March 11th, 2011: some thoughts

In the context of what happened a year ago, this post is totally self-centred and confessional. However, it seems like the best I can do from a perch somewhere in south London. 

“There’s been an earthquake in Japan – doesn’t seem that bad though.” My flatmate at the time was also a ridiculously early riser.

It was before 7am and BBC News didn’t have much information – but one thing that they did know that was that it was in Tohoku. Which is where my family live – my grandmother, aunt and cousin – in Tagajo, about 20 minutes outside of Sendai.

I kept on with the morning routine of make-up, breakfast and bag-packing, aware of a rising sense of panic in my stomach. I spent the bus journey poring over Twitter, where a disaster was gradually unravelling on my timeline – piecemeal bits of detail starting building a picture.

Arriving in my office, I switched on the TV just in time to see the live helicopter pictures of the plain of water racing across miles of land, chewing up everything in its path like it was a living, breathing, predator. My colleague (I’m always first in the office – still Japanese, after all) found me glued to the TV. I was sent home, my bags fortuitously packed to head home to my parents’ that weekend anyway.

The phonecalls home to my mum were strange. When there’s nothing you can do, when there’s nothing you know, there’s nothing left but to resign to a slight level of denial and optimism. When you put the phone down, the house is still standing around you and you have to keep on going, which is impossible if you think the worst. So in those early hours I scoured Twitter for any evidence to back up my theory that everything was OK.

More information started to come in – Fukushima started exploding – the footage became gradually more horrifying. The blind optimism turned into the gnawing horror that a happy ending was gradually becoming impossible. I taught my mum how to use Twitter – it became our lifeline for a couple of days as I started Tweeting random strangers who mentioned our town and tried to build a map of updates.

We put messages up on the Google board and compulsively checked them every hour. And I looked at other ones – ones where people had responded, thinking that  it might be some kind of weird indicator. The messages, in delivering the worst possible news over an online portal, were chilling.

It was the longest Friday. In the evening, as we were becoming slightly numb, we learned from some friends about the messageboard started by telecoms providers in Japan. Cellphones users texted their updates to a certain number and anyone plugging their loved one’s number into the website would be able to see them. My aunt and my grandmother don’t have mobile phones. My 21 year-old cousin Daisuke did. We punched in his number and it took the longest pause for us to process what came up on screen:

“私は生きている” [“I am alive”]

My mum, my sister and I were hysterical. He was OK – maybe my aunt and grandmother would be too. The next three days – until Monday – would be spent in limbo as we waited to hear about the fate of my aunt and grandmother (in her 80s and often in ill-health).

We finally got through to them – my cousin had been in Sendai at college and had taken shelter in the gym. My aunt and grandmother had also been in Sendai – at the hospital. With unbelievable timing, my grandmother had suffered a stroke the day before the tsunami, so she and my aunt had been in Sendai when the earthquake hit. It might have saved their lives.

They had been incredibly fortunate – the house, the same that my mother grew up in and build out of wood in the traditional style – was still habitable. There was no running water, but the power was coming back. All my mum could do was sob ‘I’m sorry’ down the phone, but it was more than the rest of us.

I’ve not been back since. I know that so much has been restored – our local supermarket, which was up to its second storey in water, is working again. The train to Sendai, on the same line as the carriage that was swept away, was up and running a few weeks later.

A few miles away, there are towns that may or may not ever exist again. In the next prefecture, a story of nuclear neglect and mismanagement is becoming more horrifying every day. My cousin is graduated and can’t get a job.

Everything only started to hit a few days later. It was as the admiring reports of the stoic bravery of the affected began to come in. Even those people who had lost everything and everyone queued patiently for their rations, searching diligently for what was theirs and not touching what wasn’t. The patience and endurance of everyone affected was unfailingly moving, pronouncing the human aspect of the disaster above anything else.

In the year afterwards, this has never failed. But I’ve also been happy to see flashes of much-needed anger. There has been a wavering at the seat of power – an unwillingness to take responsibility and a quibbling instead of taking action. Actions symptomatic of what is so often wrong in Japanese business and government. Hearing voices of anger – particularly concerning the lack of information around the Fukushima Daiichi reactor – is important and very welcome. Stoicism has served a great purpose – this is a great opportunity for change.

I’m proud to have my roots in Miyagi and thankful for all that I am lucky enough to have been left. There’s not an awful lot left to say – except thank you to everyone who helped me, my family and everyone who was involved. Better said below:

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