Five years ago, on Friday, March 11, 2011, the vast north east area of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, was hit by almost unimaginable magnitude of earthquake and tsunami, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which killed more than 16,000 people. According to the Associate Press, more than 2,000 people are still missing.
When I first learned of the disaster, I was walking on the treadmill at home while watching the CNN. The horrific images of the monstrous tsunami waves swallowing up houses, farms, and cars, still stay with me and give me a slight sense of nausea. The effect of repeatedly seeing such images of the destructive power of nature against the man-made structures on me is very similar to that of witnessing the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York City on TV. I wonder if this is what is usually called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder); though in both cases I was not a direct witness of the horrific events. The psychological effect of both experiences seems to boil down to a sense of total helplessness precisely because we could not influence the events in any way. I sometimes wonder what it’s really like to experience such violent events directly. People are resilient: five years later Japanese people seem to be living normally and so do the New York people.
Looking back, I have also experienced directly the destructive power of the nature. For instance, as I grew up in Japan we were hit by a huge typhoon that destroyed many people’s houses; in the Midwest, USA, I was almost caught up in a huge tornado, that narrowly passed the side of the house where I was staying; in Virginia Beach, VA, my newborn baby and I were almost caught up in a huge hurricane, while we trembled on one end of the bed; and most recently I was caught in 2001 earthquake that hit the Pacific Northwest – I remember that we were in the seminar room discussing a book, and I shouted out to my students to get under their desks as soon as I felt the strong shake on the floor (I also remember observing the coffee cart on wheels was less affected by the ground shake because the wheels absorbed the shakes). Those are scary memories but for some reason they do not give me nauseous feelings that seeing the images of the tsunami and tower attacks on TV. Part of the reasons for this may be due to the fact that I gained confidence (however illusory it may be) by actually overcoming these natural disasters and I did not really suffer actual, severe damages through these events (true, books fell down from the shelfs and some china broke, but they were manageable damages). I wonder if the people who actually survived disasters and tragedies with manageable damages became stronger without developing PTSD since they were able to help themselves. I wonder if PTSD has something to do with the utter lack of agency.