Today is March 11th, 2014. It is exactly thirty-six months since the Great East Japan Earthquake took place.
It is estimated that 20,000 human beings perished as a result of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Each of these 20,000 people was someone’s mother, friend, daughter, son, father, colleague, teacher, doctor, lover, grandfather, aunt, uncle, neighbor, brother, sister, grandmother, niece, nephew… Today, entire communities continue to live in mourning.
Although the earthquake happened three years ago, I remember that day as if it had happened only last week. I had been six months pregnant and living in Chiba at the time. At 14: 45, on my way to the maternity clinic for a doctor’s check-up, the earth began to shake and street posts rattled as the traffic was stunned into a standstill. People rushed outside of convenience stores, shops, restaurants and homes and stood trembling underneath the open sky, faces drawn and aghast at the shock of the tremors. Huge aftershocks kept coming, agitating the ground and shifting the earth. I was lying on the examining table having an ultrasound when huge aftershocks almost threw me off the table. The doctor scrambled out of the room and I had to do my best to get up and carry myself out into the street. Throughout the entire drawn out consultation, the doctor, nurses and I kept running in and out of the clinic in case the walls, ceilings and structures collapsed on us. The television was on in the waiting room and a woman sitting on one of the pink plastic chairs began to sob as images of Tohoku being washed away under the waves of the tsunami flooded the room. For the rest of the afternoon, my husband and I remained at the clinic.
Early into the evening, we tried to get a taxi and asked about buses but all transport services had already shut down. The phones lines had been cut while cell phones were now useless. We began making our way home on foot and were surprised to see the usually empty streets filled with people in their work clothes also striving to somehow get home safely. With trains stalled, women in their high heels, men in their dark suits, grandmothers with children spilled onto the train tracks, everyone putting one foot in front of the other, doing their best to get home, frantically keeping calm. At JR Makuhari Station, a line of forty people snaked outside the public phone box waiting in vain to use the dead phone. As we approached home, one of the students whom I taught at the university nearby saw me out of his blue-rimmed glasses, raised his hand in acknowledgment and kept on pedaling his bicycle through the crowd. In the distance, we could see a heavy cloud of black filling the sky above as the fire from the oil refinery close by was being treated. We later saw the same footage of black smoke and the same oil refinery burned on television.
We had been packing up our belongings into boxes in preparation for our move to another prefecture that week. I found the sewing machine lying on the floor, strewn about with picture frames having fallen off their wall hooks when we arrived home. Being pregnant, hungry and weary from the heavy walk home, I had needed something to eat and drink but our fridge had been emptied out for the move. There was no running water in the apartment and the gas had been completely cut off, so cooking was impossible even if I had the energy and groceries were available. It is a known fact that pregnant women have urgent food cravings, and I really craved chicken that afternoon. My husband pedaled to the big shopping complex nearby to hunt for some fried chicken and came home with one tiny pathetic-looking bread roll and twenty-five grams of coleslaw from KFC. That was all he could find on his forty-five minute shopping expedition. The food shelves were almost empty and bottles of water were scarce. We did not have a full hot meal until six days later, after we had left the Chiba -Tokyo region.
It is in times of crisis that we see what we are made of and the kind of people we have the fortune or misfortune to live next to. In this case, fortune gently guided us. The neighbors three apartments down from us knocked on our front door that evening of March 11th, 2011. When we opened the door, mom and son streamed into our place with buckets and plastic containers of water from a tap down the road and filled up half our bathtub in silence, with barely a greeting, then rushed out again. Two evenings earlier, this family had been sitting around our dinner table chatting over Vietnamese spring rolls, rice noodles, chicken salad and prawn crackers along with banana cake in coconut tapioca that I had offered them. During the five remaining days of our time in Chiba, mom gave us another two bottles of drinking water as well as containers of food to nourish us. At a time when drinking water was scarce, this gesture of generosity and care still stays with me three years later. The meal that I had made for them cannot compare with the 500 milliliters of bottled water they gifted us with that week. Dad had been absent the first evening when this family knocked on our front door because he had been pedaling on his bicycle in Tokyo. He arrived home just after midnight on March 12th having left his workplace in Tokyo at three o’clock the previous afternoon, on March 11th. It had taken him about nine hours to travel the distance of about thirty kilometers from Tokyo to Makuhari, Chiba, in the aftermath of the earthquake.
