Remembering the 3.11 Earthquake and Tsunami, My Ancestors, and the Tokyo Olympic Cauldron

Alejandro Chaskielberg photo 1
The members of a family sit in the place where their house stood before being destroyed by the tsunami of March 11, 2011, Otsuchi town, Iwate Prefecture, Japan_photo art created by Alejandro Chaskielberg

I was living in Seattle. I was called out of an important meeting because my wife called, moaning into the phone about intense pain in her stomach. I told her I’d rush home, but it was 5pm and Seattle rush-hour traffic was like everywhere else: not so good.

It took forever to get home, and when I did, she wasn’t there. As it turned out, she called 911, got carted off in an ambulance, and was transported to a hospital. I saw the note and took off for the hospital. A few hours hooked up to an IV later, she was told that the food poisoning was no longer an issue, so we hopped in a taxi.

We got home at 10 pm, May 10, 2011. In Japan, it was 3pm, May 11, approximately 14 minutes after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the coast of northeastern Japan. We turned on the TV and watched the horror unfold on CNN, doing all we could to contact friends and family in Tokyo, where the effects of the earthquake were also significant.

So much has been written about the events and aftermath of 3.11’s triple disaster: the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Daichi Nuclear Power Station.

One thing I learned a couple of years ago shocked me. It hit me on the treadmill one morning, while reading on my Kindle the book, “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival“, by Financial Times editor, David Pilling. Chapter 14, “Fukushima Fallout”, began with these words:

Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station and Odaka
The sort distance from my ancestral home town and the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.

It looked like any other provincial Japanese town. There was the Shiga Hair Salon, with its red, white and blue barber’s pole, offering cuts and ‘iron perms’. Next door was the Watanabe Cake Shop, doing business since 1990 and housed in a two-storey mock Tudor building. Outside the nearby Jokokuji temple, a tiny granite stone Buddha figurine stood at the entrance, dressed in a weather-worn pink ceremonial shawl. The traffic lights clicked on and off, from red to orange to green and back again. Korean pop music erupted from unseen speakers, breaking what had been a fetid silence. The only thing missing in the town of Odaka, located less than ten miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, was people.

The Shiga Hair Salon! That was the home of my grandfather’s younger sister, a very short drive to the birthplace of my grandfather! In August, 1988, in search of my roots, I was informed by the Odaka city office that I had relatives at the Shiga Hair Salon. So I walked on over, rehearsed an opening line in Japanese in my head, and walked in. After fumbling through an explanation in poor Japanese, showing them the documents that traced my past to this neighborhood over 150 years earlier, and that the hair salon’s founder, Chozo Shiga, was married to my grandfather’s sister….well we were suddenly family! I was ushered into their home, shown pictures, fed sushi and told stories. Later that day, they took me to the original home of my grandfather and ancestors, where the owner still cared for the tombstones of my ancestors.

Needless to say that time in 1988, and that moment when I learned my ancestral hometown was a ghost town, were both emotional jolts. Still today, I do not know what has happened to my relatives in the Shiga Hair Salon, although I’m pretty sure that the ancestral burial ground has been swept away as it was fairly close to the coast.

But my pain pales in comparison to those who truly suffered five years ago today.

When the demolition of the National Olympic Stadium began last year, and they needed a place to put the Olympic Cauldron, it was decided that the cauldron should be displayed in Tohoku. So on June 27 of 2015, the cauldron was unveiled in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, an area hard-hit by the effects of the tsunami. Athens Olympian and gold medalist in the hammer throw, Koji Murofushi, lit the cauldron, shining a light on Tohoku.

Koji Murofushi
Koji Murofushi lights the Olympic cauldron on June 27 at a park in Ishinomaki, Miyagi

The Olympic cauldron is expected to stay in Tohoku until 2020, when it would be returned to Tokyo to resume it’s spot in the new National Olympic Stadium.

Like the Olympic flame, which represents eternal peace and hope, the 2020 Olympics represent an opportunity to show that Japan is back, and the hopes and dreams of Tohoku are alive and well.