March 11th has rolled around again. Until just a couple of years ago it was just another day towards the end of the school year, and we haven’t yet planted the date so firmly in our calendars that we see it coming from weeks away. It’s easy to be caught unawares when planning other things. Last month I was trying to schedule something at school with a friend and we decided that March 11th would be the best date, started to write it into our diaries and then stopped. March 11th. It’s not an ordinary day.
March 11th 2011. At 2:46pm a magnitude 9 earthquake hit off the coast of Tohoku, the northeastern part of Honshu. (The six prefectures are Akita, Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the latter three are the ones most badly affected.) In Tokyo, over 300 kilometres away, it felt very big and very long. The tsunami triggered by the quake caused devastation on a scale that even now is difficult to understand. What followed in the hours, days and weeks afterwards shook the Tohuku region and the whole of Japan and gave us a new normal.
I remember someone asking me in the days following the earthquake, ‘Is this the biggest thing you’ve ever experienced?’ and for many of us it was. Even now, it’s hard to find the words to explain this feeling. I wrote often and at length over the weeks and months that followed, and archived all of what I wrote when I started this blog. When I look back over those original e-mails I find myself back there, in that mix of anxiety and determination; anxiety about what was going to happen, and determination to stay, to keep faith with the people of Japan and hoping and praying, day after day, that it was all going to be all right.
For people outside the Tohoku region it has been. Western Japan was of course affected because the whole country was worried about what was happening, but in terms of everyday life they were not, and a lot of people in Kanto went to Kansai when they felt a need to get further away from Fukushima. In Kanto we were of course closer to Tohoku and specifically Fukushima; we felt the aftershocks and were more directly affected by the unfolding situation. But really, by Golden Week (the block of national holidays at the end of April and beginning of May) life was back to normal.
For the people of Tohoku it has not been. According to figures in the newspaper this morning, 700,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima lost their jobs or took leave after the earthquake, and this was 27.8% of the total workforce. The majority of those took leave but in the time since then many have changed jobs and been affected by lower pay. Looking at other figures in the same newspaper, it’s shocking how much has not been done, and even those figures present a picture more positive than the reality, according to local officials. Least progress has been made in what is referred to as ‘town reconstruction’; while all debris has been cleared away from the towns and villages, it has not been disposed of yet. What seems to me to be the most pressing need, for new housing for people who lost their homes, was the worst of all; 20,600 houses are planned, land for only 7,405 has been secured. No mention of how many have actually been built. Two years on, many people are still living in temporary housing.
On Sunday I saw a headline which read, ‘¥1.4 trillion to be carried over in quake-hit areas: most unused funds related to reconstruction’. Apparently this is caused mainly by a shortage of manpower and materials, but really, Japan is in a recession, unemployment is high (for Japan) and people need homes and infrastructure. Just get on with it. Make it happen. Communities have been decimated, as people of working age have moved away to find employment and a safer place to raise their children, leaving behind the elderly. I heard about a school in the affected area from one of the students at school, after she returned from doing some volunteer work there. Of 104 students before March 11th 2011, only six remain.
When I think about the earthquake and all the horror that followed, my memories are contrasting ones; of the facts and figures, of trying to make sense of all the information, but also of how everyone got through it together. We walked softly, we spoke gently, we all kept a lid on what we were feeling. I remember sitting on buses and trains and feeling the air crackling with emotion, but everyone staying outwardly calm. I remember going cherry blossom viewing in Yoyogi Park and feeling so glad to be outside, in the sunny weather, with thousands of other people. Most of all, I feel proud of just being here, witnessing this great country coping with something unimaginably awful. Yes, there were things done badly; TEPCO officials ran circles round the government and only months later did we hear that there had indeed been a meltdown and a partial meltdown at two of the reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi. But ordinary Japanese people were amazing, and it was a privilege to be here, the scariest and most inspiring time of my life.
Here are the numbers: 15,881 dead, 2,668 missing, 315,196 homeless. Behind every single one, a life lost or changed forever. What does that look like? This photograph was on the front page of the newspaper this morning:
This afternoon I attended a memorial service at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. We prayed in silence from just after 2:30 until 2:46. It felt right to be there, in the same place I was last year, with other members of the diocese, silently remembering. It has taken me a long time to write this, the words didn’t come easily. Because really, there are no words. There is a deep sadness that drags you back down into those dark days, a reminder that for the people of Tohoku they still live with the aftermath, today and every day, but with that there is also love, pride and ultimately speechless admiration for the resilience of the human spirit.