national outfit. You’re the one who thought up the name, the 7 Ronin, just to hear them laugh. Since the group is so clearly not samurai—seven modern men and women—you offered the name in jest, a twist on the famous legend, but it stuck.

The 7 Ronin are about to visit a small Fukushima village recommended by the young veterinarian. She’s visited before, sent by the prefecture to assess the condition of animals left behind—a thankless task, requiring a decontamination suit and mask and dosimeter, additionally thankless because the government did not provide any means for her to remove the pets. Left by worried owners when the evacuation order came down, most of the animals were tied up to keep them from wandering, bowls of food and water left nearby. Dr. Kimura arrived to find desperate animals with no water and no food. What had the bureaucrats expected? The owners did not know they would be forbidden to return.

Only later does Oda-san learn and share with the group that the vet insisted on revisiting the empty town. As the story goes, she managed to phone in her alarm, pleading with some prefectural factotum who grudgingly granted her request but asked her to leave the zone until reinforcements arrived. And so this stunningly determined and pintsized woman, whom the original six ronin now revere, took one step across the invisible contamination line and did not budge until the trucks came. Eight hours she waited. But that was months ago, before she joined the group. The 7 Ronin have been assured the radiation risk has now diminished, but the women are unanimous in their skepticism, contemptuous of “official figures.”

You, who are an outsider—a Yank, a gaijin—feel your blood quicken when you realize the young vet has willingly joined the group. Gambatte, Kimura-san! Her fidelity has captured more than your restless attention. Dr. Kimura would not, in most quarters, be considered a great beauty; but you find her increasingly appealing: her kind eyes, a single dimple in the left cheek when she smiles, her girlish ponytail often hidden under a vet’s surgical cap. You are struggling against the frightening likelihood of what these feelings must mean.


They call you “Zen-san,” because you came to Japan to meditate—a decision as baggy as the clothes you once wore. You have been here over a decade, and the Buddhist discipline you have practiced steadily, first in California and now here, has so subtly altered you that it’s impossible to remember at what point you became a different man. Although Japanese, you’ve been shaped by an American childhood, sheltered by a nisei mother and sansei father, coming to the motherland in your twenties because nothing in your California life felt nourishing, except zazen. Even that was threatened by the falseness all around, and inside. A shadow pressed down, at first lightly but slowly gaining weight until it became unendurable, making it difficult to eat or sleep. You liked to say it was the political climate in the new millennium that compelled one to leave the USA, but an indulgent older sister knew politics had nothing to do with it.

Joyce saw the scar you refused to acknowledge. When she confronted you, a hollow laugh popped out. While a senior at Berkeley, and happily engaged to your high school sweetheart, you were unexpectedly thrown over for an Anglo like herself, a man who was everything you were not: un-bookish, buff, and blond. “This is a joke, right, Barb? You’ve fallen for a jock?” When you confronted her, she unleashed a string of grievances and never looked back. Joyce was quick to point out that your mother had always been uneasy, but her pursuit of a “nice Japanese-American girl” only drove you deeper into Barbara’s duplicitous arms.

“Barb’s a space cadet,” Joyce said, “but you never saw it.” In fact, you did see it but thought it didn’t matter, loved her anyway and had for years. Joyce insisted her departure was a blessing. “She did you a favor, Ronny.” But there was no favor whatsoever in this loss; for the rejection burrowed deep and lingered.

In Yokohama you presented yourself to the Abbot of S__ Temple, who treated you kindly, helpfully, but told you to go away and learn some Japanese in order to achieve your goal. A painful rebuke. How easy to think one knew enough, all learned at a maternal grandfather’s knee, plus several years in “Japanese school”—a torture you and Joyce endured until you were old enough to rebel—never realizing how pitiful your knowledge actually was until stepping off the plane at Narita and taking the train to Yokohama, scarcely able to read or write.

