Reflections on Japan’s March 11th Earthquake, Tsunamis, and Their Aftermath

by Ben Mirin, CIR

What follows is the combined text of my first and second entries for “The Japan Connection,” my new bi-monthly column in The Concord Journal, the local paper in Nanae’s American sister city Concord, Massachusetts. I am currently working on my 3rd piece, which will reach print on Wednesday, May 4th.

Look for this article in the Summer 2011 issue of Concord Academy Magazine.

The Sun Will Rise Again: Japan in the Aftermath of the March 11th Earthquake

HAKODATE, Japan: Driving away from the oncoming wave, I hit Route 5 and had to stop suddenly.  No one else seemed to know that a second tsunami was coming.  For what felt like an eternity, I sat at the intersection near Jujigai as citizens waited patiently for the light to turn green.

After watching 10-meter waves destroy much of northeastern Honshu on television, I had driven downtown from my government office in Nanae, Hokkaido, upon receiving word that Hakodate–a city just 10 kilometers south of my beloved town and home to many of my coworkers and English students–had experienced flooding after the earthquake.  To what extent, I did not know.

In an explosion of debris and muddy water, the tsunami caught up with me.  It was faster now, and higher. Fishmongers dropped armfuls of merchandise and ran across the highway as an oncoming bus veered around them onto a narrow side street. I mounted the curb and careened through the city’s back roads in an effort to get to higher ground…

The next day the streets were filthy.  Storefronts near Toyokawa Wharf were in complete disarray as storeowners, government workers, and volunteers trudged through muck and piles of destroyed merchandise.  Heaps of dead and dying seafood punctuated a parade of ruined furniture, plastic bags filled with wet clothes, and fragments of shattered architecture.  King crabs worth 18,000 Yen lay worthless upon overturned wooden crates.  Even the noble squid, for which Hakodate is famous worldwide, could be seen lying dead on the pavement.

The tsunamis in Hakodate had reached an approximate height of 1.8 meters.  From what I could see, the water had pushed at least 3 blocks inland, flooding several evacuation sites where hundreds of residents and tourists were taking refuge.

“When the second tsunami hit, the first floor of our building flooded,” said volunteer and Hakodate native Toru Maruyama.  He stood outside the third-floor conference room of the O. Loisir Hotel, where a weary crowd was lining up to receive a delivery of fresh packed lunches from the Hakodate Town Office.

“When I arrived at 11pm last night there were about 100 people staying here.  When the floods came, the street outside became like a river.”

As volunteers poured into Hakodate, life back in Nanae was eerily silent.  No one seemed to be mobilizing recovery teams.  They were all staying home with their families. Perhaps they were glued to their televisions, watching the news unfold:

“Route 5 is closed until further notice. Hakodate’s JR Train Station is expected to reopen this Sunday afternoon. One man, 67-year-old Teguramori Keiji of Wakamatsu-cho, Hakodate, has drowned.”

By Monday morning, however, little had changed. Nanae residents calmly patrolled the aisles of convenience and department stores buying rolls of duct tape, emergency rations, spare batteries, heating packs, and other assorted supplies.  Other than slight increases in gas and produce prices, there seemed to be nothing to stop life from progressing as usual.

I was stunned.  In such a densely populated and interconnected country, how could people in any region feel insulated from the effects of Japan’s biggest earthquake on record?

“We all want to help in our own ways, but that would do more harm than good,” explained Koji Teraya, the Head of International Relations in the Nanae Town Government’s General Affairs Section.  Five days had passed since the earthquake, and we were sorting and packing our first shipments of supplies for delivery to Honshu.

“At this terrible time, we should not lose our desire to help those in need,” he said as we sorted through a box of 10-liter water bottles, “but we also have to be patient and wait for further instructions from the Hokkaido government.”

Waiting sometimes seemed unthinkable.  That night a somber silence blanketed the normally cheery room of my pre-intermediate English class at Ohnakayama Common, Nanae’s community center. The rest of my students stared at the floor as two sisters, Yukari and Saori Saito, tearfully returned my gaze.

“Our grandfather is missing in Miyagi Prefecture,” Yukari said.  “We’ve been trying to find out if he is still alive, but we don’t know, and we can’t find out.”

“It sometimes feels like there is nothing we can do—” Saori added.  For a moment, her voice broke off.  Her reddening eyes closed as she placed three fingers in a fragile seal on her lips.  But then she continued:

“—when the time is right, we want to help however we can.”

As the emotional tremors of the March 11th earthquake linger on across Japan, people in Nanae have shown inspiring dedication to their nation’s recovery, along with remarkable and sometimes heartbreaking stoicism.  Even in the uncertain aftermath of the partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the town’s relief efforts continue to gain momentum, and its people endure.

The next day at the Town Office, Teraya-san looked up at me as he labeled boxes in a fresh shipment of relief supplies.

“The scale of this disaster is beyond anything we could have imagined. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we coordinate our relief efforts, and that we stay united in our desire to see Japan rehabilitated.”♦


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