津波 tsunami

Walking along rivers in Osaka such as the Yamato River or the Yodogawa, I was often surprised by the height of the flood-protection barriers running along their length. The rivers themselves are wide and shallow, making their way westward across the flat plain from the mountains of Nara to Osaka Bay. The channel is hundreds of metres wide, and the dykes are 7 or 8 metres high. As you can see from the pictures below, it is simply inconceivable that any amount of rain could cause the water level to rise enough to necessitate such high earthworks.

This is the bank of the Yodogawa. The area between the dykes is used for recreation, such as baseball and tennis, picnics, kite-flying and so on. Nothing is built there.


This is the Yamato River, near where we used to live.


What I had failed to understand was that the dykes are there to protect from a different threat: not from water coming down the river from the mountains, but from water rushing UP the river from the sea.


The city of Osaka is very vulnerable to flooding. It is built on a flat plain, much of which is below sea level at high tide, and which is crossed by numerous rivers. The development of the city has seen the coastline move steadily west as more and more land has been reclaimed from the bay. Meanwhile, extraction of groundwater has caused the land to subside.

Over the centuries, Osaka has experienced several catastrophic floods leading to massive destruction and loss of life. These floods are caused by tsunami (associated with offshore earthquakes; most recently in 1854) or by storm surges (associated with typhoons; most recently in 1934).

On a visit to Tempozan last August, we saw barrier walls encircling the low-lying area (which was reclaimed from the sea about 100 years ago). In the event of a tsunami or storm surge warning, huge metal gates slide into place, completing the barrier and preventing the water from entering the protected area.


The sign says that if you feel a large earthquake, you should hurry into the protected area inside the dykes.


In the event of a major Nankai or Tounankai earthquake, a bay-enhanced tsunami would arrive at the southern end of Osaka prefecture (Misaki-cho) after about 1 hour, and at the city and port of Osaka itself after about 2 hours. That is the amount of warning that would be available to the populace (to move away from the shore and into high and sturdy buildings) and to the city authorities (who operate an impressive flood-prevention infrastructure including tidal barriers at the mouths of around 200 rivers and streams, pumping stations and warning systems).

Last month, I visited the Tsunami/Storm Surge Disaster Prevention Station. DSC_0361

This facility is manned 24 hours a day, every day.

They are aware that in the event of a tsunami coming up the bay, there is zero tolerance for error. If even one of the flood barriers fails to close, the system will have failed and the city will be flooded. The terrible scenes from March 2011 in north-east Japan are still very fresh in the minds of Japanese people, and earlier flooding events in Osaka are also remembered.


Even the tsunami prevention station has a cute mascot. “Welcome”, he says, “my name is naminosuke. Don’t forget it!”DSC_0363

The flood prevention station has an exhibition area with displays that explain the vulnerability of the city, the causes of tsunami and storm surges, past flooding events, and what you should do if a tsunami were to come.


The highlight of the exhibition is a movie theatre that shakes and rumbles to simulate the effect of being in a large earthquake and tsunami event. On that day, I was the only visitor, and so they ran the film especially for me. I sat on a stool in the middle of an otherwise empty cube-shaped room, and the video was projected onto the front and side walls as well as ceiling and floor to create quite an immersive experience. It was genuinely scary; the film had simulated images of walls of water rushing inexorably towards me in narrow city streets. I left feeling shaken in more ways than one.

In the film, we saw prefectural employees trying and failing to get one of the barrier gates closed, before abandoning their post and running for their lives in the face of the massive wave. It was this failure that allowed the city to be inundated. I thought this aspect was a bit bizarre; I would have thought the authorities would have tried to present a more reassuring picture of their own competence and dedication to protecting us all.

I read elsewhere an interesting essay about how people become complacent about a danger, if it happens at intervals of more than a century or so. Even where written records exist, what matters is whether the previous event is within living memory. In the area affected by the 2011 disaster, there were coastal towns which had been destroyed by flooding in previous centuries. In one case, the villagers had decided to relocate the whole village (a fishing village) inland, to higher ground. But over time, the inconvenience of being further from the coast outweighed the increasingly remote memory of disaster, and people moved back to the shore. In another case, a seawall was built to protect a town . However, eventually houses were built on the seaward side of the wall.

While the results are tragic, it is not because of stupidity. Are the people who live in Puyallup, in the path of lahars from a potential eruption of Mount Rainier, stupid? The people of Naples? Those who make their home in Sacramento, aware of the risk of catastrophic flooding? People who live in Seoul, in the shadow of DPRK artillery? It is just not in our human nature to worry about a high-impact low-probability risk that has not occurred in our lifetime, or in that of our parents or grandparents, nor most of the time would it be useful to worry. Our day-to-day lives are dominated by more immediate concerns.

Note on the word of the day

津波 tsunami means “harbour wave”. 津 tsu means “harbour” and nami means “wave”. Both characters include the suihen “water” radical; the three strokes on the left side that indicate that the meaning of the character has some connection with water.


