Eyewitness Testimony at Boston Vigil for Japan Highlights Information Void

Amid the slushy mid-March drizzle on Monday night, Bostonians came together in a place of heaven to mourn Japan's trifecta from hell.

Ten days after the earthquake that triggered a tsunami and nuclear catastrophe, Old South Church held an interfaith candlelight vigil featuring diverse speakers, pensive music, and a call for financial, emotional, and consumer solidarity with Japan at its saddest hour. In a surprise appearance, Governor Deval Patrick evoked our collective heartbreak and urged continued attention to Japan's suffering once the news cycle transitions to Libya and beyond. While Patrick's comments commanded the media spotlight, two young English teachers' eyewitness accounts provided the most poignant message of the vespertine service.

Rachel DePalma and Evan Storer were just leaving graduation ceremonies at the Iwaki school at which they taught when the earthquake hit. They vividly recalled the ground crumbling beneath them; as Storer declared, "I thought I was going to die." For survivors huddled at the school, water and food shortages rapidly became pressing dilemmas, but DePalma and Storer pointed to scant information as the most formidable concern.

"People no longer know what or who to believe," said DePalma in reference to conflicting government messages on radiation and the safety of drinking water. With the dearth of substantiated information, the Japanese are unsure whether it is safe to be outside. Because most Japanese prefer to buy fresh food each day and do not maintain extensive pantries, many are now near starving and effectively held prisoner in their own homes.

Although Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government has sought to provide frequent updates on the nuclear crisis, what The Economist refers to as a "history of nuclear cover-ups"--compounded by traumatic memories of Hiroshima--has led many Japanese to fear the worst. For those heroic workers who continue to battle nuclear meltdown at the compromised Fukushima plant, the uncertainty is truly existential.

Thomas Hobbes defined the state of nature as one in which all men (and women) were equally likely to face death. Confronting this shared defenselessness against both Mother Nature and such human creations as nuclear energy gives us pause; for all our progress and posited enlightenment, we cannot outrun the ocean nor contain the menace of nuclear power unleashed, nor suppose how lethal invisible toxins may be.

While fear runs high and facts are in short supply, vigil speakers suggested we show our support for the shattered Japanese people in at least two ways. Underscoring the comforting power of communication and information, Harvard history professor Andrew Gordon urged vigil attendees to leverage social media to send messages of solidarity across the globe.

For his part, Japan Society of Boston President Peter Grilli called on attendees to robustly consume Japanese products, resisting unfounded scare campaigns and misinformation that hysterically proclaim Armageddon levels of radiation throughout the country. As the global news cycle spins madly on, to truly stand by Japan, we must continue to enjoy its cornucopia of sushi, Kobe beef, produce, and other national treasures.

DePalma and Storer noted that despite existing on the edge of panic, no one in Iwaki is rioting, looting, or turning on their neighbors. Sixty-six years after the anathema of Hiroshima, Japan seems poised to emerge again from the rubble as a beacon of grace and community burnished by legacies of national tragedy and unspeakable horror.