A word of warning: beware the barrage of numbers flying around. 9.0— the Richter scale measurement for the quake. 2,000—the number of bodies found so far in northern Honshu. 8 feet —the distance that the island shifted as a result of the earthquake. Tens of thousands left homeless. 15 trillion yen pumped in to aid the economy. I say “beware,” but, really, you can’t escape them.
It is easy to become desensitized when viewing the numbers in the aftermath of such a disaster. We’ve seen it before, of course—Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the terrorist attacks on September 11. This desensitization remark isn’t some groundbreaking thesis I’m spouting. However, it bears repeating again here, if for no other reason than to remind us that what we see on CNN or BBC or NHK doesn’t tell even a fraction of the story. So, with this in mind, I’m going to abandon any pretensions of sweeping journalistic or global commentary. Instead, I’m going to attempt to give you an intimate, although limited, insight into just what it felt like to live in Japan during one of the largest earthquakes in world history and how the Japanese are adjusting and reacting.
The islands of Japan lie atop some of the world’s most seismically active plates. There’s a Japanese word, “unmei” which means fate or destiny, that is intrinsically tied to this fact. The Japanese know that earthquakes—devastating or not—are inevitable here. Elementary school students have “earthquake drills” every year and no town is without safety signs and instructions on trains and public areas. Sometimes, you’ll overhear a conversation about the next “big one” and where or when it might happen. You even can find signs of this relationship in traditional Japanese architecture; low houses and light building materials would help reduce the damage from potential earthquakes. Japan’s “unmei” is irrevocably tied to the mercy of nature.
I live in the city of Kobe, a prominent port center of about 1.5 million people in western Japan. Kobe itself is no stranger to earthquakes. In 1995 a devastating earthquake, now known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake, destroyed most of downtown Kobe, leaving over 6,000 dead and 300,000 homeless (there are those numbers again). As a result, anyone over the age of 18 here remembers the wholesale destruction vividly. Now, whenever a disaster strikes in the world—such as the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand—Kobe’s citizens are on the frontlines in Japan when it comes to volunteering and fund-raising. I’ve lived here for less than a year now, but this mentality is contagious, even among expatriate foreigners like myself.
March 11 in Kobe, and most of Japan, is graduation day. I teach middle school here, so all of the third year middle school students and teachers were preparing for our school’s ceremony and celebrations afterwards. Japanese graduation ceremonies focus almost wholly on “the past” and “the ending” —a fact that added even more of a surreal feel to the events that would happen later in the afternoon. After the ceremony, the faculty relaxed in the staff room and exchanged stories and chatted about the past school year. The television, as it often is, was turned on, but was providing little more than background noise to the scene. We were all excited for the celebratory drinking party we would be going to downtown later in the evening.
Then we felt it. It wasn’t much, and some of the staff didn’t even notice it. Japan plays witness to over 1,500 earthquakes every year, most of them so small as to not elicit any reaction among the people. However, being a New Yorker, and wholly unused to the feel of any shifting in the ground, I noticed the tremor immediately. A few of the teachers confirmed it, but with absolutely no urgency or worry, as the shaking was minimal and incredibly short. “Jishin dayo,” An earthquake, they said, as if they were remarking on the weather. A few teachers posited a guess as to where the quake was from. Wakayama, Kyoto, northern Hyogo, Osaka, we guessed— all of which are located just a short way from Kobe. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
We turned the volume up on the TV news to find out. There were reports coming in of a tremor off the coast of northern Honshu, not far from Miyagi prefecture. “That couldn’t be it,” a few commented. “Yeah, it’s too far for us to feel it,” I agreed. And, in truth, Kobe is a few hundred miles from Miyagi — certainly too far for us to feel an earthquake from there, I naively thought. We kept watching as images, video, and information came in from Tokyo. Located much closer to Miyagi, Tokyo was feeling the effects of this tremor. The videos of rattling supermarkets, shaking office buildings, and frightened workers were indeed striking. Then came word that this earthquake was somewhere near an 8.0 on the Richter scale (it would be upgraded to an 9.0 later on.) The unsettling realization that maybe the quake we just felt was this Miyagi one started to take hold.
