10/10/2012 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Writing After Disaster: The Great East Japan Earthquake

The morning of Friday, March 11, 2011 was sunny and cold in Tokyo, a hint of spring in the air. I set off for work as usual, with plans to meet a friend that evening for a drink to celebrate her birthday.

At 2:46 p.m. I felt the ground start to shake. Tremors are common in Tokyo (I can feel one right now) so I didn't think anything of it. But this time was different: the shaking just kept getting stronger and stronger.

My colleagues and I ran outside. People were pouring from the buildings into a park, the ground undulating like we were all on a bizarre amusement park ride, the telegraph wires bouncing wildly. The shaking went on for six long minutes. It was bad, but we had no idea it was a magnitude 9.0 quake, the largest ever to hit Japan. The epicenter was off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku region, about 250 miles northeast of Tokyo.

The cell phone network immediately jammed but my husband texted to say he was fine and the children's schools emailed to assure us that our kids were being taken care of. After skyping my mother in California to tell her we were all right, I started home. Train service had been suspended so I walked, a journey of about three hours.

The streets were packed with people, some trying to get taxis, some walking, some staring up at big news screens that showed the tsunami flooding inland, engulfing fields and houses.

Only when I reached home and turned on the news did I begin to comprehend the heartbreaking, terrifying scale of what was happening, including what none of us ever imagined: the unfolding nuclear disaster.

The children's schools closed and -- fearing another quake and possible nuclear meltdown -- many families left, some for points west of Tokyo, some for other countries. Aftershocks rattling the house, streets deserted, supermarket shelves nearly empty as people stockpiled food and dry goods, my husband and I tried to reassure our children at the same time that we struggled to figure out what to do.

We watched the news, the Japanese broadcasts that made it seem like things would soon be under control, the foreign broadcasts that made it sound as if the apocalypse had arrived. France advised its citizens to get out of Tokyo and the U.S. warned Americans to avoid travel to Japan. We decided to leave for a couple of weeks until the picture was clearer and caught a flight to the States.

I write about the difficult post-3/11 days in "Aftershocks," a story published in Tomo (Stone Bridge), a wonderful YA anthology conceived of and edited by Holly Thompson to benefit Tohoku teens. The aftershocks that followed 3/11 made me think about the emotional reverberations of disaster and in my story, I explore this from the point of view of a teenage girl. Here's how the story opens:

If you want to know a few facts about me, here they are: I'm a teenage girl living in Tokyo with my parents, in a two-story house next to a graveyard. My dad's Japanese and my mom's American, from California. He's a mystery writer and she's an editor. They met on the old streetcar that goes to Waseda when they were each on their way to a dinner date, exchanged numbers, and a year later I was born at my grandparents' house in western Japan. I want to be an architect, I make amazing miso soup, and yes, we were here for the big one on March 11th. I think we survived it, though I can't say for sure.

Writers I know have written about 3/11 in different ways, some writing fiction, others writing essays about why they stayed, why they left, why they're taking part in post-3/11 anti-nuclear demonstrations. Writing about it, reading about it, talking about it, is all part of the process of making sense of what happened, of telling the stories that need to be told.

Now, a year and a half after the disaster, the people of Tohoku are still struggling to get back on their feet. Jobs are scarce, forcing many to leave. People evacuated from the nuclear exclusion zone worry not only about whether they'll ever be able to return to their homes but also about the long-term effects of the radiation on their children. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in temporary shelters and it's estimated that they may have to stay in these cheap housing units for as long as five years -- that's three and a half more years. And even if sufficient land and funding are secured for new housing, so many residents have left or are dead that the goals of rebuilding as a community are unclear.

There's a new way of saying goodbye in Tohoku. When volunteers head back to their homes throughout Japan and the world after clearing rubble, serving food, visiting shelters, residents say goodbye and, "Don't forget about us."

"Body, Tree, River, Mountain / After the Tsunami," a new 3/11-related story of mine, is just out in FAILBETTER.