Earthquake – Ten years on, retrospective

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Great Tohoku earthquake.

At 2.46pm, an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude originating 41 miles (66 km) east of the coast of Japan and 18 (29 km) miles down struck. The seabed was thrust upwards by about six to eight meters, creating a tsunami travelling at 500 miles (800 km) per hour that within 30 minutes of the tremor was making it’s way on land. It is estimated that the tsunami reached a height of over 40 meters at one point. The water made its way as far as six miles inland, inundating over 200 square miles (518 sq km). The tsunami also hit the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, causing a nuclear meltdown and forcing the evacuation of some 200,000 people in the vicinity.

Overrun: Huge waves breach an embankment in the city of Miyako in Iwate prefecture, in the wake of the earthquake on March 11, 2011
Devastated: A view from a helicopter shows the wreckage of Minamisanriku in north-eastern Japan two days after the tsunami
A diagram showing the area of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the parts of Japan where decontamination work has not yet finished
Photos taken from the Daily Mail. Click on the link to see some great then/now pictures.

Several weeks ago (13th February) there was a large 7.3 earthquake whose epicentre was close to that of the earthquake ten years prior. To the surprise of many, under the Japan Meteorological Agency’s rules, it was classified as an aftershock. Thankfully, there was no tsunami, but there was one fatality.

With remembrances taking place across Japan, the official death toll is currently recorded as 15,899, while the number of people registered as still missing is 2,526. Given the elapsed time it is highly unlikely that any more survivors will be found. Dozens of bodies have still to be identified, with several having been done so last year, perhaps finally bring closure to those families.

Minute's silence: Mourners fall silent at 2.46pm local time on Thursday, the exact time when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered the disaster

After the 12-mile (20 km) evacuation zone was put into effect after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, some areas are now reopening for visitors, such as the town of Futoba, located two and a half miles from the plant. Seven thousand people were forced to flee but none have returned to live due to decontamination of the town still incomplete. It is hoped that enough of the town will have been decontaminated by 2022 for people to start returning. Currently, only 4% has been done so.

It is important to note that no deaths were a direct result of radiation from the Fukushima disaster itself, although one clean-up worker’s death was officially recognised in 2018.

Even after ten years, there remains a lot of work to be done; decontamination and clean up of numerous towns, reconstruction of infrastructure and homes, the decommissioning of the nuclear power plant, and the psychological trauma that affect many still, young and old alike.

Linked here are several articles which might be of interest. This video is about a man who lost his entire family, and this one about Japan’s ‘Triple Disaster’. This article is about the loss of 74 school children at a school, and this about sexual violence women faced after the earthquake.


I still remember the moment the earthquake hit; being in the training room, seeing the windows of the building opposite ripple en-mass like a droplet of water hitting a still pond, the fireball in the distance, and the physical difficulty I experienced walking towards the window to see what was going on. Having experienced countless earthquakes over the years I had lived in Japan, I was neither worried nor concerned, but the panic of the trainees (my students) started to affect me. Panic is indeed contagious.

Previously unpublished picture. Water on the streets immediately after the quake. I was told this was because of liquefaction as the area was reclaimed land.

The fact that the trainees worked for one of the largest petroleum companies in the Japan made the situation interesting. Although I called them trainees/students, they were top level managers in the company, and once their initial panic was over, they were trying to manage, organise and mobilise different sections of the company to ensure that supplies of fuel would be readily available to all parts of the country, ensure safety protocols were initiated, and find out what was happening in the rest of the company. I was sat at my desk trying to glean the latest information from the internet for myself and to pass on to the trainees, and had the TV function on my phone playing the news. I called my company over the internet as calling over the phones was near impossible, and emailed my sister to let her know I was fine and to contact our parents so that they wouldn’t panic if they saw the news.

Previously unpublished picture. Damage to the wall in the stairwell of the building I was in.

You can see from this video I took of the first aftershock how the street signs and lamppost shake, and also how the glass in the building opposite moves by looking at the reflection. Everything was much more intense during the main quake.

Previously unpublished picture. Convenience store dinner.

It is one of those moments in history in a person’s life where the details are not easily forgotten.

That was ten years ago, and seemingly a lifetime ago.

So, what has happened in these ten years? I returned to England after intense pressure from my parents to do so. I was very reluctant to do so as most of my friends were in Japan, and I was at the peak of my profession. I got a post-grad in teaching, but failed to find any teaching work. Having trouble assimilating back into the UK, I went to Malaysia and stayed with some family, hoping to get a job either there or Singapore. That didn’t happen after five months, so I asked my parents if they were ok with me going back to Japan. With a bit of persuasion from my aunt and uncle, they relented.

