Shaken, but Together: Japan Earthquake 2011

I am writing this from my school desk on the second floor of Hayatsuki Junior High School in Namerikawa.  Our graduation ceremony for the san-nenseis (third-year students) just finished.  To my left, outside the windows, I see thousands of grey clouds, covering the sky in my seaside town like an oversized cotton blanket. Behind the clouds, the jagged Tateyama Mountain Range, normally a stunning view on clear days, is faint and barely visible.

To my right, my co-workers are speaking to one another, shuffling papers around and even laughing a bit. My school principal is flipping through a graduation book created by the san-nenseis. My vice-principal is looking at his computer.  One of my favorite Japanese teachers is quietly observing his co-workers with his right hand under his chin. His brown eyes look heavy and weary, as if he will rest them any minute, but for now he is keeping them open.

Four days ago, on Friday afternoon, the atmosphere here was much the same.  But for a few seconds last week, when the earth violently shook, we shook with it.

In Namerikawa and the rest of Toyama prefecture, we are the lucky ones.  We felt the earthquake, but only barely.  A little after 2:30 p.m. on Friday, my desk shook for about 15 to 30 seconds.  The kind school nurse who sits in front of me held on to her desk and looked out the window.  I looked up confused and said, “Oh…earthquake…”  As soon as the shaking stopped, my teachers went on the Internet to search for information.  “Oh…Miyagi…earthquake,” one said.  I e-mailed my sister with a frown =( as the subject line.  This was the second earthquake to hit Japan in two weeks, and Toyama was still grieving from the New Zealand tragedy, where several students from Toyama and the retired principal of Namerikawa High School were killed.

“But is everyone OK?” I asked a co-worker.  At that time, I had never heard of Miyagi and could not point to it on the map.

“I think so,” one teacher replied to me.

We had no idea that at that very moment, an all-consuming tsunami was destroying coastal towns all along northeastern Japan.  Tokyo, a hyperactive glowing city that never rests, was at a standstill.  Trains were not running and later that night, workers would be forced to sleep in their offices or walk hours to get home.

Oblivious to any of this, and thinking things would be OK, I went back to work and finished preparing for a lesson.

About 30 minutes later, I went to get some tea in the kitchen.  Some of my co-workers had turned on the TV and were huddled around it.  There, we saw the beginning images of the tsunami destroying farmland, homes and anything else in its way.  It looked like a giant pile of garbage coming down somewhere.   I could not comprehend what I was seeing.  “I don’t understand.  Is that garbage?” I asked.

It wasn’t.  It was the giant tsunami wave violently erasing a town with the force of a jet.

I went home on my bike and heard a message being blasted from town speakers.  It was in Japanese and I couldn’t make out the words.  Only later did I realize it was probably warning us of a possible tsunami on our side of the island.  (Thankfully, we were not hit).

My friend Jenson and I met to go to the grocery store together.  We had e-mailed each other just after the quake, and to my surprise, Jenson seemed somewhat worried.  Normally calm about most things in Japan, he seemed distraught and unsettled.  I began to worry a little more but still had no idea how powerful this earthquake had been.

We ate dinner rather quietly and then walked home together.  As soon as we parted, I went on the Internet and saw images that have silenced myself and much of the world.  On Friday night, up to a thousand were feared dead.  Now, officials think more than 10,000 lives have been claimed by this tragedy.  The country is also coping with radiation concerns after explosions at nuclear power plants in Fukushima.  Alone in my bed, I turned on the TV and saw more images of the tsunami.  Newscasters spoke calmly but in a language I could not understand.  Most of them were wearing protective hard hats as they read the news.

I opened my e-mail and saw a few messages from concerned family and friends who were just waking up to this news in America.  I did my best to reply to all of them.  Writing to them helped me stay calm, but my heart began to sink more.  The magnitude of this tragedy was becoming much clearer to me.

That night, I could barely sleep.  I tried my best to force my eyes shut but my heart and mind raced.  Once I finally fell asleep, I woke up a few hours later to another mild earthquake, which geologists determined could have been an aftershock or a completely different quake.  Around 6 a.m., I felt sick to my stomach and ran to the bathroom.

I had always felt safe in my apartment and in Namerikawa, but all of that was changing so quickly.  I wanted a hug from my Mom and to be back in Chicago where tornadoes are the biggest threat, though far more predictable than earthquakes.

Since that night, some of my fear has subsided and I feel better and stronger.  I feel lucky to live in Toyama, a place known in Japan as having few earthquakes.  “It’s the inaka, but it’s safe,” a co-worker told me. Life is somber here, but it is still moving on.   It will take several months before people affected most by this tragedy to feel somewhat back to normal, even if their concept of normal has been shifted just as the earth has been.

This past weekend, though solemn and quiet, I have seen the strength of many Japanese people.  At a dinner with one of Jenson’s co-workers, an English teacher, one of the first things she said was how grateful Japanese people were for help from America.  A large portion of her country was being ripped apart, and yet one of the first things she expressed was thanks to another country for help.  Her humbleness is a characteristic shared by many Japanese people, and it is a trait I admire the most in many of my friends here.

Today, my first day back at Hayatsuki since the earthquake, my co-workers are a little solemn but are moving on.  Many of the san-nensei students cried today, but they were tears of joy, as many of them were leaving their friends and going to different high schools.  They have much to look forward to, and I know they will accomplish great things.

Just before the ceremony, I chatted with an English teacher who has been on a leave of absence since the birth of her daughter last October.  I asked her about her baby, Nozomi.

“What does her name in English mean?” I asked.

“Hope,” my teacher replied.

I smiled and nodded, complimenting her on a beautifully chosen name for her daughter.

I am confident that the Japanese will rebound from this awful natural disaster, as they have before and as other nations have also.  That sentiment has been reiterated by many people, and I don’t think we can say it enough.  It will of course take time, especially for those in the northeast who have been displaced and whose families have been broken, but not everything can be swept out into the Ocean.  The Japanese know this, and they carry it in their words, actions and silence.

If you have the means, please consider donating money to the Japanese Red Cross Society.  You can do so in Japan at any Family Mart, or online here.

Finally, thank you to all those who have expressed concern for my well-being these past few days.  It truly means the world to me and will not be forgotten.



Sheila Burt

Namerikawa, Japan

March 15, 2011

15:09 p.m.

3 Comments on “Shaken, but Together: Japan Earthquake 2011”

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