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one year later: remembering 3/11

March 11th, 2011. 12 months ago today. I’m at home in my room in the east of Nagoya, a huge but mostly unremarkable city in central Japan. It’s on the direct line from Tokyo to Osaka, but closer to the latter – you can be in Kyoto in 25 minutes, if you take the bullet train.

I’ve been living here for about six months. It’s not an alien place any more; it’s starting to feel like home. The past few weeks have been especially good, because spring is in the air. The sakura blossoms won’t appear for a while yet, but the days are getting warmer – and best of all, university holidays have started, and a ten-week break stretches out ahead of us, pregnant with possibility. My Japanese has got good enough to spend days or nights hanging out with new friends without needing to resort to English – I’m far more proud of this than any classroom grade, and delighted that it’s happened in time for the long, lazy spring holidays.

On this particular day, it’s balmy enough that the sliding doors to my balcony are open, letting the spring air blow through the room. I’ve got Skype open and I’m chatting to a friend, a classmate from university in London, who’s living in Tokyo. I can’t recall what we’re discussing – I know that I was wandering around the room, clearing stuff up while we talked.

It’s around quarter to three in the afternoon when everything moves – and actually, I don’t notice it at first. It’s an odd sensation, like vertigo. Your brain isn’t built to process the idea that everything around you, all those solid walls, are shuddering. Instead, it feels like the head-rush you get when you stand up quickly after lying down for too long. My first thought is to wonder if I forgot to eat lunch, and am getting a bit dizzy as a result. Then my friend’s voice pops out of the speakers. “Whoa. Earthquake here.”

Of course. “Yeah, here too,” I say. I wait for it to stop – I’ve felt several quakes before, and they only last a little while. My friend speaks again. “This is a big one,” he says. “Mmm,” I respond.

It’s not stopping. I’m a little worried – I pop over to the door and prop it open, one of the pieces of advice we’re offered when a quake hits. The idea is that if your building shifts in the quake, warping the doorframe, you won’t end up trapped in the room. In the open air hallway outside, I spot one of my Japanese neighbours doing the same thing a few doors down. “This is a long one, isn’t it?” I offer. He nods. “Yeah, but it’s weak. Don’t be worried.”

Back in the room, I realise that on Skype, I can actually hear the earthquake in Tokyo. “Hey, is it strong there?” I ask. “Yeah,” my friend says. “Really strong.”

That’s when I realise something is wrong. I’d assumed that if both of us could feel the earthquake, it must be a medium strength one, happening somewhere between Tokyo and Nagoya. The cities are 250km apart, after all. But if this earthquake is really strong in Tokyo and I can still feel it distinctly in Nagoya – it must be huge. Really huge. I suppose that’s when I realised that I was in Japan for the Big One.


It’s worth clarifying – Japan is waiting for several Big Ones. No country in the world sits on as many faults as Japan, whose islands owe their very existence to the plate boundaries of the North American, Eurasian, Philippine and Pacific plates. The tensions and vast energies stored up, as those immense sheets of rock grind against each other, threw the Japanese archipelago up out of the sea. The weak points in the rocks, where unimaginable pressures force their way to the surface, created the volcanoes which dot the countryside – and the hot springs enjoyed by millions. The four plates meet (roughly) underneath Mount Fuji – an active four kilometre high stratovolcano that looms over the world’s most populated urban region.

Fuji hasn’t erupted since 1707, but there’s nothing to send cold fingers down your spine like hearing “experts are closely monitoring the magma chambers under Mount Fuji in the wake of today’s earthquake” in a news bulletin, words that I heard a few times too many in the following months of regular aftershocks. Still, Japan has plenty of activity outside of that. In 1923, an earthquake under Tokyo destroyed the city almost as comprehensively as American firebombs did in 1945. In 1995, 6,500 people died when an earthquake rocked the beautiful seaside city of Kobe, near Osaka. These are the big ones, the ones you’ve heard of. Nobody outside Japan even batted an eyelid when volcanoes in the southern island of Kyushu started spewing out thousands of tons of ash earlier in 2011. The local people swept up the ash and got on with things. It’s not a big deal. It’s just Japan.

Against this backdrop, one of the most deeply awful things about the Great Touhoku Earthquake – whose shivering tendrils I was feeling in far-off Nagoya, nearly 500km from the epicentre – is that this isn’t even a Big One anyone was waiting for. We all know that Tokyo is overdue for another earthquake, and that the Tokai region further west – which includes Nagoya – is also long overdue a major tremor. We even know that both regions could in theory slip at once, shaking the entire nation across a wide front. But the north-eastern seabed? That wasn’t even on the list.