浜 hama—beach

For our first two weeks back in Ireland, we were living in Sandymount, on the shore of Dublin Bay. At low tide, a vast area of flat sand is exposed, extending far out into the bay. It’s a great place for the dogs to run around. This is the beach where Stephen Dedalus “walked into eternity”, and it often looks as if it is possible to do just that. I became curious to know just how far from the shore you really can walk, when the tide is at its lowest. One Sunday morning I got up at 6 a.m. and set off with the dogs to find out.


Such an adventure is not without its perils, as this sign reminds us:


This warning is no joke, and I didn’t take it lightly. I am no stranger to the risks of incoming tide, having got into serious trouble in the past and been lucky to survive. On this occasion I made sure that when the tide turned, we would be on our way back, even if we had not reached the edge of the sand.

The greatest tidal range (lowest and highest tides) occur in March/April and September/October, around the time of the full and new moon (actually there is a lag of a day or two). In March 2011, there was a spectacularly low tide, about 4 cm over datum, and my dad and I took the opportunity to explore the sea bed at Shankill beach, where we hoped to find the remnants of a drowned mediaeval village.

On this Sunday in May, the tidal range was not so great, the low being around 70 cm OD, so it was not a day for setting records. Nonetheless, the sea had retreated very far, almost out of sight. The two ships visible on the horizon look odd, almost as if they are sailing across the sand.


One thing I learned in recent weeks is that the sand is not at its driest at the time when the tide is lowest. The recently exposed sand flats hold a lot of standing water in ripples and pools, and it drains off into channels which resemble streams or rivers crossing the beach. The largest of the channels is called “Cockle Lake” on the charts, or as Joyce would have it “Cock Lake”. The sand continues to dry out for several more hours until eventually inundated by the returning tide.DSCN5118

So, while it is necessary to choose the time of low tide to establish a distance record, this is not the most pleasant time to walk on the beach. Humans and dogs are liable to get their feet wet.DSCN5120

Between the channels there are larger areas of relatively dry sand. It is here that one is liable to get stranded by the incoming tide. Even at its fastest (about 3 hours after low tide) the average speed over ground probably doesn’t exceed 1 km/h, so it will not outpace you. But it will outflank you. The incoming tide backfills the channels and divides the strand into temporary “islands”, so that you can be standing on a dry (but shrinking) sandbank and be surrounded by deep water. This happened to a family some years ago, and by the time they were rescued by the lifeboat, the father and mother were chest-deep in cold water and holding their young children. Thankfully nobody was harmed, although it must have been a very frightening situation.

In this photo we are looking back at Strand Road in Sandymount from a distance of around 500 metres from shore.


This next photo is taken at a distance of 1 km from shore. The UCD water tower and the RTE TV mast are visible near the right of the picture. The Aviva stadium is also visible but may be hard to make out.


Looking north from the same point, we are parallel with Poolbeg power station and the Shelly Banks. The little muddy spirals on the beach are the casts of lugworms, often dug up by fishermen and used as bait.


In the end, we reached a point about 1.4 km from the shore before turning around and heading for dry land. Had I been more reckless, we could certainly have gone much further; as you can see in the photo below, the edge of the sand still seems very distant.


But time and tide were against us, and I was taking no chances. Here is an image of our track on Google Earth:

Sandymount track

On our way back to shore, we came across these seaweed-covered rocks; a rare splash of colour in a world of greys and browns. Strange to think that 6 hours later, they would be under 5 metres of water.


We also found this mysterious rope. Each end disappeared into the sand and was firmly stuck.


悲しい色やね kanashii iro ya ne—Osaka Bay Blues

Many people have written about their experience of “reverse culture shock”; their difficulty in adjusting when they return to their own country after living abroad.

While there may be an element of cultural adjustment (especially for those who have lived abroad for a long time and find their home country to have changed in their absence), I think a more important factor is a sense of loss. My life in Japan was my whole life, lived as fully as I knew how, with an awareness of how special and precious it was, for just over a year. And now, after just a few weeks, it is rapidly – too rapidly – becoming “just” a memory, its colour and its immediacy draining away, and being overlaid by the quotidian concerns and imperatives of our new reality in Ireland.

We find ourselves actively trying to stall this process, casting our minds back to what we were doing on a certain day, asking each other if we remember. Yuko reminded me that it was one year since the day we watched the 金環日食 annular eclipse.


Since I returned to Ireland just three weeks ago, many people have come to me and greeted me warmly, saying “Welcome home Dara! How was Japan?” This question leaves me flustered; I simply have no idea what to say in response, no words that won’t just diminish my experiences over the past year. I want to say “read my blog! That’s how it was”.

