Misery Loves Company

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Mother nature usually smiles on Miyake Island. A 45-minute flight from Tokyo, the largest member of the Izu chain is a playground for thousands of Japanese tourists drawn every year to its sapphire Pacific waters, coral reefs, dolphins and hot springs. This summer, however, Mother Nature has had a mood swing. The island has been pummeled by just about every natural calamity imaginable: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, mud slides—everything but a plague of locusts. The series of natural disasters has worn down islanders, and the economy is suffering. Last month, just when the locals thought the worst was over, calamity struck again. Hyperactive Mount Oh erupted four times, making six outbursts for the summer. Everybody is worn out from the aftereffects, says Go Asanuma, a 27-year-old grocery clerk. We're never free from worries. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: Dark SecretThe ugly story of a generation of Aborigines, taken from their homes and transferred to white families in the name of civilization, is beginning to emerge—and divide the nation• Song of Sorrow: Giving voice to a people's anguish• At Home: Asian immigrants have found a place at last JAPAN: Rocking the ThroneA newly published book reexamines how much guilt Emperor Hirohito should bear for his role in World War IIDISASTERS: Cursed IsleMother Nature seems to have it in for Japan's Miyake IslandEAST TIMOR: From the AshesA year after voting for independence, the world's newest country is still struggling with demons past and present PERSONAL HISTORY: My Daughter's MotherA father chronicles his adopted 11-year-old's voyage to Korea TRAVEL WATCH: Tokyo's Chefs Get a Grip on Europe This is what it's like to live under a volcano. More than 13,000 tremors caused by volcanic activity have jolted the Izu Islands since the end of June, bringing anxiety and insomnia to the islanders. The action started in June with small tremors, nothing out of the ordinary on Miyake and the other six islands in the Izu archipelago. Around 2,200 residents—58% of the population—were evacuated after authorities warned that a major eruption was likely in the next two hours. Days later, when it seemed officials had overreacted and the evacuees had returned home, there were more violent shakings; on July 8, Mount Oh blew its top.Another eruption followed the next week, spewing fumes and enough ash and debris to fill a baseball stadium eight times over. It was like living in a world of ash, says Asanuma. Ten days later came heavy rains, turning the settled ash into a massive mud slide, which tore up swathes of forests, telephone poles and guardrails and washed away boulders on the beach. Then on Aug. 10, just when the island's residents had finished cleaning up from the mud slides, an even larger eruption forced 634 citizens to leave again. We can't keep our hopes up when we don't know when this is going to end, says Fukue Hayakawa, a 65-year-old woman who has resorted to taking sleeping pills at night to ease her newfound anxiety. The mud slides came down on Hayakawa hard, inundating her backyard with ash and nearly washing away her house. On the bright side, there was enough mud left over to fill hundreds of sandbags for the next calamity. That came on Aug. 18 when the volcano erupted again, forcing Hayakawa to evacuate to Tokyo along with several of her neighbors. Last week, the education department announced it will evacuate 327 school children.Earthquakes are nothing new to the islanders, and Mount Oh acts up in a semi-regular cycle of 20 years. The last full-scale eruption occurred in 1983, when lava poured down the slopes and engulfed 400 buildings. In the most recent volcanic activity, the underground magma—molten rock—has risen toward the peak of the mountain but then receded instead of spilling over. This has caused parts of the mountain to cave in. Puzzled scientists blame the abnormal magma activity for the frequent tremors and tectonic movements; they say it's difficult to predict what will happen next. Says Hitoshi Yamasato, deputy director of the Meteorology Agency's volcano division: It's a mystery why this is going on for so long, and we can't figure out when it's going to end. That's more bad news for Miyake's economy. This would normally be the season for raking in tourist yen. In previous years, the beaches have attracted as many as 30,000 vacationers in July and August. But the spate of disasters has been scaring people away. According to the island's tourist association, visitor arrivals are down 90%.Things, believe it or not, could get worse. Scientists can't rule out the possibility of more quakes in the Izu Islands, perhaps as strong as 6.0 on the Richter scale. The typhoon season is here, and with it the threat of more mud slides. That might seem reason enough to leave the island for good. But Miyake's residents won't hear of it. I'm not leaving, at least not permanently, says Kanemoto Ikeda, 62. It's where I grew up, and I can't start all over at a different place. Despite the multiple disasters, the people of the Izu chain are helping each other make it through the ordeal. Residents from all over Miyake traveled to the especially hard-hit northern part of the island to help clean up the dense, clay-like ash. On Kozu Island, a tenth of the population of 2,277 was ordered to evacuate. But few actually went to the emergency centers; many stayed instead with friends and relatives in the safer parts of the island. The 52 evacuees in Niijima all are doing likewise. The island is like one big family, says Yoshiyuki Umeda, an official at the Kozu Island village hall. We don't abandon each other, especially when we know it's harder to start new lives somewhere else. The beaches and the hot springs aren't the only attractions that keep people on these islands.