Newly opened in September 2019

The Tohoku Earthquake of 2011

October 17, 2019

The Tohoku Earthquake of 2011

Don't worry, I'm not going to go too deep here. But I do want to point out just why long term expats, despite the constant internal and external struggles that we face here, have such a strong and unbreakable bond with this country.

Perhaps it's the constant threat of having to leave that makes those bonds ever increasingly tighter. Massive earthquakes, Nuclear meltdowns, Tsunami, Flooding, Category 5 Super Typhoons. In the very threat of our extinction, here is life. Do you want to really live? Then put something on the line and come to Japan, even if it's only for a few weeks or two.

The Japanese people are a race with GRIT. What do I mean by that? No matter what life throws at them, they know how to pick themselves up and keep going, they have big hearts, and this is where their resilience and passion comes from, they have something to follow...

...and it is this that rubs off on the expat community, particularly the long term stayers. Those that do leave almost always come back at some stage. Japan has a kind of unexplainable mysterious magnetism that most of us can't deny.

The expat community of Japan is a kind of clan for those living within it, and those living outside of it. The unique cultural understanding that we share forms a kind of glue. When I know what you know, there is unity. It's the sharing of experience.

Here is one such experience that I want to share with you.

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. local time (05:46 Universal Time, or UTC), a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, at 38.3 degrees North latitude and 142.4 degrees East longitude. It moved the main island of Honshu by 8 feet and shifted the entire axis of the Earth. For those expats that experienced it, it's a day we will never forget. 

Our Tokyo kindergarten was between classes at the time. The morning session had just finished at 2.15 pm and the afternoon kids had yet to arrive for the 3.00 pm class. Our school was in an old Japanese house that we rented from an ex Sony engineer. I was in the office when it started.

The first tremors were light and then increased with intensity. "Another one" I thought, but there was something about this vibration that was more urgent. The lights started swaying. We cleared the building and ran outside. Then BANG the first big jolt hit us.

It was like standing on the deck of a ship in a big rolling sea. You could feel the whole tectonic plate shifting in the same swaying motion. The trees shook, parked cars rolled violently from side to side, walls collapsed. But not everywhere...

The workers digging trenches at the end of the street had stopped, but the foreman soon ordered them back to work. Very Japanese.

While my wife contacted parents and cancelled classes for the day, I went home to check our house. Stuff had fallen down, a few broken bottles, but no major damage.

Half an hour had passed. I switched on the T.V. The footage was live, a helicopter view of the massive tsunami racing across the semi open landscape. Plastic green houses disappearing under a towering black wall of muddy water, cars desperately trying to outdrive it, people running...

It brings tears to my eyes just writing this. It feels like yesterday.

That night was total mayhem. Everything was shutting down, the supermarkets where stripped of food and water, rolling blackouts started, another quake, 6.2 this time, the tremors were constant throughout the night. Nobody could sleep.

By day two it was apparent that the Fukushima power station, just two hundred and fifty Kilometers away, had been badly damaged. The cooling system was severely broken. Brave pilots were desperately flying their helicopters over it to dump water inside. It was obviously going to be in vain...

On day three the mushroom cloud when up. The cooling tower had exploded. The wind was shifting. Total panic. I feared for the safety of my young family. We called Qantas for airline tickets. "Are you evacuating Tokyo for safety reasons?" Discounted tickets.

We slept on the floor of Narita Airport the next night. A French camera crew interviewed us. My five minuets of fame looking Haggard.

Constant tremors. The airport lounge had big cracks in the walls. We were conscious of the fact that we were now that much closer to Fukushima...

The flight crew looked exhausted and nervous at the same time. Everyone was tense. The hostess got on the intercom. "Please fasten your seat belts and prepare for take off, we will be leaving not a moment too soon..." You could hear the relief cracking in her voice. Take off, safe from earthquakes at last, but temporarily closer to the radiation...we slept like logs.

According to the government, two hundred and fifty thousand foreigners had evacuated. We had all been radiated to the value of one x-ray each.

After three weeks in Australia, having closed the school officially for holidays, we returned. As we circled low over Tokyo we had an exhilarating view of Fuji. Clear, Majestic, Waiting... like a beautiful siren pulling us in, to be back for more...

Yes, we were absolutely the lucky ones.





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