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Two years after Japan's tsunami, time stands still

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Tsunami footage from YouTube

"Two years after the tsunami: families lost, time stands still," reads the headline on Japan's Asahi newspaper this morning, as the country marks the anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the northeastern region in 2011. 

The toll of the earthquake was terrifying. As of March 8, 2013, the official statistics are:

  • 15,881 people dead
  • 2,668 people missing
  • 31,5196 people displaced

All this, of course, doesn't even count the damage of the Fukushima nuclear fallout, the full impact of which remains yet to be seen.

The moment that news of the earthquake came in two years ago on this day, I didn't think very much of it: earthquakes happen all the time in Japan and people are well prepared for it.

But an abnormal sense of urgency and panic permeated the reactions on social media, so I watched the video footage -- and couldn't believe my eyes. There's a word called "jigoku-e", translated as 'scene from hell', and it seemed to be the only description fitting for the image of black water dotted with blazing fire, covering the land like a blanket of destruction. 

After getting over the initial shock and dismay at the wall of comments making jokes about the tsunami, I got in touch with friends and family there (mostly in areas not directly impacted by the disaster) to be sure they were safe. For many who had come from overseas to work in Japan, the earthquake was the turning point when they left the country for good. For others, it merely clarified their decision to stay there, through the bad times as well as the good.

Here in Vancouver, people originally from the Tohoku  region -- including writer-musician Kozue Matsumoto -- immediately began to organize fundraising efforts through charity events, as well as asking for donations out on the street (read her recollection of returning to her quake-hit hometown). Restaurant and coffee shop owners quietly set up buckets for customers to pitch in to first aid and reconstruction. Stores like London Drugs were flooded by people seeking to buy potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation. Water bottles and canned foods went flying off the shelves; emergency first aid kits sold out. 

Even from an outsider's perspective, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima seems to have triggered a wave of social and political transformation. Everything seemed to have changed. In a country known for its high rate of suicides, the overnight loss of over 10,000 lives brought into sharp focus on the importance of family and relationships.  

Calls for denuclearization engulfed the nation, with activists demanding how, after having experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the country could have come to depend on nuclear power for a third of its energy needs.

The concept trickled into popular culture, with comics like Hito Hitori Futari depicting a fictional Prime Minister staring down fears of assassination in standing up to the powerful nuclear lobby. Even if there were strong reasons to continue nuclear power -- climate change chief among them -- its public image had become deeply compromised. 

Image from Hito Hitori Futari

The aftermath of the quake was filled with revelatory moments. When Reconstruction Minister Ryu Matsumoto refused to shake hands with the governor of a quake-ravaged region and threatened reporters in the room that their companies would be "finished" if they aired his disrespectful comments and behavior, a few defiantly broadcast the whole exchange for the world to see, forcing him to resign. 

Then-Reconstruction Minister Matsumoto rebukes the governor for arriving late, tells him that funding won't be provided unless solid ideas are proposed by people in quake-struck regions, then warns reporters: "The last comment was off record. If you write it, consider your company finished." 

In another unforgettable incident, reporters challenged MP Yasuhiro Sonoda to drink the water from near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, to prove his own words that the water was safe.

The yakuza mafia was praised for sending funds and workers to help with the reconstruction efforts, later reaping criticism for the fact that thousands of the workers were illegally recruited and being drastically underpaid. 

Today, two years after the disaster, I've already started forgetting about some of the lessons learned from that terrible day. But it could happen anywhere, at any time on the West Coast. Vancouver, in any case, would be ill-prepared for such a disaster: a rescue worker who went to Tohoku last year told me that if a major earthquake ever hit near Greater Vancouver, the city would basically be screwed.

As the years pass by, people will think less and less frequently on the March 11 disaster in Japan, but I hope people will stop to reflect on what  happened, not just on the day of the anniversary.

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