At the very moment I sat down to write this, right when I put my fingers on the keyboard to begin to type, my body tensed up as I heard the cupboard begin to rattle. “Oh, no.” But no sooner had I thought this then the shaking had stopped. All I could hear was the silence of the night, punctuated by the quiet tapping of the computer keys. I looked up what had just happened on the internet news and found that a magnitude 3.5 earthquake had hit northwestern Chiba, with a maximum seismic intensity of 1. I turned off the news and got back to work.
The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 six years ago began just like this. The mild jostling came first. “Happens all the time,” people might have thought. “Just another typical earthquake.” “It will be over in no time.” I was on vacation on the Fukushima coast on March 11, 2011, riding on a train. “Wow, it’s really shaking,” I said to myself as I looked up from my train seat at the handstraps swaying several inches back and forth. The shaking went on in great circular waves—five seconds, ten. Still it did not stop. The person sitting next to me laughed nervously. “This is a long one.”
With a jerk, my field of vision lurched hard to one side. A violent impact hit the train car as though it were being pummeled on all sides by a giant fist. The passengers who had been standing up could not stay on their feet and crouched low to the floor. There was a terrible rumbling from the earth and the screaming of the people on the train. It seemed to go on for an eternity. Looking back on it I now think that those were the sounds of my world being ripped out of the everyday.
After the shaking finally ended, I walked through a town leveled by the earthquake, fled from the ensuing tsunami, and had a close brush with the disaster at the nuclear power plant. A few days later, having relied on the help of people from all walks of life—and just barely having survived myself—I went back to the way I used to live.
Six years went by. Here, now, a peaceful night stretches out in front of me, free from anything fearful at all. But I still always think: what if it happens again? What if it all comes back—the never-ending shaking, the impact that almost knocks the knees out from underneath one’s body, the rumbling, the screams, the black noiseless nights, the massive death tolls, the terrifying disaster that reduces an entire region to extinction?
Immediately after the earthquake and the tsunami, I could not accept the fact, no matter how hard I tried, that my own everyday was as fragile, as vulnerable, as a single sheet of paper resting on a sea of mud. I could not get the sight to leave my eyes, of the pitch blackness of the town below as I looked down on it late at night from the elementary school on high ground to which I had fled as the tsunami hit. I have written countless things about the terror and the absurdity of all of this and at times my troubled mind has been soothed.
The way I feel now is that if I blink my eyes only to find that my everyday has been torn to shreds, then there will be nothing I can do to stop it from happening. At the very least, as long as I go on living in Japan—a country built atop the collision of several tectonic plates—then there is little point in worrying about when the next earthquake will come. All I can do is decide that when my every-day is ripped up and I fall into the ocean of mud, I will swim through my own overwhelming and completely unreasonable private suffering and try to reach the surface again.
The victims of the Hanshin earthquake, the Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata, the March 11 Tohoku earthquake, the Kumamoto earthquake, and any number of other earthquakes and natural disasters gritted their teeth and picked up the pieces of their shattered lives. In the process, they gained wisdom. They learned from their misfortune. I will try to follow them—I will try to do as they did. Tomorrow may be the day that what happened to them also happens to me. I suppose there is nothing else we can do besides help one another. I guess there is no other way than to go on learning from those who have already suffered, and who are suffering still.
This is the world in which we live: the everyday is fragile, and natural disasters, when they come, unthinkingly destroy even those things that we hold most dear, without showing any mercy. It is a blessing to die without ever realizing this, I think. But it is not an altogether bad thing to have been shown the precariousness of one’s existence. The everyday, as wispy and frail as a single sheet of paper, comes to seem the most beautiful thing imaginable. Today, I finish a day in which nothing much has happened. I will complete this manuscript, send it off, and then go to bed. I can feel the presence of my family nearby. If I send my friend an email, then she will probably write back before too long. If I want to, I can go meet whomever I please. The day will come when I will never be able to meet them again, but that day is not yet. “I am alive,” I whisper as I close my eyes and drift off to sleep.
Ayase Maru was born in Chiba in 1986. She graduated with a degree in literature from Sophia University in Tokyo. She worked at a company before winning the R-18 women’s literature readers’ prize in 2010. Her book Finally Reaching the Sea contains “Black night, counting the stars: Escaping from the train after the 3/11 earthquake,” which is a record of her experiences during the Tohoku disaster.