Today it is five years since the horrifying triple disasters of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown destroyed a huge swathe of northern Japan, rocking the nation to its core.
To me, sat here at my computer in a different house to the one we were living in at the time (we moved directly after), the overwhelming tragedy feels both like a long time ago, now, and yet very real in my mind, close and instant. It was a terrifying and quite surreal experience that we can never erase from our memories, and I wonder, in a sense, if we have ever really dealt with it or just tried to pretend it never happened. It wasn’t until the other day, for example, with reports in newspapers about the situation in Tohoku as the fifth anniversay approached, that I actually looked at footage online of the tsunami live as it crushed whole communities, but even then I didn’t look long. Duncan never has. Is that abnormal?
Although much of the debris has been cleared away up there and reconstruction continues, around 200,000 people are still apparently living in temporary housing- which must be so cold in winter it makes me shudder just thinking about it. Japanese houses are freezing at the best of times in cold weather and I can only imagine what a thin, metallic prefab house assailed by icy winds must feel like. In summer it must be like a microwave.
Almost 20,000 people died up there, in scenes of devastation I don’t even want to imagine. And then to not only have to try and deal with the loss of loved ones and the destruction of their homes, because of the incompetence of Tokyo Electric and their inability to properly prepare for such an eventuality, they then had to cope with the total panic of the nuclear radiation scare as Fukushima No 1 power plant melted down and god knows what was released into the atmosphere and the water. It is no wonder, therefore, that post-traumatic stress disorder is still very common among school children and many other sections of the community, as well as a sharply increased suicide rate. They really do have a lot to contend with.
Which is why I suppose that none of the rest of us, down here in Kanagawa prefecture, ever talk about it. It has almost become like a taboo.
As I write repeatedly and repetitively in the piece below (first published two years after the event, but it still contains everything I felt at the time, raw and vivid – quite difficult to read now, actually – ) there was a lot of guilt and suppression of anything you were feeling at the time as you knew it was nothing in comparison. And yet Tokyo and Yokohama are not that far away, really, and we were also hit by an albeit less strong, but still utterly terrifying, earthquake. Later that year in the summer I was suddenly, out of the blue, struck with a terrible case of urticaria – hives, really hard, scaly, angry red hives, over literally every inch of my body. A delayed stress reaction. I looked like a pink armadillo. Fortunately, the hives on my face were generally less terrible, though still raised and grotesque, but no one knew what was going on underneath my clothes and how enraged my skin and blood were. But I essentially withdrew from the world at the end of 2011, recalcitrant and hermit-like (the beginning of the Black Narcissus the following spring was like my re-emergence).
I was walking home with a friend and colleague (and now next door neighbour) the other night, Kunihiko, and the subject of the earthquake came up. I was quite amazed by his reaction. Five years later, he still seemed so upset at the mere recollection of that time, even though he, like me, had been here in the Kanagawa region when the earthquake hit, in his case in Yokohama, working in an underground shopping area which he thought was going to fall down and bury him alive the shaking was so terrible. He said that when he and all the other panicked people made it up to ground level, the sickening sway of the skyscrapers opposite was the worst experience of his entire life and that just thinking about it made him feel nauseous. I realized then that we had all been freaked out, had been affected in our own way. It’s just that we had to, for cultural reasons, largely, pretend that nothing had happened.
I have put this post up before, but for those who haven’t read it and are interested, below is my fragmented (and at times loony) account of that weird and frightening period, when I honestly, despite my usually quite logical and rational faculties, had no idea what was going on.
As for the continually suffering but resilient people of Tohoku, I hope that the Japanese government tries to do a better job than they have done so far in rehousing and rehabilitating the survivors of the disaster, and that the spirits of the dead are, as the beautiful cherry blossom approaches, somewhere at rest.
Here is the original piece :