With great speed you’ve corrected your deficiencies, and then, after a year, moved north to Koriyama, accepting a position at a women’s university to teach English and a dab of American literature. Here was a field you might have excelled at if only you’d paid attention. But that was in the depressed and dithering grad school days. The “lost soul” days, to quote Joyce. The “wastrel days,” according to a mostly-absent father. You feel fondly toward this adopted city even if Koriyama would not be considered the loveliest of cities. At least the mountains that surround it are consoling. The fact it is located in the scorned Tohoku region of the country—the Appalachia of Japan—only strengthens your affection. Screw those Tokyo city slickers, you joke with your gaijin colleagues, a handful of westerners who share the view that the soul of Japan, and most of its fairy tales, reside in the neglected Northeast.


The 7 Ronin first met in Koriyama, at an event organizing volunteers soon after the disaster. All sensed a need and answered it, as did the students at the university. Everyone was affected by the mega-quake. The event is burned into memory and remains like a keloid scar:

A cold spring and most of the students were on holiday, visiting family or traveling with friends. The English language club kept in touch through email and text messages, which included you, their “dear sensei.” Mid-afternoon of March 11, 2011, while drinking tea in your third-floor apartment a TV announcement interrupted your guilty pleasure, a traditional Japanese cooking show, leaving 30 seconds to react. You whisked the breakable tea things to the tiny kitchen, placing them in the sink, and then glanced around and out into the small living room—bookshelves low to the floor and one scroll hanging from a wall. Nothing, except dishes in the cabinets, could possibly become projectiles. Since there were two floors above and the possibility of being crushed seemed real, you considered rushing outside, pausing only because it was unseasonably cold for March, snow flurrying on and off.

The earthquake knocked you to the floor. It was impossible to rise any further than your knees until the shaking stopped, six eternal minutes later. Dishes flew from the cabinets as the doors swung open, and books slid across the room. The scroll rattled violently against the wall before it fell. When the trembling stopped, you raced out of the apartment, passport in hand, down the three flights and into the street, heart beating wildly while blood throbbed in your temples. You finally stopped to breathe and turned around: the five-story building still stood.

Others were also wandering the neighborhood, adrenaline-fueled, cell phones on video recorder. Buildings stood but plaster and windows, fences and free-standing walls had cracked or tumbled into the street, business signs toppled or hanging askew, and one asphalt byway had split in two. In the hours and days that followed, the city came to know that the observation deck atop City Hall had collapsed; the side of a famous sushi restaurant had caved in; and Koriyama station was closed, surrounded by yellow police tape. On that first day, you felt incredibly lucky—the apartment building showed few signs of distress. And so you returned to the apartment to clean up the mess, only to discover no water or gas or lights.


You’ve borrowed a university friend’s small truck and filled it with bags of dry pet food and water. The Old Lady, Oda-san, has already undertaken an inventory of evacuated village residents, now housed in Koriyama, who have informed her of animals left behind. She will do her best to feed or trap and eventually reunite pets with owners, a difficult, even heart-breaking task. Cats have gone feral and retreated into the woods for food or become food themselves. Dogs who have managed to free themselves have also fled, now wary of human company. Many are dead. Chickens were swiftly devoured, and there is nothing this group can do for the herds of cattle left to their fate, entombed in barns, carcasses stacking up.

Two students have volunteered to join the group today even though you have warned them of the contamination risk, not to mention the heartache. They insist, pointing out that their friends, directly after the disaster, left for Miyagi Prefecture or the Fukushima coast to assist the tsunami survivors. Others volunteered at the large hinanjo, a refugee center in Koriyama housing evacuees from the sea-washed and contaminated towns. Oda-san likes to point out the risky situation that remains right at home. Radiation readings in Koriyama City were hazardously elevated to five millisieverts soon after the disaster, four millisieverts above the international standard for safety. Yet Koriyama was never designated for evacuation. So much for our well-informed government, the Old Lady quips. Her voice drips with sarcasm when she speaks: Tokyo seems to believe that “no news is good news.” Take us for idiots, do they?

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Photo credit: L’oeil étranger on Visualhunt /  CC BY