Inexorable forces – An Irishwoman’s Diary on tsunamis

A fishing boat which was washed inland by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Photograph: iStock

A fishing boat which was washed inland by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Photograph: iStock

 

I recently moved, and in the process forced myself into a ritual of culling, which involved regular trips to the local charity shop and the brutal assessment of great mounds of photographs with framing or recycling options firmly in mind.

While trying to whittle down the contents of a particularly fat envelope, I came across one photograph of me standing to one side of a sign, a sign written for the most part in Japanese, warning of the danger of tsunami.

I’d lived in Kamakura in Japan from 1991 to 1999. It is a seaside town just outside Tokyo.

It had been a capital in ancient times and was filled with shrines and temples and, famously, a massive bronze statue of a sitting Buddha.

This statue, the Daibutsu, was just up the road from my apartment and very quickly became the highlight of the first, full-on sightseeing day for visitors from Ireland.

The Daibutsu was more than just a statue from the past, though. It had a story. Originally, it had been housed in an enormous hall but this hall had been washed away by a tsunami in the late 15th century.

And since then, it had remained outdoors: implacable, impenetrable and unchanging.

This story never failed to fascinate. The Daibutsu was located perhaps a mile inland, maybe more. I would find myself looking back towards the beach and wondering how this could have happened. How had the wave come in so far?

And so with absolutely no knowledge of tsunami and coming from an inland town in a country with no history of tidal phenomena, I decided that the story had been embellished over time and was only loosely based on fact.

As far as I was concerned, it had to have been, and I never failed to express my doubts when visitors were immersed in those tourist explanations on site.

And so to those warning signs all along the sea front. A diagram with an upside down “V” representing the wave itself, immediately followed by some kind of trough which I didn’t initially understand.

‘The wave sucks in the water in front”, my Japanese friends explained.

The signs made it onto the tourist schedule, as often as not just after the visit to the Daibutsu. They included a message in English, “Evacuate immediately from the beach in case of unusual appearance”, which always elicited a wry laugh. After all, what did “unusual appearance” mean?

I made a point of taking a photograph of those visitors just a little to one side.

And that’s where and why my own photo was taken. I clearly decided somewhere along the line that I needed one for myself. And so, I’m standing there, oblivious and vaguely disinterested, looking off into the distance with a “Can you believe what I’m standing beside?” expression flickering vaguely on my face.

I was living back home when the Indonesian tsunami struck on St Stephen’s Day 2004. It was the first time it registered with me that a tsunami wasn’t some kind of mythical creature but a force of nature with incomprehensible consequences.

But it was, of course, the Japanese tsunami of 2011 that stopped me in my tracks.

In the days and weeks that followed I watched report after report. The tsunami happened up north. Nowhere near where I’d lived.

But there was helicopter footage of a white-crested line thundering towards land. It took seconds to register. This was what a tsunami looked like.

Once it hit the coast, the water moved inexorably inland, turning black with debris, crushing buildings in its path, sweeping up cars like toys.

One news clip highlighted a distant figure, desperately trying to outrun the wave, an endeavour that even I, thousands of miles removed, could recognise as futile. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For your life to come to this? To get up, to go about your business and then suddenly and unexpectedly and entirely out of the blue find yourself under siege by the ocean. The Japanese tsunami went inland for 10km. Much, much further than the sitting Buddha.

And now another ocean has reared into life, with Indonesia once again bearing the brunt.

I look at the photo of me standing beside that sign and don’t know whether to keep it or throw it away. I don’t know whether it’s evidence of blind stupidity or dumb naivety or the randomness of forces far beyond my understanding.

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