It was afternoon on Friday, March 11, 2011. I was in the office at my home in Sendai, working on a manuscript I had just started. Spring is the season of new beginnings. In Japan, graduation ceremonies in March are followed by matriculation ceremonies in April. For students it means a new school year, and for graduates it means a new stage in life. For Japanese people, springtime is for sharing dreams of the future. My own expectations for the new season extended to the manuscript I was writing.
It was after 2:00 p.m., my wife was out running an errand, and the house was quiet. A strange stillness had spread over the garden that my office looked out over. The familiar chirping of lively birdsong had ceased. Later I would realize this had been a sign that small animals had already fled the vicinity.
2:46 p.m. My usually silent cellphone was going off with a clamor. I looked at it and saw an urgent automated message predicting an earthquake. I stood up and turned off the heater, worried about my wife. By that point the entire house had already started to rumble and shake, and the stairs to the second floor were madly bouncing around like keys on a piano. I saw my wife tumble her way down those stairs. So she was in the house after all. I took her with me out into the yard. The ground was pitching up and down, the trees were bending from side to side, our home kept flickering in and out of my line of vision—it was going to collapse.
My wife and I retreated away from the house. The violent quaking went on for more than three minutes. I had never experienced such a sustained temblor. After five minutes, I wondered where the epicenter was. If it were in Tokyo, Japan would be ruined, I thought to myself.
After ten minutes the quake had finally subsided. I would later learn it was a magnitude of 9.0, the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded. We immediately lost electricity, gas, and water, then cellphones stopped working. The Internet was out, of course. Radio was the only means of obtaining information. I turned on our radio and heard a voice exclaiming, Tsunami! A five- to ten-meter-high wave is heading this way, please seek higher ground immediately! Within fifteen minutes the tsunami would strike 400 kilometers of Japan’s Pacific coastline and ultimately claim perhaps 20,000 lives. Entire seaside villages would be lost, countless bodies left in its wake. It was the worst disaster since World War II, soon to be compounded by the crises at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
Tens of thousands of people sought refuge in Sendai. At evacuation centers here, we saw high school students in baseball uniforms carrying water. They were members of the team scheduled to compete in this spring’s National High School Baseball Invitational. Since transportation in the Tohoku area was disrupted, they had forsaken their berth at the tournament and decided to stay and assist those who had been displaced. I think many of us wished the team could have been playing baseball instead.
What the disaster victims needed most was water and bread. The next thing they needed was accurate information. Third, they needed hope. The opportunity to send those young players to the baseball tournament might have provided that hope. Some might have taken succor from seeing them compete, even if their own sons may have been lost in the tragedies that spring. Perhaps seeing this team play would have reminded people about the meaning of “hope,” the same way that the success of a regional Hanshin team was a tremendous balm after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.
Then came news about the professional baseball players. Athletes from Nippon Professional Baseball and Japanese players from America’s major leagues had made large contributions, which encouraged us all. Having played baseball in my youth, I was proud to see baseball players rushing to extend a helping hand to those in need.
Nippon Professional Baseball has delayed opening day for the 2011 season until April 12. The Pacific League, to which the team based in Sendai belongs, was quick to decide on postponement. The Central League, whose teams are most popular, agreed to delay the start of the season after intense pressure from the players’ association.
The majority of Japan’s pro baseball games are played at night, at indoor stadiums that consume large amounts of electricity. Amid the current nuclear power crisis, with concerns about the energy supply, I respect the players’ prudent decision to insist on postponement. Of course, once the season begins, some people will still wonder how they can play baseball, and for some, even if they have the opportunity to watch games on TV, it will still be too painful.
I know that today is opening day for Major League Baseball in America. I can hear the crack of a ball hitting the bat, the thud in the glove as it's caught, the cheers of the spectators. To hear those pleasant sounds echoing throughout the ballpark recalls more tranquil days.
Japan will certainly recover. We all know the power of teamwork. Perhaps that’s why we love baseball.
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell