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Reliving the Japan 2011 Earthquake

Wang Hui Ling, a Singaporean ALT and Prefectural Advisor in Iwate Prefecture, shares:

On Friday, 11 March 2011, I was at Hong Kong Disneyland. A friend living in Hong Kong called suddenly before 8 pm and informed me that an earthquake had occurred in Japan. “It’s very serious. You might want to check on your friends.”

I immediately cancelled all my plans that night and called all the friends I could think of. I used my Japanese cellphone and my Singapore handphone, but I couldn’t get anyone due to the telecommunications breakdown in Japan. The next day, I managed to get through to my supervisor and I also got messages from friends in Japan and Iwate who were worried about me. My supervisor said Morioka (where I live) was all right but the areas along the coast were ‘大変’. One of my friends in Hachimantai (inland Iwate) managed to charge her phone in her car and messaged me a few times. I was very lost about whether I should return to Iwate as planned on 15 March. She said, ‘No, don’t return. It’s very messy in Iwate now.’ I asked my supervisor if I should get back to Narita anyways and try to stay in Tokyo until there was a way home. He said that sounded like a sensible plan.

I spent the remaining days in Hong Kong buying newspapers and standing on the streets watching the huge plasma tvs on buildings, or sitting in cafes calling people and making plans, while my travelling partners went about their touristy business. At night, when everyone was asleep, I was up till 3 am almost every night, watching the news and videos online, and crying as I saw my previous towns destroyed by the tsunami.

In my first two years as a JET in Iwate, I lived in Sumita Town, which is adjacent to Ofunato, Rikuzentakata (Takata) and Kamaishi, which were all coastal towns and all badly damaged and almost wiped out by the tsunami. I used to do my grocery shopping, went to karaokes and had yakiniku parties in Ofunato and Takata all the time.

Ofunato's Goishi Kaigan, 2008

I checked with two friends in Tokyo, both of whom used to be Iwate JETs, and they were both really generous about letting me stay in their apartments should I get stranded in Tokyo on the way back. Eventually, I decided to return to Singapore for two weeks, because there was still no way of knowing how long I had to wait to be able to return to Iwate from Tokyo. Moreover, I knew I would be fighting for water, food, electricity, petrol and kerosene if I went back anyway. My Singaporean friends were asking me to return home as well, citing fears of aftershocks and radiation scares.

Ever since I returned home to Singapore, I have kept in touch with friends back in Iwate everyday. Most are well and safe, but they have all endured days in darkness without electricity and telecommunications. Food is also scarce, with supermarkets almost empty and with long queues. I have friends who stayed in long car queues for a few hours to get a few litres of petrol. The aftershocks also don’t seem to be stopping, and though tremors of magnitudes one to three are common in Iwate, they are now experiencing bad aftershocks that are bigger.

After having lived through the worst, these aftershocks are not helping with their fears and anxieties. My colleagues are hard at work now and I really feel bad that I am not there with them during this tough period. Two ex-students from Iwate also emailed me. They are safe in Tokyo and Yokohama respectively, but it seemed that the food supply situation is equally difficult there.

As for the bad news, one of the Iwate JETs is still missing. He is my friend and I pray that he is safe. A student from my previous school and a teacher from a neighbouring school I know are still missing. A number of friends I know have lost their homes. Some lost their ryokans and business office branches. There are also friends I heard are safe, but whom I have not managed to contact. I wonder how they are doing and I can’t wait to see them when I get back. A friend said her husband refused to let her see Takata. He wanted to protect her eyes. He felt that if we saw for ourselves what our beloved cities had turned into, we might break down and be emotionally damaged forever. He said that it is more important that we remember the beauty of these places we know so well.

First visit to Takata beach, 2007

Right now, I have no clear idea on relief aid, except that I want to return to do my job and help. Reports have been confusing, contradicting and misleading, and I just want to be physically there in Iwate, because it is my second home, and I know there is so much I can do. I am saving up my money because I know the affected areas need all the donations they can get.

I feel that Singaporeans in general are just too lucky, the way we are able to live in comfortable flats, have a high disposable income and be able to indulge in luxury and riches. This event has changed my life forever. Although I have always been very environmentally-conscious, I think there is still so much more I can do. I used to feel detached when I hear about disasters and poverty in other countries, but I will be able to empathize a lot more now.

I think Singaporeans can really help by always contributing to charity, not indulging in unnecessary material possessions, being thrifty with using water, food, electricity and petrol, and never stopping to appreciate how lucky we are in this part of the world. We have so much to be thankful for, and we should never take each day for granted.

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