This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Tohoko earthquake and tsunami and its aftermath. As Japan reflects on the enormity of March 11, 2011, we’ve compiled a list of a few things we remember most from that fateful period.
1. The Foreshock
At 11:45 a.m. March 9, the ground began to shake. But Japan has hundreds of earthquakes each year, and so the magnitude-7.3 jolt — while stronger than usual — didn’t cause any real alarm. A few heads turned. There was some nervous laughter. And then it was business as usual ... at least for a couple more days.
2. The Chimes of NHK
Prior to March 11, few of us had ever heard them before: two sets of chimes — a spooky musical alert that a powerful earthquake was about to hit. The chimes are part of Japan’s Earthquake Early Warning system, which uses sophisticated sensors to monitor seismic activity throughout the country. When a strong quake is detected, the chimes are sounded on NHK and other television and radio networks, as well as over city public-address systems and on mobile phones. For the rest of 2011, the country was rattled by so many aftershocks that the chimes became a familiar background music to everyday life.
3. The AC Jingle
The chimes were eerie; the Japan Ad Council's jingle was just obnoxious. Because running product ads would have been insensitive, networks instead played AC public-service announcements during commercial breaks. Most of the spots, like the one in the video above, were innocuous enough. But each commercial ended with a shrill voice bellowing “AC” at a volume twice as loud as the ad itself. Imagine hearing that several hundred times a day. (Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. You can experience it. Just play the video to the end — the very end.)
4. The Rolling Blackouts
The meltdown at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant and voluntary shutdowns of other nuclear facilities plunged much of the country into an energy crisis. To conserve power, the government ordered mandatory “rolling” blackouts. Electricity was cut to vast swaths of northern and eastern Japan for several hours each day. "This was a hard decision to make, knowing that it would cause a lot of inconvenience to the public,” then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan said. In fact, it brought families and communities closer together. Neighbors gathered on the street during the blackouts. Restaurants kept their doors open and served customers by candlelight. And we all learned how to cope — at least for a few hours — without Internet access.
5. The Toilet Paper Shortage
When a natural disaster strikes, it’s human nature to hoard. In the first 24 hours following the quake, panicked citizens emptied supermarkets and variety stores of many essentials: canned foods, bottled water, flashlights, batteries, blankets. Oh, and toilet paper. That’s right. For a few weeks following the quake, TP was a precious commodity. A much-needed moment of comic relief (at least for those of us at Manga University) was provided by an unlikely source:
Among the shortages in Tokyo — toilet paper. But we found some rolls of Pokemon TP in our storeroom. Pikachu has literally saved our butt!— Manga University (@mangauniversity) March 18, 2011
6. The “Nuclear Boy” video
The AC commercials might have gotten on our nerves, but nobody grew tired of the charming “Genpatsu-kun” (Nuclear Boy) video. Uploaded to YouTube on March 15, the animated video sought to explain the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis to children in terms they could understand. The video likens the power plant explosions to ... well, you can see for yourself.
7. The Flyjin
As the nuclear crisis worsened, Tokyo’s Narita International Airport was overrun by wealthy foreign residents looking to hop on the first flights out. The fact that these panicky expats, many of whom had gotten rich off of Japan, would abandon the country in its time of need didn’t sit well with those who chose to stay put. Soon, the foreign press began referring to the departing gaijin as “flyjin,” a nickname that caused just as many grins as grimaces.
8. The Aftershocks
More than 1,000 aftershocks have been recorded since the earthquake, many of them powerful, and some deadly. Perhaps the most notable of all, because of its timing, was a 7.1-magnitude jolt that occurred at 5:16 p.m. April 11, 2011, the one-month anniversary of 3/11. Even now, the country experiences minor aftershocks that are attributed to the 9.0 quake.
9. The Sakura
By the end of March, the country needed respite. Aftershocks were frequent and strong, Fukushima Dai-Ichi remained critically unstable, and hundreds of thousands of survivors were still in the early stages of mourning. But spring had arrived, and with it the sakura — cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan. And so, despite pangs of guilt and a sense of trepidation, the more fortunate families and friends cautiously made their annual pilgrimage to parks, playgrounds and other open spaces to partake in hanami, the viewing of the blossoms. The gatherings, traditionally boisterous, were this time subdued. But they still managed to convey what people in times of crisis have always known: hope springs eternal, and life goes on.
Glenn Kardy is the founder of Manga University. Elle Chu, Samantha Koller and Carolee Clark contributed to this report.