The sheer magnitude of what happened is tough to grasp. Off north-eastern Japan, the Pacific plate is slowly being dragged underneath the North American plate. Eons ago, according to geologists who worked this out months after the quake, a mountain – probably an old, extinct volcano – started being dragged underneath, and this huge lump of rock got stuck. Instead of sliding smoothly underneath Japan, it tugged the rocks above it and bent them – so like a carpet being dragged, Japan’s islands were pushed upwards and westwards, and the seabed moved downwards.

Then one day – March 11th, at 2.46 in the afternoon – the pressure became too much, and the ancient mountain, now several kilometres underground, slipped under the rock sheet. As the tension holding it up was suddenly released, Japan sank – by tens of metres in some places, leaving some coastal towns under the high tide mark. The islands moved east. The shaking I felt for almost five minutes wasn’t just the ground shivering – it was moving. When it stopped, I was 40 metres further north-east than I’d been before. And the seabed, freed from the pressure, leapt upwards – sending immense waves of water roaring over the flat agricultural land of north-eastern Japan, crashing over levees, sweeping away towns and cars and houses and people, destroying farmland and forests and shops and factories… And nuclear power plants.


I sat that afternoon and watched north-eastern Japan get swept away on NHK, the national TV network. I contacted my parents back in Ireland to let them know I was a long way away from any danger. “We saw something about a nuclear plant,” my dad said. “I’m 400km away from there,” I replied. “Much further than New York is from Three Mile Island.” He got it. Others didn’t. We were a long way from Tokyo and even further from Fukushima, but in the coming weeks, almost every foreign student or worker I knew had to leave Japan, at the insistence of family or, in some cases, out of their own fear. One friend from Korea, a cheerful, brash guy with a smile for everyone, held up well until a fairly strong aftershock hit our building a week later, when we’d just come home from a day at a temple festival. He cracked. “I can’t take this any more,” he told us on Facebook, and booked his flight home. A lot of disinformation was spread. “Nuclear”, “radiation”, “meltdown” – these are words that have the capacity to scare the hell out of people, no matter how little they may understand their meanings.

I started posting on Twitter and Facebook, translating snatches of information from NHK, trying to explain what was happening. In the coming days, as Fukushima came to the foreground (sadly hiding the plight of the victims of the tsunami from the international view), this became a passion. The western media painted a terrifying picture of what was happening in Japan; the Japanese media was bipolar, leaping from outright terror to a hauntingly placid calm. If you sat in your room and watched TV or read newspapers, it looked like the end of the world.

Yet if the world was ending, it was doing it in a very civilised way. I left my room on the night of the earthquake to get some food. In the convenience store down the road, all the food stocks were normal (as they continued to be in the days to come – the only thing that disappeared was bottled water and some types of cup ramen, which were shipped to the north-east as emergency supplies). A song from the Macross Frontier science fiction anime series was playing on the PA, exhorting me to buy some special Macross branded sweets so I could earn tokens for a Macross branded… Something. I ran into a Japanese friend who lived in my building deliberating over which pasta to buy for dinner. “Crazy day.” We bought a beer each as well, heated up our dinners and watched the news together in silence as we ate.

I checked in on people. Everyone in Tokyo was fine. A Japanese friend was at a job interview there, and couldn’t get home because all the trains were stopped – he made it back to Nagoya a couple of days later, desperate for a change of clothes after sleeping on an office floor. I filed a couple of small reports for The Times on the disaster, filling in background details, trying to explain what it felt like to be in Japan, but so far from the real tragedy. Several friends had relatives who were missing in Touhoku. I asked one of them if he would let me write about that in the newspaper. “It’s good to help people understand,” he told me. When his relatives turned up safe two days later, we went drinking; the bars were as busy as ever.


Lots of people left. Those who stayed behind were disparaging; they started calling the leavers “fly-jin”, a pun on the not entirely polite Japanese term “gai-jin”, meaning “foreigner”. Only other foreigners used the word “fly-jin” – Japanese people seemed to regard the coinage with some amusement. I understood why people got scared and wanted to leave, but I also understood how people who had tried so hard to be accepted as part of Japanese society were afraid that an exodus of foreigners would set back their progress. Are you really part of a society if you leave as soon as times get tough? That’s not a rhetorical question. Everyone has their own answer, based on their own personal circumstances.

As the Fukushima situation developed and came to dominate the media coverage – sadly obscuring the real tragedy of the tsunami victims – I thought I might go to Korea, or Thailand. It would be a nice trip – I could stay with friends in Bangkok or Seoul. But to be honest, I wasn’t scared or worried – no macho posturing, I just wasn’t – and I made my final decision when I went for lunch with a few Japanese students a week after the quake. The cafeteria was serving Korean style food – really good cold noodles with kimchi and pickles, although the Koreans sniffed and said it was nothing like home (but then ate it with gusto anyway). Over our noodles, the Japanese students asked about each of the foreigners. Gone home. Gone home. Gone home. Leaving tomorrow. Gone home.

