On the 5 year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that befell northeast Japan, we pause to reflect on how those events have affected our lives. This is the second part in our series in which the Japan Daily staff remember exactly where and what they were doing on that fateful day.
Without exaggeration, I can easily say that no single event has ever affected me as profoundly as the combined disasters that struck northeast Japan in 2011. To this day I still find it hard to watch footage of the monstrous black waves sweeping entire villages off the map. Although survivors’ stories fill me with inspiration, they also leave me with a profound feeling of sadness.
I was riding my bike to work at the time and to be honest, I hardly noticed the quake. The shaking that I did feel I attributed to the bumpy road I was on. When I arrived, everyone looked terrified as they frantically searched their phone for news of what was happening. Although they had all grown up in Japan and experienced their fair share of shakers, nobody had ever felt anything like the quake that day. Instead of seconds, this one lasted for minutes on end of violent shaking.
Ironically, that day the magazine that I was working for was hosting a charity event for the victims of the major earthquake that had occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand the previous month. Although most of us had felt the quake, none of us knew how serious it had been. The way we were carrying on, you never would have imagined one of the worst disasters of the 21st century was unfolding a few hundred kilometers away. I came away from the event in high spirits, impressed with my community and the success of the event. It wasn’t until I got home to find my wife sitting in front of the television, sobbing that I understood just what had happened that day. I sat down next to her unable to process the images I saw on the screen. Perhaps it was the uniformity of Japanese construction that made it feel so immediately identifiable. The towns being washed away looked just like my home. One image that will forever be burned into my brain was a photo of a kindergarten bus, empty of its tiny passengers and littered with debris. Nobody got off of that bus alive. My oldest son was in kindergarten at the time and every morning I put him on a bus just like that one. Imagining him not coming home to me filled me with an indescribable grief. My heart ached for the people of Tohoku because in most ways that count, their lives before the tsunami looked just like mine.
And yet, as dark as the news got, there were always reasons to find hope around me. I remember hearing news about people stockpiling groceries and supplies like diapers and bottled water. When I went to the grocery store I saw long winding lines of people with overflowing shopping carts. My first instinct was to curse them under my breath, until I saw that the lines did not end at the cash register, but at the customer service counter. I realized that the store had created a donation counter, and all the bulging carts were to be donated to victims in Tohoku.
What I remember more than anything from that time is a feeling of powerlessness. In the immediate days following the disaster, volunteers were advised to wait while professional rescue teams such as the Japan Self Defense Force and Red Cross assessed the danger. Then logistics planners and engineers were recruited to create efficient supply chains, shelters and ad hoc medical facilities. Looking at the type of people being recruited I asked myself “what is the role of an artist in such times.” I have to admit, I felt that my line of work as an illustrator was pretty worthless at the time. I figured that the best thing I could do was raise money, so I began a campaign to sell my books to people and donate the proceeds to charity. Although there was a decent response, the money raised seemed like a paltry sum compared to the need. Then an idea struck me.
If I had these feelings of ineptitude, surely other artists were feeling the same way. I jumped out of bed and sent out an email to every cartoonist I knew and asked them to help me make a charity anthology specifically for the Tohoku disaster. By morning I had dozens of replies, some from people I had never heard of. Everybody was keen to get in on it and word spread quickly, well beyond the artists that I knew personally. The book actually came together much more smoothly than I could have imagined, with artists from a dozen countries contributing comics of condolence, camaraderie and compassion. The book hit the shelves within a few months of the disaster and continues to sell to this day. Personally, the amount of money the book has raised is not what impacted me – instead the project changed my perspective on the purpose and potential for art as a tool for change. Comics can be a powerful way to educate, to inspire hope, and to communicate complicated ideas in a more accessible way. I try to keep that in mind every time I begin a new project – I try to see what larger effect it may be able to achieve.
I still believe the people in Tohoku pounding nails and removing debris are doing far more substantial work than anything I could do as an artist, but that doesn’t mean the role of the artist is insignificant. It is my hope on this 5 year anniversary, that people continue to think about their own skillset, and how they can apply that to helping their communities, and building a better world.