Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. In reflection of the episode, I share my personal thoughts and learnings of that period, and of the time since.
We found her in the dark, cold apartment, hunched over, cooking on a small camp stove, stirring a pot of instant noodles. The gas, water and electricity had been cut off and Miyoko, my deaf-in-one-ear, eighty-year old mother-in-law, had her transistor radio turned up loud. It was March 12th, 2011, a day after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, unleashing a tsunami that caused immense damage along Japan’s eastern coastline, in places reaching as far as five kilometers inland.
The day of the earthquake, a Friday, we had taken the day off work and headed for the ski slopes of Nagano. After a couple of hours of skiing, a few minutes before 3:00 pm, the ski lifts stopped running. High winds, I thought as we trudged back to the lodge, hoping to continue our fun later in the day. It soon became clear that something was terribly wrong. People at the lodge were gathered around a television set watching news of the damage caused by the earthquake, and of the tsunami that had slammed into the coast of Miyagi Prefecture a mere 30 minutes after the main seismic shock. Miyagi, more specifically the town of Shiogama, was where my mother-in-law lived. We knew we had to get to her, but with the images of destruction on the TV news, we decided to first return home to Tokyo to plan our next moves.
Miyoko had first been evacuated to a school gymnasium, but with the place having no electricity or running water she returned home, deciding that being surrounded by her own things and the butsudan, the altar set up in honor of her recently deceased husband, was a preferable option.
This is a tale of sorrow, but also of hope and resilience, of how living alongside my community in Tokyo as well as the wider Japanese community has allowed deeper insights into Japanese culture and behavior.
After the earthquake struck, phones were not working. Already a day had passed without our being able to contact Miyoko. Eventually, through contact with a policeman at her koban, neighborhood police station, we received news that she was uninjured and at home. We threw sleeping bags, torches, bottled water and a first-aid kit into the trunk of our car and set off for Tohoku. The main highway north was closed due to earthquake damage, so we drove the 400 kilometers from Tokyo to Miyagi via local roads, through the countryside and small towns. Signs of devastation grew the further north we went and our sense of despair rose along with it. Witnessing the aftermath of the tsunami was terrifying. Sendai Port had been flattened. Cars and boats sat upturned on each other and atop buildings. Plumes of black smoke from oil and chemical fires darkened the sky. Helicopters thumped overhead. Japan Self Defense Force trucks roared here and there, heightening the sense of being in a war zone.
As harrowing as the experience was from witnessing nature’s destructive power, we also felt a sense of hope. People we saw along the way had already started to dust themselves off. Road crews were already out making repairs. In some areas, water was running again. Long orderly queues had formed in places where vital supplies were available.
Nowhere did we see panic. That’s not to say there wasn’t fear — we saw it and felt it each time he earth trembled with an aftershock. Above all, we saw people doing their best trying to restore a sense of order to their shattered world just as Miyoko had been doing in her collapsing apartment building. Even in such dire circumstances, there was no cutting in line in front of the hundred-car lines waiting for petrol at every gas station. The drive back to Tokyo took us fourteen hours, two hours longer than the trip up to Shiogama. The car’s navigation system repeatedly beeped warnings for us not to get within twenty kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Shortly after the disaster, a Japanese newspaper printed a story that provided a glimpse into the Japanese psyche. It reported that when the earthquake struck, patrons of a Tokyo restaurant fled out into the street. When the tremors subsided, many diners went back into the restaurant and settled their bills. Some of those who had run for their lives returned the next day to pay for their meals.
A week after the devastation that we now know claimed many thousands of lives, as the weather warmed, with the first promise of cherry blossoms — that Japanese symbol of transience, but also of life and rebirth, I took my white-haired mother-in-law for a stroll. She was then as she is now a decade later, imbued with a sense of hope that things will turn out for the best in the end. She is my moral compass, guiding me with words of wisdom such as ‘Sekizen no ie ni wa yokei ari’ — The family that has done many virtuous deeds has abundance.
It is through sharing experiences with my Japanese family and community, joyful ones such as the approach of spring and anticipation of cherry blossoms, as well as the painful ones like natural disasters and the ongoing Covid pandemic, which have helped me more deeply appreciate this country, its people, and my place in it.