Twelve days after the earthquake and tsunami ravaged northeastern Japan, life seemed to have returned to normal as I looked out the window of the bus from Narita Airport to the western suburbs of Tokyo. High-rise buildings were intact, traffic on expressways moved smoothly, and train stations were packed with commuters.
I was wrong and soon learned that the devastation of March 11 had profoundly staggered Japan. The nation was in mourning over the dead and missing and wept for the survivors. A gloom permeated the nation as television stations broadcast the grim news 24 hours a day and newspapers published the names of the newly identified dead every day.
During my nine-day stay, I felt the jolt of aftershocks, sometimes two or three times a day. Train schedules were disrupted, electric blackouts turned off heat during the cold nights, and people stopped going out in the evening for fear they might not be able to get home. Japan pulsed with pain, anxiety and fright.
The initial shock of the powerful tsunami, however, quickly led to heroic efforts to find and help the survivors. A message heard and read everywhere was: "Minna de Issho ni (All of us together)." Emperor Akihito addressed the nation in a televised message: "It is my heartfelt wish that all of us support each other, care for each other, and overcome this unhappy time."
A young mother in a shelter began to give birth the night of the tsunami. Without electricity or running water, other women used flashlights, sewing thread to cut the umbilical cord, and a Styrofoam box to keep the newborn boy warm. Explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plants called up courageous men who risked their lives to stop radiation leaks.
Monetary contributions poured in. At a friend’s suggestion, I went to a post office that received rescue funds. Donors could choose which prefecture they wanted to help or give to a general fund. I chose Iwate because a friend’s sister and her husband were missing there, and Fukushima to help those who had to evacuate to escape the radiation leak.
Another friend said she had planned a family vacation in Hawaii but didn’t feel they should enjoy a good time when so many were suffering. They got refunds for plane fares and hotel reservations, and donated it all to the relief fund.
Feeling vulnerable, Japanese were overwhelmed by the outpouring of foreign support. A TV commentator said quietly: "We didn’t know we were loved so much." The American military’s "Operation Tomodachi (Friends)" was extensively reported in the Japanese press.
Japanese were also moved by help from poor nations. Villagers in Kenya suffering from drought gathered beans in a sack and offered it to victims in Japan. In Mongolia, government employees donated a day’s salary to the relief effort. The common refrain among those people was "when we were in need of help, you were there to help us. This time it’s our turn."
One day, I saw on television the graduation ceremony of a middle school in Miyagi Prefecture. The 96 boys and girls in the graduation class had survived the tsunami because they were in their school on a hill. But 80 percent of their town had been wiped out. The valedictorian pledged to "light a lantern of hope in the midst of our anxiety."
The graduates sang to the gathered survivors and the nation: "You are helping us to grow a tree in our hearts, thank you, thank you, thank you." I lost it and cried.