#2436

Preserving the Memory of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Literature

March 11th, 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, one of the most devastating disasters in recorded human history. The magnitude 9.0 quake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan on March 11th, 2011 remains the 4th largest recorded earthquake in modern times; it not only caused widespread damage in Japan, but even shifted the axis of the Earth. The massive tsunami following minutes after the quake took the lives of over 10,000 people, triggered meltdowns at 3 reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and left over $235 billion US dollars’ worth of destruction in its wake. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, its waves struck distant coasts hard enough to cause notable damage in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Chile, and the Galapagos Islands. 

Yet the true human impact of such earth-shaking disasters is not captured only in the number of casualties or the cost of response and recovery; it is captured in the personal experiences and journeys of those who survived, and the memories they bear of those who did not. So too are the lessons they learned, which are priceless to those of us who live on or near vulnerable coastlines. For example, with the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the North American West Coast, our “Big One” could look very similar to Japan’s and strike with just as little warning. As we say in the emergency preparedness world – it’s a matter of WHEN, not IF.

Therefore, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, I would like to share some of my favorite written works on the subject. There can be no better way to honor those who lost their lives to this tragedy, nor to show our respect to the survivors who have worked so hard rebuilding their communities, than to take their stories and lessons to heart. Don’t let the subject matter dissuade you; we should not shy away from tragedy, because in tragedies like the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami we find poignant evidence of the beauty and strength of the human spirit.

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry

Ghosts of the Tsunami is not a light read, yet it is absolutely worth the emotional journey. While Ghosts of the Tsunami touches on other aspects of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, its focus is the tragedy of Okawa Elementary and the 74 students lost while under their teachers’ care. Parry’s masterful narrative follows their grieving families through the immediate aftermath of the disaster and continues over the span of many years as some parents seek closure while others push for answers and accountability. The story of these families is a haunting reminder that disasters of this magnitude have the power to reshape the future of a community for generations – not only through quantifiable impacts like infrastructure and economic damage, but through the responsibility and emotional burden survivors carry with them.

So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms: Haiku from the Year of the Great Earthquake and Tsunami edited by Mayuzumi Madoka

Given the importance of poetry in Japanese culture, it is no surprise that there are several poetry collections about the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms is distinctive for both the poignancy of its 17-syllable poems, all of which were written by Japanese citizens who personally experienced the disaster, and the amount of detail provided within. Along with both the Japanese and English translations of each poem, the reader is provided with the authors name, age, the number of tsunami-related fatalities in their hometown, and either backstory or direct quotes from the author explaining the inspiration for the piece. Interspersed between chapters is also commentary from the editor, distinguished haiku poet Mayuzumi Madoka, who travelled through the disaster zone in the months after to help survivors heal through poetry writing. 

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith and Rachel Wada

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden is a beautifully illustrated children’s book based on the true story of “Kaze no Denwa” (the phone of the wind or wind phone), a disconnected phone booth built by 72-year-old garden designer Itaru Sasaki to help him process the death of a close relative. After the tsunami devastated his town, other survivors began using the phone booth to communicate with their own lost family and friends; many found this expression of grief gave them the closure they needed to begin healing. Tens of thousands of people have visited the phone booth since 2011, many even traveling from other countries to experience its unique form of therapy. The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden crafts a simple yet heart-wrenching version of this story that speaks equally to young readers and adults alike, reminding us that grief is part of the human experience and healing can be found in the unlikeliest places. 

Beyond Me by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu

Beyond Me is a fiction novel-in-verse told from the point of view of a 5th grader named Maya. Maya experiences the March 11th earthquake from the relative safety of her inland town where she’s lucky to lose neither her family nor her home. Instead, she struggles with survivor’s guilt and the trauma brought on by constant unpredictable aftershocks, many of which are major earthquakes in their own right. This is where Beyond Me truly shines – through clever use of font formatting and a disjointed writing style, the reader experiences each earthquake in real-time with Maya. Dropped into Maya’s uncertain world where even the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted, readers of any age will identify with her conflicted emotions. Likewise, I’m sure many readers will identify with the impulse to ignore one’s own problems because “others have it worse”, and hopefully will learn with Maya how to help both themselves and others in a healthy way.

