Thoughts about the Upcoming 5 year Anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

I grabbed lunch with my friend Leza the other day (she’s also an author – you might recognize her from the guest post Teahouse Dreams).

We chatted about life, books, future plans, and eventually the upcoming five year anniversary of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that tore through the Tohoku region of Japan.

Also known as the 2011  Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, it was the most powerful earthquake recorded to ever hit Japan and the Japanese National Police Agency has since confirmed 15,893 deaths and 2,572 missing (most presumed dead, but their bodies were never recovered from the sea).

A office building near the sea. People ran up to the roof hoping they'd be safe - the building was ripped straight from the foundation.

A office building near the sea. People ran up to the roof hoping they’d be safe – the building was ripped straight from the foundation.

The five year anniversary of 3.11 is in less than a month… and I still can’t believe it’s been five years.

Leza was in Tokyo with her husband and son when the earthquake hit. She ran out into the street and watched in horror as the skyscrapers swayed back and forth, threatening to tumble down. I was in America, staying with my roommate’s family over spring break, as we both watched the news reports in shock and sadness. Ryosuke was in a small cafe in Ueno that shook so badly pictures and paintings fell off the walls.

Ask anyone in Japan where they were during the 3.11 earthquake and they can give you a very detailed response.

An earthquake hit. And then aftershocks and a tsunami.

A cemetery destroyed from the tsunami in Ishinomaki

A cemetery destroyed from the tsunami in Ishinomaki

People died. Newspapers reported (and sometimes sensationalized) the news. A man named Hideaki Akaiwa dove through the water and rescued his wife, who was trapped in their house. He found his mother trapped on the second floor of another house, where she had been stranded for days.

Spend a little time on the internet and you will realize there are dozens of other stories like this, of miracles and chances and people helping each other.

When my roommate and I returned to campus after Spring Break, we learned her summer study abroad program at a university in Sendai had been cancelled. Our advisor (who happened to be the head of the Japanese department at our school) spent the next two weeks on the phone, fielding calls between students currently studying abroad in Japan and frightened parents. No one knew what was going on or how serious the damage was.

Five years later, the number of students studying abroad in Japan still hasn’t bounced back to how it was before the tsunami.

Leza wrote a book, a novel in verse, about the tsunami and aftereffects. It’s called Up From the Sea and it falls under the category of historical fiction, following the story of teenage Kai, a half Japanese half American boy living in a fictional fishing town along the coast of the Tohoku region.

Her novel is the first artistic response I’ve read to the 2011 Tohoku disaster and the first time I read it, I cried.

The second time I read it I cried too.

When you write a book, you put a little bit of your soul into it. Leza’s soul is beautiful.

Leza told me she came up with Kai’s story when she was helping out in the disaster zone a bit after the earthquake and tsunami. She met a young boy who had lost both his parents and his story spoke to her.

“I want people to care,” she told me. “It hasn’t even been five years but people have already forgotten about the tsunami, the lives destroyed, the people struggling to rebuild.”

We sat in silence for a bit.

“I felt like I couldn’t not write it,” she concluded.

I get it.

Or at least I think I do.

When you hear the statistics “over 15,000 dead” it’s hard to imagine anything more than a faceless blob that represents “15,000 people.” I tried to imagine it in other terms. That’s more people than all three of my high schools and both colleges – combined. Way more. And each of those people was loved, cherished, and mourned for.

Up From the Sea makes that real. People are more than just numbers and newspaper clippings.

It’s been five years and the coast is still trying to rebuild. Hearts are still broken, homes abandoned, and livelihoods struggling to be salvaged. Let’s not forget them.

Market built from the ruins, so people can buy supplies

A market built the year after the earthquake and tsunami

Leza and I have both been up to the Tohoku area several times, volunteering and meeting people/organizations. Sometimes volunteering can do more harm than good in the long run, though, and if you’re looking to get involved, these are our recommendations.

1. Nozomi Project is a social enterprise bringing sustainable income, community, dignity and hope (Nozomi means hope in Japanese) to the women in Ishinomaki, Japan. The women craft and sell necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and cuff links formed by hand from broken pottery that was dug out of the dirt following the tsunami.

2. Hope for Tomorrow is a Japanese NPO that provides scholarships for students in the affected area. They have three main areas of support – Educational, International Exchange, and Foreign Language. Their main goal is to make sure teens in the affected areas still have a chance to pursue their hopes and dreams to further their education. Right now their website is only in Japanese but they’re adding an English section too.

About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

18 Comments on Thoughts about the Upcoming 5 year Anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

  1. Kierra Mizushima // 21 February, 2016 at 10:39 pm //

    I don’t know how to begin this. But I’ll try. I had lived in Japan for about four years (one year before I got my legal citizenship) and had been married to my husband, Aoto, for about half year. I was in our then-apartment in Kato, watching the news (it’s a habit I gained from my father) and was around twenty-six at the time. My husband was in Sendai, visiting family that lived near the coast—his brother, to be specific. I don’t know exactly how my husband and brother-in-law survived, except that they ran to high grounds quick enough (they’re too shaken up to talk about it). I, however, do remember watching that wave, much larger than anything I have ever seen before, as black as death, which seems very fitting, curling it’s icy fists around an innocent town in the coast, and watching the buildings sway heavily, as if about to snap into two, in Tokyo, and places near it. And then I remembered: Oh. My. Gosh. My husband is there with his brother and my other in-laws live in Tokyo. What do I do? Next thing I knew, I was having a greatly-justified panic attack as I called my mother, who was in hysterics, because she hadn’t yet gotten word of where the tsunami and earthquake would be affecting, just that I was in Japan, my husband could die, and I could too. She had no idea what was happening. The next week was a nightmare; I got no contact from my husband or his brother or the rest if his family. I was seriously about to buy some airline tickets and go didn’t there myself when…Aoto and Kenjiro (his brother) called to tell me he had been moved to Tokyo and was okay, everyone was okay, except his baby sister Kanon had broken he wrist in the earthquake somehow (she fell). I was crying tears of relief and stayed in the phone with him for the next three hours; he wasn’t even talking to me most of the time, but too a concerned family, but he knew I wanted to stay in to hear his voice, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t come running to Tokyo and leave my work. Which was our income at the time. Now he’s a doctor. Maybe I should write a book about it…

  2. Well put Grace. More than numbers or newspaper clippings, the real people of Tohoku were dying while we watched here in Tokyo from our TV sets. Life is precious and what we take for granted, like a soccer ball in Leza Lowitz’s beautiful Up from the Sea, becomes symbolic of choosing to embrace life.

  3. Thanks for writing this Grace. I’d never heard of Up from the Sea–would love to check it out. If you’re interested in more artistic responses to 3/11, I’d recommend March Was Made of Yarn (

    Also, I work for Megumi Project in Onagawa (Nozomi’s sister project). We take vintage kimonos and transform them into various fashion items. If interested, you can see more about who we are at :)

  4. I remember. It was right after I got married. When I go to France people still ask me about it and Fukushima actually. Breaks my heart the area has not recovered yet.

  5. The thing I will always remember about the Tohoku earthquake, is that on 22 Feb 2011 we had our own earthquake, the second largest natural disaster in our country, we lost 185 people, and the Japan sent 70 USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) and 3 sniffer dogs, they were amazingly helpful, then we got the news about Tohoku. While the scale was not the same, with my interest in Japan meant that I could really see the parallels between us, the utter devestation for the families, even everyone was eventually forgetting. Christchurch has just had another serious (thankfully no one died) earthquake, destroying roads that had only just been fixed since the first earthquake. Seems both New Zealand and Japan could be called “the Shaky Isles”.

  6. I love the Nozomi project! I gave a necklace to my mom on Mother’s Day. So full of meaning, and she loves to share its story whenever she gets compliments on it.

    On 3/11 I was an exchange student in Kyoto. I remember watching the black wave swallow up the neat farmland on TV and wanting to puke. I was able to convince my home university not to cancel my program out from under me and stayed, but A LOT changed in Japan that day.

    Good post. We can’t forget those still suffering the effects of lost homes, friends and family.

  7. Eric Janson // 15 February, 2016 at 1:19 pm //

    Thanks for the book tip, Grace-san. I’m getting it. I remember 11th March very clearly, I was in Singapore and due to fly that day to Japan. Which didn’t happen, and actually it took me a couple of days to really capture in my mind WHY I could not go there. I cannot imagine being there as all this occured.
    There are so many threads of the disaster woven into so many media now. One more reminder that every day is a gift.
    I was captivated by a recent book, A Tale For The Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, which had strands of the Tsunami, Zen, touches of classic tragedy and contemporary Japan all masterfully woven together.
    We are not alone, yet we still need to reach out… Thanks for this post!

  8. Thanks for the book recommendation!

    My brother was studying abroad in Nagoya when the tsunami happened. He had just finished running up some stairs to his class, and at first he didn’t realize it was an earthquake because his chair rocked when he sat down. I felt a bit helpless back in the US, with Japanese exchange friends trying to contact family and my brother in Japan. I made 1000 paper cranes as an art project in an attempt to do something productive (a business was donating $1 for every paper crane people posted, so it was more than a wish).

  9. I’ll have to steel myself to read it, but, oh, I’m glad Leza wrote it for a new generation. I read THE BIG WAVE when I was a teen and I still remember how heartbreaking that book was. I’m used to earthquakes — everyone who lives in California is — and almost every day I think how we are overdue for one with a magnitude of anywhere from 6-8…

    • That is right. California is due for a massive earthquake.. I suggest you move out of there. If you are in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, I read somewhere that you are at extremely high risk… in America, we know the disaster that occurred on March 11, 2011 as “Fukushima Dai-ichi”. I had to look up on google when Grace first mentioned “Tohoku”, to make sure it was the same event that Grace was referring to. I live in Central New Jersey, right at the edge of the New York metropolitan area.

  10. Thanks, Grace, for a poignant reminder of just how tragic the events on 3/11 were….and still are. Thousands are still in ‘temporary’ housing because their home community is still contaminated with radiation and they have not gotten enough support to be able to move on. For those interested in reading more about how survivors are still struggling to recover I encourage people tomread some articles by Jeff Kingston in the Japan Times.

    Thanks, too, for suggesting Leza’s book. Sounds like it is certainly worth reading.

  11. All Mom’s side of the family live in Japan including Mom – almost all in Tokyo. I was frightened when I saw the first reports but I received an email that everyone was okay. One family member was walking along a sidewalk and felt the earth moving and ended up on the ground – unable to stand – until the shaking stopped. This was in Tokyo.

  12. This book has definitely been added to the books I must read this year once I get back to Miami. Always love reading books you can really tell people pour themselves into.
    I remember watching the news on my couch and crying hysterically worrying about friends and hoping they were ok. I did study abroad that summer and even that was very worrysome for my own family and the program almost got cancelled for that term.
    My heart hurts when I see news covereage, and I am on the verge of tears when they show the massive tsunami footage.
    Another wonderful post. <3

  13. Thank you, Grace, for your beautiful thoughts. Now I’m the one who’s got the hankie out.

  14. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) // 15 February, 2016 at 10:11 am //

    The Tohoku earthquake had a profound impact on me. I remember crying hysterically watching the footage from New York and worrying about my friends there. But it also inspired me to start writing again and I wrote my first novel, which is Japan-inspired scifi and answers the question “What if the Japanese were the last majority on the planet?”, not long after. I dedicated that first book to all those affected by the earthquake and tsunami. I still look at the footage, and these photos here you’ve shared with us, and cry. Even from far away, that event changed so much in the world and in me.

    I can’t wait to read your friend’s book, so thanks for sharing it! It looks amazing.

  15. Yes, that’s what it was! How cool. This must be the girl you were coworking with the other day.

    For some reason that book was the sole one that caught my eye out of them all, and honestly I mostly just skimmed over the looks of the covers. Going against the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ haha. I’m happy for her success too! Can’t wait to read now.

  16. Wow, I came close to buying this book for my Kindle as I saw it on some internet post of best new books of 2016 or something like that. I don’t think it was something you posted? I passed it over for now but will definitely go buy it!

    • Yeah, it made Buzzfeed’s best YA novels to read for January (or something like that). I was really happy to see that because I LOVE it when my other creative friends are successful in their chosen fields :)

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