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Published: February 2012

The Calm Before the Wave

Photo: Drawing of a tsunami

A Time to Run

Japan knows what to do when the water suddenly goes away. People don’t always heed the warnings.

By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Photograph by Robert Clark

I recently found old journals I kept as a child while traveling through Japan with my mother. The journals are written in Japanese in pencil, and each entry is accompanied by a picture drawn with colored pen. In one a girl (me) swims off a beach. In another a woman (my mother) carries an umbrella, while a child clings to her back. The mother is knee high in dark blue water. An army of heavy, angry raindrops fills the sky. The day before, we had been to the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, a festival in which mammoth lanterns in the shapes of gods and heroes wended through hot, dark summer streets. There was flooding the next day, and though my mother laughed as she carried me to safety, we were afraid. What if the rain did not stop? In another picture I stand under gigantic, chandelier-like ornaments in the city of Sendai; the decorations are part of Sendai's famed Tanabata star festival, in which separated lovers, represented by the stars Vega and Altair, are reunited for just one night.

All these towns have a beach. When we visited, my mother would ask me the same thing. "What do you do if the water suddenly goes away?"

"Run," I would answer.

"Why?"

As I got older, this questioning became annoying. I thought my mother was overdramatic. Born in Japan, she had trained as an opera singer in Europe, where she met my father, an American. They both had a tendency to behave as though they were on a stage. Sometimes I got to be onstage with them. Sometimes I was the audience. It made it tricky to know what to take seriously.

"Come on. Why?" she'd repeat.

"Because it means there is a tsunami."

As an adult, I would sometimes look out at the ocean and try to imagine what it would look like all sucked away. How far back would it go? How would it come back in? What exactly was a tsunami? My mother had never seen one. No one I knew in Japan had ever seen one. Everyone was much more afraid of typhoons or earthquakes, even going so far as to refer to Japan as "earthquake country."

My mother's words and training came back to me when I woke up on March 11 to the terrible news. Places in the Tohoku region that I had visited on my childhood trip had felt the effects of the earthquake and tsunami.

Thanks to the diligent work of hundreds of amateur Japanese photographers, we all have a pretty good idea of what it looks like when the water rushes back in. It's still difficult for me to imagine what the ocean looks like when it is sucked out.

Traveling in Japan months after the disaster, I have been struck by how survivors speak about their former friend the ocean. Many Tohoku residents make their living from the sea; they were shocked to see familiar waters so transformed.

Newspapers are filled with stories of those who had 15 to 30 minutes to evacuate to high land. It seems like enough time. Then again, what of those who, like me, were schooled to run but became curious about the mythical beast? Repeatedly, survivors told me stories of residents who went back to their homes after the first wave receded. One man went closer to the ocean to "watch" the tsunami after "missing it" the first time. His mother begged him not to. He insisted, and she accompanied him. Both died.

Post-disaster, the world has praised the patient, stoic nature of the Japanese as they have cleaned up and cared for one another. But these qualities existed before the disaster. It is painful for a culture that prides itself on maintaining harmony, and on its Buddhist nature of compassion, to wonder what more could have been done to prevent 16,000 deaths. Ryoko Mita, 60, who lives in Iwaki and is married to my mother's cousin, lamented: "The tsunami revealed our yudan [carelessness] and our ogori [overconfidence]."

Centuries-old stones inscribed with warnings of past tsunamis dot the coastline of northeast Japan. But just as I was ambivalent about my mother's warnings, it seems too easy to dismiss an urgent message from the past. Unlike earthquakes, which can occur daily in Japan, tsunamis often skip a generation, giving them a hidden and unpredictable power.

"Do you see the sea differently now?" I asked Rumi Sakuyama, a lifelong resident of Japan's northeast coast. "Such a peaceful ocean … to do such a thing," she replied, gazing out at the now quiet water. "A tsunami like this will probably never happen again during my life." And therein lies the danger. 

Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the novel Picking Bones From Ash, blogs at mariemockett.com.
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