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).
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.
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.
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.