It was April 16, 2011, and 36 days had passed since the once-in-a-1,000-year earthquake, the Tohoku earthquake, forced me to leave my home in Japan with my mother and brother. I was 11.
Now, I woke up in a cold sweat on a tour bus stopping at a gas station in New York, awakened by the familiar nightmare of the groaning sound of metal and screams. Then came flashbacks to the tsunami that followed the earthquake, like a giant dragon swallowing houses and people within seconds, of furniture flying outside the balcony, and of roads cracking open. I remember the voices of my classmates, screaming “Help me, help me.” They never fade.
“I got you some food!” my 13-year-old brother said. He and my mother returned with beef jerky and a pack of chips from the gas station shop.
As the short restroom break ended, the tourists came back to their seats. The bus started driving to the next destination, Niagara Falls.
A month before, on March 11, I looked outside the window and remembered watching the sky from the classroom window, waiting for time to pass by. Fifty more minutes, I counted, until school is over. I was bored by the lecture given by my unenthusiastic social science teacher.
Suddenly, I heard a whisper, “an earthquake,” – a voice that marked the beginning of my life-changing journey.
At 2:46 p.m. that day, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the northeastern side of Japan. This event began with a strong earthquake off the country’s main island, Honshu, causing widespread damage. The main quake was followed by more than 5,000 aftershocks, and it initiated tsunami waves. Its impact extended to Hawaii, generating a Pacific-wide tsunami.
Nobody was prepared.
The earthquake hazard map used to predict these disasters was created by governmental agencies and based on around 200 years of history of earthquakes. But the Tohoku earthquake turned out to be a repetition of an event that happened in A.D. 869 – a time period that wasn’t considered in the map-making. The ancient earthquake —and this new one—was about 50 times more energetic than expected within the limits shown on the hazard map, which had been in use prior to 2011, said Christopher Scholz, a Special Research Scientist in Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics at Columbia University.
But the earthquake that no one predicted, that no one saw coming, inevitably shaped who I am and who I will become.
On the day that the earthquake struck, I felt my chair and desk start shaking, and my friend whispered to me, “Do you think we can get off from school early?” We occasionally experienced small earthquakes in Japan, and at first, everyone assumed this was one of them. However, as the earthquake grew stronger, we realized this one was different.
As my teacher instructed us to hide under our desks, I squeezed myself under my small one that barely fit my body. I held the legs of the desk. But slowly, as the quake intensified, I found it difficult to hold onto the desk. My best friend drifted away from her desk, and I extended my hand. We held tightly to each other. And thought this would stabilize us, but the classroom floor was like a surfboard on ocean waves. Within seconds, I was lying on the floor swaying, hit by desks and chairs. My legs were numbed. “Help me, help me!” I heard the voices of my classmates who were being shaken and hit under their desks.
The earthquake was followed by another without a break. No matter how much we screamed for help, no help came because everyone, including my teacher, couldn’t even help themselves.
When the aftershocks slowed down for a little, some of my classmates ran to the bathroom. They brought back rolls of toilet paper and we wiped each other’s tears, mumbling “It’s alright, it’s alright.”
In the midst of the catastrophe, we heard evacuation instructions, but it was too hard to follow as everything still moved. Our homeroom teacher started counting us, and we followed him in a line as he instructed. As he opened the classroom door, we left the chaotic classroom behind.
Student belongings scattered the hallway. I was scared to be away from my class and be left behind in the building. The annual school earthquake training did not prepare any of us for this. On that day, when I left the school gate, that was the last time I saw my classmates.
When the earthquake struck, my mom was inside our condo. It was on the 15th floor and had a 180-degree Tokyo Bay view. Each quake was a large swing on a higher floor. Within seconds, the piano in the corner of the living room was in the center. As my mom fell to the floor and saw tsunami waves rampaging in the ocean from the window, the building made groaning metal sounds, “Squeak, squeak.”
Facing a life-and-death situation on the living room floor, she thought, “At least my children are in school and they should be safe.” After some time had passed, she thought again, “But, I cannot just stay here waiting for my life to end.” She then crawled out of the door.
She opened the door to the emergency staircase. The aftershocks did not stop, and she repeated a process of tripping, rolling down, and then getting up, to get down the stairs, badly bruising her legs.
When my mom finally made it out of the building, she saw a devastated city. Surrounding houses were tilted, and buildings seemed to be floating above the ground. Manholes stuck out by approximately 3 to 4 feet. There were earthquake cracks everywhere with liquid mud coming out from them.
