Book Review: Strong in the Rain By Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill
Living through the historic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown!
No one could have thought that in March of 2011, the northeast coast of Japan would be hit by an earthquake 9.0 magnitude, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, sending a tsunami crashing through the towns, destroying all in its wake. Even though the country has regular earthquake evacuation drills, and sea walls as high as forty feet, nothing could’ve prepared it for a disaster of such scale. The catastrophe continued with a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that would rival Chernobyl. After the disaster, Japan faced being in the news, and sympathy from around the globe grew, as did the stories about how the people struggled to survive. What many people outside Japan wondered was how this disaster had occurred to a country which had already set up such measures to prevent any future disaster. Much more telling was the people’s resolve after the disaster and their honest way of trying to get their lives back to anything resembling normality. Strong in the Rain gives readers a glimpse of what life was like for the survivors outside of the media explosion that had gone on around the world. In this book are true accounts of how strong the ordinary citizens of Japan were at that time even though they knew they might never see their loved ones again.
Authors Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill start by writing about their knowledge of earthquakes; from the 1923 quake and tsunami in Yokohama and Tokyo that registered a mighty 7.9 had crushed and drowned at least 100,000 people. To remember what happened, the Japanese have named a special day after it, the National Disaster Prevention Day on September 1st. A previous tsunami had hit Japan during 1960 and several people have remembered the wreckage it caused. Later still, the 1995 Kobe disaster, known as the Great Hanshu Earthquake took 6,400 people and left 400,000 injured. 16 years later the people felt the pain of disaster stirring once again.
Strong in the Rain focuses primarily on six people who were in the disaster zone during the earthquake and tsunami when it hit. One such person, Katsunobu Sakurai became mayor after realizing he could not fight injustice after an industrial waste processing plant was located next to his five-acre farm, ruining his crops. Sakurai is the perfect embodiment of a strong man who never lets anything stir him emotionally. The quake and tsunami of 2011 had him question how strong he rally was. The title for this book came from a poem by Kenji Miyazawa: “Strong in the Rain/Strong in the wind/Strong against the summer heat and snow/He is healthy and robust/Unselfish/He never loses his temper/Nor the quiet smile on his lips/That is the kind of person/I want to be.” He believed he was stable in a crisis as was the subject of the poem, and he was tested by the elements during the disaster.
Kai Watanabe grew up surrounded by nuclear power, and not unnerved by its presence. While others in his region complained they might get cancer or leukaemia, he ignored them as he felt he had no reason to be concerned. He worked at the Fukushima nuclear plant as a maintenance worker who checked on valves for pressure inside pipes. He thought what he did made it safe for the people around him, but that was until the quake struck, and he knew it would be a bad one. Kai had to adhere to his own sense of duty rather than run away and save himself. He like many Japanese would never leave others vulnerable in a crisis situation.
Yushio Ichida, a fisherman who works around the Soma Harbour experienced the earthquake along with his elderly parents. He was having a bath at the time it started, and he had to get them to safety at a community centre high above the town while he went out to sea in order to let the tsunami pass. He knew he had to face almost impossible odds as waves of 45 feet high knocked him into the sea where he had to keep afloat. It made him sick, but he endured like so many had done before him.
David Chumfeaonlent heard news of the tsunami as it was about to reach where he worked, an elementary school. 25 teachers waited as 20 parents came to pick up their children, and ended up having to get them to higher ground. A power cut at the gym meant they were caught in a trap as water started to flood in at an alarming pace. In the midst of the peril he had no time to think of getting himself out, he had children to save. Incidentally he had originally moved to Japan for a job as an assistant language teacher, not knowing much about the region. Expecting to work in Texas, he never thought he would end up in Japan, or working in one of the worst earthquake and tsunamis in Japan’s history.
Setsuko Uwabe works at the Rikuzentakata nursery school when a tsunami warning got broadcast, not thinking that it would be much to take notice of. Setsuko had an ominous feeling though, that something bad was to happen and acted fast, helping the children get to safety, yet when she and the children finally got there, she had still to hear news of her husband.
Toru Saito was at home the time the earthquake hit, relaxing with his grandmother. He was pleased he had just completed his driving school course and would be going to Tohoku University majoring in engineering. He had already felt a 5.0 tremor two days prior to this one, and knew he had to get his brother, Tatsuru, his mother and grandmother out of the danger zone before it was too late. Toru remembered seeing houses drifting past, moved by the sheer force of the tsunami. He and his brother had to swim for their lives, and once the nightmare events died down, he was happy to see his mother, but was yet to hear if his father had survived.
Authors Birmingham and McNeill take the reader through the lives of those people, and at the same time explain the reasons earthquakes and tsunamis keep happening. Everyone mentioned here was personally affected by this disaster, and had felt the pain of loss while others have been unfortunate to have missing or even dead relatives or friends. For Toru and Setsuko finding the ones they care about is paramount, even though they have heard what everyone else is going through. One of the other amazing aspects was when the Emperor of Japan made a public announcement on the disaster, and tried to give the people a reason to endure, and take what had happened, and move on.
The book immerses the reader in how these individuals felt at differing moments during the disaster. It is the strength of the people who have made this such a powerful read for those who were not there. Reading the several accounts of bravery amid tragedy really opens the eyes. It makes the reader feel as if they are actually there, the narrative is that intense.
Lucy Birmingham is TIME magazine’s Tokyo-based reporter and covered the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Since coming to Japan in the mid-1980s, her work has appeared in Bloomberg News, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Forbes, Fortune, The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, and U.S. News and World Report. A board member of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, she lives in Tokyo.
David McNeill writes regularly for the Independent, the Irish Times, and Japan Times, while teaching at Sophia University in Tokyo. His work has appeared in Newsweek, New Scientist, The Face, Marie Claire, New Statesman, the International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, on the BBC, RTE and CBC and in many other outlets. He is a board member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and chair of The Foreign Press in Japan. He lives in Japan.
Author: Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill
Pages: 256 pages
Publish date: 30th November 2012
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Strong in the Rain facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/#!/StrongInTheRain?fref=ts
Sandie has a keen interest in Anime, Manga and all things Japanese. Her interests other than reviewing are Japanese Language, dress and culture, liking Harajuku Girls, Gothic Lolita, folding some neat Origami, drawing her own Manga characters, writing her own Manga stories and everything in between.