Remembering Japan | 8 Years Later
One of the things I became accustomed to early on in our time in Tokyo was the predictability. In a city so big and busy one would think chaos inevitable, I witnessed so many routines that made everything move like the parts of a well-oiled machine. Escalators were neatly organized with people standing in a single file line on one side, only crossing over to the other side if they were walking and needed to pass anyone standing still. This is something that has always stuck in my mind. Rules that are so easy and obvious, making life in a crowded place manageable.
When the earthquake hit, it started like any other. In fact, I was nearly positive that if I didn’t say anything, my 2nd grade students wouldn’t notice and it would be over in less than 10 seconds. I sat quietly, grading spelling tests and feeling the earth sway beneath my desk chair as the students chattered away while putting their folders in their backpacks before the weekend. But instead of the usual, brief quake, this one began to get stronger. And stronger. I calmly but firmly instructed the students to begin the protocol for large earthquakes by getting underneath their desks. Some of the children laughed, confused by their feelings of panic. Things were falling off the walls and my inflatable globe hanging from the ceiling swung violently back and forth. I remember watching it, waiting for it to be still for what felt like an eternity, before I was sure the earth was done shaking.
Following an announcement over the loud speakers, we lined up and headed for the soccer fields, the most open and safe place for us to be during the aftershocks. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade sat on the field, the ground visibly moving with each large aftershock. The sky alternated between sun, clouds, and rain. It felt like sky was swirling around unpredictably. I don’t know how long we sat there like that, but I could feel the panic bubbling up inside of me. I managed to keep it together until, at some point, my students began playing and laughing as they sat on the soccer field. In my state of shock, I raised my voice in a way that even I didn’t recognize. One of the parents, who happened to be at the school with us, helped me sit down and I took some deep breaths. I just couldn’t understand how or when this would all be over.
I managed to get myself composed for the rest of the evening. It was almost 11pm before we were able to leave the school. I had not idea what we would find when we hopped on our bicycles for the short ride home. As we rounded street corners, we saw more and more people walking home from their offices. The major roads were bumper to bumper traffic. The normal patterns of Friday night in Tokyo were nowhere to be seen. It was eerily quiet, even with so many people out and about. Everyone was calm, but there was this feeling of controlled panic hanging in the air.
The following days felt very similar. Grocery store shelves were empty. Restaurants were closed. But the quiet never left. Everyone went about their days, routine or not, with the same face-saving calm as always. And I am thankful for it. In my head, I was absolutely freaking out. But watching the people around me handle everything with such quiet grace and braveness gave me a strength I didn’t know I had. I am not saying I handled any of it with nearly as much grace, but I certainly learned that calm and quiet is much more helpful than the alternative.
We watched as various Embassies evacuated people back to their countries, wondering what the future would hold for our students and our school. We cancelled our spring break trip to Vietnam and hopped on a plane to Minnesota to ride things out. A week later, we found out that I was pregnant with our oldest. I ended up staying in Minnesota until August based on the recommendation of my OB in the states. With the radiation in the air in Japan from the power plant in Fukushima, they felt it would be safer for the baby if I stayed away until things calmed down. That was the both the easiest and hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I knew keeping my baby safe was important, but I also did not want to leave my 2nd grade students mid-year. I still struggle with the fact that I didn’t return to them, but I don’t regret keeping my baby safe.
Our oldest was born the following December. We welcomed our 9 pound baby into the world via emergency c-section. I was not able to get up and walk for a while and when we were in the hospital, a rather large earthquake hit. Not as big as the one on March 11, but big enough that I told Brad to take the baby and go if we had to evacuate. A few weeks later, while nursing in our apartment, I moved from the couch to underneath our dining room table during an earthquake. My newborn son had no idea and nursed through the whole thing. Many nights, I would wake up to an earthquake and run to the nursery just in case I needed to scoop him up and hide under a table or evacuate the building.
We, I , couldn’t live like that. I was suffering from PTSD, postpartum depression, and the usual new-mom anxiety. In June, we moved back to the United States. That was almost 7 years ago now. And this storyline is never far from my mind. Its like Kintsugi. When a dish breaks in Japan, it is repaired by filling the cracks with gold. I feel like this is period of my life created a crack in my surface that is never gone, but is now filled with stronger, more beautiful stuff.
Japan made an unexpected impact on my heart. It also gave me a resilience and appreciation for quiet, routine, and respect that I hope to carry with me forever.