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I see Twitter prompts from time to time about what major news events are permanently engraved on people’s memories, what day shook how they saw and understood the world. Common reactions I see are the JFK assassination, the Challenger shuttle disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 – and the list goes on and on; The COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt be a major one in the years to come. For me there is a date that weighs heavily, but that the people around me often don’t recognize: 3.11.
3.11 is the common abbreviation for March 11, 2011, the date of the earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan, and includes the resulting core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The 10th anniversary of events was two weeks ago, and like every year on that day, I remembered the moment I heard of the disaster.
On March 11, 2011, I was a freshman, spending the spring break with a friend at her home in Ohio. I woke up that morning to a news alert that informed me of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan. Nine point zero. I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan and spent most of my life in Los Angeles – I keep getting used to earthquakes. But 9.0 is an unfathomable number. I spent hours (but minutes, really) in panicked silence in my friend’s family guest room, waiting for my LA mom to contact our Tokyo family and then give me all the news.
My cousin went for hours to get home that night because the trains stopped. My dad still talks about the first and last time he saw a 7-Eleven that was closed. My entire family in Japan lives in the greater Tokyo area. Fortunately, this is most of the direct impact the disaster has had on us.
But the weight of the tragedy is undeniable. The thousands of lives, the family members that were never found, the landscapes and cities of the Tōhoku region that have been decimated. Countless people still cannot return to their homes as the restoration efforts continue to this day and will take years. Not only is it particularly frightening to think that it might have been us, but also the fact that we might still be if – not if – another disaster strikes.
Below is a list of books and more that will help provide more context and insight into the 3.11 triple disaster and its ongoing effects.
Nonfiction, journalism and academic works
A time of disaster: the great earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan
In the weeks after 3.11, the employees of Sasaki Printing & Publishing Co., Ltd., a small company based in Sendai, came together to create this book to support their community (the proceeds from the book were donated to relief efforts ). Many of them began to write about their own experiences with the disasters and their feelings in the aftermath, and these stories are being compiled here. In a matter of months, they were able to put the book together, including translation into English with the help of a team led by Saburo Sam Tsuchida, making it one of the most immediate survivor accounts to be revealed to the world.
Heavy in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill
Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill are both journalists reporting on Japan for various publications, and they worked together here to study the impact of the 3.11 disasters on the people of Japan. The book follows the stories of six people, including a worker at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the mayor of one of the affected coastal cities.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Life and Death in Japan by Richard Lloyd Parry
This book offers an intimate account of the tragedy of Tsunami 3.11, told through the stories of the survivors and the ghosts who haunted them. Richard Lloyd Parry is a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent who covered the disaster for six years.
Ichi-F: A worker’s graphic reminder of the Fukushima nuclear power plant by Kazuto Tatsuta
After 3.11, Kazuto Tatsuta joined the many workers who signed up for the renovation of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This unique manga gives readers a look behind the scenes of the work in the plant, not from the perspective of an expert, but from the perspective of a person who has lived it every day. While Tatsuta’s story is only a small part of this great enterprise, it is rare to see and valuable, and looks beyond the dangers and fear of illuminating companionship and humanity.
Die Erde writes: The great earthquake and the novel in Japan after September 11th by Koichi Haga
Japanese literature has been heavily influenced by the events of the disaster in the years since 2011. Although the amount of this literature available to English readers is extremely limited, this book is a comprehensive analysis and provides more context and understanding of the phenomenon of post-3.11 fiction.
Radiation Brainmothers and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Policy of Food Contamination after Fukushima by Aya Hirata Kimura
After the 3/11 events, concerned mothers who felt unsafe because of claims by the Japanese government that food supplies were safe began to collect their own scientific data and uncover radiation exposure. However, their work was rejected and they were fired as irrational women with no real scientific knowledge. This book explores the challenges these women faced and sheds light on the complex relationship between gender, food science, and politics in Japan after 3.11.
Meltdown: Inside the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis by Yoichi Funabashi
Meltdown is a carefully researched and thorough account of the response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster and the failures at all levels that led to its devastating and long-lasting consequences. Journalist Yoichi Funabashi conducted hundreds of interviews in the years following the event to record the details of the two-week struggle for control of the situation and to learn lessons from leadership and crisis management.
Fiction and poetry
March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster Edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima
March Was Made of Yarn is a collection of short stories, essays, poems and even a brief manga inspired and pondered by the triple disaster and its aftermath. The book was published on the first anniversary of November 3rd. Compiled and contains works by Yoko Ogawa, Mieko Kawakami, and many other Japanese writers.
On the sea by Leza Lowitz
This YA novel in verse is about Kai, a teenage survivor of the tsunami that devastated the coastal village he called home and took the lives of loved ones. After the disaster, he visits New York to meet children who were lost on September 11th and gains hope from their stories. The novel was inspired by people and stories the author encountered as a volunteer in emergency shelters in the affected regions.
Tsunami against the Fukushima 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh
This collection of poems picks up on 3.11 and the story of the Fukushima 50, the group of employees who volunteered to stay at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to try to stabilize the reactors in order to study human responses to disasters. It imagines the tsunami as a femme fatale wreaking havoc and trying to defend its own right to live in a world taken over by humanity.
Kaze no Denwa
Kaze no denwa is a phone booth founded by Itaru Sasaki in 2010 when he lost his cousin to cancer in order to keep feeling connected. The telephone booth with a dislocated rotary telephone is located in Ōtsuchi, a city in the Tōhoku region, and was opened after November 3rd. Open to the public. Thousands of people have visited it to speak to the loved ones who have lost them, many of whom are still missing to this day.
The first thing I would recommend to learn more about kaze no denwa is this American Life episode, “One Last Thing Before I Go.” The first segment, produced by Miki Meek and entitled “Really Long Distance”, tells the story of the phone booth and contains clips from a documentary on NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and a must see.
The phone booth in Mr. Hirota’s garden by Heather Smith and Rachel Wada
This picture book is a fictional version of the history of the telephone booth. The illustrations by Rachel Wada, who has Japanese roots herself, pay homage to traditional Japanese art techniques such as woodcut and sumi-e.
The phone booth on the edge of the world by Laura Imai Messina, translated by Lucy Rand
Originally published in Italian, this novel tells the story of Yui, a young woman who lost her mother and daughter to the tsunami, and her pilgrimage to the Wind Telephone, where she meets Takeshi, a man who has lost his wife. It is a thoughtful exploration of loss, love, and healing.
In Japan, 3.11 has had a major impact not only on writing, but also on other art forms, including photography. Tokyo-based shashasha is an online photo book store founded to make Japanese and other Asian photographs more accessible to a global audience. Check out the list of photo books at 3.11 that were curated for the 10th anniversary. Some of the themes of the books include the traditional festivals that live on in the Tōhoku area, views of the radiation-evacuated areas five years later, and a record of a project carried out by volunteers to restore and restore damaged family photo albums left behind in the disaster. Although the words in these works are not translated, the images speak volumes for the lasting effect of 3.11.
A body in Fukushima by Eiko Otake and William Johnston (Wesleyan University Press, June 1)
Eiko Otake is a movement-based, interdisciplinary artist. This book is a photographic representation of an expanded solo project that she carried out on five trips to Fukushima between 2014 and 2019. She worked with historian and photographer William Johnston to document the irradiated landscapes side by side with depictions of sadness and dignity from her own body.
While much of the media and artwork that emerged as a result of 3.11 is Japanese by definition and not necessarily readily available to English-speaking audiences, I hope the works here can be a good starting point for gaining greater understanding of the tragedy and how it continues to shape the country.