Category Archives: Great East Japan Earthquake

On Being Very New To Blogging . . .

After the March 11th earthquake last year I wrote a series of e-mails to friends and family. I had several reasons; I wanted to let everyone know how everyone was doing in Japan (as far as I knew) and I was frustrated with the media overseas for their distortions and weaselly misrepresentations of the situation, but most of all I was trying to process what was going on around me and generally keep a lid on what was, at times, the most stressful thing I’d been through.

I have archived them all below. They span a year, and I don’t know if there will be more, but for now this is the complete set! I offer them as I originally sent them.


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.

December 31st 2011

Well, it’s been months since I last wrote an update, so long that the word ‘update’ as a title seems wrong, so maybe in the wonderful tradition of Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America, this is my Letter From Tokyo.

I got back to Japan yesterday, after spending 2 weeks in the UK.

I took the bus into Tokyo from Narita airport. If you have never been to Japan you may not realise that ‘Tokyo New International Airport’ is not actually in Tokyo, it’s in Chiba, the prefecture to the east. It takes at least an hour to get into the city and I usually take the bus. It was around dusk and there was a beautiful view of Mount Fuji against a pinky-orange sky, quite stunning. It was the perfect view to come back to.

Jetlag is a wonderful thing, and turns my usual not-morning-person-at-all into a 6am rise-and-shine type, and so here I am in front of my computer, wearing my purple hanten (winter indoor padded jacket) pecking away as this year, and what a year it has been, finally comes to an end. While I was in the UK I was asked by a number of people about how life in Tokyo is now, and the answer is, as normal as it has been almost all year. But, and it is a big but, just looking at the newspaper shows how things are very much what I referred to before as the new normal. Here’s a selection of headlines from the domestic news pages this morning:

* Businesses locked out of aid; red tape denying tsunami-hit firms access to government subsidies

* Evacuees enjoy early toshikoshi soba (noodles traditionally eaten at New Year)

* Year’s last search made for victims

* DNA analysis identifies 2,383 disaster victims

Every day has been like this; although Japan dropped out of international daily headlines a long time ago, we are still getting a lot of information in Japan. This is really important, because although for most of us life has been remarkably normal for all but a matter of days or weeks earlier in the year, for the people of Tohoku it is still very hard. People are still living in temporary housing and who knows if or when some people from Fukushima can ever go home.

One story did make the international headlines recently, and it should be filed under Very Good News We Waited A Long Time To Hear:

That does not mean that everything is OK, and TEPCO has asked for a lot more money to pay compensation etc. but the fact that they have succeeded in a cold shutdown is Good News. In the same category is this:

It does make the point that the voting took place in March and April and a lot of votes may have been cast before March 11th or after that as a kind of sympathy vote, but anyway, it’s a positive story and I hope it encourages people to visit this great country. To anyone reading this; you always have a place to stay in Tokyo and a very willing tour guide! I do love to show people around.

So, one more time, a round-up of the situation here:

Fukushima and radiation: see above.

Earthquakes: obviously I have not been here for the last fortnight but in November and the first half of December we seemed to have a few, and I have just paused and wondered about how to refer to them. The new normal again. Before March 11th I would have said they were quite large, but after The Big One I would say, not so much. A bit rattled, but not shaken or stirred!

School: It was a busy term, and I ended the year feeling drained, as usual for the time of year. The school continues to support various efforts in Tohoku and I feel very proud that we are sticking with them. As I mentioned before, ANA has a slogan it put on some things after March 11th; Forward together as one Japan (心をひとつに、がんばろうニッポン). The people working on the ANA counters at Heathrow were all wearing badges with it, and when I told one of them I liked it she gave me a sheet of stickers, so I can tell you that it is also (in French) Tous ensemble avec le Japon and (in German) Gemeinsam vorwärts Japan. When I think about school and the events of March 11th I think of these things:

* One of my colleagues, at the end of that first week, saying, ‘I think we’re going to be OK’ and the feeling of relief I had when I heard her say it.

* The retired Bishop of Tokyo, who is also the Chair of our Board of Governors, saying how proud he was of how the staff coped and took care of all the students stranded at school that night.

* Hearing all the mobile phone alarms go off one afternoon warning of an impending earthquake, and looking over to one of the 1st year classrooms and seeing them all shoot under their desks. Alarm over, they all came up again and carried on studying.  The new normal.

* Reading all the 4th and 5th year essays written over the summer and feeling again how many people were directly affected because of relatives in Tohoku.

* Feeling very grateful to the British embassy for doing such a fantastic, calm job. Not being a monarchist I sometimes feel at a bit of a loss when other people come over all excitable and patriotic about weddings, jubilees etc. but this was one time when I felt like waving a flag and being Very Proud To Be British.

So, that was 2011.

May I just say, 2011, you were quite a year, and I shall not be sorry to see the back of you, but at the same time, I feel blessed and privileged to have learnt so much and seen so many inspirational things. I have seen people really pull together, stay calm, just put one foot in front of the other and, as ANA have put it, move forward together. That’s quite something. In an age of such digital connection, to just be there for someone, to be part of something is a powerful feeling. As I wrote before, the Japanese concept of 一期一会, ichi-go ichi-e (this is the moment), and the quote from Howards End, ‘Only connect‘ resonate with me. I have always loved the Howards End quote, but it was so real for me this year.

2011 has been a learning experience. It’s also been stressful. Not only the earthquake and the tsunami then the Fukushima situation, but also Dad’s death. On top of that, a doctor convinced me to try a new anti-migraine medicine this year and it had horrible side effects and even though I no longer take it it has left me with more migraines than ever. Bother. At school there have been stresses too.

But – and here is another big BUT.

BUT my triumph is this; I was me through it all. In the week after March 11th I could feel the tension in my body like I have never felt it before, but I was still me. The tension in the air around Tokyo, on the trains, in the shops, was like electricity, but I was still me. There was no evil twin, no Munch-like Scream version of me who came out and ran around.  I was me.

And so to 2012. I have high hopes for you, 2012. We all got through 2011 so we must be stronger. There’s lots going on at school that is very positive; a link with a school in the UK, a new colleague (and goodbye to a less-than-positive one). I have some friends back; 2011 started without them and my life is richer for having them back now (you know who you are).

I wish you all a positive, healthy, joyful and blessed 2012. I will end with an adaptation of what they used to say at the beginning of That Was The Week That Was, a programme I never saw, but that Dad quoted to me once when I was first living in Asia, I don’t remember if I was in China or Japan, but I remember him writing this:

‘That was the week that was, it’s over, let it go.’ So it feels right to end this long e-mail with this:

That was the year that was, it’s over, let it go.