The following days, I contacted colleagues at the university where I taught. One learning assistant told me that she had stayed overnight on campus to help with the students who had been stranded. Some students remained at the university over two, three days before they could return home. In the streets around our apartment, the university and all over the city, cracks due to liquefaction were visible on open roads and footpaths. While the earthquakes and tsunami that hit that Friday afternoon on March 11th had been the most severe, numerous earthquakes continued to shake our home throughout the following days and nights. It was like living on a rocking ship, swaying to and fro in the apartment, as each aftershock unsettled our dwelling structure. I was not able to sleep much as we’d be woken up with the shaking of the building due the aftershocks all through the day and during the nights, never knowing whether another huge calamity was pounding the pavement outside. By day three of constant aftershocks, I felt on edge, frazzled and utterly weary, my belly feeling heavier and heavier. Petrol shortage had been a major crisis at the time with few trains or airport buses running. Car travel was also limited. We eventually managed to get to the airport and fly out of Chiba and Tokyo by bus after a lot of asking around. In the first several months after our relocation to western Japan, bottled water in the supermarkets here was rationed to one bottle per customer per day as the priority had been to ship water to the northeastern regions of Japan where the tsunami had hit.
While 20,000 people had perished as a result of the tsunami, it is estimated that approximately 18,000 individuals died by drowning in the Pacific Ocean. With the Vietnam War and in its aftermath, millions of people drowned in the ocean, too. My mother was one of these people. The last time I saw my mother was when I was six years old. What happens to the hopes, the hands, the heads and the hearts of human beings when they vanish like this into the endless vast ocean? For those of us who remain behind, there is no grave to mark where our loved ones passed on, they simply remain in our hearts, streaming through our blood and are silently honored with our every breath.
Eighty-two years ago, in 1932, a woman named Mary Elizabeth Frye from Baltimore, USA, wrote a poem after she was inspired by a heartbroken German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was mourning her mother’s death, exclaiming that she never had the chance to “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear”. When we are in the midst of our grief, it is easy to think we are alone in our sorrow. But loss and death are as common as births, happening every few seconds of everyday. Just because loss takes place often, however, does not mean it is easy to bear. On the contrary, the more we know of loss, sorrow and grief, the more burdened we may feel at times. I am not sure that we find solace in knowing that others suffer the same sorrows we do.
Today, we honor all the hearts who have vanished in the ocean, and remember the grief their children, husbands, wives, mothers, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, fathers… must bear. Eight decades later, Mary Frye’s words still have relevance for us…
Japan Meteorological Agency. October 2013. Lessons learned from the tsunami disaster caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. http://www.seisvol.kishou.go.jp/eq/eng/tsunami/LessonsLearned_Improvements_brochure.pdf
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport & Tourism (MLIT). As of 10:00 March 3, 2014. The Great East Japan Earthquake (126th Report): Outline. https://www.mlit.go.jp/common/000138154.pdf
Sekiguchi T. & Nakai, S. 2012. Effects of Local Site Conditions on Liquefaction Damage in Mihama Ward of Chiba City. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Engineering Lessons Learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake, March 1-4, 2012. Tokyo, Japan. http://www.jaee.gr.jp/event/seminar2012/eqsympo/pdf/papers/90.pdf
The Times, Obituaries, Mary E. Frye. November 5, 2004. Baltimore housewife whose poem Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep brought comfort to thousands. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/obituaries/article2077955.ece