The Mandarins of Noto

The magnitude 7 earthquake at the beginning of January left behind two hundred dead and twenty thousand displaced people, more than half of whom are still unable to return home. The affected area, the Noto peninsula, is a strip of land that sits out in the Sea of Japan.

Versione Italiana


In a crowded elementary school gym being used as an earthquake shelter on the Noto peninsula, which was hit by a terrible earthquake on January 1st, an elderly woman, sitting on her knees as usual, receives a small mandarin orange from one of the emergency management staff, who strictly wear light blue identification bibs. Once in hand, the mandarin orange is peeled and divided into two. Half is consumed under the mask that covers the elderly evacuated woman’s face, but only afterwards is the remaining half left in the hands of her “futon” neighbor, who is also elderly and curled up in obsequious silence.

All around there is silence, broken only by the noise of the sirens of ambulances and fire engines, still searching for the missing. The magnitude 7 earthquake left behind two hundred dead and twenty thousand displaced people, more than half of whom are still unable to return home. The affected area, the Noto peninsula, is a strip of land that sits out in the Sea of Japan. The area is mainly dedicated to fishing and agriculture, despite its harsh geography.

But what matters most is that more than fifty percent of the population in these areas is over 65 years old. Japan is one of the countries with the highest percentage of elderly in the world. Many of the few young people who live in these areas are attracted, or rather sucked in by the great furnace of Tokyo, which seems to be the country’s only engine – Japan has gone from being the third largest to the fourth largest economy in the world.

The images of the woman dividing the mandarin orange arrive here in the capital, but the people on the trains, which are invaded by colorful ads that sponsor everything from shampoos to organized trips (which seem to have returned after the Covid interlude), now appear to have become so inured to these images that they almost don’t see them and don’t even “feel” them.

In provincial stations, groups of municipal workers greet commuters at the station entrance with the sound of slogans such as “Let’s help the Noto peninsula! Noto Courage!” and similar, while they receive offers of a few handfuls of yen, large but sincere, in special boxes.

As soon as we arrive in Tokyo, however, the groups become smaller and people, as many confess, are enthusiastically getting moving again after the pause of the pandemic. So it’s better not to disturb this Tokyo “at work”.

“Earthquake on the Noto peninsula: only two thousand self-defense forces sent in 72 hours, a fifth of those for the Kumamoto earthquake. There were many requests for help, but lives that could have been saved… Why…” [from X: 津田社研 2023 @tsudashaken]

The silence in Noto has something disturbing about it. The elderly people who are displaced represent the old Japan that the new, modern, globalized country, perhaps also in decline, does not want to see. Many young people have left the countryside to make their fortune in the city in recent decades. Some of them exchange traditional and spacious provincial houses, in the company of parents, for narrow and expensive studio apartments in big cities, where it is often even forbidden to keep pets with you, thus ending up finding their smartphone to be the only company for solitude.

On the other hand, the old families have accepted these choices without hesitation and now choose the path of endurance and silence, which has always characterized these people, who have never in their history had revolutions.

The government’s official response is, as always, exceptional, with the formation of crisis units and the organization of rescue operations, largely entrusted to the self-defense forces, i.e. the Japanese army, and the Red Cross. While the search for the missing continues, many of the displaced receive care in special structures, often organized in the earthquake-proof gyms of schools, which have always been dedicated to this purpose throughout the national territory. There was no shortage of offers on an economic level, and the collection system was set in motion by the book. Lastly, the United States Army will collaborate on the ground in rescue operations.

Nonetheless, grassroots assistance is still being developed and a couple of friends had great difficulty in sending used clothes and blankets for the evacuated civilians. In one of the countries that produces the most waste in the world and which has a second-hand market that includes genuine supermarkets of recycled clothes, very few people yet have made an effort to collect clothes and basic necessities at a local level. It goes without saying that the clothes could not be sent, and that once again Japanese society remains a society in which individual and independent initiative, although motivated by noble principles, cannot find space to flourish. Even missionaries, to whom some foreigners turned to offer material assistance, responded that for the moment they do not foresee channels of this type other than the official ones. Worthy of note, in this case, is the story of a Buddhist monastery near Kanazawa that was transformed into a local center for collecting basic necessities.

Meanwhile in Noto, people are digging through the rubble, and many of the displaced people are suffering from stress. Some of the already small number of young residents will spend two months away from their families in the affected areas in order to continue their higher education. Meanwhile an 86-year-old fisherman died after being evacuated to one of the many gyms. The family believes that the shock of the destruction and loss of his house was too great.

The type of buildings in the area is also one of the reasons there was so much destruction. In addition to traditional wooden houses, there are other buildings, built without anti-seismic criteria and which have suffered from damage for various reasons. In a country where the construction market is one of the most flourishing in the world, and where it is better to demolish rather than renovate, many temporary structures are built to last a maximum of ten years, and for this reason they host many elderly people, now unable to live alone in large traditional houses, at low cost.

And so, while the silence continues in Noto, in big cities like Tokyo many are wondering how these tenacious elderly people, exhausted and displaced, can resist in a place like this, because they hope that one day someone will look back at where they started from and will no longer be ashamed of that peasant, traditional, but also sincere and authentic Japan which we risk forgetting, to the detriment of one that is glittering and modern, but also and above all terribly empty.

Translation by Paul Rosenberg

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The Mandarins of Noto ultima modifica: 2024-01-19T18:45:17+01:00 da PIER GIORGIO GIRASOLE
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