Some Underwhelming Reflections on “3/11”


Christopher Carr

Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

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19 Responses

  1. Avatar James K says:

    I realized that in any just universe I would be obligated to hate a God that would allow such a thing as the tsunami to happen, if an omnipotent God were not such an absurd proposition to begin with. As embarrassing it is to admit this, I actually became very angry with the idea of God and religion and people continuing to believe and worship indifferently, as I continued folding napkins. It was a pure, visceral hatred that burned through me, which I do not regret, even if I feel it is not representative of my overall religious views.

    Shortly after the February 2011 aftershock in Christchurch (the February quake is considered a bigger deal than the September 2010 quake because no one died in the September one, even though it was slightly larger), I noticed that at the Catholic primary school where my wargaming club meets some classes had written up prayers and they were posted up in the hall.  My eye is naturally drawn to text, but had to keep pulling my eyes away from the walls because once I started to read those prayers I would start to get angry very quickly.Report

  2. In short, planning is why 20,000 people died in Japan and 300,000 died in Haiti.

    Hear, hear.  And it’s about time someone pointed that out, instead of rolling out image after image of disaster porn.

    A thoughtful, moving, wise and emotionally mature piece of writing, Christopher.  And on one of the most difficult subjects imaginable.  Consider me a fan of yours.


  3. Avatar Michelle says:

    Great piece Chris–one that leaves me with a lot to think about. I always wonder how Americans would react to a disaster of such scale happening on our shores. I’m not sure we’d do nearly as well.Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

        A spent a brief time working with the public health establishment here to share my experience and try to get them to start taking social media seriously (future post perhaps), before being sort of “driven out”, for lack of a better description. I’m quite sure you’re right, and I hope it never comes to that.Report

  4. Avatar dexter says:

    I live 60 miles east of New Orleans and I positive we would not react as wall.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I got about as far as the old woman making you onigiri and tears sprang out, hot and fierce.

    The real story in every disaster – whether wrought of human hands or an act of God – is the lives, the individuals, the universes we sacrifice.

    MIYAKO, Japan – Modern sea walls failed to protect coastal towns from Japan’s destructive tsunami last month. But in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, a single centuries-old tablet saved the day.

    “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

    It was advice the dozen or so households of Aneyoshi heeded, and their homes emerged unscathed from a disaster that flattened low-lying communities elsewhere and killed thousands along Japan’s northeastern shore.

    Hundreds of such markers dot the coastline, some more than 600 years old. Collectively they form a crude warning system for Japan, whose long coasts along major fault lines have made it a repeated target of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries.

    The markers don’t all indicate where it’s safe to build. Some simply stand — or stood, washed away by the tsunami — as daily reminders of the risk. “If an earthquake comes, beware of tsunamis,” reads one. In the bustle of modern life, many forgot.


    Earlier generations also left warnings in place names, calling one town “Octopus Grounds” for the sea life washed up by tsunamis and naming temples after the powerful waves, said Fumihiko Imamura, a professor in disaster planning at Tohoku University in Sendai, a tsunami-hit city.

    “It takes about three generations for people to forget. Those that experience the disaster themselves pass it to their children and their grandchildren, but then the memory fades,” he said.

    The tightly-knit community of Aneyoshi, where people built homes above the marker, was an exception.

    “Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school,” said Yuto Kimura, 12, who guided a recent visitor to one near his home. “When the tsunami came, my mom got me from school and then the whole village climbed to higher ground.”

    I cannot fault you for your anger at some trite conception of God.  Shiranu ga hotoke, not-knowing is enlightenment, says the old proverb in Japanese, but those old marker stones were left for passers-by to read and remember what happened around 1400.   Hotoke is also the performance of a Buddhist rite of remembrance.   Hotoke, the soul, hotoke, the dearest friend, hotoke, the Buddha himself.

    The marker stone of 2011 will be the great mausoleum of Fukushima Daiichi.   It will stand, like the reactors of Chernobyl, for centuries.  Fukushima will in time become another Pripyet, a monument to human folly and hubris and the transience of human existence.

    Christopher, we only have each other in life.   God’s not our Daddy.   Rage at God if you will:  I cannot and will not tell you to feel otherwise.   Where else could such titanic emotions go, except in the direction of all who would give you false comfort?   There is but one true guidance in life, that we love each other and hold that belief paramount over all others.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      It has been reported that some cities are planting cherry trees (the flowering kind) along the maximum water line of the Tsunami. Along with other markers. An interesting piece in the Japan Times shows that the runup in 2011 was very similar to that of 869, suggesting that the problem of long term memory in society is a major one. After the great grand children of those affected leave the scene its just history not real. (As an example consider it took 100 years for Vicksburg MS to celebrate the fourth of July after the surrender on July 4 1863)Report

    • Avatar smarx says:

      Memory is a weird thing.  Certain elements of an event are remembered, while others are not..

      Earthquake drills in Japan are very common, but no one used to think about coupling it with a tsunami drill.  After the earthquake in Peru in 2010 there were tsunami warning, but they didn’t amount to much.  This and other events resulted, I think, in people getting lulled into a false sense of safety – thinking things couldn’t get worse.

