Australia is Burning and I am Fidgeting in Japan
I’m standing in a carriage on the Tokyo subway, scrolling through my newsfeed. A familiar place pops up, Mallacoota. When I was there a few years ago, it was a boring seaside town with no Wi-Fi; the only mobile reception was at the local cemetery.
Now Mallacoota is encircled in flames and its citizens are sheltering in the ocean, the only sanctuary from the bushfires that have overwhelmed Australia. When I first booked this trip for a travel writing course in mid-2019, my only climate concern was the carbon footprint of my flights from Brisbane to Tokyo and back; I was more worried about coping without knowing Japanese.
But by December, the fires had spread across the country, growing and multiplying week after week. At the school where I worked, children were kept indoors away from the smoke, and colleagues were wishing for a cyclone, just to bring some rain. Remote-control planes were grounded for the first time in history, in case a spark started another blaze.
I touched down in Tokyo as 2020 dawned, the fires at home forgotten as I navigated Haneda Airport at 1:00am. My anxiety made an appearance on the way to the bus: The ticket machine speaks English, but does the bus driver?
When I stepped into Shinjuku at 2:30am, I marched to the right, wheelie suitcase in one hand, backpack on, before realising I had left my sense of direction in Brisbane. I found my accommodation and flumped onto my bed to sleep.
In Brisbane, we were feeling lucky: our family in Northern NSW were planning for fire breaks to protect their home, while others in Sydney and Canberra had seen the skies smothered in smoke. The NSW school year ended disjointedly, with cancelled swimming carnivals and schools closed by the suffocating smoke.
I woke disoriented. Where Am I? Tokyo. Where’s Mum and Dad? Brisbane. Fuck. My breath was short and rapid. The heating was on, but I wrapped the blankets around tightly. I curled into a ball. I counted my snacks. Would they last me long enough to book a flight home?
I pulled my laptop from my bag and plugged myself into a podcast. I settled a little. I drifted in and out of sleep for hours. My guts were tightening. I made a break for the toilet around the corner from my room. I took my phone and gazed at it blankly while I sat on the heated toilet seat. The warmth seemed to soothe as my heart rate slowed.
The next day, I ventured out in search of an ATM and to collect my portable Wi-Fi. The McDonalds down the road, which in Brisbane I saw as a symbol of gross Americanisation, was now a comforting reminder of home. My mission complete, I returned to my room and reengaged with the world via Facebook for the first time since leaving Brisbane.
Canberra’s air pollution was the worst in the world; going outside was no longer an option except when absolutely essential. The death toll across Australia had risen beyond the point where anyone might be able to remember all the names. They were just statistics now.
Animal fatalities were long past that point; why bother counting when no-one can even comprehend death tolls in the billions?
Firefighters from New Zealand and the USA were arriving to help, while our own were battling on even as their own homes burned and their colleagues died in fire engines tossed onto their sides by bushfire winds.
After a few days in Tokyo, I travelled to the Japanese Alps to try skiing for the first time, thus completing my middle-class sticker book. I skimmed through my newsfeed, hoping for respite from the fires at home.
A trickle of rain had come to Queensland, but not enough to fight the blazes – only enough to impede the firefighters in their work. Canberra had been bombarded with hail only days after it was smothered in smoke, with no sign of the fires dying away either.
Up in the mountains, that had more in common with Narnia than Brisbane, I found myself confronted by a series of minor inconveniences. Why can I only turn right on skis? What if I crash into and kill someone? Why is there only an onsen here, and not a shower?
This one was particularly galling; as someone who is both ancestrally and psychologically British, I try not to be naked in front of myself where possible, so the thought of having to wash in the presence of strangers was an alarming prospect.
Back in Australia, the smoke had returned to Canberra and the fires were driving people into the Pacific Ocean, waiting for days to be evacuated to relative safety. In Queensland, the rains had arrived at last; at least for a moment there was respite, though it was far too late for some. Now Americans were dying fighting our fires while I watched from a capsule hotel in Tokyo.
By this point, I have serious misgivings about my life choices. Australia is on the world news every day. Whenever anyone learns that’s where I’m from, the bushfires are the first thing they mention. Small towns like Mallacoota, that I had only heard of by chance, are made famous as they are burned to the ground.
Meanwhile I’m stressing about whether I can spend my trip living off onigiri from FamilyMart, hoping that the Indian man at the counter doesn’t speak Japanese either, so he won’t talk to me.
We have one year to save the world from climate change. Surely there is a better use of my time. But equally, is this self-interrogation helping? The world doesn’t need any more guilty but passive privileged people. I’m already here, I might as well enjoy it, learn from it, and make up from it when I return to Brisbane.
I’m here, in part, to learn how to tell stories better. Stories and connections with people are what drive people to action, much more than statistics and the stories of people suffering through climate change and those fighting against it need to be told if others are going to be driven to act. The only reason that everyone I met know about the bushfires is because someone had shared this part of Australia’ s story with them.
I’m under no delusions that had I stayed in Brisbane, these bushfires, or the social/political response would have been noticeably different. But it all adds up and I want to make my contribution in whatever way I can.