My time spent living in the fishing village Ogatsu was short. I was there for a year and a few days before I moved down to the center of Ishinomaki. When the move took place, I changed from rural middle and elementary schools to two suburban high schools for girls. I still made weekly elementary school visits and monthly visits to a special education school room.
I was very excited to move downtown, because I would be able to go to the mall any time I wanted, join a gym, go out for drinks with my friends and walk home, and take the train without having to pay to park my car. The drinking was the most important part.
The legal limit for alcohol consumption and subsequent driving in Japan is none. Drinking a beer in the passenger seat of a moving car is fine, but have one sip and get behind the wheel and you are probably going to jail. That is, of course, assuming you’re caught. In the case of a foreigner working in Japan on a teaching visa, if you get caught, you’re on a plane home immediately following a nice vacation in a cell.
I was terrified of getting charged with that sort of crime, so I never committed it. During my year in Ogatsu, if I wanted to drink with friends (who didn’t have cars and wouldn’t come to me even if they did), I had to spend the night. So much for having a cold one with dinner, or trying the microbrew a buddy discovered. If I was to be introduced to a new kind of sake, I needed to borrow a futon too. This quickly evolved from charming to annoying. Of course, the root of that problem was not alcohol. It was my detachment from everything fun while living out in the sticks. When I say “the sticks”, I really mean it. Ogatsu had one convenience store, some mom and pop shops, one traffic light, a small bank branch, a little post office, and two restaurants with parking. The gas station closed at four in the afternoon. The elementary school had about one hundred and twenty kids, many of whom commuted by bus or taxi.
When it came time to decide whether or not I would re-contract with my city, I told my supervisor that I would stay on if I could be moved downtown. Luckily, a spot was opening up. It was at the two all-girls high schools, though. There was some initial concern over sending a tall, athletic, American man into those settings, but my professionalism and the city’s desperation to avoid the cost of hiring a new teacher won out.
As my time out in the bush was nearing its end, I began to get emotional. I realized that I would miss filling my water bottles at an artesian spring. I was sure to miss driving through the tunnel into that sliver of habitation that was hugged so tightly by the mountains, and kissed so sweetly by the sea. I launched an initiative to be outside as much as possible before moving into a six-story concrete building on a narrow street by the downtown docks. I fished for tadpoles with the special education kids under the bridge on Saturday. I rode my bike instead of driving. I read my book at the picnic table in front of the Family Mart. I jogged through town to the City Hall branch office instead of up the mountain to Shinrin Park.
One of my friends (I’ll call him Mike, because that’s his name) invited me to go camping out near a small beach on the Oshika Peninsula, still inside Ishinomaki City limits. We got beer and fireworks, and we were excited to swim in the ocean and drink by the fire. The ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) who was placed out in Oshika met us at the beach. His name was also Steven. We three guys, Mike’s girlfriend Kei, and her friend Mika made up the camping party. Mike is a Canadian.
I parked my car near the beach, and we all started drinking on the sand. We ate some easy food because we didn’t feel like grilling. We played in the water and enjoyed the incredible Pacific afternoon. We didn’t really have all that much to drink, and the atmosphere was pretty serene. It was more recreation than adventure. Just for fun, Mike threw me his girlfriend’s floatie. It was a colorful duck made for children. I put it around my waist and swam toward the rope in the water which designated the end of the swimming area.
There are giant concrete tetrapods lining much of the Japanese coast. These are enormous four-pronged jacks which interlock randomly to form a barrier in front of the shoreline. The idea is that they help blunt the power of tsunamis. They’re rather unsightly, but you just have to get used to them, because they’re basically impossible to remove.
Steven and Mike thought it would be a good idea to climb on these mountains of piled stone eyesores. At this particular beach, Kugunarihama, they couldn’t have been stacked too high. My guess is we were ten feet above the ocean floor when we made first contact. It could have been much deeper, but I felt better thinking it was ten feet. There was something terribly ominous about the tetrapods, and when Mike and Steven climbed up, I stayed in the water. It was getting dark, and we could barely see the shore.