In addition to these 4 books, below is a short list of additional recommendations. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the English-language literature available on the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, but I believe there is something of value available for everyone (and all ages!). 

Drowning in the Floating World: Poems – Meg Eden
Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami – Gretel Ehrlich
March Was Made of Yarn: Writers Respond to Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown – Ed. David Karashima, Elmer Luke
The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America by Brian Atwater, Musumi-Rokkaku Satoko, Satake Kenji, Tsuji Yoshinobu, Ueda Kazue, and David Yamaguchi
Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50: Poems – Lee Ann Roripaugh
Up from the Sea – Leza Lowitz


#2425

I thought Tsunami would be a feral thing, silt between her teeth and gasoline rainbow hair tangled with fishing nets, distorted siren wail vomiting toxic black sludge. She’s frenetic, ravenous, a cataclysmic Charybdis, right? But Tsunami was scoured clean when I met him, a china-white skeleton in black robes like a Buddhist monk’s. Such silence in the sockets of that rictus face, such stillness, such unwarranted serenity! We look the same beneath, he told me, and I saw that I too had rotted down to fragile paper crane bones. The revelation did not disturb me; it was comforting to be done with the meat and its attendant miseries. We did indeed look identical, Tsunami and I. Just two skeletons clad in black, smiling through eternity.

#2394

Pass by, hungry flames
this land is not yours to consume!

Bast your Mistress stands with me
I command you to pass by!

The Eyes of Ra stand with me
I command you to pass by!

The Netjeru stand with me
I command you to pass by!

I command you to pass by!
I command you to pass by!
I command you to pass by!

#2385

“3.11”

I know
It won’t be like Sendai

Different coastline
Different country

But still, I feel beholden to them
Those 70 young lives lost to laxity
And if I let it happen here
If I let us fail our own children
We will have failed Okawa’s as well

There are no natural disasters

Only deaths we could have prevented
Lessons we refused to learn
Ghosts we carry with us forever and hope
Somehow
To do right by

Next time

The school beneath the wave: the unimaginable tragedy of Japan’s tsunami – Richard Lloyd Parry

Watch: Tsunami’s devastating impact on Washington after potential 9.0 quake (Komo News)

#2321

You could call me a priestess of sorts, I suppose, albeit a grant-funded and state-employed one. I do spend much time preaching about my lady’s temper, teaching these arrogant mortals to respect the power of Cascadia and all her sisters. They sleep in a ring, you know, dreaming of fire and blood and occasionally waking to deliver death in broad swathes. Cascadia has been sleeping these past three hundred years but when she wakes again her wrath will sunder the earth and drown sin and sinner alike. (Such ancient forces as she hardly care what form their offerings take; it’s about quantity, not quality.) Though she cannot be pacified, still she must be revered. A little fear is necessary to grasp the immensity of Cascadia’s destruction when – not if – she stirs once more. The question is, will humanity heed the words of her clergy in time?

New job!

It’s late June and I’m cleaning out my desk… throwing away old papers… saying my goodbyes… but not because school’s out. It’s because…

I’m changing jobs!

See, for as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with disasters, both manmade and natural. I watched Twister religiously as a kid and was supremely disappointed that I was born eight years too late to witness the famous 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. If asked what historical event I would most want to go back in time to experience, I could never pick between the sinking of the Titanic or the destruction of Pompeii. Pompeii would probably win out, though, because geology is the coolest of the hard sciences.

This is me as both a witch AND a geoscience major.

My obsession with disasters is formed of equal parts horror and fascination: horror because these events prove how quickly and completely our human-centric world can be reduced to rubble; fascination because their scale and power are frankly awe-inspiring, especially if you understand the forces at work. Disaster movies might take some scientific and artistic liberties, but they still offer insight into how fucking terrifying the earth can be.

 

I say all this because emergency management is my passion and finally, after six years in a different career field, I’ve found my way back! Starting this week, I’ll be working for my state’s Emergency Management Division as an Emergency Management Program Specialist to, and I quote, “provide professional level emergency management and public education assistance in implementing the statewide Tsunami/Earthquake/Volcano program.”

