3. 11 Five Years Later
The guilt that comes from appreciating the chaos of disaster.
It’s March 11th where I am right now, which is somewhere in the American southwest, maybe Arizona? or New Mexico? The scenery from my Amtrak train this morning is a constant horizon of red/brown plateaus and cinematic tumbleweed rolling by.
In Tokyo, 3.11 is about to become 3.12.
And five years later many people still have not been permitted to return home, most will never be able to and thousands still live in the same temporary housing they did shortly after the disaster shook the nation.
For myself, as cliche as it sounds, the earthquake/tsunami and resulting nuclear catastrophe changed my life… but very much for the better. There is a lot of guilt associated to my feeling of appreciation for this cataclysmic event. It pushed the course of my life from a passive ‘go with the flow’ attitude to a legitimate and aggressive career path as a news journalist for a top notch news agency.
I am very grateful for what my life has become but it has come at a cost.
On the day of the earthquake, ‘the big one’, I was asleep on a cot at my obachan’s home. The red frame was barely wide enough for my twisted torso that never lays flat, I always ends up at a diagonal when I sleep.
Earthquakes are so frequent in Japan that when the shaking began I did not even bother to roll away from the air conditioning unit above my head but once my mom started shouting and boxes began falling from the shelves I begrudingly sat up and began following directions from the three generations of adults living in the one bedroom apartment.
My obachan, Japanese for grandma, began saying, “I am old, it’s okay, leave me but save your grandfather."
Ojichan, Japanese for grandfather, has been dead for over a decade. She was referring to his photo that hangs above the altar adjacent to her bed.
Untangling the wire hook from the wall, I had the framed photo under one arm while helping my obachan from her bed with the other.
Boxes continued to fall from makeshift shelves above us, first some sheets, then handmade pencil cases, balls of yarn and a decorative lantern made of rice paper which bounced off her glass shelf and then landed on the TV stand.
“Save Buddha! Save Buddha!"
Directly underneath where my grandfather’s image had hung was a diminutive statue of my obachan’s many armed Buddha. His many arms had seemed to be waving at me frantically out of the corner of my eye. Though I had assumed the idol was waving me to safety, apparently they had been panicked gestures for help, so headfirst Buddha dived into my shirt and buckled himself under the safety strap of my sports bra.
Then the shaking stopped, and I (with Buddha, grandfather and obachan) stood and waited in the middle of the bedroom.
And then we waited and waited some more.
My okasan, Japanese for mother, had been gathering our shoes from the entrance. She stood in the door frame with our three pairs of footwear and also waited.
I am not sure what we were waiting for, maybe sirens? More shaking? Screams? But everything was quiet and we (Okasan, obachan, grandfather and Buddha) just waited.
Shortly after with our shoes on (in the house! Very un-Japanese!) we sat in front of the television and watched apocalyptic images worthy of IMAX entertainment air on NHK news.
Within 48 hours, your barback/road manager/club promoter/factory hand was getting phone calls from friends of friends of friends to drive up north with a team of foreign journos as their local fixer/translator/chauffeur.
And 7 months later via a non-traditional job ad on LinkedIn a former barback/road manager/club promoter/factory hand was being recruited into the Reuters news agency as a video journalist.
Life has rarely ever seemed like a series of linear events to me, more like happenings to me that I participate in and then promptly forget. But in under a day my life changed, and it changed for the better. I found a purpose, a calling and every random activity and experience I had had until that point became a foundation for the skills I would develop for success in the field.
To say I am grateful to 3.11 feels cruel when so, so many people have suffered and continued to suffer because of the events of that day. Guilt marks this anniversary and every day since but appreciation drives me forward.
I cannot forget.
Amazing articles to mark the 5-year anniversary
Waves of disaster 相次ぐ災害
Five years after Japan's tsunami, orphan victims lament their lost parents
In the shadow of Fukushima, a ghost town struggles back to life
In Tsunami’s Wake, a Japanese Family Drifts Apart
Japan marking 5th anniversary of devastating tsunami