March 11, 2011 (in Japan), the Day that Changed Everything
We have experienced many tragedies – some caused by people and others caused by forces of nature. On March 11, 2011, Japan was slammed by both.
The earthquake first hit off the coast of Iwate and Miyagi and was felt shortly after in Fukushima and Ibaraki and the surrounding areas. Soon after came the tsunami at a height of 10m or higher, wiping out large parts of the coastal region.
Initial news reports said it was one of the biggest earthquakes ever. As the disaster unfolded, more accurate reports came out – it was the biggest earthquake in Japan since the 1990’s and the fifth largest in recorded history! When I realized that this earthquake was bigger than the one in Kobe (1995), I began to grasp its significance. This earthquake is the biggest ever to be experienced by my generation (I’m 26 this year).
Coastal villages and cities – people and structures - are completely gone. The recorded death and missing toll continues to rise – over 23,000 as of March 22nd – and I can’t stop thinking about how many lost lives have not yet been reported.
All the affected areas have a special place in my heart. My first school trip to another province was to Sendai-city in Miyagi. I remember studying about Matsuo Basho’s genius poems based on the beautiful rias [sawtooth] coast of Miyagi. My first “girls’ trip” was also to Sendai, Miyagi. Sendai is one of the most sophisticated urban cities in the tohoku (northern) region, and I have always loved it. Now that this region is gone, Miyagi will never be the same and people’s lives are changed forever.
I had close family friends in Fukushima. I have a small family – even including relatives – so these friends became like family. I remember visiting them, and finding their dialect really interesting (even though I also spoke a Yamagata dialect). One of these families had a small, but beautiful gallery where my parents used to exhibit their pottery. As a young girl, I spent a great deal of time there but have no idea of what that area looks like today. Further, Fukushima is the site of the damaged nuclear plant – and clearly has a questionable future.
Another coastal province, Ibaraki, is home to other close friends. All of them loved their home province – so much so that they chose to commute everyday for 2 or more hours to our school in Tokyo. I used to wonder what was so special about Ibaraki until Jon and I visited there last December. We saw the richness of the culture and felt the warmth and kindness of the people. One of our favorite knife makers, the “Nakaya Heiji” family, is located in Mito-city, Ibaraki. When we visited them, they not only showed and taught us about their knives, but also took time to give us a personal tour of Mito-city. At the end of the day, we received all kinds of special souvenirs, including mito natto and hoshiimo. The family could not have been more generous. I was just devastated to learn that their home, store and workshop were completely destroyed. Miraculously none of the family was harmed.
(click here if you wish to read about or make a donation to Nakaya Heiji)
As a young girl, I did not understand what it meant to be “damaged” by an earthquake. Now I’m leaning how challenging it is to build your own business and create a safe environment for your family. My heart feels like it will break every time I think about the Nakaya Heiji family and all the other families affected by this colossal disaster. They now have to start everything from scratch again…with little time to mourn their losses.
And the disaster continues to worsen. Japanese across the country are still threatened by ongoing aftershocks, including 250 or more above magnitude 4. People in Tokyo and Saitama – where I lived for 4 years while attending the university – were trapped when the first quake hit. With no transportation, electricity, or cell phone reception, they spent the night frightened, worried, and panicked. Most of my friends were stuck in offices, spending about 2 days before they could safely return to their homes. And these are the “lucky” ones.
In the northern region, survivors are suffering from freezing weather and lack of gasoline, food, water, and electricity. Some of the pregnant woman, children and elderly have already been affected. There have been some reports that elderly people are dying after having survived the initial devastating quake.
Japan has a different school year from that in the US. The first semester of school begins in April and typically ends in July. The second semester starts at the end of the summer vacation and runs through December. The third and last semester begins in January and ends in March. As a result, the earthquake is affecting graduation ceremonies everywhere. One teacher apologized on TV for not being able to conduct a “regular” ceremony for the graduating students. Hearing this, I felt deeply saddened because I could not be there to personally provide support and encouragement.
I am not blogging just to vent my sadness and frustration for not being able to do enough. I also want to share some positive developments.
First, online social networks have been invaluable in facilitating communications during this time of crisis. Twitter, Mixi, and Persons Finder by Google have helped so many people learn about the well being of their loved ones. Twitter had so much traffic that its the site was down a few times. Facebook has helped people abroad to be more aware of what is going on in Japan and to actually allow them to check on their friends’ safety. Further, the Japanese are using Facebook to broadcast statements about their specific situations and enlist greater support.
One very encouraging phenomenon – the Japanese appear to be somewhat untrusting of the nation’s leaders (possibly due, in part, to having 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years). Instead of “people united under one leader”, they have joined together – and in such a natural way. I don’t deny that there are some exceptions, as is always the case, but for the most part, people are calm and encouraging one another to overcome these catastrophic events. There is a serious food and gasoline shortage, but people are trying to convince each other that “hoarding” available resources will not help the greater good and would only worsen the conditions of the victims in the hardest hit areas. In the darkness of blackouts, confusing information and chaos, they are talking and working with each other and continuing to be hopeful. The Japanese are known for their resilience.
The response from other nations has been incredible. Everyone I know has expressed their concern for me and my family – this support has been overwhelming. The response to our special donation funds has been amazing. There are so many individuals organizing charity events, chipping in, and genuinely caring for the Japanese people. Japan is so fortunate to have this outpouring of humanity.
Now it’s time to remember that Japan will have a most difficult time in the coming days, weeks and years. Rebuilding the northern region will take years and years. We – as individuals who care – must hold onto our hope and do what we can – starting from this point forward. Today, the Japanese are freezing, hungry, and worried – so let’s send money, if possible, and if not, find out what else is needed. Donations will help both in the short and long-term.
Doing something “small” can have a “big” impact – both for the people being helped as well as those providing the support. If this is your first time to make a donation, do so and see how you feel afterwards. If you have already done something, there is probably more that you can do. Please talk about it, remember it, and convert your “WOW’s” and “OMG’s” into meaningful actions. The fact that you are reading this blog is a start. I know that my experiences are just the“ tip of an iceberg”. Please join me as we do all we can to help Japan recover, rebuild and revive.