Category Archives: Great East Japan Earthquake


On August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb to be used in war was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, and seventy-five years ago today, on August 9th 1945, a second bomb was dropped on a second Japanese city, Nagasaki in Kyushu.

I lived in Japan for twenty-seven years, and two months before I moved back to the UK I decided to visit Nagasaki. My primary reason for visiting was to make a kind of pilgrimage, since Nagasaki was the site of the martyrdom of the twenty-six martyrs of Japan, but I couldn’t go there and not visit the Atomic Bomb Museum. Ever since I visited, I have been meaning to write about what I saw and felt, and I am only just getting round to it today, spurred on by the anniversary of the bombing.

It feels a little strange to be sitting here, on a pleasant August evening in a village in the north of England, but, as far away as a city on the western edge of Kyushu feels, the way I experienced it for three days at the end of January and beginning of February in 2019 still feels very close. What follows is my impressions, the images and the conversations that have stayed with me.

There is a Celtic Christian term for places where the membrane between heaven and earth feels particularly thin or porous: thin places. Whether we consider ourselves particularly spiritual or not, we may encounter an atmosphere somewhere which seems to tug at our heart or call to us in a moving way. Scientists have suggested that this could be attributed to ’emotional residue’, that somehow an echo of something remains and we can tune into it.

I have felt a kind of timeless, otherworldly atmosphere in the small side chapel on the site of Julian of Norwich’s cell. In that place I felt I could sit and be with her, across the centuries, that somehow the world was turning outside but in that quietness I could tune into something going on in another dimension.

I felt the same feeling in Nagasaki, but it did not bring me peace. I walked around the city and wondered at the ordinariness of life going on around me. It seemed like any other Japanese city; people commuting to and from work, buying groceries, schoolchildren in uniform, the red kites wheeling in the sky overhead. It felt normal and yet – I found it profoundly disturbing. It felt like the moment of the atomic blast was somehow trapped in time, and that it was just out of sight, just out of reach, but that across time and space it was there, all the time. I remember walking around, thinking, how can life just continue? Don’t they feel it?

On that first afternoon, I walked up from the centre of the city to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The first exhibits describe the city of Nagasaki on the morning of August 9th; how many people, what kind of work they were going to do. It was just another ordinary Japanese city, its people exhausted by war, still engaged in the hopeless work of contributing to a war effort for a war that was already lost. Following on from there, there are eye witness accounts (as there are throughout the museum) of what happened when the bomb detonated above the city. There are items from Urakami Cathedral, very close to the epicentre of the blast; rosaries, crucifixes, statues. In the subdued lighting of the museum, these objects, particularly the damaged statues, have an eerie quality.

I moved through the museum, trying to take in what I was seeing, but at the same time not wanting to. It’s just too much. The eye witness accounts are told in a matter-of-fact way, the horror recounted without much emotion – the experiences of people who had no words, maybe, to describe the scale of the suffering, and no way of escaping what they had to endure.

I reached the end of the museum and went into the tiny shop to buy a book by Dr. Takashi Nagai (more of him later). I asked the two women who worked there, what is it like to be here every day? They answered enthusiastically, telling me they were glad to be there, that it was a good place to be. Seeing what must have been my horrified expression, they asked if it was my first visit to the museum. Hearing that it was, they said, oh yes, of course, it’s a terrible experience, but working here every day, we see people come from all over the world to learn about what happened here, and to pray for peace, and that makes it a good place.

Although there is a memorial hall where visitors can go to sit quietly, to ponder, to pray, I decided instead to walk the short distance to Urakami Cathedral. Inside, there were ropes strung across to prevent anyone walking around the cathedral, but there were two men sitting at a desk and when I asked if I could go past the ropes and sit to pray, they said I could. I sat there for a long time, at first numb, not knowing what to think or pray. Gradually I found the words: Lord, have mercy.

When I felt ready I walked over to Dr. Nagai’s tiny home, where he had spent the last years of his life. A Roman Catholic convert, in August 1945 Dr. Nagai was working at Nagasaki Medical College Hospital. He had done research on radiation and so was uniquely and horrifyingly qualified to understand the injuries the survivors of the bomb had, and to know the radiation sickness that would follow. His wife was killed by the blast, but their two children had been taken to safety outside the city, following reports of what had happened in Hiroshima. After the war Dr. Nagai built a small hut in Urakami district and lived there with his son and daughter. There he wrote a number of books, including the one he is most famous for, The Bells Of Nagasaki.

By then I felt I had taken in as much as I could, and headed back to the centre of the city, and checked into my hotel. I spent the next day visiting sites connected with the Nagasaki Martyrs. Despite the horror of the persecution of Christians, the facts are inspiring and humbling and I was glad I had decided to visit.

The next day, my third in Nagasaki, was my last. After I had checked out of the hotel I went to Starbucks near the bus station to wait until it was time to catch the bus to the airport. While I was waiting for my coffee, I spoke to the three young women who worked there. They asked why I had come to visit Nagasaki, and what I had thought of the city. In turn I asked them how it felt to grow up there. Did they think a lot about the atomic bombing? No, they said, not really. In primary school we studied what had happened, and of course we pray for the victims every year on August 9th. One of them added, my grandfather was a hibakusha (被爆者, ‘person affected by the bomb’) and because he lived with us, we saw how his health had been affected every day. They were happy to chat and wished me a good journey back to Tokyo.

I felt relieved to leave, and once the bus had passed through a tunnel and was on the other side of the hills that form a kind of basin around the city I felt better, and once the plane took off I was glad to know I was leaving Nagasaki behind. It was a strange experience, an unnerving experience, being in a city where such a horror had happened, and feeling the echoes of that horror. Writing about it, following my steps in my mind, has brought back some of the feelings even now.

The resilience of the human heart is an amazing thing. We get through traumatic events because the only option we have is to go forward. We live with the ideas and memories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. In China, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, people who had been persecuted, denounced and ‘struggled against’ by their neighbours, and then sent down to the countryside, returned to their former homes and lived near those same neighbours. In Rwanda, in Bosnia, people live with the people who killed their loved ones. We are a resilient species, but we are also capable of inflicting terrible things on each other; we have the scientific knowledge to create terrible weapons, yet also the will to survive the horror others can inflict.

One year at school in Tokyo I gave the Year 12s an assignment to make a poster about one of their grandmothers (or great grandmothers). One of the sections was to be family and childhood. Several girls wrote about Hiroshima:

“My grandmother was born in Hiroshima. A week after the bomb was dropped, she went into the city and saw terrible things. She told us that what she saw was so terrible that she would never tell anyone about it. But she did.”

“My grandmother had an elder brother. She loved him very much. After the bomb he got sick with radiation sickness and died in her arms. Although she got married, and had children and grandchildren, she never got over it. Her heart was always broken.”

Lord, have mercy.


Friday again

Planet earth 2

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’.

Looking back but never going home

plum blossom blue sky

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.

15,891 deaths.

2,584 people still missing.

228,863 people who can’t go home.

Remember them all today.