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Japan: One Year Later

One young teacher recounts the harrowing experiences of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami—and how she's seen Japan unite in the year since.

Beep, beep, beep, beep.

Everyone in the teachers’ office at MeySen Academy’s Maruyama campus looked up at the cell phone. But it wasn’t a ringtone; it was a warning.

Bethany Panian was about to set up her classroom at a Christian school where she substituted. She’d spent the last month getting used to Japan after moving there with plans to teach English to Japanese students for a year. Panian was about to teach a full class by herself for the third time.

The first few weeks in Japan were spent learning how to go grocery shopping, how to go downtown—and, in case of an earthquake, how to turn off the gas in the apartment. Panian had experienced her first earthquake already, a small one, only a month before.

“The vice principal of MeySen told me this fun fact tonight: Every day, there is an earthquake that occurs somewhere in Japan,” she wrote on her blog. “I’m sure this is only the beginning of an exciting new facet of my life here.”

But Panian had no idea she was about to experience Japan’s worst earthquake, and one of the five most powerful quakes on record. It would leave 500,000 people displaced and 20,000 people dead or missing.

Shortly after the cell phone warning alarm went off in the teachers’ office at MeySen Academy, the more-than-five-minute earthquake began. The ground rumbled ... and it didn’t stop. Suddenly, the ground bucked. Everyone dove under the desks. Panian was curled up with her back against the ground. She heard a vase fall; it was the vase of pink lilies someone brought in for the teacher she was subbing for. Dishes in the nearby kitchen fell, too. People were yelling and screaming, some in English and some in Japanese. She didn’t need to know Japanese to know what they were saying, but she could tell by the panic in their voices that they were terrified.

“Some of the sounds, some of it I really think were sounds the ground was making because it was this otherworldly rumbling noise,” Panian says. “I heard myself praying, ‘Father, Jesus, please help us.’”

One year later

One year after the 9.0 earthquake, things have mostly returned to normal for Panian. She doesn’t regret making the choice to renew her teaching contract and stay in Japan, even though she had the option to leave the country.

“I love my kids. I love my job,” Panian says. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t have hopped on a plane first thing and come back home. I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I’m here.”

The United Nations estimates the quake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed racked up $210 billion in damages. While the aftermath was devastating, Japan’s recovery efforts have been called admirable. Donations poured in, and the government issued $142 billion in reconstruction funds. Japan has made quick work of clean-up, and its tourism and trade are making a gradual recovery. But government indecision, the depreciating value of the yen and the sudden necessity of solar power and fossil fuels have proved costly for the most indebted nation in the industrial world.

For people on the coast, there’s a long road left to normalcy. Debris still washes up on the beaches, and people still live in temporary housing. The insulation in the relief housing isn’t good, the walls are thin and one kerosene heater is responsible for heating the entire house.

Nathan Broman has helped in relief efforts since the day after the earthquake and says not all plan on rebuilding. Just because a town exists on the coast doesn’t mean a tsunami won’t wash it away again. Broman has witnessed the fear of the Japanese people.

“Many of the people are afraid to move back near the ocean where they had lived for generations. It will probably be another 10 years before everything is back to normal, though I can clearly say things will never be the same,” he says. “Obviously, it is going to be a long time before people are healed completely from this bad experience.”

But despite the potential threats and dangers of rebuilding, Broman has seen progress.

“Now a year later, in most of the tsunami-hit areas, the debris has been cleared, and people are rebuilding,” says Broman. “Although the signs of the aftermath of the tsunami are still very clear ... One thing I have noticed since this terrible catastrophe is how people have been more united in working together in rebuilding the country again. This has brought many of the people’s hearts together, and many of them have learned to appreciate friendships and the importance of a family.”

There have been a number of earthquakes since the 9.0 on March 11, 2011, and some people are still anxious when an earthquake hits, regardless of its size.