I do understand: people are friendly, and they want to hear my news. But in fact, I came to dread the question, almost to flinch. I almost felt like any response served only to inter the memory more quickly under a pile of words. Imagine if you lost a relative, and well-meaning people kept saying, “Sorry for your loss; what kind of person was he?” What could you possibly say, how could you do justice to the totality of a person’s life in a few words?


All of which is not to say that I am unhappy to return to Ireland. It is exciting to come back here, to be reunited with loved ones, to rediscover the astonishing beauty of our hills and our coast,  to let the dogs run freely on wide open beaches and hillsides, to find a new place to live and make it our home, to turn our eyes to the future.

But I will miss that other life, that other home, the “specialness” of being a foreigner living in Japan, the neighbourhood I knew so well, the city I came to love, the food, the trees and the seasons, the summer din of frogs and cicadas, laughter and karaoke with my friends and colleagues, the strangeness and the familiarity, the joys and frustrations of the language; I know it’s over but I don’t want to let it go.

Hold me tight, Osaka Bay Blues

語彙 goi—vocabulary

When I was travelling to work on the subway in Japan, I often saw high school students studying on the train, on their way to school. And when I peeked over their shoulder, they always seemed to be studying the same thing: English vocabulary. Specifically, English verbs.

The vocab book had about 10 or 12 verbs on each page. Each entry had the definition in Japanese, and an example sentence in English. The students made use of a sheet of ruby-coloured translucent plastic which they would move down the page as they read, uncovering the verbs one at a time.

A number of things struck me.

First, that the vocabulary they were studying seemed extremely advanced (and extremely random). A typical page might include words like (and I am making this up because I can’t remember specific examples):

vindicate, overpower, intervene, culminate, becalm, entreat…

Second, that it seemed like an extraordinarily ineffective way of learning a language. Learning long lists of words and their meanings is very difficult, and does not really equip you to use the words in context. And I know this because…

Third, this is exactly how I studied Japanese for my JLPT exams. My Japanese vocabulary books were an exact mirror image of the English vocab books the Japanese high school students were studying on the train. A Japanese word, the English definition, and one or more sample sentences; 10 per page. Week after week, month after month, I would try to cram 10 new vocabulary items every night. But they never became “real” for me until I later read them or heard them in the context of real-life spoken or written Japanese. The vocabulary I was learning was far in advance of my actual ability to speak Japanese, and was focused entirely on the requirements of the exams.

The same was true of the grammar books; 4 “grammar points” per day that I had never encountered in real life but needed to know for the exam.

Was it useful? Certainly, it was not a waste of time. It built up a very solid foundation of passive theoretical knowledge which could later be “activated” as my “real” level of ability, lagging far behind, caught up to the point where I might understand or use some word or grammar point that I had memorised for the exam. Each subsequent encounter, in context, reinforces the knowledge.

Was it the best way to learn Japanese? I would say not. There is a place for rote learning, but it needs to be balanced with exposure to the language as it is actually used. After the exam in December, I put away the books and changed my focus to a more natural way of learning, which included private one-to-one conversation lessons as well as reading Japanese texts. This proved very effective. But part of the reason it was effective was that I had already learned a lot of vocabulary and grammar.

One thing I would warn well-meaning teachers (and writers of textbooks). If you tell a student “here are two similar words; make sure you don’t confuse them”, the one thing you can guarantee is that the student will be hopelessly confused between those words for years, if not for life.

For example, if a student comes across the words amido (a screen door, for keeping out mosquitoes) and amado (a storm door or shutter) for the first time, on the same page of the vocabulary book, they will find it very difficult ever to remember which is which unless they can come up with some trick or mnemonic to distinguish them.

Other examples:

  • gurasu means a glass (a drinking vessel) while garasu means glass (the material). I’m pretty sure (but not 100% sure) I got that the right way around this time!
  • airon means an iron (for ironing clothes), while aiyan means iron (the material). For years I could never remember which was which, and could not use either with confidence. Only recently, when the film Iron Man (AiyanMan) came out, was I able to remember.
  • In Lithuanian, šaltas means “cold” and šiltas means “warm”. Good luck remembering which is which. (It helps if you think that  šaltas is cognate with German kalt.)

But if you were to first encounter those words separately, each in context, and learn them in that way, you would never confuse them.

Note on the word of the day:

The Japanese government maintains a list of “kanji for everyday use” that are supposed to be used in newspapers and so on. Following some recent modifications in 2010, the list now consists of 2,136 kanji characters.

In reality many well-known and fairly common kanji are not on the list. Most notably, the list includes relatively few of the characters for types of animals, fish, trees and other living things; some of which characters even I would be familiar with.

The word 語彙 goi meaning vocabulary includes a fairly obscure character 彙 which was not on the list until it was added in 2010. It was one of a batch of 196 characters that were added to the list at that time, while a few lesser-used characters were removed (a character for “spindle”, for example).

One of the characters that was added received a lot of media attention at the time: 鬱 utsu, meaning gloom or depression, a character of great complexity, written with 29 strokes.