On March 11, 2011, 2:46pm, everyone in the country of Japan had a story.
This is mine:
I was sitting in the brilliant Japanese invention called a kotatsu, a low table with an electric stove installed on its underside and a blanket draped over it. My grandfather and I sat on pillows on the floor with our legs under the table, in the warmth. I was listening to my grandfather explain about haiku, which he writes professionally, and trying my best not to drop off.
The next moment I heard my grandmother’s voice from the other room, saying, “Is there an earthquake?” The sliding doors of the house began rattling furiously in their frames. My eyes were drawn to the light above our heads, which was swinging wildly. “I’m turning off the stoves,” my grandmother called, before calmly joining us in the living room, taking a jar of jam off of a high shelf as she went. I eyed the ceiling doubtfully, wondering if the old rafters would hold. Reading my expression, my grandmother said kindly, “Don’t worry, it won’t fall.” A few moments later, the shaking died down. “Maybe we should turn on the TV. That felt pretty big for this area.”
The television showed chaos. Beeps and frantic warnings from newscasters. Maps of Japan, its coast flashing in reds and yellows and whites, indicating tsunami warnings. Magnitudes and cities being read out at a rapid pace.
And then the footage of the tsunami came. We watched, dumbfounded, as angry waves of black swallowed the land. It could not be described as seawater. It was not water anymore. Planks of wood that I realized were the remains of buildings, cars that looked like mere toys in the crushing hands of nature, boats pushed along and thrown into houses. The houses themselves, carried whole for unfathomable distances, piling up against the raised grassy slopes that led up to roads, roads with cars still driving on them. Who were their drivers? What was going through their minds as they turned their heads to see these waves of terrible fury demolishing their countryside? I remember screaming once, yelling for a car to turn, just turn NOW, onto the fields even, just GET AWAY. Begging the mass of debris to STOP, please stop, there are people in that car.
But the tsunami did not stop. It kept pushing and pushing.
It was terrible.
Our lives stopped for a couple of days. Once or twice the house shook again, and I began to interpret the rattling doors as a warning for another quake. One time an earthquake struck at night, and I hid under my blankets. a flashlight clutched in my hand.
I called all of my host families. Back in Yokohama, objects had fallen off of shelves and people had struggled to keep their balance. But mercifully, everyone was alright. But though our aftershocks were few and far between, the Tokyo and Yokohama areas were shaking daily. My host sister told me she felt as though she was always shaking, just shaking and shaking. I understood what she meant, when I returned to Yokohama for four days to pack my things and prepare to leave the country.
Gas stations had three hour lines. Even in the rural town of Omachi, they only sold us 1000 yen’s worth, which equals less than ten liters. At supermarkets, shelves quietly emptied of bread and batteries and instant dry food as worried citizens hoarded supplies. Life was continuing like normal in these less-affected regions of Japan, but the obvious signs of natural disaster haunted our routines. Blackouts made train schedules strange and unpredictable. School was canceled. The news was filled with death tolls and horrible footage, occasionally interrupted by a severe earthquake warning.
On March 23rd, I was sitting in a plane, feeling guilty but relieved, regretful but wanting so very badly to feel my parents’ arms around me.