On this day ten years ago at 2:46pm, a giant megathrust earthquake of magnitude 9 struck off the coast of Tohoku in Northern Japan triggering a triplefold catastrophe – not only the mass destruction caused by the earthquake itself, the biggest tsunami ever to hit the country in its history, but also the subsequent nuclear meltdown at the reactor in Fukushima that threatened not only people living in the immediate area of the radioactive leak, but the population the country at large ; over 19,000 people buried, crushed, or swept out to sea – or still missing : a national trauma of an unprecedented scale that caused an immeasurable suffering that continues to this day.

We live about 300km to the south of the epicentre, but even in the Tokyo area, the shaking was strong enough to make you feel that you were about to die. I therefore can’t even begin to imagine the sheer extent of the violent devastation those up north had to withstand; the fear; the resulting giant waves that were big enough to wash away entire swathes of towns and cities along the coastline, desperate drivers of cars trying to outpace the waters, and those trying to flee on foot at the mercy of the sea as they were caught up in the mud and debris; unstoppable floods of boats, floating warehouses and bicycles and trapped families in broken buildings.

As well as the immediate carnage caused by the earth tremors and the waves ( I could not bear to watch any of it on TV at the time for self-protection but it was inescapable in the air around you), it soon became apparent after the initial shock, that a possible nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl was about to ensue, with a large percentage of the foreign population fleeing the country as a result. I hadn’t realized until reading an article in The Japan Times yesterday that up to 30 million people might have been ordered to be evacuated from the Tokyo area if the winds had blown the radiation in the wrong direction: fortunately they blew in the other. It was difficult to handle: you were unmoored – the ground continually like liquid under your feet, intermittently swaying; the air itself felt hazardous to inhale. We were living in sealed up quarters to keep out the ‘nuclear rain’: you kept up with the daily atmospheric readings and wondered if it was safe to go outside. . The US military was potentially to be taken out of the country, leaving it unprotected – there were continual power cuts across the country : it was upheaval on an unimaginable scale.

I have started writing again about my own memories of that time; the other night I wrote as if in a trance, for hours, re-seeing myself walking home for three and half hours in a slow, dreamlike daze during the blackout, in darkness walking up the hill, not knowing what had happened to D: I have previously – several times on the anniversary – also put up a piece I wrote during the immediate aftermath, in this post from 2013 in which I detail our fears, frustrations, and dilemmas about what to do : the sheer heartbreak of imagining the levels of misery the people were going through in the freezing Tohoku region, where family members had disappeared, could not be found beneath the mud and the rubble, but who would sometimes be discovered later in quite macabre situations – in the branches of a tree, washed up on the beach, entangled in fishing ropes. It never occurred to us at the time to go up to the region to volunteer, as almost a million people did, including a lot of foreigners here as well as thousands of American soldiers (I think we made the excuse to ourselves that our insufficient language skills would have been a hindrance), but in reality perhaps we are not just altruistic, self-sacrificing, nor strong stomached enough. I don’t know. This now gives me a feeling of guilt.

But we didn’t flee either. We considered it – and were being urged to do so. By friends and family, by the British government. Yet somehow, the pull to stay was far greater. We live here. It is our second home. Our life is here. It is not perfect, but we love Japan. It would have felt like a betrayal. And once the aftershocks had diminished, and the threat of the reactors to cause cataclysmic damage had been curtailed, it was relatively easy for those living in this area to get back to normal. Spring came, summer came – you went on with the future.

For the traumatized people up in Tohoku, though, the situation was and is entirely different. Many were homeless – and have been living in makeshift shelters ever since that are not warm enough in winter. Although the government has put a great deal of money into the reconstruction of the region, it is insufficient, and many places are still like ghost towns – often literally. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, it is difficult to watch this documentary without coming away moved and profoundly disturbed by the pain and distress that is so visible in the faces and body language of those who survived: such was the immediacy and intensity of the deathly havoc wreaked on usually peaceful villages and towns that it seems, according to many locals, and usually implacable and sanguine taxi drivers who have chronicled passengers who disappear into thin air, that there are countless spirits still wandering around their old stomping grounds who just cannot find rest. A lot of young people, who weren’t ready to go and are confused about where they now are. I hope that they can, eventually, find some peace.