The guys goaded me into climbing up, so I landed tentatively. I felt off balance, since there were no flat surfaces anywhere. All we had for footing was curved concrete, and between the prongs of the tetrapods, there were large gaps. I sat down on top of one, and the guys walked parallel to the shore. They continued to call back for me. I was content to sit and look back at the landscape beyond the beach until Mike topped off one of his taunts with, “… you pussy!”
I stood up and took a step forward. I promptly lost my balance. My right leg fell back to the block behind me, but my left leg whiffed and fell straight down into one of the gaps.
My foot was under water inside the cornucopia of concrete hands and arms. I found out later that I took a chunk out of my right big toe trying to pry my left leg free. The missing piece was about the size of an almond. I was able to finally get my leg out, and on pulling it up, I looked down.
A valve had opened, and blood was pouring out of a canyon in the flesh just above my knee. I didn’t want to cry wolf, so I had to focus on trusting my eyes. I was probably about one hundred yards off shore with a very serious laceration on my leg. It was getting dark and I was in pink swimming trunks, with a duck floatie stuck around my waist. What’s worse? I was in the middle of nowhere.
I gathered myself enough to realize that I had to act, so I yelled, “Guys! I’m hurt! I need to go now!” I immediately dove off the tetrapods and into the water, with blood gushing from a wide gash. I created a new variation of swimming I like to call the shitstroke — a hybrid between a three-limbed freestyle and feeble writhing. I howled not in sentences but single words. My head rose out of the seawater, “Help!” Back in. Back out, “Fuck! Help!” Down. Up, “Guys!” In. Out, and extended for maximum attention “Heeeeelp!”
Later when I told some co-workers what had happened, and told them where it had happened, one of the teachers said, “Oh, wow. There are sharks out there.” I asked if that was true, and the others nodded with concern.
I hobbled up the beach, leaving a visible trail of blood in the sand. The girls were very alarmed, and the guys had followed me back to shore. Steven later told me he had never seen someone swim so fast, and that I looked like Michael Phelps. I think it’s probably true. I could have lifted a car, too.
I reached the road to try to get someone to call for emergency assistance. I was close to falling into shock. I couldn’t see anything on the beach, so I had walked right past my belongings. I stood in the middle of the road to try to stop an oncoming car. The driver saw a large, soaked, shirtless, panicked, bleeding, white man and slowed to a stop. I was saved.
Just as I was letting out a sigh of relief, the car started moving again. Backwards. The driver made a three point turn and scurried away. I was bleeding in the street, and the Good Samaritan ran away. I was blind and deaf to what was going on around me. I left a crimson puddle where I had stopped to flag down the car. If someone were to have walked through, it would have splashed and gotten on their ankles. I was bleeding for real.
I tried to touch my cut to see if I could do some sort of first aid. It was so disgusting that I just closed my eyes and shivered. I had to get somebody to help me. I started calling out to the few nearby homes. I saw a porch light, so I limped over to the house. The window was open and there was a light on inside.
“Excuse me,” I called in the calmest voice I could muster. “I’m badly hurt and I need your help. Will you please call an ambulance for me?”
A woman of at least eighty approached the window. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m really sorry, but I’m seriously injured. It’s an emergency. Please call an ambulance.”
The woman backed away from the window and said, “(Something something something something). Alien (something something). I don’t know. Alien.”
A man approached the window and shouted at me. He was hostile. I was in trouble. I was in bad trouble, and I was very obviously asking for assistance. The people in the house were actually going to turn this into a conflict.
“Good evening. I’m sorry. I need you to help me. Please call an ambulance now.” I backed up into the light to show him my leg. He told me to go away. I approached the window again, and he shouted at me again. I shouted back, “Hey! Call an ambulance now! Now! Call it in! Now!” I repeated my orders, and he shouted at me again. The old woman started crying.
In a holler, I demanded to know why they wouldn’t help me. I had my face up against the screen, and I could hear my friends calling for me from the road. I yelled angrily for the old folks to call an ambulance, and they declined. I was starting to feel light-headed.
I had the idea to threaten to enter their house. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I figured that if they wouldn’t call me an ambulance, maybe I could get them to call the police, who would then call me an ambulance. I no longer cared about my job or my status in Japan.
I shouted, “I’m a robber! I’m going to enter! You had better call the police!” The response I got from the old man utterly blew my mind.