Back to Japan I went. If felt slightly odd, yet very familiar after being away for several years. I found a new place to live, and managed to get a job at one of my previous companies. All was going well. I was glad to be home.

Some years later, my father passed away, followed a few years after that by my mother. Following the death of my parents I moved back to the UK and into their house, in a town I had only previously stayed in briefly. I tried to re-assimilate, but found the first few years difficult. Reverse culture shock, as I like to call it, and the fact that I had lived in Japan for most of my adult life meant that my thinking and mannerisms were still very Japanese. I found myself bowing a lot, being indirect about things, and being very modest about everything, for example. I’ve been lucky enough to make some friends, and find some work since my return a few years ago.

In 2020, Covid was the big thing. I spent the year off work as I’d torn the cartilage (meniscus) in my knees, one much worse than the other. My GP told me that he couldn’t send me to see a specialist, let alone have surgery, as everyone had been deployed to deal with Covid, and I should try again in six months if I was still in pain. Rather than risk aggravating the injury, or catching Covid, I made a concious decision to stay at home and try to heal. Twelve months on, one knee has healed while the other one still needs a lot more time. During those 12 months, I did a lot of DIY, but also ended up aggravating my bad knee several times. I found someone special, but it seems they don’t feel the same way as I do. I also put on a few kilos, but managed to get that under control and lose most of it.

What of the future? There’s still plenty of DIY to do on the house, and I’m hoping my knee will heal by the end of the year. I also hope to find a job outside of teaching, perhaps, but it’s difficult given that teaching is my profession and the large unemployment rates caused by the collapse of countless firms in the UK. Outside of DIY and gardening, I am currently volunteering on a big project. Somewhat ironically, a blog.

When I started this personal blog, I didn’t set out on a master class of journalism; rather, I wanted to show people what a wonderful place Japan was, how wonderful my life was in Japan. In the last ten years I’ve left Japan twice, this time seeming to be the final time. I’ve spent most of my adult working life in Japan and naturally miss my ‘home’ as much as I did when I first moved to Japan. I will go back to Japan in the future for holidays, but it will be strange to see how things have changed yet still seem so familiar. No doubt Shinjuku station will still be a nightmare to navigate around, and there will still be people handing out free tissues, although I suspect there might be more masks being handed out than there used to be.

Now that I’m no longer in Japan, there’s no real reason for me to update this blog, much like when I left Japan ten years ago. The entries I make now are the gentle musings of a man who feels compelled to share what is on his mind, not expecting anyone to read or really care. I may make the occasional update to this blog; I expect I will on some anniversary of the earthquake, or after a visit to Japan. So, until then, thank you for reading.

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Earthquake – one year on

Today marks the first anniversary of the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, where a tsunami following shortly inundated miles upon square miles of land, helped send a Fukushima nuclear power plant into meltdown, and devastated the lives of countless hundreds of thousands of people.

It is though that somewhere close to 16,000 people lost their lives and over 3,000 people are still missing.   The number of evacuees from all this number over 340,000 still today.

This is the likes of a disaster many hope never to experience.

Foreign media and alarmists exacerbated the nuclear issue and spread panic by splashing headlines and stories of impending doom, death and destruction to all in Japan and the spread of nuclear clouds around the world.  The world’s attention became less and less about the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, and became more about the nuclear issue, as reported in this recent Telegraph article.

So, one year on, how many people have died from radiation from Fukushima?  Zero.  How many died at the plant on the day?  Two – both drowned from the tsunami.  Indirectly, not from radiation?  One 60 year old worker died 14 May 2011 from a heart attack caused by overwork, and another man, in his 60s, this January also from a heart attack while pouring concrete for the plant.

Seems like a storm in a teacup.  Well, almost.   Water used to cool the reactors found its way into the ground  or leaking into the ocean instead of being contained and pumped into storage.  Food produce was found to have higher than normal levels of radiation in them, with the produce in some cases being banned from being sold.  Also, back in March, I wrote about a radioactive isotope of iodine finding its way into the water supply.  Radioactive material had been detected over central Tokyo, some 140 or so miles from the nuclear power plant.  Perfect fodder for the alarmists.  However, if you live in Hong Kong or Denver you are continually exposed to more ionised radiation than you are to the ionised radiation in Tokyo post March 11th.

How did all this affect me?

To begin with, people started panic buying at the supermarkets – 160 miles away from the disaster area!  Some food items were scarce, and this provided the opportunity for the supermarkets to push their prices up.  I even had trouble buying my canned peaches.  Normally cans don’t sell well at all in the supermarkets near me.  The only canned fruit left were some rather expensive peaches which cost something like five times what I’d normally pay for mine.  It seems that people do have their limits even in a disaster.

