I nervously clicked the second from the top ivory-colored button on the wall with my right index finger. My vision became warmer, brighter, and clearer, as always. The light in the living room, which had six electric bulbs, turned on. I noticed two of them were incandescent with darker orange colors than the other four LED bulbs. Thank you, electricity.
I clicked the rounded red button on the edge of the remote control for the TV. What I saw on TV was a picture of a slender pine tree. Lonely, yet it seemed very powerful on the devastated dim gray screen. It seemed like a folding fan or a peacock on top of a long stick. Soon the footage was replaced with an ominous jet-black rounded wave, gradually but steadily proceeding toward orderly placed houses, engulfing numerous little white dots that I later found out were boats in the ocean and cars on a highway. It reminded me of Indian ink in a dried inkstone with a stinky odor in a calligraphy class. The screen was covered with a thick blue frame with yellow or red characters that reported the death toll. Next to the frame on the bottom right corner was a familiar little map of Japan surrounded by an unfamiliar red line, which alerted the possibility of a tsunami. I was excited because I didn’t have to go to elementary school on weekdays, but at the same time, I was extremely bored. No matter how many times I changed the channel from 1 to 12 to search for something funny enough to kill time, the screen was virtually the same, which made me disappointed, and at the same time, made my dad furious. I clearly remember that my talkative dad never spoke again that day, with his eyes bloodshot, trying to absorb as much information as possible while electricity was available. We were under a scheduled blackout for a week after the earthquake, and the hours we could use electricity were limited. The footage was replaced by another one. A gigantic ship was on the road next to a steel-framed building. Something was strange and a 10-year-old girl discerned, gradually, that the peace and the ordinary principle of “electricity with one-click” was not ordinary anymore.
Until that moment, 2:46 p.m., March 11, 2011, I never appreciated electricity. I’ve always taken it for granted that the lights would turn on when I click the button on the wall. I’ve always taken it for granted that the ground would not shake. I’ve always taken it for granted that I could go to school every day.
I loved to chat or argue over trivial things with my friends nearby during afternoon assemblies with a perfectly prepared satchel on my knee under bright lights. We usually didn’t listen to our teacher, always missed important information, and never brought special things we needed for the following day. After school, I was always scolded by my mom for my laziness in the end. Before the teacher finished saying “Sayonara,” the satchel was on my shoulders, and half of my body was sticking out of the classroom so I could start descending the stairs and leave school as soon as possible. Then, as soon as I got home, I turned on the lights and the TV in the living room and enjoyed the limited-time entertainment, as well as the tension arising from the uncertainty of my mom’s return home, who detested me doing everything but studying. My peaceful, ordinary elementary school life, until that moment.
I was in classroom 4-2 on the second floor of a public elementary school in Yokohama, sitting in the second row from the back on the far left, participating in an afternoon assembly, as usual, very ready to go home. Suddenly, I thought the puckish boy sitting behind me started to push and pull my chair so hard. It did not take me long, however, to realize that the ground was shaking, not my chair, as the whole class started to buzz with students startling at the unexperienced phenomenon and the crack on our “perfectly normal day.” Then I felt something cold and stinky on my cheek. I realized that next to me in the fish tank placed on an extra desk, five medakas were pitching and rolling so hard that they splashed. I quickly glanced at a clock above a blackboard in a classroom without lights; it read 2:46.
“Hide under a desk!” I never heard my teacher, who was in a mustard sweater with my favorite yellow-green earrings that day, scream like that, which intuitively told me that it was an emergency, immediately followed by the rattling of students’ chairs being pulled. I hit my right shin at the front left leg of my desk as I endeavored to confine myself in a cramped space. I saw my leg immediately turn to a dark purple rounded bruise under the desk. It was terribly uncomfortable under my desk, too small for a four feet girl, but I was so desperate, trying to protect my head by instinct, and didn’t care about my arms and legs, which completely stuck out of my desk.
A glass bottle fell and broke. I saw that dark brown liquid, with the stinky smell of medaka’s, invade my worn-out scuzzy school shoes. All six windows next to me were rattling so hard with an unpleasantly noisy sound, which reminded me of a construction site near the school.
“What if the school building collapses and I get involved in the crash?” I imagined it under the desk. On the other hand, two boys in the front who loved to show off were standing and laughing as if they wanted to express that they were not scared. With a dusty helmet, the teacher appeared out of nowhere and shouted with her voice quivering with anger, “I don’t really care even if you die because I HAVE TOLD YOU TO HIDE UNDER A DESK!”
The school announcement by the vice-principal interrupted the teacher, who told us not to get out of the desk until ordered. I felt as if I were on a boat and got “seasick,” and therefore was not able to discern whether the shaking had stopped. All I heard was just the rattling of the windows and my heart beating.