He said, “The police won’t bring you an ambulance! They’ll arrest you.” He was not a senile old bastard. He knew exactly what I was trying to do, and he wouldn’t let me do it. I got fucking pissed.
I started to scream at the top of my lungs. I yelled for them to call an ambulance. I pounded on their screen. I screamed that I was going to die in their yard. I pounded on the screen some more, and the frame rattled in the wall. I was not going to stop. I had turned down a path that wasn’t going to lead anyone anywhere good.
My friends finally caught up to me. Apparently someone on the beach, one of my group, the driver who fled, or a neighbor had realized what was happening and called for an ambulance. Mike, Steven, Kei, and Mika had yet to see my state, so they were not ready. As I came out of the devil family’s yard, I approached the others as if walking on a peg. I didn’t want to bend my knee.
Mike said, “Dude, there’s an ambulance coming for you,” in a tone that held the connotation, “You’re taking this way too far.”
I screamed, “Look at me!”, and as I got close enough to see, one of the girls shrieked. She ran off to grab something to wrap around my leg, and instead of going for my white t-shirt, she apparently chose her new sundress. I was later told that she forcefully wrapped it on me, so now I was sporting a sundress bandage, pink thigh-length trunks, and an inflatable, pastel duck.
The ambulance pulled up, and the paramedics came over to me. They took my hand and guided me into the treatment compartment. Mika wanted to accompany me to the hospital, even though I barely knew her. Actually, she had been rude to me before, and I didn’t want her with me for this. She thought she was doing me a favor, but I didn’t think I needed it. It was pride or something. I insisted to the ambulance crew that she not come with me. I repeatedly demonstrated that my Japanese was fine, and she couldn’t interpret anyway. I never would have been so rude if I was completely sealed. She rode with us. A few months later, at a Halloween party in Sendai, I met another friend, and when I told her my name, she turned to Mika and said, “Oh! Is this the ‘I’m gonna die!’ guy?” So I guess their group of friends made fun of me for this.
The paramedics cut the floatie off of me, and replaced the sundress with real bandages. They may have injected me with something, or maybe I really was going into shock. I don’t remember everything. I won’t go into too much detail about the twenty-two-mile ambulance ride, but I’ll give you the abridged version. Here are some highlights:
“Have you guys seen Inception?”
“Nope,” the paramedics replied.
“But you know Leonardo DiCaprio, right? You should go see Inception. I really mean it. Seriously.”
After explaining to them what the old man had done, “He was a monster. I love Japanese people, and I’ve met so many nice people here, but that guy was inhuman.”
“Can you see the bone?”
“Yeah, we can see it.”
“Where are we going?”
“How will I get my car?”
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“You guys are awesome. I really like you guys. I hate that guy back in Kugunarihama, but I really like you guys.”
“Hey, what’s the length of the cut?”
“Almost ten centimeters.”
“Am I going to get stitches?”
“Wait, did you guys already stitch me up?”
“We’re here? I can walk. I’ll be OK.”
“You’re not walking anywhere. Just wait.”
So after the marathon drive to the downtown hospital, where I would meet the CNN reporter just about eight months later, I sat on a gurney in the emergency room for at least an hour. I was taped up and relatively stable. I was getting light-headed though, so I asked for water repeatedly. I went to the bathroom a few times. I had been given a robe, so I was able to wield at least a modicum of dignity, which I promptly tossed away by bleeding on the floor and having to hold myself up on the wall.
When they were finally ready to zip me up, I was given a bed. The doctor came out and asked me a few questions. They told me they were going to “suture” the cut. I assumed they meant that they were going to stitch the wound. That’s not what they meant.
Kuht… ching. The first staple went in. It got progressively easier, and the sixth one was a breeze. Taking the staples out at Ogatsu Hospital a couple weeks later was the hard part. I was returning to America for a summer trip, so they removed the staples a few days early. I got some good, strong medical tape.
They bandaged me back up on top of the metal sutures. I had to go through some paperwork and chatting with the doctor. I got instructions and prescriptions. When I was released into the waiting room, Mika was waiting in a low, gray vinyl chair. The others came around shortly after.
They entered with bags of food. Mike said to me, “Dinner’s on you.”
