Tuesday, 12 March 2013

11/3/11 - two years later.

Right now, I am sitting in my parents' kitchen in North Wales, warming my hands on the radiator and planning my return to Prague, where I currently live. The snow swirling around through the window reminds me of some of the images on screen two years ago today.

I was sitting in the teachers' room at my main junior high school, writing my "About Me" page for this very blog, when the ground started to sway. It didn't feel like an earthquake - it was more like a giant ship swaying back and forth. I glanced up at the secretary and asked "Jishin?" She nodded. A few second year girls cowered on the floor and squealed, one of them holding her arms over the others and shouting "I am desk!" for my benefit, while Mr Ohuchi, the English teacher, yelled "Urusai! (Shut up)" The ground continued to sway, and a siren started to sound. Panic gripped my stomach as my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with messages - "Earthquake!" "OMG, there are cracks in the ground in Tokyo!" "They say a big tsunami is coming!"

At that point, I wasn't sure of where the earthquake was centred. The ground continued to sway, and nobody thought to translate the message on the loudspeaker for the ALT - I caught the words for earthquake and tsunami, though, and knowing that the Hamamatsu was expecting a massive earthquake and was on the coast, I couldn't help but worry. I picked up my phone to text Jeff, my boyfriend, and see if he was OK - but the phones had stopped working.

The ground stopped moving, and the teachers let out a laugh of relief. Then, somebody turned the T.V. on. At first, I didn't know what I was looking at, then I recognised parts of Odaiba, in Tokyo, where I'd been a couple of months previously. They were on fire and a blizzard of snow was swirling around the flames. Then, it cut to a massive wave sweeping over the land, carrying cars and even ships with it. It was like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. I pulled my chair up closer to the screen, and asked my fellow teachers where the scenes were coming from. I found that they were hundreds of miles north, but it didn't seem to matter. Our tsunami siren was still sounding, and the teachers called an emergency meeting to decide what to do with the children.

After a painful hour, in which I managed to send a message back home to let my family know I was safe, the school decided to make sure the children were back at home safely. I made my way to the main train station, eager to get to Jeff's as soon as possible - he was near Kyoto, which is one of the safest places from earthquakes and tsunamis. It was a Friday, and I would have been going there anyway. When I got to the train station, my stomach sank - there were hundreds of people milling around, the ticket machines were down, and the trains hadn't been running since the earthquake. Of course, many trains had been on their way from Tokyo, and there was quite a lot of damage up there. The world seemed to stop.

I ran into an American friend and his girlfriend. Their faces were pale. A family member had been on their way to Hamamatsu, but there was no sign of them, and of course the phones were down so they had no idea whether this person was OK. I wanted to help them, but there was nothing I could do. I waited at the station for an hour, then another, with no clear plan. All I knew was that I was afraid of staying in Hamamatsu, as it was on the coast, even if the time for tsunamis had passed. That's when I heard that the earthquake had been a 9, which is massive, of course. We started to hear about the sheer amount of damage caused by the tsunami. An entire town had been wiped off the map in seconds.

A train finally came, in the end. It was packed full, of course, and I stood pressed against the other passengers all the way to Kyoto (a good four hours). I saw another white person and started a conversation, because that's how things used to be there. He told me that the tsunami up in Sendai had been ten meters high, or something like that.

When I finally got to Moriyama, Jeff's town, I was surprised at how normal things seemed. People were still laughing and drinking in the bars, as if the disaster was a world away. I rushed into the safety of Jeff's arms, and we strolled past his friend, the takoyaki vendor. The guy's English wasn't great, but he started telling us about the nuclear power plant, and how they thought it was going to explode. It started to feel as if the world was going to end.

That weekend was the slowest imaginable. We kept hearing of people who couldn't get in touch with family members and friends up in the damaged areas. Pictures and videos of the tsunami damage flooded the Internet. We watched one reactor blow up after another, and learnt more about nuclear power than we'd ever thought possible. We watched the Western media get hysterical about Armageddon, while the Japanese media told people to smile and carry on with life. We couldn't stop checking Twitter and turning the news on. We started to joke - "Remember when life was carefree, and we all thought we'd live forever?" I got a glimpse of how people must feel when nothing is certain any more. We watched the death toll creep up... 9000, 10,000, 20,000. Our families started crying for us to come home, because they only saw the damaged parts of Japan on the news.

A few days later, when I was back in Hamamatsu and in the middle of trying to reassure my parents over the phone that things were fine, another earthquake hit. I panicked and hung up. It stopped just as quickly. This one had been centred in Fuji, although the worst that happened was a power cut. Still, people started posting that Mt Fuji might erupt now. I didn't know what to think. Jeff was moving to Hamamatsu that very week, and the whole thing started to feel a bit ill-fated.

The thing is, for us, life went back to normal quite soon afterwards. A lot of my good-hearted friends started collecting blankets, food and money to take up to the disaster area. We considered volunteering, but it seemed as is torrents of volunteers were blocking the roads and actually making things worse by consuming limited resources up there, so we gave what we could. Friends of mine went to build showers for the thousands of people who had been made homeless by the disaster. So many were sleeping on gymnasium floors at nearby schools. So many had lost their homes, their jobs, and their families. And yet, according to the news, there was no rioting - just a calm queueing, a kind of waiting, a hope that the government would make things OK again.

But, as you know, the government lied and covered up the danger of the radiation. They spent money earmarked for disaster relief on whaling operations. They refused foreign aid with ridiculous excuses like "the old people will be scared to see foreigners walking around everywhere". People started to question nuclear power - after all, Fukushima was not the first "accident" at a nuclear plant in Japan - it has a history of nuclear accidents, as I wrote about a while back. Tokyo even saw some pretty big anti-nuclear protests, which was a pretty big deal in such a normally conformist country. Two years on, and the anti-nuclear protests are still happening - whether this will change anything, we don't know. The government are still keeping tight-lipped about the reality of the situation.

It wasn't all bleak. The sheer volume of foreign aid and well-wishes that poured in after the disaster was quite amazing - whether it was just someone changing their profile picture to "Help Japan", a donation to a charity or a care package, it was uplifting to see how many people cared, and how deeply people were affected by what happened.

Some of the damaged areas have been salvaged, rebuilt and renovated. It might seem, from the outside, that Japan is back to normal - you certainly wouldn't have known that anything happened if you'd walked through Hamamatsu, even Tokyo and Nikko, a few weeks after the disaster. But today, I found out that 300,000 people are still displaced, two years on. Progress is slow, and the amount of red tape that people have to go through doesn't help at all. They say that debris from the tsunami is washing up on U.S. soil even now. Perhaps it is a powerful reminder of the awesome, destructive power of nature, and a message that we should never forget. Any force that powerful deserves to be respected, not polluted and destroyed, although that's a different matter.

For now, I just want to extend my thoughts to all of those who are still displaced, those who lost somebody in the disaster, and especially to the family of Taylor Anderson, the ALT who died in the tsunami - it could have been any one of us. Japan will always have a special place in my heart, and I will never stop hoping that those people win back a little piece of the life that they had before the fateful day of 11/3/11.


  1. well written whitey, it puts into perspective the differences from watching a disaster on tv which looks like a Hollywood movie and hearing the personal perspective of people who live through them.

  2. Really moving post - I can't believe how quickly two years have gone by.