A year ago today, we got stuck in a train tunnel after an earthquake had triggered an emergency stop of our commuter train. We were completely unaware of the fact that while we were waiting in the dark train, the biggest natural disaster to strike Japan in recent history was unfolding: a huge tsunami triggered by the magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of the Tohoku region was washing entire towns into the sea, deposing large ships several kilometers inland. Even today, it is hard to grasp the sheer extent of the disaster: 15 854 people have died that day, with another 3155 unaccounted for, the coastal regions still an unrecognizable wasteland.
Although this event has rocked our world, it seems almost impossible to match our own experience to the pictures of complete destruction that came from the North. Our reality is a mosaic of our own experiences mixed with those of our friends and acquaintances. The accounts of window panes bending during the earthquake at IPMU, of standing without a jacket for three hours on the lawn in the cold after having evacuated the building, of watching a little crack form on the facade of a university building at Komaba campus and watching it creep down the wall, or even of queuing for drinking water after the water lines had been cut off in Tsukuba, these little pieces fit the picture of the reality we lived through ourselves. Our reality was one of interrupted train services and no toilet paper in the supermarket, something incredibly far removed from what people have gone through on the Tohoku east coast.
There is another point that deserves to be made. What happened one year ago, was a huge earthquake and tsunami. It was not “Fukushima”. “Fukushima” has not killed close to 20’000 people. While I don’t want to minimize the nuclear accident, it is worth pointing out that so far, the released radioactivity has not claimed any lives. Thanks to the international media, the March 11 disaster has remained in the minds of people around the world as “Fukushima”. The nuclear accident has been only one of the many tragic consequences of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and just focusing on this is not doing justice to the tens of thousands of real victims of a natural disaster.