Mar 11, 2017

The North Remembers March 11th

Today is March 11th, 2017.    

    6 years ago, the world changed. Literally. The topographical situations were altered slightly by the impact of the Magnitude 9 earthquake that shook most of Japan, but none so much as us up here in Tohoku. The worst effected prefectures were Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate, all of which lost so much that afternoon.

    I was in Sendai, on the top floor of a 9 story office building, walking into the lobby of the eikaiwa I was working for after having promptly left a class that ended at 2:45.

    Most foreigners who have never been through a big quake don't stop to think about it. We keep walking with the minimal shakes, barely aware.

    This is the kind of thing that makes you aware. The ground was shaking so badly that one of our office workers was screaming for me to hold the computer on the desk, but it didn't occurred to me at that moment who she could be talking to. Then the shaking got bad enough for me to sit down. Then crawl under a desk. I don't know how long any of that went on, but when it was over, I found myself looking out the window and the weird angle of the building next to us, realizing with fresh horror that the building beneath my feet, as well as the one across the street, were swaying with the impact (which makes sense-- they're built to do that instead of collapse) and I thought, "That's why these things are scary."

    Because they never had been before, but they will not be innocent again. Now when the ground shakes, I stop and wait.     We're on the eighth floor here, so we feel a lot of things people closer to the ground might not.

    It took a few months for things to return to a new normal. Transportation restarted to most areas (though the train out to Ishinomaki, one of the towns most hurt by the tsunami, took another year or two to work out) and most people went back to work. When we did, everyone had a quake story. Where were you? Did you lose anyone? Is your family safe? How about your house? Most of our students were wealthy enough to buy new homes if any property was damaged. A few had to quit because the cost of repairs and replacing their possessions outweighed their need for English conversation.

    My story was not terribly exciting. We're already bought an apartment near the sea, which I was glad to know had not been washed away. We had bought our engagement and wedding rings, but they were somewhere in Sendai when the quake happened and not having them for a romantic White Day ruined my husband's proposal plans. Instead, we spent the nights leading up to white day sleeping on the floor of his parents' living room, snuggled under the kotatsu with his parents, grandparents, and aunt while the warmth of our seven bodies combined to maintain comfort levels despite the still non-functional electricity. My in-laws learned in this time that despite our language differences, I cared a lot about trying to help and working hard, hauling potable water, even in heavy buckets, and doing my best to assist. It is still my belief that in this family, I only get what I am supposed to do when things are rough. When things are nice, I'm too clumsy and confused to make anything work. When things suck, I can at least understand that basic necessities we need to survive.

    After a week, we had power and telephone operation. After 9 days, we got running water again. Within a week, my extended in-laws moved back to their homes and we started preparations to move into our apartment. Six weeks after the quake, on my husband's 30th birthday, he finally proposed...in his pajamas. Thus began the next chapter of our lives.

    For the next six months or so, I felt like an impostor, like I had somehow stolen the life from one of the unfortunates lost to the sea. After all, this is their country and they belong here. I don't. I never did. In the eyes of the country, I am forever a tourist, just one who won't go home, yet by no fault of my own I managed to survive the quake, tsunami, and radiation threat. Was it luck? Divine blessings? Some other reason for them to die when I did not?

    Of course, there are no real answers to these questions other than a silent shrug. We don't know. How could we? The point is not who deserves to live or die. Those aren't decisions I make. I'm not a doctor or dictator. I'm a teacher/writer. At this point, the important thing is that we survived and that we do something with that lives we continue to have.

    So if anything like that happens to you, any of you, and you catch yourself in the downward spiral of questionable self-worth, try to remember that. It is the best thing I learned from this experience.



A working mom/writer/teacher, Jessica explores her surroundings in Miyagi-ken and Tohoku, enjoying the fun, quirky, and family friendly options the area has to offer.


  • Tomuu

    on Mar 11

    Great message, and your experience sounds like plenty enough excitement for me. I was in a school in Saitama on that day, in the science room which was on the first floor with doors that opened out to the car park. My urge was just to leave and get out into the car park, but that wasn't the procedure I suppose. When we did leave the school and gather in the school yard, I remember an aftershock that made the ground move. That was the weirdest thing for me; usually you're in a building so that's what you feel shake. But when it's the ground under your feet, it feels quite different, for me at least. Anyway, I guess that pales in comparison to what it must have been like further north.

  • JTsuzuki

    on Mar 13

    @Tomuu Thanks! I'm glad you didn't have quite as much going on as we did, and we had it better than a lot of people. I never had to stay in a shelter; our homes were fine; none of our relatives died. The worst part was that my husband is a funeral director, so he went to work the next day, worked crazy hours without even being able to shower when he came home, didn't have a day off for more than 2 weeks....that was nuts. It has to be weird at ground level. Apparently people don't run out immediately for fear of sinkholes. I spent 10 minutes after the shaking stopped trying to clean up the office, thinking about tornadoes which don't have aftershocks. Someone had to remind me that the goal here was to get our stuff and get out. We're all exceedingly lucky to be alive.