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  • Writer's pictureNicola Chilton

Five Weeks On - Part One: The Aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

March 11, 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Northern Japan that led to the deaths of almost 16,000 people and triggered a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. More than 2,000 people are still missing today. Five weeks after the disaster I went to Tohoku, a place I'd lived for three years from 1998 to 2001, as part of a grassroots mission to deliver aid to some of the worst affected coastal areas. This account of that journey first appeared in "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia" published in 2014 by Signal 8 Press. It's quite a long read (and certainly not my best writing - I wrote it in the days after my return when I was still reeling from what I'd seen) so I'm splitting it in two. This is part one. You can read part two here.

Flower offering in Ishinomaki after the tsunami

The Japanese used to believe that earthquakes were caused by a giant catfish, the namazu, who lived in the mud under the surface of the earth. Guarded by the god Kashima, he was held down by a powerful, magical rock that kept him under control. But when Kashima let down his guard, the giant catfish writhed around in his underground lair in an attempt to escape, causing violent tremors and earthquakes on the surface.

* * *

In Tokyo, the first signs that things weren’t quite normal were in the shops. The supply of batteries was limited to one pack per person. It was the same for candles. And milk. Half of the lights in the supermarkets were switched off, as were the Family Mart and 7-11 signs. But everyday life, on the surface, seemed to carry on as usual. Harried-looking salarymen with grey faces and grey suits hurried to their next meetings. Women with perfect hair and perfect make-up balanced on their heels as they went from department store to department store. In Tokyo, beer was still drunk, karaoke was still sung, taxi drivers still proudly polished their cars, and the cogs and wheels driving the city still turned. Life went on almost as usual. If you could ignore the aftershocks, that is.

It was a very different story up north. The Tohoku Expressway was much quieter than usual that Sunday night. This is the road to the northernmost prefectures of Honshu, home to people known for their stoicism, their ruggedness and their resilience to the region’s harsh weather. The expressway was dark, lights switched off to save electricity. There weren’t many vehicles on the road, but those that were making the journey north had signs announcing that they were delivering aid to the disaster zones. Police cars from all over the country and Self Defense Force vehicles and jeeps made up the rest of the traffic.

There was a sense of foreboding as we made the journey northwards, through Saitama and Tochigi Prefectures, towards Fukushima, home of the embattled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, still spewing who knew how much radiation into the ocean and air five weeks after the disaster. The 20km exclusion zone had just been extended to 30km, although the British government advised against travelling within 60km of the reactor, and the US government insisted that anything within 80km was potentially hazardous. As we drove north through the night, we talked, we laughed nervously at times, we listened to music.

We travelled in two vehicles – a two-ton refrigerated truck full of fresh food, preserved fish, vegetables, fruit, beer, all donated by friends, supporters, and members of the Japanese surfing community who wanted to do something to help the people of the coastline they loved. The other van was filled with non-perishable items: clothes donated by surf-brand sponsors, trainers, underwear, children’s books, crayons, colored pencils, and tents, sleeping bags, water and food for ourselves. The aid mission had been coordinated by a Hawaiian pro surfer, Kirby Fukunaga. There was a strange irony in an aid mission organised by a pro surfer to a region decimated by waves.

We stopped at the service area for hot coffee, cookies, chocolate. We looked at maps, spoke about where we should go, where most aid was needed. We all had a sense of purpose, a mission that needed to be accomplished. We were about to head into the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters the world had ever seen, and we tried to remain focused. I didn’t tell anyone that I was worried how I’d react when we got there and I got my first glimpse of the devastation. I had lived in Sendai for three years and felt a desperate need to do something to help the people in what was once my hometown. I’d tried not to tell people where I was going and what I’d be doing. I was worried that somehow I’d make this personal, that somehow I’d make it all about me. I didn’t tell anyone that I was afraid I might break down at the wrong moment. That I was afraid I might not break down at all. That the reality might feel no different from watching the coverage of the disaster on CNN.

We drove on for a couple more hours. The surface of the road started to get uneven as we entered Fukushima prefecture, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that shook the country on March 11th, 2011 having twisted, cracked, and torn the asphalt. An quick repair job had temporarily fixed the worst cracks, but the road still had dips and troughs every few hundred meters. We bounced along, banging our heads on the roof of the van at times. Vehicles slowed to avoid damaging the precious cargoes of supplies being transported to the north, and for the first time, I felt that I was witnessing the truly terrifying power of nature.

I had seen the earthquake and tsunami unfold in my office in Bangkok, watching the helicopter footage of the waves racing towards the shore and the oblivious drivers in their cars, the images of boats being swept onto bridges, of elderly people trying to outrun the waters to higher ground. The casualty figures started to come in numbers that would remain small at first. It was impossible to believe that the numbers would remain that small, but it was impossible to imagine just how enormous the final figure would be. My immediate fears were for my friends and their families, for old colleagues. There were no telephones, no electricity, no ways for people to be contacted. The news continued, the figures remained small, and I went home from work to pack for a weekend of what seemed like unbelievable frivolity in light of the disaster that was unfolding in a place that was once my home – I flew to the Golden Triangle for an elephant polo competition. For the next two days I was in and out of mobile phone range, snatching snippets of news where and when I could, constantly distracted, seeing the death toll grow. By the middle of the following week I’d managed to trace all but a handful of friends and their families, all physically unharmed. It was another ten days until I found the last ones, alive and well but without water or gas.

