Bottled Up Feelings About Water

Petra Karlova, a Czech scholar studying at Waseda University, explains how the recent disaster in Japan has changed her perception of water. In the PET bottles that initially seemed to encapsulate the abnormality of post-disaster life, she now sees a poignant reflection of survivors' hopes, fears, and feelings toward the departed.

Petra Karlova, a Czech scholar studying at Waseda University, explains how the recent disaster in Japan has changed her perception of water. In the PET bottles that initially seemed to encapsulate the abnormality of post-disaster life, she now sees a poignant reflection of survivors’ hopes, fears, and feelings toward the departed.

When I got back to Japan after returning briefly to the Czech Republic following the March 11 earthquake, I learned that the doses of radiation detected in tap water no longer exceeded the limits for consumption by infants, and I continued to use tap water in my daily life. This set me apart from most of the international students in my dormitory in Tokyo, who requested that the dormitory office purchase bottled water for them. There were also a few students who bought large amounts of bottled water individually. Apparently they were still worried about water safety, even though they knew that the level of radioactive iodine in the water had dropped.

I agreed with the idea of having the dormitory purchase water because it seemed a good idea to have bottled water on hand in case of emergency. But I had a very strong aversion to drinking it. Up until then I had been drinking tap water, and I resisted the idea of buying my own water because of the disaster. I wanted to return to normal, and I was frustrated at not being able to. For me, the symbol of our new “abnormal” life was bottled water.

The Human Heart Reflected

My negative feelings about bottled water were swept away, however, when I came across a newspaper photo taken in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a city hit hard by the tsunami. The photo showed two people at a memorial site putting their hands together in prayer for the schoolchildren killed in the disaster. Also visible in the photo were containers of drinks left as offerings for the departed, including two-liter PET bottles of water. I knew about the Japanese custom of offering food and drink for loved ones who have died, but for some reason I could not get this particular photo out of my mind.

The fact that Ishinomaki residents would leave water, tea, and similar items for the dead even though the city was lacking in so many basic supplies demonstrated the depth of their feelings for the departed. One might have assumed that, under the circumstances, they would think it appropriate to save their water for the living. But the photo showed that there was something even more important to the residents than their own physical well-being. I think of those PET bottles as “water from the heart,” a spiritual gift offered respectfully to others.

My perception of water has changed dramatically as a result of the recent disaster. I now see the water I once took for granted not only as a truly life-nurturing substance but also as mirror of the human heart, reflecting in its clear surface people‘s pain and anxiety, their feelings for others, and their hopes for the future. All these precious human thoughts and feelings are contained within the bottles of water offered to the deceased. (Written on May 3, 2011)

In This Series
Insights from a Czech Scholar in Japan
Japan on Czech TV (May 12)
Personal Lessons in Conservation (May 10)
Bottled Up Feelings About Water (May 3)
The Downside to Japanese Self-Restraint (April 18)
Stay Strong Japan! You Are Not Alone! (March 25)

Petra Karlova

Petra Karlova

Received an MA in Japanese and Vietnamese Studies and a doctorate in history from Charles University in Prague. Is now studying international relations at the Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies. Dr. Karlova has a keen personal interest in Japanese culture, history, and martial arts.