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Learning from the Great Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami

Learning from the Great Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami

Preserving the memory of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in literature

Elyssa Tappero, Tsunami Program Coordinator
Washington Emergency Management Division

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami was one of the most devastating disasters in recorded human history. As we approach the 10th anniversary, it’s important to recall the lessons they learned, which, to an earthquake-prone state like ours in Washington with more than 3,000 miles of coastline, are priceless. With the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the West Coast, our “Big One” could look very similar to Japan’s and strike with just as little warning.

On March 11, 2011, the magnitude 9.0 quake struck off the eastern coast of Japan. It remains the fourth largest recorded earthquake in modern times and caused not only widespread damage in Japan, but even shifted the axis of the Earth. The massive tsunami that followed took the lives of more than 10,000 people, triggered meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex and left more than $235 billion worth of destruction in its wake. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, its waves struck distant coasts hard enough to cause notable damage in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Chile and the Galapagos Islands.

Yet the true human impact of such earth-shaking disasters is not captured only in the number of casualties or the cost of response and recovery. It is captured in the personal experiences and journeys of those who survived, and the memories they bear of those who did not.

Therefore, in remembrance of the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, I would like to share some of my favorite written works on the subject*. There is no better way to honor those who lost their lives to this tragedy than to take their stories and lessons to heart.

Don’t let the subject matter dissuade you: we should not shy away from tragedy. Yet in tragedies like the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, we find poignant evidence of the beauty and strength of the human spirit.

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry

Ghosts of the Tsunami is not a light read, yet it is absolutely worth the emotional journey. While Ghosts of the Tsunami touches on other aspects of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, its focus is the tragedy of Okawa Elementary and the 74 students lost while under their teacher’s care. Parry’s masterful narrative follows their grieving families through the immediate aftermath of the disaster and continues over the span of many years as some parents seek closure while others push for answers and accountability. The story of these families is a haunting reminder that disasters of this magnitude have the power to reshape the future of a community for generations – not only through quantifiable impacts like infrastructure and economic damage, but through the responsibility and emotional burden survivors carry with them.

So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms: Haiku from the Year of the Great Earthquake and Tsunami edited by Mayuzumi Madoka

Given the importance of poetry in Japanese culture, it is no surprise that there are several poetry collections about the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms is distinctive for both the poignancy of its 17-syllable poems, all of which were written by Japanese citizens who personally experienced the disaster, and the amount of detail provided within. Along with both the Japanese and English translations of each poem, the reader is provided with the authors name, age, the number of tsunami-related fatalities in their hometown, and either backstory or direct quotes from the author explaining the inspiration for the piece. Interspersed between chapters is also commentary from the editor, distinguished haiku poet Mayuzumi Madoka, who traveled through the disaster zone in the months after to help survivors heal through poetry writing.

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith and Rachel Wada

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden is a beautifully illustrated children’s book based on the true story of “Kaze no Denwa” (the phone of the wind or wind phone), a disconnected phone booth built by 72-year-old garden designer Itaru Sasaki to help him process the death of a close relative. After the tsunami devastated his town, other survivors began using the phone booth to communicate with their own lost family and friends; many found this expression of grief gave them the closure they needed to begin healing. Tens of thousands of people have visited the phone booth since 2011, many even travelling from other countries to experience its unique form of therapy. The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden crafts a simple yet heart-wrenching version of this story that speaks equally to young readers and adults alike, reminding us that grief is part of the human experience and healing can be found in the unlikeliest places.

Beyond Me by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu

Beyond Me is a fictional novel-in-verse told from the point of view of a 5th grader named Maya. Maya experiences the March 11th earthquake from the relative safety of her inland town where she’s lucky to lose neither her family nor her home. Instead, she struggles with survivor’s guilt and the trauma brought on by constant unpredictable aftershocks, many of which are major earthquakes themselves. This is where Beyond Me truly shines – through clever use of font formatting and a disjointed writing style, the reader experiences each earthquake in real-time with Maya. Dropped into Maya’s uncertain world where even the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted, readers of any age will identify with her conflicted emotions. Likewise, I’m sure many readers will identify with the impulse to ignore one’s own problems because “others have it worse,”and hopefully will learn with Maya how to help both themselves and others in a healthy way.

The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America (Free!) by Brian Atwater, Musumi-Rokkaku Satoko, Satake Kenji, Tsuji Yoshinobu, Ueda Kazue, and David Yamaguchi

For those interested in learning more about the Washington-Japan tsunami connection, be sure to check out The Orphan Tsunami of 1700, which is FREE. This “scientific detective story” lays out the historical, geological, cultural and biological evidence connecting an earthquake-less tsunami which struck Japan in January of 1700 to a major earthquake along the North American coast. Thanks to meticulous record-keeping in Japan, physical evidence like tsunami sand deposits in the Pacific Northwest and advanced computer models, scientists were able to not only pinpoint the Cascadia Subduction Zone as the earthquake’s origin but even estimate its magnitude at 9.0. Like the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, the Cascadia event of 1700 reminds us that such disasters can have far-reaching impacts.

In addition to these 5 books, below is a short list of additional recommendations. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the English-language literature available on the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, but I believe there is something of value available for everyone (and all ages!).

*These are my personal views and do not represent those of my agency, nor should this list be considered any sort of official endorsement.