HOW FUCKING COOL DOES THAT SOUND??

They’re gonna pay me actual money to talk about natural disasters! And science! And emergency preparedness! Those are like my favorite things!! I’m just so excited that it almost doesn’t feel real. This is literally my dream job. I can’t even.

Actual footage of other people (left) versus me (right) during a disaster.

#2155

the earth is on fire and also underwater and i’m trying to embrace this whole apocalypse thing since that seems like the only way to stay sane here in the end times but it’s hard, you know, i’m feeling more and more like crazy cuckoo crackpot cassandra every day or like i’m the only person in pompeii who looked up and thought hey, the mountain’s sure acting weird this week, and if i don’t provide a viable solution to my fear-mongering that’s only because i really don’t think there is one, at least not at this point, not this far down the dead-end road, but hey at least i’ve got some really good news for people who love bad news

#2121

I’ve been thinking about inevitability. About how chance and circumstance could lead Igor Dyatlov’s hiking group to set up their tent in the exact center of an extremely rare and unknown wind vortex, the resulting infrasound of which sent them running into the subzero Siberian winter. Those students did everything right, everything, given what science knew at the time, and yet nine people froze to death in darkness. In 1958 no amount of investigation could answer the why of the disaster. Now we know. They couldn’t have.

I’ve been thinking about preparedness. About how chance and circumstance could lead the RMS Titanic to sail through an unknown thermal inversion, an ocular mirage that hid the iceberg, so confused the nearby Californian that it never went to assist, and ruined any chance those floating in freezing cold water had to survive the night. Both ships’ crews did everything right, everything, given what science knew at the time, and yet fifteen hundred people froze to death in darkness. In 1912 no amount of investigation could answer the why of the disaster. Now we know. They couldn’t have.

How can things go so extremely wrong when those involved are as educated, trained, and prepared as it is possible to be? When they do everything exactly right and still meet with helplessness and death? What does that mean for the rest of us who know so little? We can only prepare for what we know is coming. We can only imagine scenarios within the reality we conceptualize. Beyond that we are babes.

I do not fear the unknown. I do not fear aliens or curses or conspiracies, Sasquatch or Mothman or Bloody Mary. I fear what we already know. I fear the sleeping calderas and the pressurized fault lines; I fear the solar flares and the sixth great extinction. And I fear the as-yet-unknown. The to-be-known. The dangers already existing all around us, hidden only by the limits of human knowledge. What awaits us that we will never see coming?

#2057

Dreams of you leave me dizzy and exhausted, unable to grasp who or where I am. This one lingers long and I’m still half-blind from the sun reflecting off your metal wings, my ears full of the screams of your victims. I have seen you neither happier nor more powerful than as you hover in the sky raining down death, and thus never more beautiful. With minute motions of your hands you sink seabeds and thrust up cliffs, topple causeways and twist mountain ranges until they leap, suicide-like, into the roiling ocean. There is no escape for the rebels and fugitives who sought to hide in this remote corner of the country; you are barely human, devoid of empathy or concern, and their fear means nothing. What is the death of others, innocent or guilty, to you who are death itself? There is no judgement, only joy in the destruction. You are a weapon that loves its purpose.

So many dreams of pursuit, and I should have known you would be waiting at the end of them all. You are at every end, o radiant angel, and no matter where I run I always run toward you.

#1989

beneath a flat gray ceiling, no sun no sky
I think we live in a fucking parking garage
breathing in exhaust and someone else’s ash
keep your head down, write your shitty poetry
avoid the puddles and the bodies
eh, we’re all gonna die anyway

#1923

We anthropomorphize what we do not understand and deify what we fear. Perhaps, therefore, I should call this terror and awe Cascadia and give it a name, a form, a realm to rule. Grand Cascadia, She Who Slumbers Uneasily, She Who Builds Mountains and Destroys Cities. Ancient Cascadia, who sleeps beneath the earth’s crust and whose every toss and turn rattles the land above. Cruel Cascadia, whose laughter stirs tsunamis, whose anger detonates stratovolcanoes and sends shockwaves of destruction through two thousand miles of rock and earth. I see her body made of the fine silt of the ocean floor; her eyes glow the hot white of magma; her hair is ash and smoke and seaweed and minerals. She is a uniquely Pacific Northwest goddess, one link in the great ring of fire through which she and her sisters transform the world.