“Dear students,” the announcement started. “The shaking has stopped. Follow the instruction of your homeroom teacher and evacuate to the schoolyard. Please don’t panic.”
Our teacher ordered us to line up in two lines in the corridor regardless of our gender, height, student number, or the first alphabet of our family name. It was strange being at the very back of the line since we usually line up according to any of the above, and I have always been in the front or the middle.
“Don’t forget to bring your disaster hood,” the teacher shouted. They are usually on the back of each student’s chair, five times thinner and shriveled than their original shape due to our weight. Therefore, they seemed to have virtually no use to protect our heads compared with the dusty plastic helmet of the teacher’s. I appreciated the importance of a fire drill carried out twice a year for the first time in my entire school life. It was very quiet during the evacuation, unlike usual fire drills, and all I heard was footsteps going down the stairs and following the student in the front. The entire school without lights seemed so strange.
When my line finally reached the schoolyard with my half-brown school shoes, I found that we were the last class to gather. We sat on the far right of the schoolyard in front of the pool and three rusted pull-up bars with each of the different heights and colors; tallest red, middle-height blue, and the shortest yellow from left to right. I noticed huge puddles under each bar, although it was sunny. I later found out that water splashed from the pool so hard due to the earthquake that it made the puddles. On my right side was the main gate, and several mothers were already gathered to see if their children were safe. Some were on bicycles with their sons in the front basket and a stuffed shopping bag in the back. They seemed to be on their way home from a kindergarten pick-up, leaning over the gate anxiously.
As I adjusted my posture so that I could hear the principal standing in the center of the schoolyard in a black suit as always, I spotted my twin sister sobbing and being consoled by her friends in the line of the 4-1 class on my left-hand side.
“I am relieved to have heard that nobody got injured by the earthquake. As far as I know, the epicenter seems to be at Tohoku,” the principal started calmly with a lower tone of voice than usual.
I had no idea what Tohoku meant at that time but soon discerned that my sister was crying because she was worried about our grandmother living in the coastal area alone. She worried that she might have gotten involved in a tsunami as she lived at a place where a one-minute walk would take you to the Seto Inland Sea. Fortunately, that turned out to be a false assumption.
I was forced to stay with my sister at the high-ceilinged and freezing-cold gymnasium for more than two hours while many other mothers came to school to pick up their children. Since I knew that my mom did not work, all my body parts were trembling from the cold and the fear, anticipating the worst occasion. Fortunately, I later found out that she had no idea that she had to pick us up from school, strictly following the school’s emergency guideline that forbids parents to pick up their children during an emergency. Therefore, it was 6:35 p.m. when my mom finally visited to pick us up. I went home, wearing my thin browned school shoes that made my feet exhausted as if I had walked for a whole day.
It was past 7 o’clock when we finally went back to a gloomy home without lights, looked and smelled so unfamiliar that it seemed as if I had returned from a long-term trip for the first time in two weeks.
I clicked a button on the right-hand side wall of the front entrance as usual, fraught with an unusual consequence. It was just the sound “click” in the entrance, and it was still gloomy.
I clicked the button again, but still the same result, unfortunately. Since none of our flip phones called “garakei” did not have a shining-light function, we took off our shoes gropingly and somehow entered the house. Proceeding the gloomy corridor toward the living room turned out to be an expedition of a long dark tunnel and, at the same time, the collapse of the peace as well as the “ordinary” principle of “one click and electricity.”
We, fortunately, had gas and water and therefore were able to have instant noodles for dinner, which until then, my mom never allowed us to eat. My dad did not return home that day, staying at his workplace at the Haneda airport since all the traffic had stopped.
Our daily activities were limited to the required minimum to prevent any form of injury and chaos in the darkness. However, my mom soon found a lantern we always took to camping, and we went to bed at 8 o’clock as soon as we finished dinner. Being wrapped in a blanket on my bed, I could not get a wink of sleep, despite my effort to count sheep from one to one hundred, due to countless aftershocks and the indescribable fear of having lost my “ordinary.”
With the birds singing, I sensed my vision becoming warmer, brighter, and clearer. The bright sunshine came in from the window above my bed through the golden yellow curtain. Thank you, nature.
I reached for the remote control of the heater in my room on the desk next to my bed. My attempt failed, and I realized that the click meant nothing anymore. I retreated into the warm futon, where I warmed myself up without anything artificial.
“Maybe my ordinary schooldays, my ‘ordinary’ with one click, had gone with the tsunami, but its loss and the fraught fear that came with it, reminded me of the beauty of mother nature,” I reckoned in the golden yellow world.
Thank you again, nature. I miss you, my “ordinary.”