During an earthquake, strong ground shaking increases the pore water pressure in saturated sandy soils, and the consequence is that the soil starts behaving as a liquid. This phenomenon is called liquefaction. And sandy artificial landfill deposits are sometimes loosely packed, a fact that increases liquefaction potential, said George Deodatis, a Santiago and Robertina Calatrava Family Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University.
The liquefaction effect was largely seen from Tokyo to Chiba along Tokyo Bay, where my family lived. As my city was built on a landfill, the liquefaction was even worse.
When my mom got out of the building, she tried to jump over the cracks in the ground to get to my school. But, when she tried to cross one of them, it suddenly grew wider. Her legs fell into the crack, and the sticky mud wrapped around her body as high as her knees. She could feel herself sinking.
The more she tried to come out, the more her body sank.
She began screaming, “Help me!”A woman who had already crossed a street, walked back wearing her home slippers and pulled my mom out. To this day, we do not know who saved my mom’s life.
Help was all around us, despite the chaos. We learned that, at shelters, older residents gave their rice balls to children, and rescue workers each only ate a banana to serve food to other survivors, though they were hungry, too.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 163 countries and regions, and 43 international organizations offered help to Japan in the form of sending rescue teams, donations, and aid supplies.
Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami, “Operation Tomodachi,” which translates in English to “Operation Friend(s)”, was launched by order of the United States Pacific Command to assist Japan.
Despite the global aid Japan received, 15,900 people died and 2,523 remained missing, according to the report published by the National Police Agency of Japan in March 2022.
The disaster was especially devastating because it wasn’t just a single disaster but a triple one: the earthquake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear power plant’s meltdown just after the earthquake.
A tsunami over 46 feet struck Fukushima, where the plant was located, soon after the earthquake. Despite the plant having automatically shut down the reactors after its detection of the earthquake, the emergency generators that prevented overheating of the nuclear fuel were damaged, which contributed to the nuclear meltdown, releasing large amounts of radioactive materials.
There were two types of disaster alarms that did not stop on that day, kicking off a confusing loop: an earthquake warning that instructed us to be on the ground floor and a tsunami warning that instructed us to get higher up. It was an endless route, from the entrance hall into the building of our house to the staircases leading to the 15th floor.
Just hours after the earthquake struck, food became scarce. The shelves in the supermarket in my neighborhood cleared. The financial system was also interrupted, preventing us from using credit cards or withdrawing cash.
It soon became clear that schools were not going to resume any time soon.
The nuclear power plant’s meltdown in Fukushima added another layer of stress and concern for people in the country. The plant emitted high levels of radiation, which caused evacuation of over 100,000 people and brought fears of disease like cancer, caused by exposure to radiation.
This is when my parents decided to buy plane tickets to evacuate from Japan. But my dad had to stay in Japan for work, managing a media company and helping arrange foreign journalists to report the earthquake.
In the early morning, a car came to take us to the airport. My dad came along with us to say goodbye. I told myself to stop crying because I did not want him to feel sadder and more worried about us. But, I could not control my tears thinking this could be the last time I might see him, as so many people died because of the earthquake. I looked away from my family to hide my face.
At the exit gate at the airport, I could no longer hold my feelings in. I burst into tears and asked my dad, “ But can’t you come with us?”
“I’ll go once everything settles down,” he said.
But we all knew things would not settle down any time soon.
We all hugged each other one last time, feeling his large and warm body wrapping around us.
He stood outside the gate watching us even after we went through security. We waved at him, and he gave us a hand gesture to call him when we got to the U.S.
A feeling of indescribable uneasiness arose inside me on the plane, and I sat there staring at the black screen in front of me for hours.
After we arrived in San Jose, California, we first stayed at a friend’s house but decided to leave after a week, because we did not want to cause more trouble to the family. After that, we stayed in different hotels, inns, and motels. Then, we decided to go on this tour as a way to simply secure a place to live.
Then our journey of finding a home started in California. We stayed in different hotels, inns, and motels every day based on which place offered the best price again as we had an uncertain future, not knowing how long the evacuation would last and whether the financial system in Japan would be disrupted again, preventing future financial transactions from Japan.
Our day always began with packing suitcases in the morning and checking out from the place we stayed. We had two large suitcases and one small carry-on suitcase and a lot of bags. I always took the small suitcase and another backpack, and my brother carried most of the luggage. On bumpy roads, where sometimes there was not enough sidewalk space, we dragged our suitcases.
