Today, the 11th of March 2013, marks the two year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. It is hard to believe that two years have passed since the east coast of Tohoku was devastated by enormous tsunami waves, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and taking tens of thousands of lives.
For me that day is etched permanently in the memory. I remember very distinctly hearing the first reports on the Today programme shortly after 6:30am followed by the more extensive and more horrifying 7am bulletin (listen to the edited bulletin below). And then shortly afterward that receiving an email from our office manager in Japan, Ayako, saying there had been a large earthquake but the situation was not clear. I remember arriving into the office, calling everyone over and discussing together what we could do and how we would look after our customers in Japan and our clients waiting to travel in the upcoming spring season.
That day our team work was the best it had ever been. We called next of kin to let them know their loved ones were safe; we spoke to clients with imminent departures, reassuring them their money was safe even if they were unable to travel; I was interviewed on local radio and James was interviewed live on BBC World. We did our best to answer the barrage of questions whilst remaining reassuring and professional at all times. I was extremely proud of our team both on that day and during the weeks that followed.
That was my immediate experience of the Tohoku earthquake, from thousands of miles away. That day I asked the team not to watch the news on their computers. To ignore the rolling news headlines, the images of horror and destruction. We are a company made up of people who care very deeply about Japan. For each of us our time spent living in Japan has left an indelible mark on who we are. I knew that if we allowed ourselves to be drawn to that then the emotional strain would be too much and we wouldn’t have the focus needed to keep it together for our clients and for the business.
On the 11th, after everyone had gone home, I sat back and watched my screen, the coastline burning as fires raged out of control in the darkness of the Tohoku night. I cried at my desk and felt utterly useless. I still remeber being surprised at the intesity of the grief I felt for people I had never met. It was heartbreaking.
For the business and for the whole team the weeks that followed were extremely tough as the situation worsened in Japan and it became apparent that this was a disaster on an unprecedented scale. I knew it would be many months before people felt they could travel safely to Japan. I worried about how we could keep everyone in their jobs, about whether the business we had built could survive.
After the immediate crisis passed we channelled our efforts into fund raising for disaster relief and on improving our systems and business materials. The whole company went down to a four day week and it felt a little like a period of hibernation; a slowing down whilst we waited for recovery to begin. But at no time did we give up and in our own way were inspired by the Independent’s enduring front cover from Saturday 12th March – “Gambare Nihon, Gambere Tohoku” – “Don’t give up Japan, Don’t give up Tohoku”. I don’t know who at the Independent came up with that or which editor took the decision to run with that front cover, but it was inspirational and extremely moving. It expressed what we were all feeling and for many months adorned our work notice board, reminding us all that we had to play our own small part.
The Independent ‘s front cover. Saturday 12th March, 2011
It seems perhaps insignificant when one considers the magnitude of the disaster, but getting visitors over to Japan and showing them what an extraordinary country it is has been an important part of the recovery process. For the Japanese, the return of foreign visitors has helped provide a psychological boost; an affirmation that the nation is back on its feet and foreign visitors again feel it is a safe and exciting destination to visit.
But whilst business at InsideJapan Tours is again strong and visitor numbers to Japan from the UK have almost reached 2010 levels, it is important not to forget those whose lives were changed forever two years ago. There are still over 300,000 people living in temporary accommodation. Whole families living in a space that is little more than a well equipped shipping container. And whereas their basic physical needs have been met by the state, the emotional scars will never heal. Levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism are high in the regions affected. Along with the devastating personal loss, many also lost their homes and their jobs. Japanese are extremely proud people and not having paid employment is an extra psychological as well as economic burden. Children struggle to come to terms with the horror of that day and although counselling services are available the numbers affected are just too great for everyone to have access.
InsideJapan’s Ruth Hubbard Volunteering at It’s Not Just Mud
It is hard to know what we can do to assist those whose lives are still in limbo. For whom the reality of the Great Tohoku Earthquake is part of their everyday life. We have sent a few volunteers to ‘It’s Not Just Mud’, a small non-profit working near Ishinomaki. Our staff have been to help out and we have raised a small amount of cash. Small gestures but we hope ones that have made a difference to somebody’s life.
As a tour operator and travel company I still believe that encouraging our clients to visit Tohoku is the best thing we can do to help. Tourism brings jobs and economic recovery will help. We are still focused on recommending Tohoku to our clients. It is a beautiful region of Japan with friendly people and great food. For those who wish to visit the affected areas we always encourage them to do so. Far from shunning visitors, those who travel here receive the warmest of welcomes.
The world moves on and the world forgets. New disasters happen; turn on the television news and suffering is everywhere. But for the people of Tohoku the disaster is still very close at hand. And on this day of remembrance I would like to encourage everyone to stop and spend a few moments to reflect on what happened on that dreadful Friday in 2011. “Gambare Nihon, Gambare Tohoku”. – “Don’t give up Japan, Don’t give up Tohoku” and never forget.
Click to view Alastair’s images from a visit to Tohoku in August 2011
Filed under: March 11th Tsunami, Opinion | Tagged: japan disaster, remebrance, tohoku earthquake, tsunami 2011 | 2 Comments »