Remembering 3/11: thoughts on the one year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku

The Daibutsu at Kamakura (if you're wondering why it's shown here, read below the post)

 

In the week leading up to this March 11, I became acutely aware of how many media stories outside Japan seemed to be focusing on the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, TEPCO’s handling of the accident, and the general state of the nuclear power industry in Japan. While I’ll be as quick as anyone to advocate for the dismantling of TEPCO and would be glad to see its executives face some kind of judicial inquiry, what seemed to be missing in many stories in the days leading up to this March 11 was the fact that March 11, 2011, is a day on which more than 15,ooo people lost their lives in the devastating tsunami that engulfed coastal areas in Tohoku.

Obviously, I know that many many people have had their lives irrevocably altered by the events at Fukushima Daiichi and I do not in any way mean to diminish that. I also know that the nuclear plant disaster is very much a part of 3/11 and people are more than justified to draw attention to it. However, personally, I just didn’t feel that March 11, 2012, was the day to push that particular issue (protesting against TEPCO, protesting against nuclear power, etc.): leaving it for one day and letting people grieve and mourn the lives of those lost in the natural disasters seemed more appropriate to me. Because I didn’t want to read about this particular aspect of March 11, I stayed off all social media yesterday. In addition, I also felt it was somehow fitting to just turn off all of the noise. (In all fairness, however, looking back on yesterday’s news, the actual coverage on the day from all parts of the globe really did focus on the earthquake and tsunami and its victims and pulled back a bit from the nuclear disaster element.)

At about 2:30pm, I turned on the TV to watch part of the memorial ceremony attended by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko that would include a minute of silence across the nation at 2:46 pm (the time the earthquake struck). The Asahi Shimbun has a good write up of the ceremony, with an English transcript of the Emperor’s speech (go here to see it). A bit later on in the day (around 7:00 pm), I turned on the TV again to watch some of the other Japanese coverage of the day and, of course, the coverage was almost exclusively focused on the memorial aspect, the people who lost their lives and their surviving family members.

It is, of course, absolutely heart-wrenching to listen to some of the stories from that day and watch people relive their experiences, but ,as someone who’s experienced a lot of loss in my life (not in any way connected to 3/11), I know full well how important it is for people to be given the opportunity to openly talk about and openly remember and openly grieve their loss. The worst depth of misery in the midst of grief is to feel that people have forgotten your loss and to find that people don’t really want to talk about it.

There were also some incredible follow-up stories in the evening show I watched. For example, two of the women who were seen running from the tsunami in Minami-Sanriku (one a 69-year old and the other a 73-year old) were interviewed and talked about their experiences that day (the video is here – it’s very hard to watch, but you can see them at about the 4:03 mark). The 73-year old, who walks with a cane, was actually caught up in the water and debris and somehow clung to two long pieces of wood that got held afloat by the roof of a house in the water.

In the same video (at about the 5-minute mark), you can see some people running down to help lift someone from the approaching onslaught. It turns out it was a 94-year old woman in a wheelchair. She was rescued by three men (one a 19-year old) and, in the program, they were visiting her as a follow up and to have a chat with her and lift her spirits. Sadly, as they were chatting, she said that she wished they had let her die. She does go on to smile and chat more with them, but it certainly forces you to realize how many survivors must have similar feelings and how much suffering many people are still experiencing. In an unrelated story, a local newspaper editor, Hiroyuki Takeuchi, sums up some of this anguish in a quote from this article:

“I wonder if we are even standing at the starting line of the recovery process,” he says.

“There are a lot of people who lost jobs, houses and loved ones. I’d say the anniversary has come too soon for them to have lost that feeling of emptiness. For many people their mental clock is still stopped at 2.46pm on March 11.”

“I wonder, though, if the mental recovery for people here will match the speed of the physical recovery — I don’t think that’s possible,” he says.

 

***I chose the image of the Daibutsu at Kamakura (鎌倉大仏) to lead off this post because it embodies Amida Buddha (or is a representation of Amida). Amida is connected with the life to come, or the life in the beyond and is often depicted in statue-form or paintings as welcoming the souls of the dying into Amida’s pure land.

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