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Remembering 3/11/11

Eight years ago, the strongest earthquake on record in Japan occured. This was followed by a tsunami, 133 feet in height, that crashed into the eastern cost of the Tohoku region. This disaster was quickly followed by water sweeping into the land via the rivers that fed life into the town; people were washed away from loved ones and livelihoods that had supported them. Some of those lost in the water have never been found.

The very shape of Japan’s Honshu island was changed in an instant.

Today, we call this disaster the Great East Japan Earthquake.

People had to leave behind everything they knew and had in their lives to move away from the disaster zones, not only caused by the water and the earthquake, but also from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster. A majority of those displaced have still not returned to their homes.

I can still remember where I was when I heard of the disaster. I was a sophomore in high school, and my favorite math teacher explained to our class about the impact the nuclear waste entering the water would have on our planet. The failure of emergency systems at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant lives on in infamy, and the impacts of the nuclear particles rushing into the sea and out into the world are still being felt and discovered today. I remember feeling a cold chill run through my body and I listened to her explain to us the extent of the damage and lives lost in the disaster.

Her son was an English teacher in Japan at the time, and she had a particular interest in this news. Her son remained in Japan, despite people from home pleading with him to come home. I do not remember what part of Japan he was living in, but I believe it might have been the Tohoku region.

My classmates didn't seem to understand why he wouldn't leave, why he was staying in such a dangerous area. But, I understood. You don't just walk away from a community you are strongly tied to, especially in their time of need.

In 2016, I made my way to Japan as a foreign exchange student. I lived in Akita prefecture, which, while in the Tohoku region, is on the opposite side of the island and protected by mountains. People I knew, including my mother, asked me not to go to Japan because she feared the radiation, which was still being cleaned up. I wouldn’t move on my resolve to go to Japan, and took the opportunity anyways.

It had been my dream for as long as I could remember, and I wouldn’t give up on it.

I came to Japan, wholly ignorant of not only the language, but a large amount of the culture as well.

The longer I stayed in Akita, as I met local people and interacted with them, the more I fell in love with the Tohoku area. As my love for the region grew, so did my interest in understanding just what had happened during the Great East Japan Earthquake.

People abroad often talk about the nuclear disaster when talking about the disaster, referencing Fukushima with hushed tones and dread, and there are videos of people sneaking into the restricted area to capture the remnants of the lives that once were there. If you happen to watch one of these videos, you can see that lives were uprooted from where they were, and people that had lived in these areas for such a long time had to leave everything behind.

It was the video I saw of the Family Mart, a popular convenience store in Japan, still filled with items from 2011, including magazines and newspapers, that impacted me the most. The trains no longer run to the area, but the station signs, not so different from the ones I see every day on the train in Akita, still remain, frozen in time, beckoning visitors with English and Hiragana, letting them know about stops past and to come.

That image stayed with me.

It struck me as a time capsule. Not one that you dig up to remember the successes of the past, but one left to vanish into the throws of history and forgotten.

But in this time capsule, one created so unintentionally, are the ghosts of the lives forever changed in that day, and the lives lost in the water.

The echoes of memory of the lives that once thrived and existed there ring out in the silence, speaking to the few who visit with loud tones.

The people who lived there were ordinary people who lived through extraordinary events.

I came back in 2018 to Akita as an English teacher. I live in a prefecture where seldom do natural disasters occur, simply because of the location and the mountains that surround us in a gentle, but secure. embrace. I have not felt the shimmers of an earthquake, nor the silence that comes before the roars of waters crashing on to land. I am blessed to walk along the river of my area, enjoying its quite comfort and presence. I stare at the green trees and fields, and see the proud silhouettes of mountains on the horizon.

My everyday is filled with the beauty of nature, beauty only found here in the Tohoku area, and my mind is quietly filled with peace at the sights and sounds of life here.

But it was that very same nature, that very same peace, that quickly shifted into a disaster eight years ago not so far from where I live today.

It is easy to overlook the scars of March 11. It is easy to push the horrors that filled that day and subsequent days to the back of my mind.

It is easy to ignore because I was not here.

But, as someone who felt more welcomed and loved by the people of the Tohoku region than anywhere else in the world, I do want to forget. I do not want to remove such things from my conscience or glaze over the tragedies that altered the course of people’s lives forever.

I do not want to forget what the Great East Japan Earthquake did to the region I call my second home. I do not want to pretend that the affects of it aren’t still felt and endured to this day.

While I may always be a foreigner in a foreign land, the love for the place that is my new home will never leave. It is through that love that I choose to remember March 11, 2011.

For me, today is a day of remembrance. It is a day to remember the lives lost and lives changed. It is a day to be thankful for what has been rebuilt, but sorrowful for what is lost forever.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tohoku region and the Great East Japan Earthquake, I recommend this video by Abroad in Japan, reflecting on the aftermath and rebuilding from the Tsunami, and this book by Gretel Ehrlich, published two years afterwards, full of first hand accounts and memories. If you are interested in supporting a company dedicated to helping those impacted by the disaster, please check out the Nozomi Project. They make absolutely beautiful jewelry, and are employing women who were affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. If you have a moment to spare, Yahoo Japan donates 10 円, which is approximately 10 ¢, to disaster relief projects for every search for 3.11 over a 24-hour period.

The Tohoku region of Japan is a very special place for me, filled with happy memories and personal growth. While, for all intents and purposes, I am separated from the events of March 11, 2011, I want to remember this day and those that the Great East Japan Earthquake affected.

I thank you for taking time out of your day to remember as well.

Love Always,

Laura Ann

*Please note that all the links provided above are non-affiliated links.*

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