Living in Japan for almost a decade, I was used to the occasional Earth tremor here and there. Nnothing could have prepared us for the events on March 11, 2011, which cost 15,ooo people their lives and left 200,000 people displaced.
A thud then the ground shakes. I’m thrown from an afternoon sleep – a daily respite from morning sickness. I’m caught off guard, earthquakes have been scarce lately. My legs jelly on the unstable wooden floor.
We live in Taitio, two hours northeast from Tokyo, a coastal farming town and a stronghold of Japan’s surfing population. Earthquakes and tiny tsunamis are common enough. We’ve been building our own recycled cabin, and I’m not sure it’ll survive this quake.
We learn later that a giant 9.0 magnitude earthquake has occurred 70 kilometres off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, and would set off 67 subsequent inland aftershock earthquakes.
We usher ourselves inside the adjacent campervan we’ve been using as a bedroom, the back window exposes a brilliant winter’s sky, radiant and clear. But the usual chattering of birds is replaced by silent rumbling from the depths of the earth below us.
My hybrid Toyota is bouncing, literally, four wheels off the ground. Overhead power lines are thrown around like skipping ropes and the poles that bind them together are all but toppling to the ground. Tall pine trees are swaying like pendulums, their thick trunks as unstable as the topmost branches.
“Kore ha kitto dekai” (this is a huge one) I say to my then husband, as his hand turns white under the grip of my panic. We hold each other close on the bed of our RV. The cabin is miraculously holding together, but our fear is for our one-year-old son at the nearby daycare centre. The little bugger must be freaking.
Mobile reception is now dead as we look on at the car outside, still bouncing to the beat of the quake. Making a dash for the kindy is a risky option. Minutes feel like hours, but eventually the earth’s convulsions give way to manageable aftershocks. We sprint to the car.
Survivors of Japan’s Fukushima earthquake search through the mud, hoping they will find heirlooms, photos, family remains
The scene at kindy brings on a new wave of panic. The teachers have assembled the kids in the dusty play yard, square cushions called ‘zabuton’ are held over tiny heads by trembling hands and everyone is squatting in the dirt. Standard national earthquake procedure. The kids here are scared but safe, but little do we know that the same scene at the northern tip of the island is resulting in entire kindy and school populations being wiped out completely.
Japanese surfing families are whisking their children into their arms here in Taitio. We wish each other luck, hurrying back to waiting cars, engines revving ready to go. Rusty old village speakers attached to shaky poles pump out a Japanese message from the town hall on repeat: “10 metre tsunami warning. Evacuate immediately to higher ground until further notice”.
The land had vented its tectonic fury, now it’s the Pacific’s turn.
Phone reception is dropping in and out, and I manage to slip off a text message to mum back home in Adelaide:
“In case u c the news,
We are evacuating.
Safe so far.
The tsunami propels a handful of local fishing boats into the Taitio port car park and a small number of older houses close to the river are damaged but our town is largely spared. An hour north paints a different picture: houses, businesses, villages and lives crushed or washed away completely.
The tragedy is far from over though. Within 24 hours, the live broadcast of the devastation up north is suddenly replaced by Government press conferences revealing the threat of a new disaster altogether: serious faults at the nuclear power facility run by TEPCO in Fukushima, about 200 kilometers northeast of Tokyo.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, is reporting power failures and tsunami damage but assuring no dire consequences, and urges the public to remain calm. We don’t believe him, and opt for Twitter and Facebook links for unfiltered reports. The commonly accepted truth is that the facility is critically damaged and on the verge of exploding.
Relentless aftershocks have the whole northeast coast of Japan on tsunami red-alert, and as we prepare to evacuate further south the entire world is on edge with the risk of mass nuclear disaster. A quick look at the weather maps makes me feel nauseous, as projected northeast winds threaten to blow radiation all over Chiba and Tokyo.
We’re left with no alternative but to bail as far south as we can go.
By late evening on this second day since the earthquake struck, we’ve packed the car with our son, two dogs, and the bare essentials: baby food, water, spare jerry of petrol, hard drives, laptop, and cup noodles. We shoot through just in time, as news quickly spreads of sold-out petrol, water and non-perishable foods. It takes almost four hours to break free of the traffic heading southbound to Tokyo – on average usually a two-hour drive – but after passing the city we drive through the night with our sights set on Fukuoka, Kyushu, the most southern of Japan’s three main islands.
Friends have similarly taken off, but a vast majority of local surfers and farmers are holed up at the local Golf Club that had been transformed to a makeshift evacuation shelter, waiting out the aftershocks and hoping for an end to the tsunami red alert.
By 4.00am we’ve made the Fujikawa Interchange in Shizuoka. Walking back to the car from the loo I pause under the blooming cherry blossom trees illuminated by the yellow street lamps of the highway service center, and gaze over toward Mt Fuji, her snowy peak a mere silhouette in the chilly darkness. For the first time in 24 hours I take in a deep breath and wonder if this would be the last of Japan’s clean air I’ll inhale.
The next few days, weeks and months are a blur. Thousands of kilometers traveled, new places visited. We aren’t tourists cruising the open road. We’re exiles wondering if we can ever return.
My husband helps deliver aid to Sendai and Fukushima. His diary reads:
There are no words to describe the devastation: nothing but death and destruction. Cars rest atop rooftops. Survivors search through mud, hoping they will find heirlooms, photos, family remains
People wait in lines at petrol stations for hours, sleeping in their cars waiting through to the next day. Petrol is delivered and rations are set at 20L. It’s not enough to evacuate.
We drive to the sea. The vast ocean that has given us surfers so much joy has now come and taken so much. Again, we are silent. Amongst the destruction lone waves break quietly into shore. No surfers ride them today.
Unimaginable amounts of radiation was leaked and then deliberately poured into the sea. Now surfers all over the Kanto region head away from the ocean.
More than a month after the quake, I too have not been in the ocean. A piece of me is missing.
A story is told of a baby born to a surfing family days after the disaster. He is named ‘Asahi’, Sunrise. A bundle of warmth and hope amid the freezing cold and settled worry. Lone waves continue to break, un-surfed.
Three explosions at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant make our mind up for us. We relocate back to Australia, and start our lives afresh on another Pacific Coast.
Five years have now passed since the disaster, where 15,ooo people lost their lives and 200,000 people were displaced.
Now divorced, my kids and I live on an acreage just outside of Lennox Head, surrounded in lush foliage and a stone’s throw from the surf where we play daily. It’s the polar opposite to those last desperate months in Japan.
The consequences of Fukushima are ongoing, invisible, and many people still live in highly contaminated areas. As time has passed, most of the surfers living on the Pacific Coast resume life as usual, surfing daily with their families, and eating the majority of their meals from the sea. Many still live in temporary housing, having lost absolutely everything, including family members.
As the seasons come and go, so too do the surfers keep on surfing. For some it’s all they have.