March 11th 2012

A year ago today the Great East Japan earthquake struck. With a magnitude of 9 and generating tsunamis more than 40m high in some places (though most were between 5 and 10m), it caused devastation on an unimaginable scale, killed thousands, decimated communities along the coast, and triggered a nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

The days immediately following it were scary, and instead of becoming less stressful, things only got scarier as we watched what was unfolding in Fukushima. I wrote before about that time, and was sending out updates every few days, to counter the media’s inaccurate and misleading reporting, but also to process what we were all going through.

Little by little, for most of us life returned to normal, but, as I have also written before, a ‘new’ normal. But for the people of Tohoku, they haven’t returned to much of anything. The shelters are closed, but people are living in temporary, prefabricated homes. It was a hard winter, and I have heard from people who have been there that there were icicles inside some houses where the water dripped through and froze. They have not gone home, because home is no longer there.  If they are fortunate, their communities have stayed together, and this is what will pull them through while their lives are being re-built. As for the physical things, the homes, the schools, the businesses, everyone has to make their own decision, but many of the survivors are from families who have lived there for generations.

For the people of Fukushima, they have only been allowed back for brief periods, in full radiation protection suits, to gather a few things from their homes. They may never go home. For people whose homes were in the evacuation zone, their communities have been  dispersed. Schools have closed, students have been reassigned to other schools. A lot of younger people have left, leaving an aging population behind.

For people in the rest of Japan, life is not affected really. But if you open a newspaper you will see headlines every day, reminding you that Tohoku is still suffering, and the whole country is thinking about the next Big One. A few weeks ago, we were told that there is a 70% chance of a big earthquake hitting Tokyo in the next 4 years. I suppose we always knew that, but last year showed us what it really means.

In the newspaper yesterday, these stories were all related to the earthquake:

* One Year After (a picture and story about Kesennuma in Miyagi prefecture)

* Local mayor sets sights on returning home

* Government knew N-meltdown was probable

* 231 strong aftershocks recorded after March 11th

* Doctor shortage raises concerns in Tohoku

* Preparations necessary for level 7 quake in Tokyo

* Facilities’ quake resistance not up to snuff

Well . . . that last one strikes a peculiar balance between alarming and jaunty, surely a difficult linguistic tightrope. The others are representative of what we read every day. A mixture of descriptions of how hard the situation still is in Tohoku, information about preparations for what could come next, and a steady drip, drip of statistics and information from last year. Only recently, the government revealed that it had discussed the evacuation of Tokyo . . . I don’t know how you’d do that.The stations and airports were packed with people as it was, and that was just a fraction of the population. Some of these facts really stop me in my tracks.  Nuclear meltdown was probable?  Pardon?

TEPCO, the company running the nuclear power plant, has required massive sums of public money to stay afloat, and even now we are learning of how decisions were made, information given out (or not). This one, for example:

Japan did not keep records of nuclear disaster meetings:


There is also this, which will show you how far the clean-up efforts have come, and how far they have to go:

Then and now, the 2011 Japan tsunami:

This afternoon I attended a service at St. Andrew’s cathedral in the centre of Tokyo. It started at 2pm, with a reading and some music but mainly just a time of meditation and reflection. At 2:30 the service started with readings and prayers, and at 2:46 the bell rang and we had a minute’s silence.  It was very emotional and when the bell rang, it was impossible not to cry. After the minute’s silence the service continued, and the brother of the Bishop of Hokkaido (the Primate of the Japanese Anglican Church) spoke simply, quietly, about what he had experienced when he went to Tohoku as a volunteer. I was glad to be there, and would have hated to have been anywhere else.  I went there with a friend, the RE teacher at school. Her mother is from Rikuzen Takata, one of the towns wiped out by the tsunami and  lost a lot of friends in the tsunami, including her best friend.  Her best friend’s daughter is still missing, as are about 3,000 others.

There was a large ceremony in central Tokyo, you may have seen it on TV, which the emperor and empress attended. At 2:46 some trains stopped; yesterday there were announcements on the trains informing people that this would happen. It must have been surreal to have been on one of those trains.

I came home and have been having a quiet evening. It’s a day to think, to pray, to reflect, and there’s no rushing it, you just have to sit with it and let it flow over and around you. Unfortunately, the BBC and CNN have been broadcasting images of the tsunami swallowing people up or making blanket statements that mislead and could discourage people from visiting this great country. I have submitted complaints to both but since I did that repeatedly last year and got no response, I won’t be holding my breath.

So, what now? As today’s headline in the Daily Yomiuri says,

Recovery continues, step by step

Under that headline is another:

Graduation held in tsunami-damaged school; bus removed from building

Yes, that’s right. Bus removed from building. Apparently it was a sightseeing bus which the tsunami dumped on top of a two-story community centre, 12 metres up. Some people had wanted it left there as a symbol of what had happened, but it was removed because the local government was afraid the sight of a bus on top of a building would be a constant traumatising factor for local people.

So, Tokyo, and Japan, one year on. A great city. A wonderful country. A resilient, proud people.  Somehow we put one foot in front of the other, stayed calm, donated money, volunteered, supported each other, and now here we are.

We made it.


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