I Remember, Tohoku Remembers — The March 11th Earthquake in Japan

Yamagata, Japan - 2011 earthquake

My life has, in a small part, intersected several world events in my few decades on this earth; but nothing comes close to what happened on March 11, three years ago.

At that time I lived in Yamagata, Japan, and I taught at a conversation school located in the heart of an indoor shopping mall. The day was Friday, the time was 2:46PM, four minutes before I finished my lesson with a few of the top English speakers in the school (it couldn’t have happened during a better period — poor communication is not good in a crisis), and I was writing complex family-related words on the whiteboard.

“Earthquake,” said one of the students.

“No, not quite,” was my reply, not connecting anything in the word to the subject of family.

“There is an earthquake.”

I hadn’t realized that my (sitting) students could feel the initial tremors, while I (standing) could not. The next thing I knew I was holding onto a flimsy door frame while the building around me shook vehemently for almost a minute.

Then the lights went out.

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A moment later, small emergency lights (that I had never noticed before on the ceiling) came on. In that minute, my whole experience in Japan changed.

One of the eerie features of the tsunami (which occurred just across the mountains from where I lived at the time) was how it pulled the budding warmth of spring out to sea with it. The evening and following day were quite cold and snowy compared to the earlier part of the week. The sun hardly poked out from the clouds for the rest of March. With a similar climate in Minnesota, this month in particular has had a gnawing effect on my nerves for the past three years.

Over the following weeks we learned about the full magnitude of the disaster and what had been lost. One of the teachers at my school lost a brother in the tsunami. The days and weeks after the disaster, our daily lives changed in a plethora of ways (from empty grocery stores to maintenance men bolting down everything in the school).

Yet, Yamagata remained a safe place for refugees and the press (with some of the hardest hit areas just an hour away by car). On a mere personal level, the experience was beneficial; I witnessed how a disaster could bring out the best in people and to this day I use it as inspiration to brush aside feelings of self-pity and pessimism.

Throughout March, and especially on March 11, my thoughts and prayers are with Japan. I have not and will not forget the horror and sadness of  that fateful day.

 

Photos and videos via: Erik Bergs

 



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