After the Tsunami

tsunamiOn March 11, 2011 at 2:46 p.m. a massive 9.5 earthquake struck northern Japan. Within an hour, a monstrous tsunami forced its way ashore the northeastern coast, swallowing everything in its path.

In October 2011 my husband Jon and I arrived in Japan, looking forward to seeing a number of our Japanese friends again. While excited about the reunions, we knew they were still in shock from their disasters. One friend said after the nuclear reactor breakdown, her Swiss friend said she’d had enough, packed up, and left.

South of Tokyo there was no earthquake damage, but in stores and restaurants there were “Help the Tsunami Victims” collection boxes. The tragic toll was overwhelming:  15,000 confirmed dead, and 5,000 still missing, with bodies daily being washed ashore. Stories of survivors, details of their resettlement, plus pictures of the clean-up progress were constantly in the news.

Sendai, the northeastern city where I once taught English, suffered some earthquake damage. My school, Shokei Gakuin University, is on a hill. The president told us that two students who lived along the coast died in their homes on March 11th. Had they been at school, they would have lived. Also we learned that around 200 students and staff lost a family member, and about 2,000 either lost a home or had a home damaged. Right after the earthquake, Sendai residents coped without electricity, gas, and running water for several weeks.

Others on the coast fared worse. Because there was little warning a tsunami was coming, most people along the seacoast in one-story homes were killed. Those on a hill or an upper floor of a strong building survived and watched as boats, cars, and homes were swept forward and smashed.  They felt totally helpless watching the tsunami overtake their coastal homes and villages. The inland city of Sendai was not hit by the tsunami, but the city airport was flooded, and its port was totally demolished.

One day our friends drove us to Sendai Port. Along the way we saw piles of smashed, stacked cars and huge piles of debris awaiting disposal. We saw shells of businesses with cracked walls surrounded by twisted fences. The skeleton of a former gas station stood alone on the road.

tsunamiWe turned down a blacktop road toward the beach and soon saw the concrete home foundations, one after another. Several bent trees dotted the landscape and a few shells of damaged homes.

Outside the car we heard the crashing roar of the ocean which was behind a long sea wall barrier. Nearby stood a red Shinto torii gate. Down in the grasses I saw a chipped blue bowl lid and pieces of a blue and white plate. Next I found a child’s small black shoe. That shoe made the tsunami real—a living child once wore that shoe.

Down the road my friend and I walked silently–the boisterous pounding waves on the right and the home foundations on the left. The place seemed like hallowed ground. On the sandy floor of one of the “homes” I found some small red, blue, and green bathroom floor tiles. In another one I spotted a black and white mahjong game piece. I thought about the happy family who once laughed as they played games together.

tsunamiNear another foundation, I shook the sand off a small round white teacup with thin blue stripes. As I cradled it in my hands, I remembered that someone once drank tea from that very cup.

As far as we could see in every direction, there was nothing but home foundations—the remains of former neighborhoods. I thought about those people who walked the beach and watched the waves. The scene was deafeningly silent.  There was no longer any life at all.

My friend and I were somber as we padded slowly back to the car. Reflecting on the tsunami tragedy, I felt both awe at the ocean’s power, and horror at its dreadful destruction. And I felt overwhelming sadness for both the victims and the survivors.

After the tsunami, survivors were housed in temporary shelters until permanent buildings were constructed. Then they were moved again far away from their original neighborhoods. This resettlement for grieving survivors has been difficult, especially for the elderly.

Most fishing villages, seaside businesses and restaurants were totally demolished. How does one start over when his family is missing, his home is destroyed, and his livelihood has vanished? There have been a large number of suicides because the survivors have been unable to cope with their enormous losses. All the Japanese in those northeast coastal areas still hurt and are trying to cope with the depressing aftermath of the tsunami. A missionary friend told us that those survivors are still shell-shocked and expecting another tsunami to strike.

While our friends thanked us for coming and said we encouraged them, Jon and I were encouraged by our friends’ strength and courage in the midst of disaster. The Japanese are recovering physically—in time some of the homes and businesses will be rebuilt. But mentally and emotionally, the Japanese survivors are forever scarred and changed. They desperately want to hope again, but it may take a long, long time. Life as they knew it on March 10, 2011 is gone. 

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