When you are experiencing a major international disaster you don’t understand the reality of the event as it happens. It takes a lot of time for it to sink in. Four years ago the undersea faults off the coast of eastern Japan ruptured, and between the initial earthquake and the ensuing tsunami almost 20,000 people died.
Here in Gunma we were far enough away from both the epicenter and the coast that there wasn’t much damage. I was driving at the moment the earthquake struck, my mind on visa matters and my impending move into town. I almost didn’t notice the ground beginning to shake, especially as it was a very windy day and my car was moving all over anyway. I don’t even really remember why I stopped, maybe it was the car in front of me stopping, maybe some part of me noticed the shaking. I could see the buildings and electrical wires moving, and the car was rocking back and forth violently. I had stopped on a bridge and it dawned on me that I was in a very dangerous situation. I quickly reversed off, stopped the music, and rolled down my window. It went on for a long while. Most earthquakes are over quickly but this one lasted. It lasted long enough that one of my friends texted me during it, telling me that he could feel this one. We had a running joke that I could always feel earthquakes, no matter how small, and that he never noticed them. This one though, nobody could miss.
As the shaking subsided I finished driving into town to do my business at the city office. A big aftershock hit while I was there, the lights banging back and forth, people hiding under desks. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t have a desk to hide under. As I was leaving I ran into my boss, who was being evacuated from the upper floors. It seems strange that they would evacuate part of the building, but not the whole thing. We were all just going about our business, doing paperwork, filing paperwork, stamping paperwork, the mundane minutia of bureaucracy.
I got home and found that my power was out. Another friend called right around then. He lived in the next prefecture over, Ibaraki. He said that the quake was huge, an 8.8 or 8.9. I didn’t believe him. There was no way it could be that big. Earthquakes of that size are really rare. It was impossible. He said there was tons of damage, but he didn’t know how much. But I was all right, and he was all right, so he hung up to call some more people. I was feeling antsy, and unsure. This was before the growth of the smartphone, and so I didn’t have the internet in my pocket. I knew something huge had happened, but I still didn’t really know what. I called some friends who lived closer to the center of town, and asked if I could stay with them. I had an intense desire to not be alone. They had a ton of guests. There had been a meeting for all the high school English teachers in the prefecture and nobody who lived out of the city could get home since all the trains were stopped. We sat huddled around the TV watching the news, and only then did the true horror of the day come into focus. It was only at that moment, hours later, that I realized the magnitude of what had happened.
That night was a restless one, both because there were so many people sleeping on the floor and because the aftershocks just kept coming. They kept coming for years, thousands upon thousands of them. Even just the other day a major aftershock hit along that fault, four years later. In the end it wasn’t an 8.8, or an 8.9 but an even 9.0. One of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, and the strongest recorded in Japan. Every year around the eleventh of March I get a little edgy. A little sad. It is easy to forget these tragedies, but I would like to encourage everybody to remember it today. The coasts up there were scoured clean of fields and houses, towns and roads. The scale of the destruction is literally mind boggling. It is almost impossible to process. The rebuilding is very much on-going. And there is so much that can never be rebuilt. So please take a moment and reflect and pray, as we did in school this afternoon. It is easy in this age of endless news and endless hunting for the new news to let the tragedies of yesterday be forgotten and swept under the rug. Please remember Tohoku.
Thank you for reading. I know this is somewhat of a departure for this blog, but I just couldn’t write about beer today.
I wasn’t in Japan at the time of the earthquake, but preparing to come. Thank you so much for sharing.
I was in Gunma at the time and have been remembering March 11 2011 all day. Your well-written piece accurately captures the emotion of the day, and of the harrowing days, weeks, months, and years following an event that cannot and should not be forgotten. Thanks for sharing.