Some thoughts on March 11....



I cycled home today, arriving in good time. My children were delighted to see their daddy home again, well in time for another bedtime story. Two years ago on this day, it took me a lot longer to get home, albeit from a further place. The Great Tohoku/East Japan Earthquake, as it would come to be known, had brought most of Japan to a standstill; trains stopped, traffic routes congested due to closed expressways and traffic lights without power, people walking the long journey home that was usually an hour-long train ride. I was lucky enough to be able to hitch a ride with a colleague from our head office in Kawasaki to my home in Kawagoe, a six hour journey in a cramped car.

I say lucky, because a lot of people took a lot longer to get home that night, and many never got home at all. Over eighteen thousand people lost their lives that night, and some three hundred thousand lost their homes. 

When the quake hit I was at our company headquarters in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo. I felt the sharp, vertical jolting a good while before the long, strong, slow shaking wave that carried the real power, and that told me that the quake was reasonably far away. It went on long enough, and the shaking was strong enough, for me to realise that wherever it was coming from, they were in trouble. I tried hiding under the desk, as they taught us to do in countless drills that I now realised were not as useless as I had flippantly judged them to be for so many years,but soon found myself feeling motion sickness. I came back out from under the desk to watch plaster fall from the ceiling and clocks fall form the wall. People shouted warnings to each other, but there was little if no panic. 


The swaying eventually subsided. I tried to phone my wife, but the network was jammed. My mobile phone then buzzed to tell me that I had mail; CNN Breaking News telling me that the US geological survey was reporting an 8.8 magnitude quake off the coast of Japan. I read it out loud to my co-worker sitting beside me, then blurted out what I had just realised: "Jesus, that's bigger than Kobe!"


Since the phones were down, I decided to mail everyone I knew to tell them I was, at this point anyway, okay. I had to stop when I realised it read "I am okay " and not "we are ...".


I tried mailing my wife, and eventually got a message from her via the free emergency notice board our mobile carrier offered for such occasions. It was the second relief of the day to be able to tell people that my family was safe. The first was to know myself.


The first aftershock came so soon that the building was still swaying, and people still had not returned to normal. I was moving too much to type without errors, so once essential mails had been sent I gave up on work and went to watch the news unfolding on one of the big screen televisions my company used in meeting spaces. Over the next hours we watched the nightmare unfolding, footage of buildings swaying, news of cancelled trains, power failures, fires, and the flashing red line in the bottom right corner of the screen telling millions that a tidal wave threatened their homes and their lives. I had seen such warnings before after other earthquakes, but the numbers this time were tens of meters, not tens of centimeters.

We watched the cameras showing nothing for about twenty minutes, then showing the water rising over beaches and piers, swallowing roads and fields, chasing cars that eventually tried to escape from its grasp. People unwillingly let out gasps, squeals, and muttered shouts to "Get the fuck away from there!". It was surreal to think that this reality we were watching unfold didn't look as real as the fake reality we had seen in the movies. It took a few seconds for that thought to resolve itself. It reminded me of the old ladies watching the terror of 9/11 unfold on the evening news at my sports club, one eventually plucking up the courage to ask "What movie is this?" 


But this was not a movie, this was really happening. Happening to a place that I had actually been to!My wife's family came from Fukushima, and I had received an astoundingly warm welcome the first time I went up there for a summer holiday some years before. As I watched the waters rise relentlessly, I desperately tried to console myself that they would be okay by trying to recall the hill we drove up to get to my future father-in-law's homestead. Any feelings of relief that my relatives would probably be safe was tempered by the fact that I was still watching other people, possibly their neighbours or schoolfriends, die on live television.


As the tidal wave grew in force, we watched it carry away cars, houses, boats; it became more and more surreal, and more and more difficult to remember that what we were watching was indeed reality; happening to the country in which I lived. 


A colleague started asking around, in a cautiously low voice, about how people were planning to get home.He had broken company rules that day and used his own car to come to head office rather than the train. This meant he had room for four people to get back to Kawagoe that night. His caution was not because of the breach of company rules, but because he knew he would have to refuse the fifth and subsequent persons who asked for a ride. After some brief discussion to ensure others had some means of getting home, he had his four passengers and I was one of them.