It is tempting, I’ll admit, to hand the fear of what I cannot control over to a deity I can at least implore. I could light red candles in her honor and leave her offerings of seashells, saltwater, Mt. St. Helens ash. Beneath her altar I could store flashlights and emergency rations. I could write songs and poems for her, about the people she has killed already and those she will kill in the future. I could, I could, I could – but what good would it do? Even if Cascadia were a true goddess, she would not be swayed by offerings or pleading. She would be something more terrifying than Kali and more uncontrollable than Sekhmet, something that gloried in death even more than Inanna or the Morrigan. There would be no appeasing her. She would only sleep, wake, slaughter, and sleep to wake and kill again. All the prayer in the world could not reckon with her, and when she next wakes her death toll will be in the hundreds of thousands.

Sleep, Cascadia. Sleep.

#1880

yesterday the anger was
a molten core, pressure building
praying for eruptiontoday the depression is
a granite pluton hard and cold
yielding to erosion

maybe Yellowstone will redeem us
before we can do too much damage;
you know, wipe the slate clean, hit restart on
this whole “life” business

foolish man, to think nature
does not always hold the trump card;
they ignored the signs in Pompeii too
but hey, at least they’re famous

turn to geology on your deathbed
it is the only science that can save you

#1787

“That was… unsettlingly close,” Daren brushed ash and embers from his clothing as he stepped out onto the roof. Beside him, Tanim nodded in agreement. “Isn’t it always?” He seemed distracted, staring at something over Daren’s shoulder, and the younger man turned to see what had caught his attention. His shoulders sagged. “Is that…”

“Tornado?” Tanim nodded again in a matter-of-fact manner that belied the danger of their newest threat. “Yes. Yes, I believe so.” Although they stood on the roof of a towering skyscraper, a forest of other building spires surrounding them in all directions, a dark, fat funnel of wind roared not far away. As it rolled its way toward them, it chewed up buildings and streets alike, leaving nothing but rubble in its wake.

“Okay,” Daren turned away from the tornado with a sigh of unwilling acceptance. “Cool. And that?” He pointed upwards to where the dark clouds, from which the twister had been birthed, were bubbling and roiling like boiling water. Amid the movement the broad edge of some spacecraft could be seen; it took up half the sky, and beside it the tornado seemed a paltry risk. Tanim stared at the ship that was clearly out of the trailer for Independence Day: Resurrection and commented mildly, “You know… it occurs to me that we might not make it out of this one. She’s not that good.”

“Time to wake up?” Daren suggested, indicating with a nod the direction where there were, as yet, no new surprises – though a distant glint implied a tsunami might be approaching. Giving the impending warship one final wary glance, Tanim mumbled, “sounds good,” and followed Daren to the roof ledge. Without any parting words or declarations of love, he pushed Daren over the edge, then closed his eyes and let the dreamer take over as he fell as well. At least she was good at slipping out of dreams when necessary, even if it was her own mind that conjured the various disasters and threats they faced.

#1755

all is
still
still
still
and
then
with
out
warning
the earth awakes
in violent tremors, roaring
cacophonous subterranean thunder
buildings swaying
bridges buckling, overpasses shuddering
concrete crumbles
brick collapses in clouds
of red dust like the skies of Mars
glass shatters and power lines topple
while beachfronts slough off into white-capped water
and it seems to go on forever, minutes becoming an eternity
while the world shakes and quakes and destructs
like nothing Chicken Little ever could
have expected, the sky is falling
the sky is falling
and in the aftermath
nothing is untouched or
unharmed and yet
somehow
the earth
still manages
to go
still
still
still
again
(but
for
how
long?)

#1578

you don’t have to be afraid
but at least be respectful
there is fire beneath your feet
and enough coiled tension to move Earth itself
the same water that sustains all of life
can also wipe it away in a surging wall
the mountains sleep, but are not dead
the ground is still, but hardly static
and nature is never tamed
only quiet between catastrophes
you don’t have to be afraid
but at least be prepared