The aftershocks were unsettling. Throughout the seven days of my journey I felt many. After years spent living in Japan my body had become accustomed to earthquakes, and I’d learnt how to feel them. At first, even the slightest tremble was terrifying. I’d wake in the night with a feeling of blind panic, call friends, asking if they felt it too, waiting for another, stronger rumble. But after you’ve experienced a few, you learn to wait, to stay in bed until it gets stronger, to pull the covers over your head. In the dead of night I had an unflinching confidence in the power of my duvet – unless the earthquake got much stronger, the duvet would keep me safe. Apart from a few CDs tumbling off shelves and the TV falling on the floor one day, I never experience anything more powerful. But during those few days in Tohoku, the earth creaked and groaned. One evening, sitting on the ground around a campfire in what remained of a fishing village, I felt a rolling, angry, growling rumble under the surface of the earth. I’d never felt anything like it, and with my body in direct contact with the ground, it felt even more real yet unreal at the same time. And there was the sound, almost imperceptible, impossible to define, but very much there.

Nothing can quite prepare you for that first glimpse of the devastation left by those waves, no matter how many times you’ve seen it on TV, recycled every thirty minutes by the twenty four hour news media who supply the public with a constant flow of disaster porn, something to make us gasp in horror, to give us a frisson of morbid excitement, to make us thankful it wasn’t us. And the truth was, I felt that frisson too. My first glimpse of the destruction was of rice fields that were now full of debris. I'd watched the footage over and over again on the news. I’d read all the newspapers, witnessed horrifying images of bodies partially submerged in the mud, of the devastated relatives left behind. And now, seeing it for the first time, I was shocked, horrified, speechless, strangely excitedly nervous, yet numb. Something in the brain disengages to let you get on with what you’re doing – the initial shock doesn’t last long. I suppose it’s what’s called the human coping mechanism. But it kicks in surprisingly quickly. At least, it did for me. The usual clichés are the easiest to grasp onto, the “it-looks-like-a-warzone”, “it-looks-like-a-tornado-hit-it” type of comments. But it looks exactly like what it is – the aftermath of a devastating tsunami. Huge stretches of flat land dotted here and there with crushed cars, a fishing boat lying on its side two miles from the sea, towering electricity pylons crushed into the ground as if by an invisible hand. It was difficult to connect the surreal landscape that I was witnessing with the people who had perished in this very spot.

During the first couple of days I felt strange being there. I felt like a tourist. I wanted to take photos so that I wouldn’t forget, and so that the people I showed them to wouldn’t forget the need for help. But at the same time it felt strange, almost as if I was collecting memories, images of other people’s misery for my own use.

We didn’t stay in the disaster zone most nights. We didn’t wait to put a strain on the limited resources available there, nor did we want to put ourselves at risk. The likelihood of another magnitude 8 earthquake was high during those days. So every day we commuted. We would leave the disaster areas in the evening, driving away towards the normality of life only ten, fifteen kilometres away. We'd stay in cheap hotels where we were guaranteed a hot shower, electricity, food. In the morning we’d wake up early and get in the vans, driving back towards the ocean, music on the radio, wifi switched on in the car so we could follow the news on our laptops and phones. But the normality very soon turned into devastation once again. The difference between the areas that were practically unaffected and those areas that were completely destroyed was as sudden as turning a corner. We drove down streets where houses still stood intact, rubbish carefully piled up at the side of the road, but we’d turn at a junction and once again be plunged into scenes of destruction.

The survivors were doing everything they could to make the lives of their fellow survivors less difficult. People like the three teachers from the local school who were cautiously navigating the piles of debris in Kitaizumi, looking for memories of the now broken homes of their students. Kitaizumi used to be a popular surf point in Fukushima. One of the teachers pointed vaguely to a pile of timber, futons and blankets that looked very much like all of the other piles of rubble, and said that one of his students’ fathers died there. There was nothing left of his home. On another of these piles someone had made a memorial to a lost surfer – a skateboard, wetsuit, and a clock stopped at 3:39pm, the exact moment at which the world changed. But amazingly, amongst the rubble, photographs survived, CDs, books. Items that had somehow miraculously escaped the waters, and were now waiting for their owners to come and find them.

Walking along the seafront, I looked out at the ocean, quiet now, gentle waves softly washing over the beach, as if embarrassed by the wreckage they had caused. But five weeks on, huge blocks of concrete designed to reduce the force of incoming waves lay scattered throughout the rice fields. Concrete foundations remained where houses no longer stood, their timbers smashed to splinters. Clothes, shoes, handbags, underwear, letters, teddy bears. Thousands of carefully guarded private lives turned inside out and laid out in the open for strangers to see. But others had already been there. Photographs, school albums, books and toys had been carefully and lovingly retrieved from the dirt and placed in boxes along the side of the road, in the hope that their owners might still be alive, and may one day soon come and collect them.

At my feet was a box containing a water-damaged photo of a man smiling at a party, a running shoe, a girl’s rubber boot, negatives that had been carefully place under rocks so they wouldn’t blow away, and a Winnie the Pooh soft toy, gazing expectantly upwards, waiting to be picked up by the child who had lost him to the waters.

We drove south, stopping to deliver food and supplies to makeshift evacuation centres, getting closer and closer to the invisible, sinister shadow that was impacting the rescue effort more than any of the other visible, physical aspects.

(Part two follows here.)

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