We set out into streets that had little or no working traffic lights. Main roads were crowded, some at a standstill, and we soon started using the car's navigation system to ferret around back streets and residential roads to avoid the congestion. Sitting in the back I could be of little use in that task, so I sat watching the city pass by outside. People walking home on journeys that would take them hours, others queueing patiently outside convenience stores that had no power for their cash registers and had to do transactions by hand. Endless queues outside stations for taxis and busses. All of it was orderly, restrained. There was none of the horn blowing, shouting and pointless waving of hands out of car windows that is often seen in Hollywood representations of such chaotic scenes. 


On the car radio, the national broadcaster NHK kept us informed of news fires, power failures, stopped trains and the endless stream of aftershocks, I kept my wife posted through the emergency bulletin board, as the phone networks were still in gridlock. As the hours passed, we crawled north towards home.


I eventually made it to my front door around eleven thirty, having been dropped off at a nearby intersection - our driver did not want to pull out of the snaking traffic because that would require pulling back in, and that would lose him time. My wife greeted me at the door with onigiri rice balls and a flask of tea; not for me, for the others - but was disappointed to see they had already gone.


We exchanged our stories of the day, watched the news for a while longer then went to bed. In the coming days, the enormity of the tragedy would become clear. Thousands had died, entire towns had been destroyed. Japan had been changed forever. Stockpiling and loss of distribution chains meant shelves were empty. Those petrol stations that had petrol also had queues. The explosions at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant put nerves on edge. 


I read of some foreigners who had fled the country, many on the advice of their embassies, some on the basis of inaccurate news reports. Even some Japanese relocated out of the Kanto region, sometimes leaving only the working father behind. When my wife heard that one of the mothers in her network of school mothers had evacuated to Osaka, she looked at me in puzzlement and asked if there was any reason why people should leave.


This made me think, and then realise, that I even if I did have reason to leave, I probably wouldn't, because I had so many other, much stronger, reasons to stay. I thought about the risks of the nuclear accident, which were being played down by Japanese news sources, but blown out of proportion by those overseas. It was still not clear by then that meltdowns had occured, and it was difficult to know how much of the news to believe. Many foreigners who left did so because of pressure from relatives back home, worried about their safety, and in doing so turned their backs on jobs, careers even, and left behind friends, coworkers, and even family. They weighed the costs of leaving against the costs of staying, and chose to leave. It cannot have been easy to do that. I know it would have been impossible for me.


In the days after the accident, the word "kizuna", meaning "bond", came to be used as a slogan, a rallying call for the people of Japan to overcome the effects of the disaster. It was a word I knew well, as a friend who taught calligraphy had used it in an artwork he gave me when I got married. He explained that he had chosen that character not only to represent the bond of marriage, but the bond he saw that I had with Japan.It resonated with me, even then, as I did feel a very strong bond with Japan and its people, their ethics, customs and beliefs. From a very early stage I felt like I belonged here, and realised, even long before I met my wife, that I wanted to stay here all my days. Getting married caused to take stock of that desire, and the welcome my wife's family gave me sealed my fate. I already had many friends, and a strong affinity for the Japanese people and Japanese life in general, and with marriage I now had a family here. A family that would grow, by the time of the earthquake, to include two children of our own.   


And because of that bond, even from the very first moments of that quake I was not as much concerned for my own safety as I was for the well being of those who who were at its core. I had enough faith in Japanese construction technology to fear not for my own safety, but for those who were closest to the danger. (Someone would say later that the news headline we would never see would be; "Japan's construction technology saves thousands of lives.") As I watched those black waters wash over the coast of Tohoku, I was heartbroken to see people who were losing everything, even if their lives were being spared.


In the days and weeks that followed I was moved to tears many times by news reports of the damage done, and by people's resilience to it. The televised public service announcements also had me rooting for "Team Japan" ; - despite the annoying monotonous repetition of their jingle, their message stirred me, for I WANTED Japan to "Gambaru" - to be strong, to rise above this trial, and return to normal. I was saddened to see the devastation, but proud to see the will to recover, the stoic determination to rebuild. Proud of this society, and proud to be a part of it.

And that is why, when I heard of those others fleeing Kanto and fleeing Japan, I knew immediately that it was something that I could never do.


I belong here, and I am staying.




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