      My friends in Osaka were unscathed by the earthquake (although, the memory of the Kobe earthquake is still strong), and were more concerned about me because I was living in Hawaii at the time.  Tourists in hotels were moved to higher ground, and locals stocked up on goods.  There was a little apprehension about all the safety precausions because the tsunami from the Peru earthquake turned out be a dud.  But, the tsunami did make it to the islands and damaged several boat docks and hotel lobbies.  It was no where near as bad as Fukushima, but it was worse than it was in Osaka.

      Where I lived in Shizuoka there is a river that runs through the valley.  About 60 years ago there was a typhoon that turned the river from peaceful to deadly as it swelled its banks and washed away people and home.  Thousands of people vanished overnight and were never seen again.  Afterwards the river was dammed, banks were erected, and memorial stones were put in place.  But, the memory of the event is fading.  The guy who ran the local 7-11 had a few recollections of the event, and he only mentioned it when I asked about the memorial stones.Report

  6. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Your thoughts are much clearer than mine.

    To this day I’m still mostly struck by a numbness when I think about the impacts to places like Iwate.Report

  7. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    We had a big earthquake even as I was reading this here in Tokyo. Like all of the hundreds and hundreds we’ve endured over the past year, it was much stronger up north, and we have comparatively little to complain about.

    My wife is from Fukushima, just outside the exclusion zone. She has been radicalized by the events surrounding the plant meltdown – radicalized by modern Japanese standards; an American would say she’s developed a set of opinions.

    We took a trip to Ishinomaki recently. As a hurricane-country person myself, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being a disaster tourist. We didn’t go to gawk, but we didn’t go to volunteer either, just spend our little disposable income in a place that could use it. I was wrong to be worried. The people we met were bursting to talk about what had happened, eager to show the rest of the world what they had gone through. Like you, maybe, I tend to get bent out of shape when the usual Japan tropes get hauled out – the mystical, ancient Polite Empire of Hello Kitty – but some of the things I heard reminded me that, sometimes, I really should shut up. A guy told us that the experience made him proud to be Japanese – not something that people say easily in a society where patriotism has an almost entirely negative connotation. He said that the first emergency responders in that town arrived from Hokkaido, the equivalent of a fire brigade from Austin, Texas racing to New Orleans. We heard a lot of horrors, too, but I was most impressed with the gratitude that people expressed. After everything they went through, after the weeks without lights, heat, gasoline, and little food and water in the freezing cold destroyed city, a lot of people wanted to say thanks for the help they finally received.Report

  8. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    CC, this post is just phenomenal.  I have nothing to add, and no comments to get any kind of conversations started, but I did want to let you know that I found the whole thing terribly powerful and very well written.Report

  9. Avatar Pete McCann says:

    Great piece, Chris.

    You’re right about the planning. It was an amazing thing to see, albeit an incredibly frustrating thing to experience at the time.

    As you mention,  the number of children that have left is slightly exaggerated. None of the children I know have left, although you are less likely to see children on the street apart from on their school commute. This is because either they have moved or their parents won’t let them outside. I do know some people, however, who moved to other parts of Japan in order to take their children away. Others have settled for staying in Fukushima during the week for school, then staying with family at the weekend, so that their children can go outside and play without fear.

    It’s good to hear your thoughts on the matter.Report

  10. Avatar Bojangles says:

    While most parents are taking care to make sure their child is not eating radioactive dirt from the playground others have a different attitude.  Last November at the harvest festival I saw a couple let their 2 toddlers play on a moss covered area without close supervision.  I was curious as to the level of radiation on that moss since it soaks up cesium like a sponge.  I walked over and checked with my geiger counter and it went up to 10 microseiverts per hour.  Now since the toddlers were only playing there for 10 mintues or so they didn’t receive 10 microseiverts but every little bit adds up. Let’s hope it’s no big deal. 

    I have one friend who has converted to Christianity and has suggested that everyone who doesn’t believe in God will go to hell.  From his suggestion that means that the majority of the 20,000 who passed from the tsunami have gone to hell.   And from his views God has done this for a reason as that is the only explanation for why a disaster like this would happen.  Be careful not to think about this guy next time you’re folding napkins as you might rip them all to shreds in anger. 


  11. Avatar North says:

    An excellent piece Christopher, I appreciate your personal perspective.

    Fukashima is a frustrating problem indeed. On one hand the reactor took a direct earthquake and tsunami hit and in the end it was the konked out diesel engines that caused the disaster. On the other hand clearly there were regulatory and oversight problems that compounded the disaster. It will be very interesting to see, in the long run, what impact the disaster will have on the region. Chernobyl offers little example; the country had the room to simply move everyone away forever. Fukushima is in dense dense little Japan. The pressure to use that space will eventually be very strong. Hopefully a lot will be learned about radiation cleanup and tolerances and long term effects.

    Terrible as the disaster was the country still needs elecricity. I personally hope that the outrage takes the form of pressure for better reactor design and oversight rather than some visceral rejection of nuclear in general. They have to get their power from somewhere.Report