Secondly, the trains were running on a limited service in and around Tokyo.  This was due to the fact that with the Fukushima power station down, there wasn’t as much power to supply the grid, so everyone was being asked to cut back.  This meant that train journeys took longer than usual, a lot of the services weren’t running, there was no fixed timetable in some cases, and some lines weren’t operating.  Not fun for someone like myself who  travels all over Tokyo every day for work and to get home.

And finally, the hysteria in the papers and the news infected my parents, and with continual pressure from them, in June I finally agreed and left my adopted home of over a decade and a job I loved.

Now I’m back living with my parents and unemployed – not too many jobs for Business English Trainers, Corporate English Trainers or English teachers (I’m not qualified to teach in primary/secondary school, not that I’d want to) in England.  A friend insisted I go for a job at Cambridge University Press where he works.  As much fun as the job sounded, I think I’d rather be abroad.

So, to begin with there was only the transportation and the reduction in stock at the supermarket and the price increases.  But a few months later saw stock levels returning to normal as people finally realised that there was nothing for them to worry about being so far from the disaster areas.  Essentially, where I was living, there wasn’t such a big deal.

How have I been spending my time?

Less than a week after getting back into the country I had started a post-graduate diploma course.  I spent many months getting over culture shock (I’d been in Japan a very long time), and knuckled down on doing my family tree.  I have around 150 names so far on just my mother’s side, with many more people I know of but don’t have names for yet.

I have also become the de facto person to drag along whenever one of my parents has a doctor’s appointment or hospital visit, after which I become the shopping carrier as we go to the supermarkets and outdoor market.

I’ve also been going though some of my old things, throwing things out and reorganising everything else, scanning old photos onto the computer and fixing them up, DIY around the place, babysitting my cousins’ children, fixing computers and exploring the area where my parents now live.

Being at home has the unfortunate consequence of my parents (and some of my relatives) constantly trying to “introduce” me to girls (nine I think at the last count) so I will get married and have babies ASAP.

The lack of friends I have here has meant that I probably spend more time talking to my friends on Skype and on Facebook in Japan than I do face to face with people in general in England.

On a more positive note, all this spare time has also given me the chance to finally get saxophone lessons, start planning out a book on teaching/training in Japan, and has left me rather good at valuing antiques thanks to Antiques Road Trip.

What does the future hold?

Well, I’ve recently had a company ask me to apply for one of their teaching jobs in Saudi Arabia!  Fantastic.  Unfortunately they wanted an immediate start and my mother has other plans for me.  She’s due in for her second cataract operation at the end of the month, with a follow up three weeks later.  If there are no complications then she intends to drag me along to Hong Kong as I will be needed to do heavy lifting and carrying which she can’t do on her own.

After all that, the plan is probably to go to Malaysia or Singapore, where I can pick up a bit of culture and enjoy the warm weather.  Unfortunately, good jobs in my field are scarce there and the pay is bad.  I’d much rather be in Japan where I can get work easily and get well paid for it.  As the Japanese would say, 残念ね。Maybe I should think about Saudi Arabia.

Below are some photos taken from The Daily Mail showing some striking before and after pictures of just after the tsunami and 11 months later.  Have a look at their website for more incredible images.

And here’s a video from a Japanese TV program showing what progress has been made over the course of the year at five different locations.  The numbers you see in black at the bottom left of the video represent the month and the date the images were taken, with the last shot of each location given as “yesterday”.

There’s much more I could write about the earthquake, the power stations, foreigners leaving, hysterical (and uneducated!) people going on about radiation, the loss of jobs, financial markets and everything else, but I shall leave it there for today.

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WUS UK meet up

Last Friday was the first meet up for WatchUSeek members in the UK.  We had a small contingent of people from across the country who came down to Birmingham to show off their watches and meet each other in person.  A good time was had, followed by a pub crawl in the evening with the remaining members who were in Birmingham for the night.

More photos can be found here on WUS.

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Hello Kitty x Easter Eggs

East meets West with Easter and chocolate.  I was at the supermarket the other day and was gazing at the wall of Easter eggs when an old friend from Japan caught my eye.  Kitty chan!  Not a lot of people know this, but Kitty White, her full name, was actually born in England and not Japan.  That’s according to her profile, anyway.

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Checking prices

An invaluable use I’ve found for my phone’s camera is to take pictures of prices to compare with other stores and supermarkets.