It was painful to watch. We didn’t know how bad Fukushima might be, at that stage. “We understand”, they said, “we’d do the same”, but their eyes were sad, even a little haunted. Foreigners can go home. Where could they, and their families and loved ones, go? Several times a day, your phone would get a new circular email, sent around by well-meaning but foolish friends and warning of nuclear meltdowns, of contaminated food, of poison in the air and the water. With little believable information coming from the mainstream media, these circular emails spread like wildfire. Everyone suspected, quite rightly, that things were worse than TEPCO, NHK and the Japanese government were saying – the emails filled this void of knowledge and understanding with fear-mongering and exaggeration. The ever-growing list of departed friends just added to the fear. It seemed to confirm that Japan wasn’t safe. I decided to stay, no matter what. It wouldn’t really make a difference (and I’d spend the next two months being asked “how come you’re still here?” every time I went out to meet people), but it felt like the right thing to do.

My friend from Tokyo – with whom I’d been on Skype when the quake hit – stayed in Tokyo. His family, hardy souls with no time for the sensationalism of the newspapers, carried on with their plans to visit him – flying into Osaka instead of Tokyo’s quake-hit Narita Airport. I met them in Kyoto. We toured gardens and palaces and temples by day, and by night, my friend and I hit the bars around Pontocho. We made friends with the staff of a tiny bar on the sixth floor of a narrow building, and went back four nights in a row to get uproariously drunk with them. In this, the tourist capital of Asia, we hardly saw a single other non-Japanese in our time there.

A year later, the Great North-Eastern Earthquake still isn’t over. I read the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and a handful of Japanese blogs every day; every day brings fresh news of the disaster. People are still unaccounted for, homes still in ruins, towns still uninhabitable. For many of those who lost relatives, friends and loved ones, their lives are in limbo. The process of healing and moving on can’t continue when you’re still in temporary accommodation, unable to return to your home and rebuild.

Fukushima, of course, still weighs heavily on the Japanese consciousness. Of the nation’s 54 nuclear reactors, only 2 are operating right now. Unless someone steps up to permit the re-activation of reactors, there will be none in operation when summer arrives, and Japan will face another hot summer of power rationing. That’s the immediate impact – the long-term effect could be even more powerful. Fukushima has changed Japan in ways we won’t understand for many years. It has finally upset the post-war contract between the Japanese people and the elites who rule them – a contract in which the people largely didn’t question their authorities, in return for which the authorities made Japan a great place to live for most people. That should have fallen apart 20 years ago, when it became clear that the government had no economic or social vision for the country’s future post-bubble, but inertia is a powerful force. Fukushima pulled back the covers, revealing incompetence and corruption on a staggering scale, and politicians so petty, stupid and unpleasant that they couldn’t even halt their bickering and point-scoring for a few short months to pull together for the sake of the disaster regions. This is nothing new – but this time the people of Japan were watching closely, and with mounting anger.

Meanwhile, in the background of all of this, there’s a lingering realisation that this was a Big One, but not the only Big One. Tokyo is still due a quake; researchers at Tokyo University say that there’s a 70% chance of a major one in the next four years. Nagoya, Osaka and the rest of the country also await their tremors.


I left Japan in mid-August 2011. I spent much of my last night there as I had spent my first night in the country, 12 months previously – wandering the streets of Tokyo with friends, enjoying the warmth of the night, picking up beers from convenience stores on the way and chatting to strangers on the pavements as we drank. In Shibuya, only half the lights at the famous crossing were turned on – compared to the dazzling scene I remembered from before, it felt like a dim half-light, a shadow of itself. Yet at street level, it was bustling as ever – hectic and exciting and extraordinary. In Shinjuku, I told a guy dressed like a Japanese hip-hop star (he’d have been an incongruous centre of attention anywhere else in the world; here he’s just another guy) that I was going home to London in the morning. “Were you here for the earthquake?” he asked. I was,  I said. “Then why leave now?” I shrugged. My Visa is finished, I have things to do at home – I have no choice.

“Ahh,” he said sympathetically. “But you’ll come back, right?” The same mantra I’d heard from plenty of Japanese friends in the past few months. I guess everyone leaving hears this. It’s a natural thing to say. Somehow, that summer, it felt like there was an undertone to it – another layer of meaning added by the litany of news headlines about ill-informed pop stars or sports people refusing to travel to Japan post-Fukushima, an odd sense of a country feeling a bit isolated and afraid. “Yeah, I’ll be back,” I told him, and I meant it. We drank to that. He smashed his beer can against mine, and froth splashed out over our hands. “Kanpai!” he said, then with a big grin, in English, “Fuck earthquakes! Kanpai!”

  • http://twitter.com/kezamacdonald/status/178815915662655489/ Keza MacDonald (@kezamacdonald)

    Also, @robfahey- one of the people whose safety I was frantically trying to ascertain – wrote this great blog about it. http://t.co/rvVHcpQf