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.

A Little Down, But OK

Dear readers,

My town, Namerikawa, was thankfully not affected by Friday’s devastating earthquake.  We are a coastal town but on the west side of Japan, off the Sea of Japan.  I felt the earthquake while at school, but my co-workers and I did not know the magnitude of it until turning on the TV and seeing the tsunami begin its terrible wrath through several coastal towns in northeastern Japan.  My thoughts are with those who were affected most.  I just wanted to post to let everyone know I am OK.  This has been a difficult few days for everyone in Japan.  I will post more thoughts soon.  Please take care everyone.  気をつけて。

The Sea, and Some Japanese History

Before I moved to Japan, this blog was called “Stories from the Lake.”  The name referred to Lake Michigan and stories involving the great city of Chicago.  I certainly miss staring out into the wonders of Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes in North America.  I used to spend hours in the summer and early fall walking along the shore or Belmont Harbor, listening to the waves and watching the sun reflect off the crystal blue water.
Now that I live in Japan, I am nowhere near a fresh body of water similar to Lake Michigan, but I do live right off the Sea of Japan.  When I first found out that Namerikawa was an old fishing community, known for hotaruika (firefly squid), I worried about tsunamis, but I was also happy that I would be living next to a large body of water.  In case my TV or computer ever breaks, I now have back-up viewing options. 
I can’t quite explain why, but I have always had a strong affinity for large bodies of water, be it a lake, ocean or sea.  There is something both peaceful and dangerous about these bodies of water.  Their beauty is parallel to nothing on Earth, yet so is their strength.  Swimmers can be swept in an undertow at any moment, large tsunamis can wipe out a town almost instantly and only gravity can control an Ocean’s tide.
All of this has led me to think that any large body of water is really a perfect metaphor for life.  We can try to control it the best we can, but in the end, some forces are just too powerful for us to change, so we have to let go.
Now that the weather is finally getting nicer (some days), I have been running along the Sea a bit more in hopes I will be running in a 5K or 10K this spring.  I took the above picture of the Sea of Japan on Saturday morning before jogging back to my apartment.
Not even the strongest man-made invention could ever tame this beauty.

I also came across this interesting sign about the history of Namerikawa and the significance of the shoreline in past wars.

(Some history of Namerikawa and the importance of the shoreline.)

Somber Day in Namerikawa

When I turned on the TV this morning while getting dressed for work, one of the first things I saw was a beautiful picture of an older Japanese woman smiling in a lush green garden.  She looked at peace with her life but also ready to do so much more.  I couldn’t understand the Japanese on the news program, but once I heard the words “Namerikawa Koukou,” I knew instantly that this was a photo of Yoshiko Hirauchi, the 61-year-old retired principal of Namerikawa High School.  She had been missing since the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand last month.  She was confirmed dead on Sunday.

This is from an article in Japan Today: “Hirauchi was among the 28 students from a language school in the city of Toyama studying at King’s Education language school, located in a six-story building housing Canterbury TV that collapsed in Christchurch.  The other 27 Japanese students remain unaccounted for.”

This news put me in a somber mood, and my thoughts are with her family as well as with the families of the other victims.  My friend Jenson, who works at Namerikawa High School and knew Hirauchi-sensei, wrote this eloquent blog post about her life today.  He expresses a lot of feelings that I can’t quite articulate.  Be well, everyone.

Nagori Yuki

There are many Japanese words or phrases, in my opinion, that perfectly describe a fleeting moment.  We don’t quite have the equivalent in English, so I am always happy to learn of such words or phrases, which usually correspond with nature, holidays or a special moment in one’s life.  I learned of such a phrase yesterday from my kind co-worker, a Japanese teacher who often speaks to me at school.

After a week of gorgeous spring-like weather, snow fell once again in Toyama.  It wasn’t heavy, but it was enough to lightly dust the ground the next day, cover my jacket in snow as I biked to work and make me a little grumpy.  As I walked to my desk Tuesday morning dripping from the icy bike ride, my co-worker looked up and, “Oh, good morning Miss Sheila.”  He smiled and gazed out the window for a moment.  “This is nagori yuki,” he explained.  “It’s…the last snow before spring.”

Intrigued by the phrase and its beauty, I searched for more information about it online.  I knew that yuki meant snow, but I did not know what nagori meant.  After doing a little research, I discovered it means “a trace; remains; a vestige; parting; farewell; memory.”

Nagori Yuki is also the name of a popular song and 2002 film by Nobuhiko Obayashi.

As this final (hopefully) snow melts, I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to the snow-covered rice fields of winter, and hello to the sakuras of spring.