A year ago, my life was in a simple routine. One that would be familiar to many around the world. I got up, I worked, I relaxed a bit in the evening and I tried to enjoy my weekends. All over Japan, people had similar routines. And then a week later, for many, that all changed.
I was in my classroom waiting for my first class of the day at about quarter to three on March 11th last year. I thought I felt the room move to one side. It moved again, gently. I had experienced earth tremors before and lots of them. They are part of life in Japan and although they still stir the bowels, you become accustomed to them and accept that they happen. But this one was odd. It wasn’t the usual gentle shake, or even the familiar quick jolt. It was more of a slow swaying. And it didn’t stop. A minute, two minutes – these are like hours in earthquake terms. Three minutes. I went outside and stood across the road. It was like walking on a ship. I looked back at my house. The electricity pylon next to it was swaying slightly. A passing bus stopped and the driver rolled down his window.
‘Jishin?’ he asked. ‘Earthquake?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think it’s quite big.’
I don’t know why I felt that. There was no violent shaking where I was. But it was long and something told me it was different.
Back inside I switched on the television and logged on to twitter. It was big, but nobody seemed to know quite how big yet. Newsreaders appeared in their studios wearing hardhats. Figures started coming in. Double figures at first. A few casualties, but still we didn’t know what was happening to those people in the north-east of the country. Tokyo, it seemed, had been given a right good rattling. Further north they were being destroyed. The biggest earthquake in Japan’s history was unleashing a tsunami beyond compare. The figures leapt to triple digits, to thousands, to five figures. Newsreaders talked of entire towns that had disappeared. It was no exaggeration.
In the days that followed, modern technology enabled the world to relive the horror through video, to experience tragedy vicariously as has never before been possible. News broke of problems at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The foreign press screamed ‘Meltdown!’ and drew comparisons with Chernobyl. They scared the world that nuclear catastrophe was upon us all. They terrified the families of Japan’s foreign residents. There were problems, yes. God knows there were problems. There still are. But they were bad enough as it was. Japan was hurt enough. It was an injured soul shocked to the core as others gathered round and yelled prematurely about cancer and ghost towns.
It was sickening to see images of the tsunami. Literally sickening. It made you weep. There were thousands upon thousands of people left bereaved and homeless and yet the focus was shifting from how best to help them to hyping up what were still only potential effects of the nuclear situation.
People were worried. Of course they were. The aftershocks continued relentlessly. Some people left Japan. Some mocked them for doing so and called the gaijin amongst them flyjin. But I couldn’t mock them. It was all down to personal choice. If they weren’t abandoning others without notice, if they never intended to be here long term, if they had been truly frightened by the possible effects of the radiation, if they had young children, if they had had the life terrified out of them by the shaking, if they, for heaven’s sake, had lost their home…there were many reasons to leave and it is easy to judge and condemn those whose choices are different from yours. Their choice was different from mine, but it was a choice I could understand. If the British embassy had told me absolutely I should leave I probably would have, but otherwise my wife and I decided we were staying put.
My parents and friends didn’t pressure me to leave. My mother simply said, ‘I know you can’t just up and leave. You’ve got your life there.’
She was right. I do. I have my life. I have my wife. I have my Japanese family and I have my hope that I can be here to see this country get better, to watch these people, who have suffered in a far more stoic way than any I have ever seen, rebuild their lives. I complain about much here, but usually to others who also live here. I may have vented some of my frustrations here on my blog, but they are minor complaints, aired in the spirit of providing comic relief. To my friends and family in Britain I am more likely to talk of all the things I love. In the same manner that you know your family’s faults but don’t disclose them to all and sundry, I try to be positive about Japan. Why? Because, I suppose, deep down I love this country. You can sometimes forget affection, but in the same way that you remember the strength of affection you have for a friend or family member when they are sick, I remembered my affection for Japan when I saw her hurt. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and be here as she heals.
I knew this but, as if to test my resolve, a few days following the huge quake up north we were violently shaken by large aftershock. It was terrifying. Our walls cracked, we and most of our neighbours lost many roof tiles, dishes and glasses fell from cupboards and smashed on the floor and we lost our lights and gas. I got to see how I would react if a fairly big quake rattled my house. I didn’t do as I usually did with tremors – sit and wait to see if it gets bigger. There was no time to wait to see if it got bigger. It started big. I sat in a crouch, hands covering my head, swearing, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,’ as I watched the television I had purchased the week before threaten to tumble off its perch and my CDs pour out of the bookcase. My wife was trying to hurriedly get dressed as she had been about to get into the bath when the shaking began.
When it stopped we went over to the evacuation area across the road where some of our neighbours were gathering. Nobody was hurt. The city hall issued an announcement that no tsunami was expected and, gradually, we drifted back to our respective houses. I packed an emergency bag and we slept an uneasy sleep downstairs with the door unlocked for a fast exit.
The emergency bag remains packed. The aftershocks continued for months, and although every small tremor makes me think in ways that they never did before and causes me to leap to check social media streams, life has returned to its routine. For us anyway. For those up north, that will take considerably longer. For some, longer than they remain on this earth.