The weather hasn’t been great recently, but this morning brought vivid blues skies and bright sunshine. The plum tree outside my window is blooming, it was a wonderful way to start the day. It’s almost the end of the school year, so classes are over but there’s still a lot of paperwork to do and the day stretched ahead, a normal end-of-term day.
Except today is not just another day, it’s March 11th, the 4th anniversary of the M9 earthquake and massive tsunami that devastated Tohoku, killed thousands, left thousands more missing and hundreds of thousands displaced and homeless. Today I have been thinking a lot about that day four years ago, about all the stresses that followed, but all the small comforts too.
The earthquake struck at 2:46pm. I was at home, with my ladies’ reading group. It started as a moderate quake and just kept getting bigger. The ladies put cushions on their heads and I stood watching everything swaying and rattling. It went on and on, and the ground seemed to find a rhythm, so that the floor felt like it was rocking like a boat. I know this sounds scary, but I remember thinking, good, the building is swaying, it’s not going to fall down on top of us. I had a vase of freesias, my favourite flower, and I remember watching the flowers sway and wishing they would stop, that it would all stop.
It finally did, and the ladies turned the TV on and I went into the kitchen to make cups of tea. Minutes later the first tsunami struck, and we all watched it on live TV. That still seems mind-boggling to me, that we all just watched helplessly as this wall of grey water just kept coming. It was easy to think it was just a river, until you saw the houses and the cars and realised the scale of it. The reporters on TV sat in the studio wearing hard hats, and as each aftershock struck they hung onto their desks and urged people at home to take cover, to stay safe.
We tried to make phone calls, but the networks were overloaded for a while. We watched TV, drank tea and waited. About an hour later the ladies decided that they would try to go home. They left, promising to come back if they could not find a way home. I called my parents and e-mailed my brother to tell them I was OK, then started to write a general e-mail to a lot of people to tell them the same. I spent the evening watching TV and trying to take in the enormity of what had happened. I found a tiny comfort in believing that this had been the Big One, the earthquake Tokyo was long overdue. The next day I heard from a physics teacher at school that it wasn’t, my tiny comfort was gone.
At about 11pm I received a phone call from three of the ladies. They had been unable to go home, because the trains weren’t running of course. They had gone to a large hospital just down the road and stayed there, making sorties to convenience stores to buy snacks and to the station to see if trains had started running. They said that there were thirty or forty people who had taken shelter in the waiting room of the hospital. However, at around eleven they were told by the hospital administration that they all had to leave, that they couldn’t stay there. This has always astounded me, that on a night when millions of people were stranded, a huge hospital told a relatively small group of people to leave, when there was nowhere really for them to go.
So finally they called me, and seven hours after they had left, promising to come straight back if they found themselves stranded, they struggled back up the hill to my apartment. Instead of sitting on the sofas as they always did they all sank to the floor and sat there wide-eyed and exhausted. I made more tea, this time refusing to use the polite teacups and saucers I usually use to serve them, instead giving them big steaming mugs of tea while telling them they should have come back hours ago. I was glad of the company that night, it wasn’t really a time to be on your own. There were a lot of texts, e-mails, phone calls; we were all re-connecting and making sure everyone was all right.
The next morning they were up early and left for home, wanting to get back as soon as possible. I went into school to see how everyone there was doing; over a hundred teachers and students had been stranded but the atmosphere was calm. With train lines starting up again the logistical challenge was to make sure everyone had a way home.
The next few weeks were strange, a very subdued kind of everyday life. We watched as Fukushima Daiichi went to hell, though at the time we didn’t know just how hellish it was. TEPCO only revealed the meltdowns much later. We managed with the shortages, not because there was no food available, but because fuel was being diverted to Tohoku to help the people there. There wasn’t enough in Tokyo to keep shelves stocked.
In all the days that followed, I don’t remember seeing anyone get angry or frustrated. There were lines to buy petrol, lines to get into the supermarket, but no one lost their temper. There was just a feeling of quietly getting on with what you could. I remember sitting on a bus in Shibuya one day and feeling the tension in the air, but looking around and seeing a bus full of calm-looking people. I felt we were all staying calm for each other. Nevertheless, I also remember a tremendous feeling of relief every time I got off the train at my local station; another errand run, another appointment kept without getting stranded.
Four years later, our lives in Tokyo are back to normal. In Tohoku, however, the situation has not improved much for the survivors of the tsunami. Yesterday the National Police Agency released the latest figures: 15,891 deaths, and 2,584 people still missing. 228,863 people are still living in temporary housing or have chosen to move elsewhere permanently. A lot of the people who were displaced and still living in temporary housing are elderly; the people of working age and with families chose to leave and rebuild their lives in a new place. There is little news of TEPCO and Fukushima Daiichi, but every so often there is a news item which makes clear that the reactors are still far from safe.
For the last three years I was able to go to the Anglican cathedral in Tokyo for the memorial service; today I had to be at school. Instead I went to the church next door to pray at the time the earthquake struck.
2,584 people still missing.
228,863 people who can’t go home.
Remember them all today.