I said, “Haha. That’s fine.”
I found out the next morning when I opened my wallet that he didn’t mean I owed them a debt of gratitude for picking me up. What Mike meant was that he got my wallet from the glove compartment of my car, took out my alien registration card to bring to me, then he took my cash out of my wallet and used it to buy food for everyone. You know what he bought me to eat? He bought me eel. Other people got beef bowls. I got fucking eel.
We decided to scrap camping so we slept in Steven’s apartment, which was pretty close to the beach. I slept on the hardwood floor with no pillow and no blanket. I had six staples in my knee and various chunks missing from my feet, and my “friends” really pulled out all the stops to make me comfortable. They even went so far as to buy themselves food with money taken from my wallet, just so I didn’t have to go to the trouble of deciding how to show my appreciation. For the next few months, they also insisted that I owed Mike’s girlfriend a dress, as if I asked her to tie her cheap slip around my leg. The paramedics took it off a minute later, and I never even realized it was there. They left my t-shirt on the beach. Plain white. Too small. Sweat stains.
When we awoke in the morning, I was not in a good mood. I wanted to get to my car and get the hell back to Ogatsu. They doddled. Somebody made some pancakes. They watched internet videos. I asked them to take me to my car and they wouldn’t. I got impatient and told them that I was leaving, but I needed some bandages for my toes, and the decent thing to do was to give me a ride.
Mike and Steven looked at each other with that juvenile “Do we tell him?” look on their faces. Apparently the old man and woman who refused to call an ambulance for me had complained to the police about my actions. The guys told me that I was going to be asked to pay for a new screen, because one of my fingers had made a cut about a fifth of the size of the one in my leg. They wanted ten thousand yen, or about one hundred dollars. I was to send it by the post office’s verified cash envelope service because my “friends” had taken my money for dinner and I was broke at the moment. I was furious. I was so fucking furious.
They also wanted to take me down to the house to apologize face to face. I gave the most contrived, sarcastic apology imaginable. The old man berated me for calling him a “monster” the night before, using a barely-comprehensible reproduction of the English word just to show that he knew it. I had said it in Japanese, though. Whatever.
I stepped back while the others talked to him, and I said, “This is such bullshit,” to Mike.
Mike made an “Are you serious?” face at me and said the words, “Dude. Think about what you put them through.” Those were his exact words, and I’ll never forget them.
“Think about what you put them through.”
He said that.
“Think about what you put them through.”
“Almost ten centimeters.”
“Can you see the bone?”
“Yeah, we can see it.”
“The police won’t bring you an ambulance! They’ll arrest you.”
“Almost ten centimeters.”
“… you pussy!”
“Oh, wow. There are sharks out there.”
“Think about what you put them through.”
When the post office opened that Monday, I went over to their ATM and made a withdrawal. I folded the bill a few times, crumpled it a little, and walked up to the counter to ask for a verified cash envelope. I had written out a note that I was going to include with the cash, and you bet your ass I verified that note right there in the fucking envelope with the freshly-weathered ten thousand yen. It read something like this:
Here is the money to fix your screen.
Next time there is a person who needs help, help them. I am embarrassed about what happened, but not because of anything I did.
Enjoy the profit you’ve made at my expense.
I frequently thought of immature measures of revenge for them, and now I’m ashamed of my pettiness. At the time, I wanted to burn bags of dog shit on their porch. I wanted to tag their perimeter wall with a penis so everyone who drove through the village could see. I wanted to park my car down the street in the dead of night, and cut a full ten centimeter gash on their pretty new screen.
On March 11th, 2011, those tetrapods did absolutely nothing. Kugunarihama was wiped clean by the tsunamis. The subsidence of northern Japan (point of highest recorded sinkage: Oshika Peninsula, Ishinomaki, where Kugunarihama was) produced haunting effects. The sandy beach is gone. At the time of this writing, the waves crash right up onto the road. The land is flat and it’s difficult to make out foundations of buildings. The water level has permanently hidden the tangled wall of concrete jacks. That old couple’s house? Much like the gash in my leg, nothing but a scar. Everything in Kugunarihama is gone, and it is pretty reasonable to suppose that the old couple went with it.