23. Our 3/11 Story

March 16, 2021Roger W. Lowther

For the past couple of months, I’ve been sharing stories of my experiences after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. For this episode, I want to go back to the very beginning. I want to start with Day 1, the day the day the earthquake hit and how we got involved in the relief movement. This is going to be longer than usual, so brace yourselves, but I hope you’ll find it useful as we all think about how God may use us, all of us, especially as artists, in the tragedies and traumas of the lives of everyone around us.

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . . ”

A dozen or so Japanese children slowly repeated the words after me, doing their best to copy the pronunciation of a native English speaker.

“Thursday, Friday, Saturday . . . ”

We sat on a mountain of futons, piled to one side of the room. It was March 14, 2011, just three days after one of the largest earthquakes in human history. We were in Fukushima, not far from the infamous nuclear power plants.

As I glanced out the window, I saw that the snow had stopped falling, forming dirty puddles on the frozen ground. I knew how cold it was outside, because it was not much warmer inside.

Just moments before, most of the men left to distribute gasoline we brought from Tokyo to help stranded cars. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to entertain this group of children. The other adults were cleaning up after lunch.

It’s hard to imagine what these people had just been through. Two days before, they were forced from their homes and towns with nothing but what they carried at the time. Most did not even have a chance to pack a suitcase or grab a backpack as they were pulled off the streets by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Their homes were now a nuclear wasteland, which they most likely would never see again.

When the earthquake struck, I was riding the Tokyo Metro, deep underground, on my way to a dentist appointment. Suddenly, the train stopped so quickly I thought for sure someone was on the tracks. Then a short announcement came over the loudspeaker.

“Please wait a moment. We have a signal from the emergency earthquake warning system.”

What? An earthquake?

Bamm. Seconds later, it struck. After the sudden jolt, the train car rocked gently, but rather than dying away, it increased in intensity, and then got stronger still. Pretty soon, all I could do was grab the edge of my seat and hold on. I was surrounded by people, but I didn’t hear a single sound from any one of them. The squeal of metal filled my ears as the train strained against the force of the ground throwing us in every direction.

What is going on here?

I’ve felt hundreds of earthquakes before, but never anything like this. Minutes later, not seconds, I was still holding on.

It was the first time in my life I’ve felt an earthquake that was actually dangerous. Usually earthquakes fade away before there’s time to feel anything at all, but this was different. I began to imagine the earth splitting open and rivers of magma rushing toward us and tunnel ceilings coming down on our heads.

When, at last, the shaking stopped, everything was quiet.

Suddenly, noise erupted from the loudspeaker. The conductor spoke so quickly I had no idea what he was saying, but, to be honest, it didn’t really matter. He could have been reading his grocery list, and I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. It wasn’t that I was uninterested. It’s just that, at that moment, I had too many other things to think about, like “Would the magma come inside the train?” and “When the magma comes, what’s the best way to get out of here?”

It’s probably not normal to think about escaping rivers of magma while taking trains to the dentist. But, clearly, this was no ordinary day.

I’ll escape through that door, I thought, when finally the train started moving again.

But then it stopped.

It moved.

It stopped.

It moved again.

It stopped again.

We spent a whole lot more time stopping than moving, and every time, the conductor rambled on about his grocery list.

I wonder if I should get out and walk, I thought. At this rate, we’ll be here all night.

Over an hour later, the train finally arrived at the next station and opened the doors.

The chaos outside struck me like a brick. The platform overflowed with people, as security yelled through megaphones.

• • •

When the earthquake struck, my wife Abi stood waiting for the elevators at the base of our thirty-two floor apartment building. She was on her way back from dropping our son Eastin off at karate.

The ground beneath her feet jolted, and the power to the elevators immediately cut off. As the whole building shook around her, she could do nothing but think about the falling twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.

I need to get out of here . . . now! she thought.

She stumbled outside, where she was overcome by the sound of the building’s steel structure roaring as it twisted against the bucking ground below.

She looked down the street to see a line of elementary school children coming home from school. Then she noticed the heavy clay tiles flying through the air like popcorn from the houses across the street.

Kochi e kite!” she yelled in Japanese. Come! This way!

She gathered the children, one after another, from the danger of the street into the safety of the lobby. But as she looked around her, she noticed she was surrounded by glass.

Oh, please don’t shatter! she pleaded to the two-story high walls of window. There was nowhere else to go. All she could do was wait, and hope.

At last the shaking died down, and children began to connect with their parents. Others continued their journey home.

