Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From Kobe, Jan. 17, 1995 to Tohoku, March 11, 2011

The news in Japan has catapulted me back to my time in that country, my memories of that place.

I lived in Osaka and Kyoto from 1990 to 1993. I have a master’s degree in Japanese Studies, and initially went there on a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study at Doshisha University for a year and a half. I extended my stay for another 18 months, because I fell in love with the culture and the people.

Eventually, in September 1993, it was time to return to the U.S., It was a hard decision to make. I was deeply conflicted about leaving Japan and upon arriving in California, I experienced severe counter-culture shock, mourning the streets, smells, and sounds of Japan, as well as the loss of my friends and connections.

So on Jan. 17, 1995, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Kobe, also severely damaging nearby Osaka and Kyoto, I was devastated. The pictures in the newspaper, and those flashing across the television screens, were places I knew – collapsed highways I had driven across, flattened neighborhoods familiar to me, all the sights of “home.”

The brother of one of my closest friends lived in Kobe. His wife was pregnant, and near her due date. As was the custom, she had gone to her mother’s home in the country to wait for the birth. Her son was born that morning, the morning of the earthquake. Thankfully, he and his mother were not in a Kobe hospital. His father was among the commuters in the city, dealing with the chaos.

The Kobe earthquake was the biggest to hit Japan in 47 years. Nearly 6,500 died, and 27,000 were injured. More than 45,000 homes were destroyed.

And now we have the Tohoku earthquake of March 11, 2011, named after the region most affected in northern Honshu. The quake was of 9.0 magnitude, and geoscientists are saying it is the most massive event to have occurred in the last 1,200 years. With the compounding factor of the tsunami, at this point, there are an estimated 10,000 people dead or missing. Another 440,000 have been evacuated, and 88,000 buildings have been damaged. The most frightening unknown, of course, is the nuclear reactor plants, threatening meltdown.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, and experiences thousands of minor tremors each year. Nothing, however, can prepare a country for a disaster of this scale.

After 18 years, I have lost touch with all of my friends in Japan. I see their faces now – Yukari, Nariko, Machiko, Tomio, Nakamura-san, Sonoda-san, Sayaka-chan, Kenji-kun, and many more. I am praying they are each in a safe place, with food, electricity, water, and heat. I am holding them in my thoughts when I meditate, hoping that can somehow help keep invisible radiation from finding them, wherever they are.

Simon Winchester’s book, “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906,” tells the tale of that historic San Francisco quake. Winchester’s book delves into the science of seismology, and speaks specifically about the San Andreas fault. It is a fascinating read for those who want to learn more about this awe-inspiring movement of the earth.

That is the scientific part of the brain working. The heart/mind, though, is split open with grief over this event - and it will take some time before all of this human suffering can be absorbed into our world consciousness. A lot of time on the cushion.

(The Japanese kanji at the top is jishin - it means "earthquake.")


  1. Thank you for writing about this devastating event in Japan. I, also, have many ties to Japan and I grieve.

  2. Your words of experience and familiarity help me absorb the massive emotions that ripple across the world--that aftershock of reality shifting. Thank you for adding them to the communiques. See my blog for my "Letter to Japan" at http://gaillarrick.blogspot.com for my response...g.