Then, we settled into a new place for the day.
After reserving so many hotel rooms, my brother eventually figured out the algorithm that most of the places update their prices from 11 p.m. to 12 a.m., so he would set an alarm to wake up at that time to make the next day’s hotel reservation.
This kind of lifestyle continued for months until we decided to settle down in an apartment in Pasadena, California, as Japan still had not recovered from the disaster. We also started to look for schools.
My mom found a language school to learn English and immerse herself in American society.
Since there were no taxis in California or Uber back then, we used a combination of buses and walking to go to school.
Google Maps became our best friend through sunny and rainy days. From our place, we walked 45 minutes to get to our first bus stop. After riding the bus for about 20 minutes, we got off to walk for an hour. But, this one-hour walk was so much more difficult than the previous one. There were no proper sidewalks. Cars and pedestrians were divided by a thin white line. On a busy street with so many cars passing by, the width of the sidewalk was only about 28 inches. My mom walked on the side of the road. But we could feel the wind as the cars buzzed by.
On our way, we would see a place similar to our home in Japan. Every time we passed there, we always repeated the same line: “I wish that was our house.”
While we walked, the hot sunlight was burning our necks. The sunburn mark my brother got still remains on his neck to this day. He never went to a doctor because we didn’t have insurance in the U.S.
Though in California it rarely rains, when it rains, it pours. On rainy days, cars splashed water on us, soaking us. We just kept walking to get to school, despite some people in a car yelling at us for walking on such a day.
On our walk to school, we already learned a tough lesson — opportunities do not automatically fall into our hands. And I realized how fortunate I was in Japan.
My brother and I had sat inside my mom’s school for hours every day to wait for our mom to be let out.
Our days always ended with the three of us sitting at a round wooden table studying together.
I went to sleep around 11 p.m. But sometimes, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I saw my mom still studying her textbook at the round table. With her consistent hard work, she rose to the top of her class.
One weekend, my mom woke up early and said, “We’re going to the DMV to take the driver’s license written exam.” This was the only day of the week we got to wake up late. Despite my mom having a Japanese driver’s license, we told her that it would be impossible to pass the American license written exam without studying.
“I’m just going to see what the test is like and see the test center for my next exam,” she said.
As if God was lending a helping hand, she passed both the written exam and the road test on her first try.
Eventually, we bought a car and with that, plus a permanent address in the U.S., we felt official. This marked our new beginning here.
School was hard. It was difficult to start everything new.
But I realized for the first time that only knowledge cannot be stolen from me, so I worked hard in school.
In high school, my brother and I started a Japanese Club that taught local students Japanese, hoping to create a bridge between the U.S. and Japan, as the earthquake showed us the importance of a connective community. With our passion for the club and the contributions we made, the Japanese embassy in California introduced our club to the only national television station in Japan, NHK. On its global channel, it recorded an episode, documenting our club and interviewing us, broadcasting what we created to 150 countries and regions.
The more flexible educational system in the U.S. also encouraged me to finish school early, as graduating early meant letting my mom return to Japan sooner to get back to her comfortable life and be back with my dad.
At 20, I graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, with a bachelor’s in economics and a minor in East Asian studies two years earlier than my peers, recognized as the youngest graduate of my class. I decided to study economics because of its importance after witnessing the collapse of the financial system in Japan.
My brother found his passion in speech and writing and won national competitions. He also graduated from Emory early. And even my mom had received an acceptance letter to a graduate school a few years before we started college.
All of my classmates stayed in Japan and pursued their studies and careers there. One of my classmates became an elementary school teacher, and one of my other friends started working at a marketing company in Japan.
The earthquake created a new pathway from the original road of my life where I walked with my classmates.
But behind our academic success in a new country, there was the help of our grandmother and grandfather. When my brother and I were little at home, my grandmother and grandfather would patiently teach us math and literature.
When I was five, we sat inside a traditional Japanese room with Tatami flooring, made from pressed rice straw covered with bamboo canes, to sing multiplication tables. This is when my love for math sparked. They were my very first teachers who taught me the joy of learning.
After completing college, my brother and I both received offers from Goldman Sachs. My brother went to work there, and I decided to work for a consulting firm for two years. Now we are both graduate students at Columbia University.
About the author(s)
Miho Ouyou is a journalist and student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in data.