3/11: Three Years Later (A Newcomer’s View: The Meaning of 頑張る)

The rallying cry of an entire nation

The rallying cry of an entire nation

Three years ago around this time, the lives of millions of people living along the entire northeastern side of Japan changed forever.  Only a few kilometers east of where I sit today, tsunami waves ravaged coastal communities, obliterating centuries worth of traditions and family businesses in the blink of an eye.  Several dozen kilometers north of me, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant would also be hit by massive waves that reached a reported 133 feet high in some areas, setting off a chain of events that have removed thousands of people from their long-standing homes in its radius.  Even today, more than 267,000 people remain displaced by the events of March 11th, 2011, many residents of communities that no longer exist after being swallowed whole by the churning arms of the angry sea.

Living where I do, between the greater Tokyo community and Tohoku, I am placed in the interesting position of being in a place that was spared of much of the earthquake’s wrath but one that has still suffered much of its psychological damage, affected by the disaster nevertheless.  One of my co-workers is originally from Fukushima but moved for the sake of his young family following the aftermath of the nuclear disaster.  But a short train ride away, the coastal port town of Oarai is struggling to return to normal after being hit by the tsunami (though it was further down the coast than the hardest hit areas,  the town was still hit with a considerable amount of water).  Many of you may have seen images of a whirlpool in a harbor from that day.  That harbor was Oarai.

Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture shortly after being hit by the March 11th tsunami. (photo credit: Kyodo)

Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture shortly after being hit by the March 11th tsunami. (photo credit: Kyodo)

But only an one hour train ride away is Fukushima prefecture, a name that has now become synonymous with nuclear disasters and radiation leaks but was even ravaged more by waves of biblical proportions that ripped out the hearts of entire communities with unwavering cruelty.  The train line that once ran from Tokyo, through Mito and Fukushima, to Sendai in the heart of the northeast now effectively stops at the border between Ibaraki and Fukushima, the tracks from that point on either washed away or smack-dab in the middle of a nuclear exclusion zone.

I ride this train ever week just about an hour from where this picture was taken.

I ride this train ever week just about an hour from where this picture was taken. (Kyodo)

Almost everywhere I look, I can see banners, signs, flyers, ads, streamers all sporting the same message: 「がんばっぺ茨城」 (ganbappe Ibaraki).  がんばっぺ, or it’s more common form がんばれ, is an interesting phrase in that while there are various ways people can translate it into English, there’s really no term in English that really comes close to capture it’s meaning.  I’ve seen がんばれ translated as “fight” (Keep fighting, Ibaraki!), “keep at it”, “do your best”, and various other forward momentum terms for putting 120% of one’s effort into doing something but none of them really seem to come close to the Japanese word, no matter how many syntactic hoops one jumps through.  So I could try to tell people in Tohoku, Ibaraki, and all of Japan to keep on fighting and to keep on keeping on, but, at the end of the day, がんばれ is all that needs to be said.  And that’s the mentality here and all across the northeastern portion of Japan I now seem to call home.  Something terrible happened but there’s nothing to do but keep がんばれ-ing until those terrible days have somehow vanished from the land.

People don’t seem to smile here as much as they should.  And after what they’ve had to go through, who can blame them?  In many ways, the March 11th earthquake signified the end of a way of life for the people of Tohoku.  While most of the international media world has decidedly turned its eye from the plight of the survivors of the earthquake save for the occasional nuclear meltdown fear-mongering, people are still struggling to this day.  Over 11,000 people were killed that day, thousands more still missing.  The number of stress-related deaths attributed to 3/11 has increased year by year.  Over 267,000 people remain refugees, countless more have been forced to move away from the long-time familial homelands.  Entire cities remain empty or washed away in the North, many never to be populated again.  It’s all enough to make someone’s head spin.  Millions of lives changed forever in the blink of an eye.  Think about that next time you complain because you can’t find a parking spot at Walmart or you have to wait ten minutes in line before you can order your triple-milk soy latte from Starbucks.

Having moved here only four months ago, I did not have to experience those terrible days after the earthquake and tsunami, the uncertainty of the fates of those that I love, the despair when someone dear never came home, the ache of a hometown lost, never to return again.  The worst thing that almost happened to my hometown was our basketball team leaving.  In other words, I will never be able to comprehend the events that continue to rock Tohoku.  I can’t relate to their sadness so all I can try to do is make them smile.  A foolish sentiment maybe, but one that increasingly drives me forward.  I want to see people laugh.  I want people to forget the troubles of their life if only for one fleeting moment.

Today is a day to be thankful for the lives that we do have, to be thankful that our loved ones are safe and sound, to be thankful for the roofs over our heads, the clothes on our back, the times we laugh when something funny happens.  Today is a day to remind ourselves of those people who unfortunately cannot do the same, a day to keep the victims of one of the worst natural disasters the world has ever seen in our hearts.  Today is a day to remember to take a page out of the Tohoku playbook.  When things are rough, when times are dark, grit your teeth, tighten your belt, lace up your work boots, and がんばれ like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.  Maybe you’ll even learn something in the process.

Kamiashi in Iwate-ken in 2011 and 2014

Kamiashi in Iwate Prefecture in 2011 and 2014 (Kyodo)

Corporate airplanes are the prison cells of the skies.

I’ve never really been all that bothered by long airplane trips.  Sure they pack you into a tight enclosed space with some of the least comfortable seats imaginable and you’re essentially strapped in place of hours on end like some sort of mental patient in a Kubrick movie or something.  And then there are the several hundred other passengers also thrown onto the flight for good measure, some of them almost certain to be quite ill or small children who will undoubtedly spend half of the flight screaming like someone just sawed off their leg.  Sure (until recently) you’ve been forced to inexplicably turn off all your electronic devices for what seems like half of the flight because, in all their infinite wisdom, the world’s best and brightest apparently just can’t figure out how to make it so airplanes won’t explode because Cousin Jimmy is playing Angry Birds on his iPhone, forcing you to resort to (a) reading a book, or (b) cannibalism.

But with all those caveats, I don’t mind the mind numbing immobility of a long haul airplane ride.  Hell, I might actually like it.  In a modern world filled to the brim with all sorts of stimuli and crack-monkey culture, sometimes it’s good to just take a chill pill and enjoy the pleasantly tasteless monotony of airline food.

In terms of this bleak world of cross-oceanic airplane travel, my flight from San Francisco onwards to Haneda on Wednesday night was a freaking trip to Tahiti.  The main reason why?  Free space.

Unlike most of my other trips between Japan and the states, this flight was relatively lightly travelled, giving me an entire half a row to myself.  Add in the fact that I was on a newer plane (the ironically named Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I’ll get to that a bit later.) and I was practically staying at the Ritz.  Okay, well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but it was still better than the usual situation where you have to stuff your full-sized adult legs into a space that could have only been designed for the legs of a ten-year-old girl and a small one at that.  The great thing about the new Dreamliner is that the in-flight entertainment system is new, in other words, not the 1980s reject systems I had to deal with all my other times across the ocean.  One thing not so awesome about the Dreamliner I was on: there was a constant buzz through the entirety of the eleven hour flight, meaning it was even more impossible to sleep on the Dreamliner than on the usual run-of-the-mill aircraft.

As per usual, the movies on the plane were either things I’ve already seen (Pacific Rim) or complete and utter crap (World War Z).  Since Pacific Rim was one of my favorite movies of the year, I didn’t mind watching that again but I want the two hours I wasted on World War Z back.  Spoilers: Brad Pitt saves the world and Peter Capaldi doesn’t use his TARDIS.  At least the screen they built into the seat in front of me was bigger than an iPhone screen like the old ones almost were.  Audio system’s still crap though.

Gonna make this a two-parter because a lot happened once I landed and I kinda want to keep posts coming at a normal pace/whenever I’m near a stable internet connection.


As I was writing this, I just experienced the first earthquake of my new life in Japan (only a 3 on the Shindo scale, magnitude 4.8).  My grandparent’s house rumbled and shook for a few seconds but nothing too major.  It’s an old house made of wood with paper thin walls, which means it’s freaking old but also durable when it comes to tremors.  How did I react to the shakes?  I stopped writing for a brief moment and simply admired nature at work.  I suppose I should have a little fear in me but what’s the point?  If I freaked out about every earthquake I felt in Japan, I’d probably be freaked out all the freaking time.