Thinking of her own family upstairs, Abi entered the stairwell and began the long climb upwards. A steady stream of people moved past her on their way out of the building.

Loudspeakers in the stairwell crackled. “Please evacuate! Please evacuate! This is not a drill. Please evacuate!”

Not a drill? Abi thought. Do they really need to say that part?

On the way upstairs, she found a little girl crying.

“Where’s your mommy?” Abi asked.

“I don’t know,” the little girl sobbed. Clearly, she had been alone when the earthquake hit, but dutifully followed the instructions to evacuate.

“Okay, don’t worry. We’ll find her together!”

After bringing the girl down to the lobby and finding her mother, Abi again began the long climb upwards. At about the 10th floor, she heard a familiar voice.

“Mommy!”

She looked up to see seven-year-old Aidan, one-year-old Coen, and her parents, visiting from the United States.

“Oh, thank goodness!” Abi exclaimed.

Her mother braced herself against the wall as she handed over Coen, a look of pain on her face.

“What happened?” Abi asked. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” her mother said. “I was trying to get my grandson, when somehow a table got in the way!” She explained how everything crashed around her—glasses, dishes, mirrors, pictures, books, and CDs—and Coen woke up screaming from his nap. “Your apartment’s a bit of a mess,” she apologized

They were interrupted by the loudspeakers, again barking instructions.

“I guess we’d better head down,” Abi said.

Now reunited, the family joined the flow of people heading to the shelter being set up outside my son’s kindergarten.

• • •

Meanwhile, I was still trapped underground in a subway station. Staff shouted over megaphones. Passengers yelled at cell phones. Children cried, and alarms sounded. The cacophony was overwhelming.

I remained in my seat, wondering what to do next. It was hard to think with so much noise.

I looked around me trying to figure out where I was, but couldn’t see a station name anywhere. The other passengers remained in their seats.

I tried my cell phone, but there was no connection.

Should I get off? Clearly, the train was not going anywhere anytime soon, so I stood up. Wherever I am, I guess I’ll have to walk from here.

Stepping onto the platform and dodging my way through the crowd, I searched for the quickest way out of this mess and for some clue as to what to do next.

An insanely long line blocked my exit of people waiting for the payphones. It would take hours to make a call that way, I realized. I apologized as I pushed my way through and onto the stairs leading up and out of the station.

Stepping onto ground level, I noticed I was in the middle of a business district. An ocean of grey suits and ties filled the streets, packed solid like Times Square on New Year’s Eve except obviously without any of the festivities.

Another large aftershock struck, and I heard yelling in front of me. Mado kara hanare, someone shouted. Stay away from the windows!  More people poured out of buildings around me. Security wrapped off a large section of sidewalk with yellow plastic tape that said, Tachiiri Kinshi (Do Not Enter).

Amidst all the chaos, I suddenly remembered the dentist. I looked at my phone. I was already over an hour late. Obviously, I was really having trouble thinking straight, but with the dentist only one station away, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to head in that direction. Thirty minutes later, I found him in the street.

Konnichi wa, I’m so sorry I’m late!” I called out as I approached.

The dentist gave me a surprised look. “Hunh? How’d you get here?”

We talked for a little while, and then I asked, “Any chance of finishing that root canal?”

“I’m sorry, I think that would be difficult given the circumstances . . .” As he trailed off, we both looked up at the building, half-expecting it to crumble right there before our eyes.

“I see,” I said reluctantly. My tooth was really bothering me, and I wasn’t sure when there would be another chance to do anything about it. But there was nothing for it.

“Please be careful,” I said, and started the long walk home. I tried my cell phone again, but there was still no connection.

Rivers of people flowed by me, walking in high heels and suits. Many had marathon distances to cover to get home. Some would take all night.

A crowd gathered in front of the display window at a big bank. I stopped to see what was going on. There, on a large TV, terrifying images replayed over and over again: Black waves surging over sea walls, racing through cities, and continuing far inland.

I’d never seen anything like it, and all I could do was stand there in disbelief. I didn’t know if these scenes were in Japan or somewhere else. If people around me started running, I’ll start running too.

Many aftershocks later, I finally made it back home, just as it was getting dark.

I used the building intercom to call my apartment from the lobby, but no one answered. I talked to a few people in the lobby, but no one had seen them. I even went to the karate studio, but no one was there.

I came back to the apartment and was just about to begin the long climb upwards when I found a handwritten note taped to the wall. The fact that the note was in English was what caught my eye.