There were three supermarkets very close to where I lived, and prices could vary greatly between the three.  For example, a Japanese loaf (about half the length of a UK loaf and usually consisting of 6 or 8 slices – 6 slices mean they were about an inch thick each!) usually sold for ¥99 at Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ, commonly referred to as Donki), but would sell for as much as ¥160 at Ito Yokado (イトーヨーカ堂) which is just across the street.  Well, when I mean street I actually mean four lanes of very busy traffic on National Route 16 (国道16号).

£1 is about ¥125 as of writing, so ¥100 is 80 pence.

You can check out some of the loaves on sale at Ito Yokado here on their online store.

Here are some pictures I dug out of my Japanese phone.

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Yellow snow warning

I was playing with my weather app on the phone last month and I got a yellow snow warning.  Everyone should have a weather app on their phone so they too can be warned of impending yellow snow.

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Utada Hikaru

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Hikaru Utada (or Utada Hikaru – 宇多田 ヒカル – if you do it the Japanese way) for quite a while now, and finally decided to get around to it after discussing her with someone I had met the other day.

Utada Hikaru, also known by her nickname – Hikki, had already been a massive hit in Japan for several years by the time I had moved there, and over the course of a decade or so I had been able to follow and listen (to a certain extent) to her success.

Originally from New York, Utada Hikaru is a massive star and household name in Japan with twelve No. 1 hit singles, and an estimated 52 million record sales worldwide (that’s about as many as Red Hot Chill Peppers, R.E.M and A-ha have sold).  Her Japanese début double A-side single, Automatic/Time Will Tell, sold over 2 million copies.  All this and more at the tender age of 28!

Despite her massive following in Japan she has had limited success abroad with her English releases.  Players of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II (computer games made by Square Enix of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest fame, and Disney) will already be familiar with her music, even though they may not know it.  She also features on the Rush Hour 2 (Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker) soundtrack with Foxy Brown, singing Blow My Whistle.  The album reached No. 11 on the US Billboard 200.

Utada Hikaru’s better know hits include: Automatic, Traveling, Colors, Sakura Drops, (Hikari, in English), Can You Keep a Secret?, and my favourite – Flavor of Life, the ballad version (see the embedded video below).

Some of her music videos are well know for their eye-popping colours, such as with Sakura Drops and Traveling.  It’s a shame that they’re unavailable in HD as the video quality is starting to show its age on YouTube and they would look absolutely amazing in HD.

Utada Hikaru has been on hiatus for the last year, and who could blame her after what she’s achieved in 12 years in Japan?  No doubt we will see more great things from her in the future if she chooses to continue with her music.

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Children’s Day

I’m currently going though my old photos and came across these which I haven’t posted up.  Expect more random photos over the next few weeks.

Children’s Day in Japan is 5th May and is a national holiday to respect the personality and well-being of children.  Originally celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th moon of the year on the lunar calendar, this changed to the 5th of May when Japan moved over to the Gregorian calendar about 150 years ago.

Just around the corner from where I was living, they have an annual festival where the local children dress up, carry a portable shrine (divine palanquin to be 100% correct, or Mikoshi in Japanese) around the town, and pull a drummer on a cart.  Other children carry a donation box.  Some of the adults beat wooden blocks together, while another blows on a whistle.

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Antwerp and Middelburg

I just got back from a short break away to Antwerp in Belgium and Middelburg in the Netherlands to see some friends.

Antwerp is, of course, the diamond capital of the world.  Something like 70% of the world’s diamonds are traded in the city.  Previously in the 16th century, Antwerp was the sugar capital of Europe, and was an important place for the import of pepper and cinnamon.  Money lending (even to the English government), the trade in spices and the textiles industries helped make Antwerp one of the richest cities in the world at one point.

Middelburg is less well known, but has a history spanning back over 1000 years.  It has the notorious history of being an important trading city for slaves to the Americas for the Dutch East India Company.  The city is home to Jacob Roggeveen, the man who discovered Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in 1722, on Easter day as it so happens.  Middelburg is the capital of Zeeland, a province of the Netherlands.  The country of New Zealand was discovered by a Dutch explorer, hence where the name comes from.

Below are some of my more arty shots.

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Hot chocolate with whipped cream and friends

I met up with a couple of friends I hadn’t seen in many years today.  We went to the food court in the Pavillions for a drink and a chat.  Given the choice of having my hot chocolate with whipped cream, marshmallows or both, I decided to go for just the whipped cream.  Along came this  monster.  The cream decided to melt rapidly after a few minutes, inundating my saucer and forcing me to sip the hot chocolate before I had managed to spoon all the cream off and into my mouth.

It was great catching up.

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