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Where were you on 3/11/2011? Part III: Achim

A small lantern in Tohoku

A lot can happen in 5 years. It’s actually quite amazing how fast time flies in Japan. It’s already been 5 years since the worst disaster to ever befall the Japanese mainland, and yet there are still people in temporary housing, there are still hundreds of black trash bags with irradiated topsoil along the streets in some places in Tohoku, and Fukushima is still leaking radioactivity. On the other hand, many people have come together to pick up the pieces of their broken lives and rebuild their homes, their cities, their communities, and their lives from the ground up. To me, it still feels like only yesterday…. this is part III in our series of remembering that fateful day that we can never forget.

What started as any ordinary day would quickly turn into one of the most life-changing and profoundly memorable events for me in a matter of mere minutes.  It was still early morning, and I had just gotten back from a quick run.  Freshly out of the shower, I sat down in front of my computer to check my messages and catch up on the latest news, when all of a sudden I noticed a gentle swaying.  It grew stronger and stronger, however, and having lived in Japan for a while at that point, I knew instinctively that this was an earthquake.  “It’ll be over soon” I thought, and kept typing away on the keyboard.  It’s just one of those things you get used to in Japan. Earthquakes do happen from time to time, but usually they’re over rather quickly. But with this one, everything changed…. It didn’t stop swaying, actually got stronger, and I even felt a bit nauseous…. The realisation that this definitely was not an ordinary earthquake hit me like a freight train.  Should I run, or stay?

I had been through quite a few minor earthquakes during my time in Japan, but nothing this big and long-lasting.  I made the quick decision to run, since the building I stayed in was already an older place – not up to modern earthquake standards. So I soon found myself running down the stairs, and out on the street in front of my building… I still felt a hint of nausea.  Nobody on the street seemed to notice the earthquake though.  They were staring at me…. I realised in all that commotion, I had completely forgotten to put a shirt on.  I guess seeing a shirtless foreigner in the middle of winter on the street outside (it was still early March and kind of chilly outside) is a pretty strange sight indeed.  I went back up to my apartment, and then everything changed.

The phone was ringing off the hook; my mother called me all the way from Germany???  What the hell is going on today?  She never calls me on my regular phone in Japan, and especially not during the daytime (due to the time difference)  “Are you OK?” She asked. Yes, of course…. Why wouldn’t I be?  “Have you seen the news?” She further inquired.  That’s when I noticed all the headlines now flashing across my screen.

Level 9 earthquake hits Japan’s Tohoku area!  Nuclear reactor in peril!

At that very moment, the gravity of the situation, and the feeling of absolute helplessness started to sink in.

The coming days were absolutely terrifying, yet humbling at the same time.  The incessant uncertainty now permeating every fiber of my being was almost unbearable.  Yet, I saw many people of all ages come together to lend their time and talents to help people in the affected areas.  We were in Nagoya, so more than 600km away from the worst of it, but even here, in this usually very hesitant and conservative city, people were coming together to help people in Tohoku any way they could, and I felt a burning desire to help out as well.  Japan had given me so much, and I wanted to give something – anything – back.

After a sleepless night, I cancelled a flight to Australia I had planned for a long time, and got in contact with HOPE International to inquire about volunteering efforts for Tohoku.  The rest, as they say, is history.  It was absolutely amazing to see so many people organising together in such a short time to help and lend a hand.  We collected food, clothing, medicine, money, and other miscellaneous items.  The plan was for a weekend project, but the level of support was overwhelming, and we ended up collecting necessities for about two weeks, and would send them incrementally up to Tohoku via trucks, which would prove incredibly diffult since most of the roads were still not traversible.

The sheer gratitude from the Japanese community giving items, as well as the appreciation in the affected people in disaster areas was truly humbling; and that experience has fundamentally changed me as a person.  Through seeing that kind of tragedy, you realise what is truly important in life.  
One of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard in my life (spoken by a homeless man) comes to mind here:

“It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how many houses or cars you have; what really matters is how many lives you’ve touched”.

It still pains me to this day that too many people in the Tohoku area are even now affected by this tremendous tragedy, that a lot of information about their plight, or the state of the reactor is still considered “classified” and is rather actively discouraged to be talked about in the media, and that people’s struggles have been largely forgotten or overlooked by those with the power to make a change.  I truly hope that more people will use their skills and talents to help their communities, to help people in need, and work together to make a better world any way they can, because this can happen anywhere, and we all will need someone’s help at some point.  As we close out this 3 part series, I’d like to ask all you people out there – especially people who live in Japan – to take a moment out of your lives and remember the Tohoku Earthquake. Educate yourselves!  There are still many things anybody could help with, in regards to this tremendous tragedy.

Never forget!!!!

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