The tragedy of 2011 is indelibly carved into the souls of those who were here during that difficult time; it made you realize how precious life is and that it is always full of upheaval – you can be alive one minute and dead the next. It could happen at any time , to anyone – including another similar earthquake ( a couple of weekends ago there was a large tremor that shook Fukushima, announced by seismologists as aftershock from the earthquake in 2011). The plates below the earth are still rumbling, discontented. The danger has never gone away. And now of course the world is in the middle of a pandemic that soon will have killed almost 3,000,000 globally, which no one, besides epidemiologists, could ever have predicted: how quickly our lives were upended by a tiny, invisible lethal organism. It has been hard: internal, and insidiously different from the external physical jolting and violence of a major quake, the challenges of this new threat are nevertheless similarly psychologically exacting; the isolation of lockdown, the constant suppressed fear, the worry about loved ones; the terror of dying alone in an agonising manner; intubated, unable to breathe. It has been a new, and very different kind of challenge that has tested the resilience, and sanity of everyone. Hopefully though, once the tides have turned, as before, we will all get through it.

As, to some extent, presumably, will those that remain, or have returned, to the stricken areas in Tohoku they were born, from a sense of loyalty or simply because they still felt in some way that it is still home. Eventually. The grief and inconceivable spiritual impact that those terrible days in March had on each individual living there, though, must make this very difficult. Possibly insurmountable. In today’s newspaper, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the disaster, a survivor, whose daughter was among the missing and who spent five months searching for her body, notes sombrely, that ‘contrary to popular belief, time doesn’t heal – you just get used to living with sadness.’


Filed under Japan


  1. Beautiful and elegiac. That event was terrible yet Japan pulled through by pulling together.

    • The stoicism and fortitude were deeply impressive to me also; it amazed me at the time, even if in current socio-political analyses, this was apparently more superficial than it appeared initially, that an irreparable crack has opened in the country’s self image of safety. It really has left a scar. The people in Fukushima are almost like pariahs – they have been neglected.

  2. This is still so sad even after 10 years. Sometimes “commemorations” just open old wounds.

    • Definitely. But then if we don’t commemorate these things, it is almost as if they never existed.

      I always worry about sounding too glib and selfish whenever I write about this; D and I were fretting about nuclear contamination and incipient disaster and what to do next, while others were just boldly heading up there to help the survivors. We went through absolutely nothing compared to them, but even so it was a very difficult time.

  3. Brilliantly written. I recall sitting here in Nepal when it happened. I was shocked at how badly the Japanese government handled the crisis, especially the nuclear disaster.
    I was here in Nepal during the April 2015 double earthquakes that killed 9,000 people. I am a native Californian so I’m familiar with earthquakes. Quakes in Nepal are very strange. The risk of tsunami is nil here and there are very few tall buildings and overpasses to collapse. But glacial lake overflow (where a huge chunk of frozen glacier breaks off into a lake displacing all the water within causing a wall of water to crash down the mountain), avalanches, and landslides are a definite problem. The Himalayas act like a baffle for the earthquake’s energy with some areas hard hit yet leaving other areas untouched. Although my home and family suffered no damage, a village of 150 people about 7 miles away on a hillside was buried under 150 feet of rubble in seconds.

  4. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    Self preservation and self protection are very good and sound instincts! Look to the animals in case of big fires.
    I was in Spain during the big forest fires. We drove once to see whether there was one close to us, and how the fire would spread, and where it was ‘safe’ to stay. We turned around at about 5 km distance. We literally fled away. And hid with the shaking dog between us.
    I can’t even imagine how it must have been and felt for you both. And now just after your own experience ..
    I am glad you are still around cher M Ginza and D too, though I just know ‘about’ him; he is dear to you, that transpires in your writing.
    Be and stay safe in these times of love and cholera.

  5. Robin

    Too much for an adequate response. I’m awed by the courage of those most deeply affected: not only to get through the immediate trauma, but to pull together and rebuild after. Courage. And immense, unfathomable strength. I don’t think I possess it. Extraordinary.

    • I don’t either. Living in a place like Fukushima which still has levels of radioactivity far higher than anywhere else? I would move away. But some people’s love of place is too strong I suppose – and I also do respect them for soldiering on.

  6. Tara C

    Thank you for this moving post. Such appalling, overwhelming destruction. We live with the illusion of safety that can be shattered in an instant. I will never forget the horror of watching the waves of debris surging over everything, people screaming in terror.

  7. “Time doesn’t heal-you just learn to live with the sadness.” That mother’s words are so very true and always applicable to loss.
    The coverage and videos I watched on television brought me to my knees. Such horrific devastation is beyond comprehension, yet it happens. It’s as if the safety net we perceive under us at all times, is suddenly proven a falsehood, and we are at the whims of nature itself. Just not conceivable to those who have never experienced it, too much to comprehend.
    I am amazed you and D were able to hunker down and not just feel the need to go back to the UK until all was calm again. It shows your great love and respect for your adopted country. Never feel bad about not going to volunteer, it must have been harrowing there and I am sure there would have been lasting psychological effects for years to come. The fact that you remained in Japan during the aftermath is amazing.

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