Category Archives: Great East Japan Earthquake

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.

Time to be gentle with each other

plum blossom

This morning on the train I annoyed a commuter. I didn’t mean to, and I suspect his day had already started badly by the time he encountered me, but I annoyed him all the same. He was around sixty and wearing a mask, since the hay fever season has started. I am fortunate to not have to face the daily crushed commute, but when I do get on a rush hour train I like to listen to music to block out everything else. Armed with my trusty iPod I squeezed onto the train and turned on some music. He immediately fixed me with an icy stare and I quickly hit stop. He looked away, so I pressed play and his eyes swivelled back to me. Music off again, he looked away. I started to listen again, and this time waited a few seconds. He fixed me with a venomous, beady-eyed stare, he was definitely annoyed with me. I turned the music off and could hear him muttering, ‘urusai’, ‘noisy’ and not wishing to incur any more wrath I stood in silence for the rest of the journey.

Now, I didn’t take out the ear buds, I was not going to surrender so easily, but as I stood music-less in the great crush of people, and looked at all the other commuters happily plugged into their smart phones and iPods I wondered what I had done to upset him so.  Maybe I was the closest noisy person. Maybe I was more easily separated from the crowd because I’m not Japanese. Maybe he had bad hay fever this morning. Maybe he hates his job. Maybe he didn’t enjoy his weekend. Maybe he doesn’t like Monday mornings. I hope I didn’t spoil his whole day.

Living in Japan it’s easy to forget how to roll with the more feisty approach to interaction I encounter in Europe. Here we are aiming for wa, harmony, and the education system inculcates this subjugation of the individual to the group. Students learn to work together, in club activities, for sports days and culture festivals. The individual who, for example, asserts his right to be hissy on a crowded train is not playing by the rules. His safety catch was off and I didn’t know what he might do next.

Standing there wondering what on earth could be going on, listing all the possible stressors, I realised that there is a tiredness in the air. We have had a cold winter and we’re ready for spring. The plum blossoms are blooming, so are the early cherry blossoms, but it’s still cold. For students and teachers it’s almost the end of the school year, bringing tests and grading with it. Tree pollen is already in the air, starting with the most dreaded of all, Japanese cedar, planted widely after the war to counter deforestation and now widely responsible for the itchy misery of millions.

Most of all, tomorrow is March 11th. The 3rd anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the M9 earthquake and the monster tsunami that devastated Tohoku.  I wrote about this last year, and it is frustrating to write that there are still 267,000 people living in temporary housing.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/267000-still-evacuees-three-years-on/#.Ux3JTtw-ATs

While we all say we have not forgotten about Tohoku, we (collectively) seem remarkably able to live with this fact and more. Of course, we don’t live with the reality. The people of Tohoku do that. On the Japan Times website there is this heartbreaking article about the children of Fukushima, unable to play outside:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/life-indoors-exacts-toll-on-koriyama-children/#.Ux3Jxtw-ATs

and this one, about junior high school students:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/tohoku-kids-stressed-haunted-by-trauma/#.Ux3KaNw-ATs 

So how did I get from an irritated commuter to this? I have been thinking today about a quote from the writing of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer I studied at university. I have been trying to track down the piece where the quote occurs, but so far I’ve had no luck. I think it’s somewhere in Wild Grass or A Call to Arms.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’

Are we taking care of each other? Do we see individuals in a crowd? Do we really listen to each other, really connect with each other? I am glad I annoyed my fellow commuter this morning, because it made me stand in silence and wonder about what was going on for him. Deprived of my music, the bubble I usually choose to put myself in I stood there and made a list in my head of what could possibly be upsetting him. How often do I do that? Squashed in the middle of the carriage I found myself in fact in a space to think, and it was such a gift.

There is plenty of news in Japan to distract us from the ongoing challenges in Tohoku; the economy, a right-wing government rattling its sabres at South Korea and China over territorial disputes, various members of NHK’s board of governors making outrageous revisionist statements about Japan’s recent history. We can be squashed into a crowded news cycle and not remember what life is like for the people whose lives changed on March 11th, 2011.

We need to make space, for ourselves and other people, even in a vast crowded city like Tokyo. We need to be gentle with each other every day, but as the clock ticks towards midnight and we get ready to mark another anniversary, we need to remember ourselves, three years ago. This evening the lights on Tokyo Tower have been spelling out ‘kizuna’ (絆), chosen as the kanji of the year in 2011 and meaning ‘bonds’. Three years ago there was a feeling that we were all together in the days following the earthquake. One of the most common questions we asked each other was, ‘Were you with other people?’, because I think we recognised that being alone made everything much harder to bear.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’ Is that how the people of Tohoku feel?

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/photos-tohoku-three-years-after-the-311-earthquake-and-tsunami/#.Ux3LNNw-ATs