We’re okay. Come to Eastin’s school. Abi.

I followed the instructions, and moments later I found them. We have never had such a happy reunion! After all the hugging and kissing and crying, Aidan told me, “I didn’t like that one.” I told him I agreed! I’ve experienced hundreds of earthquakes before, but never anything like that. I hope I never have to again.

“They told us there was a tsunami in Tohoku,” Abi said.

“I think I saw it,” I answered. “That was To-ho-ku?” Unfortunately, I had no idea where or what To-ho-ku was.

Right at that moment, we were at sea level, on the edge of Tokyo Bay. “Are we safe here?” I asked hesitantly, not sure whether I should voice my concern.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

• • •

The next morning, haze filled the sky from oil refinery fires burning out of control. Trains still were not moving, hindered by the frequent aftershocks. Cars were stuck in massive traffic jams and lines for gas stations grew. Supermarket shelves quickly emptied.

The terrible images I saw the day before were repeated over and over again on TV, but now from many more towns: cars and homes washing at high speed across farmlands, boats smashing into bridges, S.O.S. signs spelled out with debris on rooftops, a lone ship being pulled into a massive whirlpool.

It seemed like some bad dream. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

When cell phone service finally started working again, we called friends and family. At the same time, hundreds of emails poured in from the United States and around the world. American TV and radio stations and newspapers too tried contacting us to get firsthand accounts of Americans living abroad.

As I looked out at the city from our balcony, trying to make sense of it all, I watched a long line of people walk across the bridge, many still on their way home out of the city.

My eyes wandered to the old traditional homes next to our building. This area was famous for hundreds of years of history. In fact, it was one of the reasons my wife and I chose to move to this part of the city. We loved the contrast of the old and the new. In the past two decades, a dozen or so apartment buildings rose to 40 or 60 stories high. More than a few in the neighborhood were not too happy with the sudden influx of outsiders.

My eyes registered what I was looking at. Gaping holes opened in roofs where clay tiles had once been. The earthquake had knocked them down to the street. I realized the first rain would cause a lot of damage, and many of the older folks wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

Wanting to be useful, we gathered a few volunteers from church and showed up at these homes carrying blue tarp and string.

We must have looked ridiculous, because many of the residents just stared at us in complete amazement.

I tried to explain in broken Japanese that we wanted to help, but I didn’t even know the Japanese word for roof tile. (I looked it up later. It’s kawara by the way.) Who in their right mind would allow us to climb their house?

Most refused us outright, but a few did allow us to help, occupying us for the rest of the day. I think they just felt sorry for us.

What were we doing?

What were we supposed to be doing?

• • •

On March 11, I planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary. That was the day we married, eleven years before. After visiting the dentist, I was going to take my wife to a nice restaurant.

The bigger celebration was to start a couple of days later, when we headed to the mountains for a few days of skiing without children. Abi’s parents flew in from Jackson, Mississippi to make all of this possible.

But now, there were some complications. We sheltered in a cold auditorium. Our apartment was full of broken glass. No trains, taxis, or buses were moving. Every restaurant was closed.

Clearly, I had to cancel dinner, but what about the ski trip? And if not that, didn’t we have to do something to celebrate? Isn’t that my job as a husband to figure that out?

But Abi had other things on her mind. She asked me, “Didn’t we live outside . . . for six months . . . hiking from Mexico to Canada?”

“Yes.”

“And haven’t you camped on mountains in the winter?”

“Yes, but I don’t see what . . . ”

“I think you should go,” she interrupted.

“Uh, go?” I asked dumbfounded. “Go where?” While I fretted over ways to save our anniversary, Abi actually did something useful. She talked to people.

The pastor of our church communicated with pastors in the disaster area. My boss gathered supplies and prepared a truck. A driver was needed, she explained, one with outdoor winter experience.

“What?” I asked in disbelief. “What about our anniversary?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “We’ll celebrate some other time.” And just like that, it was decided. I would go. And I would not go just anywhere, mind you, but to Fukushima, the very place in the news as infamous as Chernobyl, with exploding nuclear power plants.

As radioactive plumes spread over the region, the people evacuated quickly. Most couldn’t even get home first to pack clothes or valuables. They scattered in shelters with nothing but what they carried in their hands.

Akira Sato pastored a church not three miles from there. He just happened to be in Tokyo when the earthquake struck, for a seminary graduation. He frantically tried calling each of the church members, trying to find out where everyone was, and desperately needed to return with a truck of supplies.