Still, the news wasn’t reporting much in the way of death or casualties. A few injuries in Tokyo and a few deaths further north. It seemed that Japan—a nation born on the violent, ever shifting borders of several tectonic plates—had dodged a bullet this time.
Then came the footage of the tsunami. Where the staff was calmly watching the news just moments before, now we were up close to the TV, eyes riveted to the screen in shock and awe. Constant remarks such as “Kowai” and “Sugoi”—“scary” and “wow”—filled the room. A solid, wide wall of water smashing through the coastal areas north of Tokyo, flinging cars and planes around like an angry child tosses toys. Now it was clear. Japan hadn’t dodged a bullet. Rather, that bullet was punching a hole right through the nation’s heart before our eyes.
We still had our party that night. All of us, trying to enjoy ourselves rather than think about the news, chatted away in our private room at the restaurant. We spoke of the previous school year, the coming one, the local baseball team’s chances, the upcoming travel plans we had—anything to avoid talking about what was happening up north. This self-deception lasted for about an hour and a half. Then, collectively, the room fell silently at once. It was one of those awkward silences that often occur at gatherings. We busied ourselves for a few moments, sipping our drinks or rearranging our chopsticks in no particular fashion. No one wanted to break the silence because we all knew that once we did, the conversation would shift to the earthquake.
The tension in the air was unbearable, and when one of us finally spoke up, talk did indeed inevitably turn to the news. One teacher said they felt bad for our students since they would also remember their graduation day alongside this tragedy. Another teacher responded by saying the felt worse for the people living up north. I only nodded. Usually the talkative type, this time I had nothing to add.
I mentioned earlier that Japan’s destiny is constantly at the mercy of nature. Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it, you’ll rarely hear the Japanese complain about much of anything at all. Everyone here is quick to throw around phrases like “tough it out,” “stay strong,” or “give it your best try.” The Japanese know events like those of March 11 will happen. When they do finally occur they don’t complain or panic. They simply, for lack of a better term, shut up and get to work fixing it. We’re seeing that now, in action, first hand.
On the other hand, a sort of surreal silence can sometimes set in here during these times. Many people here want to pour out a lot of opinions, ideas or lamentations about the situation up north. However, instead, no one speaks out. It adds an initial tension to many morning meetings when you first see someone and simply say “It’s awful what’s happening up north,” pausing quietly for a moment, and then going about your work. An overarching feeling of both this and “toughing it out” pervades many aspects of life here.
Now, Japan looks to the rescue and rebuilding process. Fortunately, the Japanese are arguably the most communal society in the world. Over the past 100 years, whenever a disaster strikes Japan, the nation comes together in a way that, frankly, is embarrassing for the Western World. Not a single building or shop is looted. Everyone lines up at the supermarket to purchase what little food is left in an orderly fashion.
To use a rather famous example from the Kobe earthquake in 1995, even the local organized gangsters, the Yakuza, set up relief stations to help out. Nearly the entire nation is conserving and rationing electricity to help divert power to the affected regions. My students and I conducted our classes without any lights all day to help conserve power for the north. I watched as elderly women, perhaps in their 80s, casually stuffed wads of cash into Red Cross donation boxes. Charity and donation drives bloom en masse like the nation’s renowned cherry blossoms in spring.
It is with this in mind that Japan’s future doesn’t seem as shaky as the tectonic plates it sits on. The land’s foundation is chronically shifting and shaking, but the nation’s is just as reliably stable. The Japanese will mourn and they will struggle with this. However, in the end, when you view the Japanese in the wake of these tragedies, you get the overwhelming sense that they are completely assured of their communal unity, survival and recovery.
A few days after the quake, I asked one of my coworkers what he thought would happen in the coming days as the rebuilding began. He looked at me, thought for a few moments, and said in slow English, “We’ll continue. We always do. We always will. Earthquakes are our destiny — they can’t be stopped. But, because we are together, survival is also our destiny.”
James Laudano is a former Executive Editor for The Stony Brook Press. He currently teaches English language in Kobe, Japan.
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