General Thoughts · Japan

Swallowed By the Waves: Remembering Tohoku 2011

Five years ago, I woke to a text from my sister that there had been an earthquake in Japan. I thought little of it, lying in my bed in Ohio. Only a few weeks beforehand, an earthquake there had appeared on the evening news. In America, where a 4.0 can destroy houses, it’s difficult for us to understand that a 6.5 in Nagoya is not that big a deal. I looked at my text, and I figured it was no big deal.

And then I sat down for breakfast, turned on the TV, and watched in open-mouthed horror at what an earthquake can do.

No, not just an earthquake; a tsunami.

The videos played over and over again, grainy cell-phone quality, shaky in their first-person perspective. First, the water poured over barriers, then down streets. It covered flower pots. Cars began to float.

A lightpole went down, then two.

A house came un-moored, and at the edge of the video, something white moved. A car. A car was fleeing the deluge, trying desperately to speed away from the tide.

In the background, someone screams.

Over, and over, and over the videos played. Repeat, repeat. Brown churning water, with spots of bright color.

The bright colors were people, and at that realization, I turned the TV off.

Tsunamis are a part of this world. Along the Indian Ocean in 2004, on the coastline of Alaska in 1958. The water came to cover all, and when it left, it left nothing, and everything. Yet those were distant places. Thailand, Lituya, what did I know of those?

I knew Japan. Had lived there, traveled there. Had friends there. And sitting at breakfast, I’d watched it get washed away.

A scarce four months later, I was in the land of the rising sun beginning a new job teaching English in Okayama Prefecture, far south of the Tohoku devastation. Tokyo was still having rolling blackouts, but my tiny town bore no scars. Though I lived little more than a mile from the ocean, there was no danger of tsunami due to incidents of geography. The earthquake faded to a distant thought.


Sometimes stories came out of nowhere. A fellow expat; she and her husband had just paid off their house. It was gone. An English teacher; most of his class had been washed away, but he stayed on in a Red Cross shelter, though a year had passed. From my friend in the Japanese Self-Defense Force, sent north to dig mass graves months ago, a hint of something in his voice when he mentioned that baseball backstops do, indeed, stop everything. What was trapped in them when the water receded was a part of everything he’d rather forget.

Mother nature giveth. Mother nature taketh away.

It’s a terrifying thought, our friend from the faucet transforming from clear survival to churning, icy death. That water can rise to swallow the land it cradles is a nightmare almost beyond comprehension. Buildings are submerged, gardens erased. Cars simply gone, rolled into the fathomless deep with all their occupants still aboard.

I cannot imagine.

Or I try not to, and yet.

If the water were to come for me, if the hill I fled to in search of safety proved to not be safe enough, what would I do? Would I sprint from the waves as fast as I could, against all hope, against all reason? Would my last breath be a scream as an ocean filled with grinding trucks and crashing roofs overwhelmed me at last? Would I paddle? Would I sink?

Or would I smile in the face of finally knowing what would become of me?

Would I turn to face my fate with open arms.

I don’t know, I cannot know. I can only repeat the bystander’s prayer we all utter when such tragedies strike: that I don’t ever have to find out.

So I hope for us all.

[Photo credit to ChiefHira, under Creative Commons.]

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