It was now my job to help get him there. I pulled together my winter camping gear.

Backpack? Check.

Down sleeping bag? Check.

Camping stove? Check.

Toilet paper and shovel? Check.

Water filtration system? I was pretty sure it would be useless against radioactive particles, but whatever. Check.

I didn’t even know where Fukushima was. I had to look it up on a map. 250 miles north. Okay, I thought, that’s not far. I can walk if needed. I have the gear to do it. Before children, Abi and I walked over ten times that far across the United States on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I was ready for anything.

But, no, I wasn’t ready for this. Not even close.

My missionary team leader was waiting for me at the truck when I got there. Just the night before, he drove north with another pastor to the city of Iwaki, just south of the nuclear reactors. He gave us some advice.

“Keep the radio on so you know about new tsunamis. If you hear sirens, head for high ground. Be careful of roads. Many parts have washed away, and there are no signs to warn you. If we hear about further deterioration, we’ll give you a call. Good luck!”

Sirens?

Washed away roads?

Deteriorating nuclear power plants?

It felt surreal, like some apocalyptic action movie. What was I even doing here?

I didn’t know if roads were passable that far north. I didn’t know if I could find gas to get back. I didn’t know how many more explosions there would be of nuclear reactors. All I knew was that there was no electricity or running water or food. And there were people, a lot of people, in need.

It was about midnight when we headed out.

Closed highways forced us to take local roads. Fortunately for us, not another vehicle went in our direction, toward the nuclear power plants. We drove around fallen walls and buildings. We avoided large sinkholes and fissures. We made long detours around impassable bridges.

It was the longest night of my life.

• • •

With three small children to take care of, Abi thought about what to do next. She called two Japanese friends, mothers of Aidan’s first-grade classmates. They talked on the phone as our children ran noisily around the room. In the background, images of devastation played nonstop on TV. Anxiety and stress levels were high.

Abi told them that I drove a truck up north. “Feel free to bring stuff over for the disaster area,” she said. “When he comes home, I’m sure he’ll be going straight back.” Then she invited them over for lunch, but on their way, the two women messaged their friends, who in turn texted others. The doorbell started ringing, and lunch never happened. Within two hours, food and emergency supplies filled every bit of floor space in our apartment, straight to the ceiling.

A woman with an apartment in our building brought big bottles of water. When she saw the situation, she called the building manager and got permission to move everything to the community room downstairs.

Many who brought donations stayed to help, receiving, sorting, and repacking boxes by category. By late afternoon, the community room was completely filled with row after row of boxes piled taller than could be reached without a chair. In just a matter of hours, the neighborhood was mobilized through the power of women with cell phones.

Abi was thankful her parents were there to help. Without them, there was no way she could have handled the children and organized the supplies that continued to pour in.

There was no more room and the women of course wanted to send the boxes north as soon as possible, but I wouldn’t be back with the truck for another day. They called every rental car company, but not a single vehicle was available anywhere. Everyone was fleeing radiation from the nuclear power plants.

In the middle of the community room, Abi began to pray. As she did, her phone rang.

“We heard what you’re doing,” the voice on the other end said. “Would a truck be useful?” Forty-five minutes later, a two-ton truck pulled up, full of fuel and ready to go.

Men returned home from work and helped by loading boxes into the truck, while Abi worried about the next problem. Who would drive the truck? Again, she began to pray. As she did, the community room door opened.

Sumimasen. Excuse me.” A young Japanese man poked his head inside. “I heard about your relief effort. I work for an NPO in Africa, and I’m in Japan for a short holiday. Is there any way I can help?”

Abi had to laugh at the timing. “Um, can you drive a truck?” she asked, trying not to get her hopes up.

“Yup, that’s what I do,” he said.

“Um, can you drive a truck . . . now?” she added.

“Of course. No problem.” He departed with the truck that very evening.

In this way, our role in the emergency relief movement began. In just one day, hundreds of volunteers gathered. As a community working together, we found a way to be useful. God worked through all of us in the small things, like making a call or packing a box, to make big things possible.

• • •

The next morning, we arrived in Fukushima. “We did it,” I said, pulling into the parking lot of the church where so many sheltered and turned off the engine.

I was tired, too tired to even get out. It’s pretty exhausting driving through the night, listening to the radio for impending nuclear holocausts, and steering around cracks wide enough to swallow us whole. But I wasn’t just tired, I was hungry too. And I wanted a shower. And I wanted a change of clothes.

