Two Years Later: My Experiences in the Aftermath of the Earthquake in Japan

It's been two years now, and it's only been getting crazier to think about the amount of time that's passed since I experienced the earthquake in Japan. I didn't really write much about the quake the month after it happened because after the initial shock, I didn't know how much it would change me or my life. I've only just started getting used to buildings rumbling due to large trucks or people in my current apartment building stomping down the halls. This is because the day of the earthquake my boss told me that there should be a large aftershock that usually coincides with a decrease in seismic activity. He expected it to happen after a day, but even now I'm still not sure if it ever happened.

This is what I wrote the day after the earthquake, which can be found in full on my blog:

Friday is the day that Michelle heads west to Ashikaga, but before that, I headed a few miles North East to have a meeting with my future boss Ken, about lesson plans and the schedule and whatnot.

We were nearing the end of the meeting when we felt a bit of a rumble, it wasn't that odd and Ken basically said "Oh, it's earthquake" and we waited for it to stop. It picked up to what it was like on Wednesday which was still pretty normal and not all that bad. But it picked up some more and a statue of his that was on a locker behind me fell over. At this time I wasn't sure if maybe the area felt earthquakes than Oyama, and also figured, "Wow it sucks that broke, but maybe it was too close to the edge or something." But the rumbling continued and actually reached a scary level where it violently tossed off either a clock or a picture frame scattering glass all over the place.

This was about the time that Ken's wife directed me to go under the desk, however there was a lot of broken glass so I only put my head under just in case. The lights cut out and books and papers started falling, some of which Ken had to bat away from falling on him. It felt like the earthquake never really ended, because there was shockwave after shockwave making it hard to tell if we were moving or not, still none were near what the power of the first wave. After some scarier shockwaves I asked Ken if it's safer outside to which he responded, "Yeah, I think it will be safer out here," so I go outside and try to text Michelle thinking that it's almost 3 p.m. and she should be in the classroom at Ashikaga. But sending a text didn't work, nor did calling. Then I thought "Wait maybe she was still on the train, could it have derailed?" but for the most part tried to keep calm, and tried to text, call and even email her.

Before March 11, all of the earthquakes, including a 7.2 two days before, didn't feel so intense or violent. In contrast, even the smallest aftershocks after felt violent and left us waiting for it to develop into a larger earthquake. I had foolishly imagined that earthquakes could be predicted hours or even days before happening, even though the time between the horrible earthquake alert cellphone alarms and the actual quake hitting were a few seconds. It became completely natural, only seeming strange when we returned from west Japan or for the few rare jolts (including one I didn't feel but saw because it only lasted for the second I was stepping off of a train). I also imagined that there could be some kind of localized earthquake and that the effects of earthquakes couldn't possibly be far-reaching.

Of course, that was wrong. As everyone knows, there was a bit of a fiasco following the earthquake, not due to the tsunami or quake damage, but due to the threat of radiation -- a threat that is very real, but was reinterpreted in the worst possible ways. The days following the earthquake were pretty horrible, especially that Monday. I spent almost all of my time educating myself on radiation and how it affects the human body, which elements can and can't travel far and how long they will last. With all of this information, I figured that I was far enough away (coming about 125-150 miles away), but was freaked out when the U.S. government extended the exclusion zone to 80 miles. That was their estimation for the worst possible circumstances, which I can agree with, but it being the worst possible situation was never mentioned, and we imagined that there would still be people who would think to leave the whole country. In the end, being smart seemed to be enough for many to keep safe, and the media hype died down along with the memory of tourists.

The government provided people with the information needed, the radiation level readings, from powerful detectors that operated without interference from other sources. However, the attitude was that the information was printed and that was enough. People weren't educated, so complaints ranged from why the numbers weren't zero to why ground readings were higher. These are easy explanations: natural radiation, radiation detectors on the ground give a wide range of readings and need a lot of time to actually calculate, and the ground level has buildings with stone that may emit radiation or pollution. It's a fair argument to say that not enough thought was put in to getting people to figure out for themselves what is safe or not.

My trips to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-Bomb Museums were more emotional than usual, because I was able to experience a small fraction of that fear. I can't forget the last part of the museum in Nagasaki and its accounts from people who lived near nuclear testing sites from all around the world, including Nevada, recounting how their lives were changed by something so ridiculous as testing atomic bombs. Whether we like it or not, we've been living in a world still ripe with man-made radiation. However, that also doesn't mean Fukushima was a hiccup and doesn't deserve to live on in infamy and serve as an example of corporate negligence. There are real victims: the people of Fukushima who aren't able to go back to their homes because of this contamination. Just because many citizens of Tokyo won't have their lives cut short by this doesn't mean that no one will. There are real victims, some of whom moved to cities that are still too close for comfort in my mind (like Koriyama) and will probably never be able to live their normal lives again because even after the threat of airborne radiation subsides, the threat of contaminated land and water in that area will continue. This did affect a large part of the country and population, and will continue on.

The earthquake changed me -- and it caused one of the largest changes in my life that came from living in Japan -- and yet compared to the people who were truly affected by it, I'm just a casual observer.

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