TODAY IS THE THREE-YEAR anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, sometimes called the March 11th earthquake, 3.11. It was 9.0 in magnitude, the largest earthquake in Japan’s history, and it triggered a major tsunami that struck eastern Japan and severely damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, causing nuclear contamination and forcing the evacuation of 470,000 people. 15,884 were killed, 6,147 were injured, 2,636 are missing, and 267,000 people still are displaced today.
My husband and I were living in San Diego in 2011, and I remember in the days after the earthquake the local grocery store displaying iodized salt as a preventative measure to be taken in case radiation came across the ocean. Video of newscasters rocking back and forth in their Tokyo studios and images of the tsunami rolling over cars and knocking down buildings dominated the news. So did stories about the calm Japanese people, waiting in line for relief, not panicking, and not complaining. These stories played on loop. For a while.
I moved to Japan a little over a year after the earthquake. My husband is in the US Navy and we found out four months after the earthquake that we were moving to a base about 300km south of the Tōhoku area.
My husband has studied nuclear technology for his work with the Navy, and he did his best to explain to me how far radiation travels, through the air and through the food chain, and how far our new home is from the affected areas. I listened. I swim and sail in Sagami Bay, in eastern Japan, I eat locally grown produce and fish. I have never worried about radiation, for better or for worse.
I do worry about tsunamis and earthquakes. We live less than 10 meters above sea level, so if a very large earthquake struck close to here, I think we could be in trouble. If there were a tsunami, at least we would have a little bit of warning. I know where our evacuation zone is, and I know what the announcement would sound like. But I worry.
I went to a photo exhibit once — the damage of the earthquake was the subject. Everyone walked very slowly, and I noticed people close their eyes for a moment before moving on to the next picture, of a fishing boat lying on its side, two years after the tsunami pushed it over.
My fear of tsunamis is intellectual. I’m only afraid because I know that it could happen, so I think about it. My fear of earthquakes is a deeper, real fear. I start to worry about earthquakes when I haven’t felt one in a while. If there hasn’t been a small tremor in a few weeks, I always feel like the earth is saving up energy for a big one.
I’ve felt a handful of unsettling earthquakes since we’ve been in Japan. Our house is older, built before the new earthquake codes were put in place in the ’90s. Sometimes I feel movement that my husband, in a newer office building on the Navy base across the peninsula, does not. Once we felt one while walking around Yokohama, and all of the street signs and traffic lamps rattled and swayed and people stuck their heads out of windows to see what was going on, which I thought at the time was very dangerous. Another time, we were grocery shopping and an earthquake began while we were in the sake aisle. I thought I was crazy because the liquid in the bottles started to move before I felt anything. Then the sound of glass hitting glass got louder and louder, and the sign above the aisle rocked above us.
I teach three monthly English classes to Japanese adults who want to learn to speak English because they want to travel, because they want to communicate with the English speakers in the area, or because they’re retired and they read that learning a second language keeps the brain sharp. It has been one of the most rewarding, confusing, nerve wracking, hysterical things I have ever done. My students are open, honest, funny, and generous, and it is always the highlight of my week.
Once, one of my co-teachers, a Japanese woman who loves to explain Japanese culture to me, told me she spent a long weekend in Fukushima. She said she felt like she “had to” go, and that all Japanese people should go at least once. To see, to understand, and to spend money. She met a volunteer who drove her and a friend around the area and answered their questions. Old homes and new homes were destroyed. They all looked like bones, like skeletons surrounded by broken glass, more than two years later. She said of her tour guide, “At the end we told him thank you. And then he said it back.”
She told me all of this on our walk from the train station to the class, and it came up again in front of the group of 12 when I asked everyone to tell me what made Japan special. Some students said it was the food, or temples, or natural beauty. She said it was the spirit of the people: “Before the earthquake, I didn’t like the tendency to act as a group.” She had changed her mind because the strong communities she saw, her own, and the area she toured, were a lot of the reason she thought the country was recovering.
I teach another, smaller class too. I meet with three ladies around lunchtime once a month to practice conversation skills. Last month we talked about news and current events. At the end of the class, I asked them about the most memorable news story or television event they had ever seen. For all three of them, it was the March 11th earthquake.
One of them had been at work and the trains had stopped running and she had to walk two hours home. But she said she was lucky — others slept in train stations or walked all night back to Tokyo. They said that stores were closed, electricity was on and off, and there were many aftershocks.
I had read on the news that morning that a study said that of children living near the power plant, fewer than originally expected would develop cancer. It was hard for me to explain this to them — there were a few words I couldn’t figure out synonyms for when they didn’t understand. I used my dictionary to translate the words “cancer” and “originally,” and I felt my face flush because I was unable to teach them something I thought was important.
After a few frustrating moments, the woman next to me grabbed my wrist and said, “Is this good news?”
“Yes! It’s very good news.”
And together we moved on.