It’s been a year since the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami swept through the lives of millions of Japanese. It was a wake-up call to those of us in developed countries that no, Mother Nature is not something humans will ever be able to conquer and subdue. More importantly, it was a terrible living nightmare that left tens of thousands dead and many more with irreplaceable losses.
At this time last year, I woke up to a text from my boss asking after my family “because of the earthquake”. I still remember how my heart stopped for a second before proceeding to pound in my ears and leave me reeling. What earthquake? Like always, NB was right there next to me, telling me that everything was going to be OK. My hands shook as I dialed my parents in Tokyo. How bad was it? Where was it? Was this it? The overdue Kanto region quake that we’ve been dreading?
I broke down when I heard my mother’s voice. My parents were rattled but, thankfully, OK safe and physically unharmed. They had felt the earthquake and its aftershocks, but everything was OK.
Then I checked the news. I was crushed by an onslaught of images, videos and headlines of pain, suffering and loss. I hurt for these people… my people. I understood for the first time exactly how Americans felt when they watched the planes smash into the Twin Towers on 9/11.
I had a mental image of my mother holding our dog Kaede in one arm as she braced herself against the threshold of our bathroom. She said that after the first quake, they had filled the bathtub with water (in case the water stopped) and how the water had sloshed up and over the sides of the tub during the inevitable aftershocks, like a miniature version of the tsunamis that engulfed entire towns. Entire communities, families, friends and loved ones lost forever.
I then went through a jumble of emotions as news of the Fukushima nuclear plant trickled in. I felt completely powerless to help anyone much less my parents, who seemed to not care that they were being irradiated by the failing power plant (“we’ve lived long enough”, they said half-serious). I raged against people who posted online that maybe the Japanese didn’t need donations because they are a developed country and could fend for themselves. I was proud of the Japanese for maintaining peace and order in the midst of this chaos. And I was so angry at TEPCO and the Japanese government for being completely incompetent and for covering up the truth about the extent of the damage to the nuclear reactors.
Over and over again, I heard heart-wrenching stories from the few Japanese that I know here. They let her go back for her things as the tsunamis were coming, and when she didn’t come back… Her father went back after the water had receded and found her dead… pinned between a car and their front door… the water was up to her waist… lost the baby too… she almost made it… The harrowing accounts of people perishing and being irradiated and cold and hungry and homeless and grieving over the loss of their families were terrible for anyone to hear, but it quickly became yesterday’s news here in the U.S. Life goes on, right? It made sense. These were not their people. During the day, I pushed it to the back of my mind and distracted myself with work. I would return home at night to pour over news articles and worry. My cuticles were a mess.
About a week after the earthquake, we went skiing in the Catskills with a group of my closest friends. I threw myself down the mountains faster than I’ve ever gone, over and over again. I felt invincible. When I got back to the vacation rental that day, I realized that I really didn’t want to be there. While my friends drank and laughed in the living room, I snuck upstairs and cried in the bedroom. It was a selfish release. I had lost absolutely nothing, was as far as I could possibly be from the disaster and there I was, feeling sad and empty. God, I told myself, get over yourself.
Meanwhile, my fellow countrymen and women did what they had to do to survive. They lived in shelters in school gymnasiums, ate what they were given, did what they were asked to do, and waited. After all, we come from a culture of endurance, where we are expected to quietly wait out the bad.
The next six months just added to my frustration with the Japanese. Infamously secretive and slow, the government proved this over and over again. I know nothing about nuclear power, but every issue seemed to take forever to be resolved. Seriously, how much time does it take to safely shut down and contain a nuclear power plant? Why aren’t they accepting international advice from nuclear scientists and professionals? They suddenly realized that they had misread the radiation measurements and they are actually much higher? What is wrong with them?
It’s been a year now. The Japanese outside of the affected region have returned to life as usual, while the people in the affected regions still wait. Towns can and will be rebuilt, but I know that the deep mental and emotional wounds on the survivors in the affected regions are here to stay for a long time. This is especially true in a society that has yet to understand the benefits of mental counseling and in one where dealing with issues internally is encouraged, even expected. My hope is that they will eventually find inner peace.