It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years already, but here we are again, March 11th. It’s a date to remember, to mark, but not a date that jolts like it did the first couple of years. Add in a leap year, and it’s fallen on a Friday, just as it did That Day. Five years on, most of Japan is back to normal, thank you very much. Really, western Japan wasn’t directly affected by it much anyway, and for us in Tokyo, the energy-saving and the empty shop shelves soon faded into memory.
But for the people of Tohoku, the people whose homes, villages, schools and places of work were wiped off the map, things are not back to normal. There is still an exclusion zone (which is smaller than it used to be) around Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant is still not secure, and there are still tens of thousands of people displaced, living in temporary housing in Tohoku or in other cities in Japan, in housing provided by local governments.
I remember that day clearly, and since today mirrored it in some ways, it was easy to feel its echo through the day. My morning was the same, five years ago and today; I spent it in school, working on end-of-year grades. I came home around 2pm and got ready for the reading group of Japanese ladies who come twice a month. They arrive at 2:30 and I make them tea, and so five years ago we were drinking tea and chatting before we started to read, when the quake started, a sort of medium-sized quake at first, the kind you notice and wonder if it’s going to get bigger or just fade away.
This one just kept getting bigger and bigger. I was standing for most of it, and felt the ground start to rock as the building swayed with the quake. Apparently this is a good thing, that the building has some give in it; otherwise it would just shatter as the tremors went through it. Even as I was standing there, feeling the ground rocking, I looked at a vase of freesias and watched them swaying around. One of the ladies picked up a cushion and put it on her head, some elementary-school training kicking in.
When the shaking and rocking finally stopped, one of the ladies turned on the TV and we watched the news coverage. My own very British reaction was to decide to make more tea. And so it was, about ten minutes later, I think, that we sat with fresh cups of tea and watched the tsunami rolling in and destroying everything in its path. I remember one of the anchors announcing that the tsunami was arriving at the coast, using the same language platform announcements use when a train is arriving and then watching with disbelief as the grey water just kept coming. It looked like an ordinary wave until you realised the scale of it, that those small objects being tossed by the water were cars and buses, that buildings were disappearing like matchboxes.
The aftershocks continued, and one was large enough to make us wonder if it was starting again. The TV coverage continued, with the anchors wearing hard hats and as each aftershock hit they encouraged people to take cover, to take care, as they hung onto their desks and tried to sound calm.
About half an hour later, my doorbell rang, and I assumed it was someone from school coming to check that I was all right. It wasn’t. It was the postman, delivering a package too big to fit in my mailbox. I expressed surprise that he was still out doing his job; he reassured me that he was outside and completely safe.
We didn’t read that afternoon. We watched the news, we drank tea and sat as witnesses to the horror unfolding in Tohoku. At some point I think we saw footage of Fukushima Daiichi and the beginning of what we now know was several meltdowns and partial meltdowns. The phone networks, both mobile and landlines, were mainly down, but trying repeatedly we managed to make a couple of calls to the ladies’ relatives at home.
At four o’clock they decided to try to get home. I asked them to come back if they couldn’t get anywhere. Of the five ladies, one walked home, one took a taxi to where she had parked her car (usually a fifteen-minute train ride away) and the other three went to the station. When they found the trains weren’t running they went to a large teaching hospital down the road and sat for hours watching the news and making occasional forays to the station to see if the trains were running yet (they weren’t) and to buy food at the convenience stores. At 11pm the hospital announced to the people who had taken shelter there that they couldn’t stay there any more and had to leave, something I still find quite shocking. Only at that point did they call me and ask if they could come back, as I had asked that they do seven hours previously.
I went outside and watched them walk back up the hill. They looked stressed and exhausted and when they came into my apartment they all sat in the middle of the floor. They were hollow-eyed and worn out after watching the news for hours on end. I remember telling them that instead of the usual tea in cups with saucers that I usually gave them, that I was making tea (more tea!) in mugs. They drank their tea and looked a little better.
To be honest, I was glad of the company that night, it was not a time to be alone. They slept on the sofa beds in the living room. In the morning we were all up early. The trains were running again and they were anxious to get home. After they left I went into school and found that about one hundred members of staff and students had spent the night stranded. Everyone was calm and the focus was on making sure the girls could get home safely.
The days and weeks that followed were strange; stressful yes, but people were kinder, seemed to interact more. As the news from the nuclear power station grew worse a lot of people left, some temporarily, some permanently. I remember being at Starbucks with a friend and hearing two Japanese women remarking on us as a rare sight after so many foreign residents had left.
We held a pared-down version of Graduation Day and then it was the spring vacation. I had planned to take it easy anyway, but I spent my days close to home, sending e-mails to friends and family reassuring them that Tokyo was all right, and firing off complaints to the BBC about their irresponsible and overwrought reporting. I never received any response.
For a while the energy-saving measures (brought on by the total shutdown of all Japan’s nuclear reactors) made Tokyo a dimly-lit place. A friend who had been out of the country at the time came back and said it looked like Blade Runner. We put one foot in front of the other and life in the capital was normal relatively quickly. For Tohoku, not so much. Five years later, I can still write so many sentences about the area using ‘not yet’ and ‘still’. I think the questions I heard most in the days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami were, ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Were you alone?’
For the people whose homes and lives were impacted that day, the answers are, ‘I was home, and can never really go back,’ and maybe, ‘I am now’.