People came out of the building to greet us, so with what little energy I could muster, I pushed open the door and hopped down to the ground. We stood outside hugging our jackets while making introductions. White clouds puffed from our mouths.

When we entered the church together, I thought I could finally rest. All I wanted to do was eat something and lie down for a little while, but then the pastor who came with us announced, “Okay, let’s sing and pray together.”

Wait, what? Worship? Now? What about lunch? I may be a missionary, but I have to confess, this was not the first thing on my mind. I didn’t think I could even keep my eyes open, but did my best to follow the pastor’s lead.

Ironically, I actually remember the pastor’s message to this day. “In circumstances like these especially,” he said, “God promises to be with us.” The words encouraged me, the urgency making them more powerful. In that moment, I deeply felt the presence of God.

We eventually did get around to unloading the truck and eating lunch, then teaching English as I explained before.

Now I’m done, I thought. We would be driving back to Tokyo as soon as the men finished dispersing the gasoline, so this was my only chance to rest.

I went to the corner of the room where there was an old keyboard and some sound equipment. It looked like a good place to lie down, out of everyone’s way. Besides, as a musician, I’m always comfortable where the keyboard is.

“Can I help you?” a woman asked me, as I got behind the keyboard. She spoke with authority, so I knew she had some kind of position at the church.

I was too embarrassed to ask about lying down, so instead I said, “Um, I’m a musician. Would you mind if I played a little?”

That’s not what I meant to say, and I don’t think it’s what she expected me to say. Her face lit up. “You mean a concert?” Without waiting for an answer, she started asking people to line up chairs around the keyboard in semicircles.

Oh no! I thought. A concert is definitely not what I meant. It would be nice to play a little bit, just to relax, but if I thought I was tired before, it didn’t even compare to how I felt at that moment. The smart move would have been just to clarify the misunderstanding.

I was wearing jeans and boots and a winter coat because it was so cold inside. My hair was a mess from dozing in the truck while others drove, and I was dirty. I was stressed and tired from taking local roads all night since the highways were closed, keeping an eye out for holes caused by the earthquake. Also, I did not have a single piece of sheet music with me.

I turned and saw that people were already beginning to take their seats. Rather than make excuses, I decided I’d better use the time to quickly figure out a program in my head.

There wasn’t much under my fingers at the time, being between concert seasons, and I had just run the Tokyo Marathon. Preparation for that ate up all my practice time. I’m an organist, but there were some pieces I always remembered on the piano. And there were some organ pieces I could try playing without the pedal part, like Bach’s famous “Little” Fugue in G Minor and Toccata in D Minor. I supposed I could fill up the rest of the time with Japanese folk songs, American ragtime, and improvising on Christian hymns. It might be nice to also lead a celebration of Happy Birthday for anyone with a birthday in March.

Under these less-than-ideal circumstances, I decided to do what I could and turned to face the audience. I hope I don’t regret this, I thought as I gave a short bow. The audience responded with polite applause. I sat down at the keyboard and began to play.

I don’t think I played very well. I’m so glad that my teachers were not in the room or that I was not on stage or being recorded. I certainly would not have won any competitions. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever played for a more appreciative audience. It wasn’t just the applause and the shouts of “Bravo!” and “Wonderful!” but all the comments afterwards. The music had a power I’m just beginning to understand. It didn’t even occur to me that music could be useful or even “necessary” in a situation like this. For a brief moment, there was no emergency. There was no earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear radiation.

“The music had a power

I’m just beginning to understand.

It didn’t even occur to me that music could be useful or even ‘necessary.’”

I entered the relief movement to bring necessary items of food, water, and supplies. Now I was playing music and pretty soon my full-time job became giving concerts in shelters throughout the disaster area for months to come. Despite the aftershocks, the devastation, the mud, the all-night driving, living in a tent, eating instant and canned foods, no running water, no showers, no flush toilets . . . despite all these very much less-than-ideal circumstances, it was like I found music for the first time.

“It was like I found music

for the first time.”

The beauty was a continual reminder of the presence of God. He was as tangibly present as I have ever felt him.

At the end of each day, Christians gathered at relief centers. While eating canned food and instant ramen, we shared stories from that day, prayed together, and sang songs of worship, just like on my first trip to Fukushima.

As the tenth anniversary of 3/11 approaches, I don’t want to forget the people or conversations from the northeast coast of Japan. I want to celebrate with all who will listen what happened during that time. It is my sincere hope that in hearing these stories, all will be deeply encouraged and realize anew how God works even in the darkest of times.

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