When a more violent earthquake hits, Panian wonders if it will settle down or if she will relive that fateful day. She was vacationing in Tokyo when a 6.8 earthquake hit on New Year’s Day, and the anxiety came quickly flooding back. Even so, Panian admits the trial renewed her passion for Japan and for seeing God's work done there.

“I think after the tsunami and the earthquake, it kind of awakened other people around the world that Japan is a place that needs God,” she says. “I don’t know how many of those people who were washed away had heard the Gospel.”

One of Panian’s friends gave her a book called Pray for Japan that has a collection of posts from Twitter users. She reads the tweets aloud.

“I just got a message from my Korean friend: ‘You’re the only country in the world to have fallen victim to nuclear attacks. You lost the second World War. Every year there are typhoons. Earthquakes happen. You’re even struck by tsunamis. You’re just a tiny island-nation, but you wouldn’t be Japan if you didn’t get up again every time. Stay strong, stay very strong.’”

And Japan has stayed strong. The people of Japan still have a sense of pride, and they carry on. As Panian says, “It wouldn’t be Japan if they weren’t united through something like that.”

Melanie Lynch is a University of Missouri senior still adjusting to the fact that she will be in the "real world" sooner than she would like. She wouldn't be where she is today without Jesus, her friends and family, and the best campus ministry ever, Chi Alpha.



Aaron commented…

As someone currently living in Japan (a making a big step to possibly make that a bit more 'permanent') I can vouch for Japan's solidarity in something like this

That being said, there's also a lot of despair. A lot of people endure not because they see a light at the end of the tunnel, but just because "that's what your supposed to do." I encourage people to continue to pray, not only for the relief and rebuilding effort of their cities, but for the rescue and redemption of their souls.

Side note: I'm not a financial expert, but shouldn't it be "appreciating value of the yen" instead of "depreciating value"?


Anonymous commented…

" The insulation in the relief housing isnt good, the walls are thin and
one kerosene heater is responsible for heating the entire house. "

Um, this is what it's like *everywhere* in Japan.


Anonymous commented…

It's difficult for me to grasp the tragedy of the historical events which the Japanese have suffered, especially during the last century. During the time of the earthquake, Japan was the world's third largest economy, yet the earthquake was possibly the most expensive disaster ever suffered by a nation.

Consequently, relief giving to Japan within the first week of the disaster was $87 million out of the $235 billion in damages (World Bank Estimate). When I first heard of how little relief funds were sent to Japan compared to other disasters, such as Haiti and Katrina, I was appalled. That $87 mill. was less than 1/3 of funds that were directed towards Haiti and less than a 1/5 of the funds directed towards the Katrina disaster.

If I was to wonder why we (the world) gave so little, I can't help but think of a general attitude of contempt, whether for the wealthy or as residual prejudice from WWII, as part of the reason. I hope that we can have compassion and give to those in need regardless of where they come from...including economic status.


Anonymous commented…

A friend recently posted this regarding the tsunami, taken from a Japanese newspaper:

Death toll 15,854 (in 12 prefectures, including Tokyo and Hokkaido)
Missing people 3/155 (in 6 prefectures)
Children who lost 1 or both parents 1600
Number of evacuees 468,653
Damaged buildings 1,168,453 units (129,107 were destroyed)
Damaged businesses 27,149 (in 3 prefectures)
Flooded acreage (561 square kilometers, 62 cities, towns and villages in 6 prefectures. The figure is 9 times that of the area inside Tokyo's Yamamote train loop line)
Amount of debris 22.53 million tons in 3 prefectures
Number of people who had trouble getting home after the quake 5.15 million (in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Ibaraki prefectures)
Total damage 17.4 trillion yen (about $208 billion) compared to 9.6 trillion yen in the Kobe earthquake.

Meaghan Smith


Meaghan Smith commented…

A educated building contractor knows that every one building tasks are certain to have glitches, but he is nevertheless prepared for any eventualities which may occur and isn't afraid to discuss with you an issue during building section.

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