Published: July 26, 2021 By

As people all around the world are aware, twenty years ago on March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of residents of the Tohoku region in the northeastern part of the country, which in turn caused a partial meltdown of one of the reactors of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima Prefecture. The devastation and tragedy were well documented, as were the resiliency and gaman (perseverance) of the communities most impacted by the triple disaster (known as 3.11 in Japan, based on the date.)

Voices from Japan: Perspectives on Disaster and Hope was an exhibition of poetry and photographs stemming from 3.11 that was held first in New York City and then at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Tanka poems (which total 31 syllables across five lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) have traditionally been a form of emotional and artistic expression in Japanese culture, since before the time of the Man’yoshu, a poetry anthology compiled in the mid-eighth century. To this day, newspapers across Japan feature a weekly poetry column, and following the disaster, these columns in various newspapers served as a way to process, memorialize, and move through the trauma experienced by so many Japanese people near and far. Readers submitted thousands of poems reflecting on their experiences and emotions following the disaster and professional poets selected which poems would run in the newspapers. Isao Tsujimoto, the project director for Voices from Japan, along with his collaborator Kyoko Tsujimoto and three scholars of Japanese literature, Laurel Rasplica Rodd (professor emeritus of Japanese at CU Boulder and former director of the Center for Asian Studies), Joan Ericson (professor of Japanese at Colorado College), and Amy V. Heinrich (former director of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University) selected and translated 100 tanka for the project. Subsequently, Kawaranai Sora: Nakinagara Warainagara (The Sky Unchanged: Tears and Smiles) was published by Kodansha Publishing in Tokyo. 

The following tanka are a small sampling of the voices presented in the project and represent some responses to the disaster that provide signs of hope and healing through the pain. As the world’s attention turns once again to Japan during the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we encourage you to consider these expressions of sorrow, grief, healing, and growth. The people of Tohoku are still working to overcome the 3.11 disaster, but we can all share in bearing witness to the trauma and join in remembering and memorializing those who were lost and harmed as Japan and the people of the region look toward recovery and healing. And hopefully these poems will serve as inspiration and solace as we all move through our own personal traumas, including the global COVID-19 pandemic and the uptick in racist anti-Asian sentiments in the U.S. over the past several months. 

May we all process trauma and heartache with as much grace as these poets.


the sky I gaze at

from near my window

is the Fukushima sky

that is unchanged

from how it looked last week

Rieko Hatakeyama, Fukushima, March 2011


praying that my

friend's name is not there,

I search the names

in the newspaper column

listing the victims

Satoshi Ito, Niigata, April 2011


to the mother who

birthed her baby

in the midst of the earthquake

            I want to deliver

            some nice hot stew

Wako Matsuda, Toyama, April 2011


one who is able

to respond calmly

to a rude query

is a person whose father and mother

have been washed away by the waves

Kimiko Kawano, Gunma, April 2011


because I have to 

go on living

            even on the day

            of the atomic explosion

            I am polishing rice

Toko Mihara, Fukushima, April 2011


still, after all,

spring has come again—

dimly shrouded

blossoms of Fukushima: 

            plum, peach, cherry

Toko Mihara, Fukushima, May 2011


somehow or other

everyone has become


on the crowded streets

as the aftershocks continue

Mikio Fukuhara, Miyagi, May 2011


wiping away the mud

of the sea with a soft brush

to keep from ruining 

the smiling faces

in the photograph

Atsuko Kobayashi, Saitama, September 2011


the full moon

climbs up

over the mountain of rubble

like a silent


Saburo Shinohara, Shizuoka, October 2011


you know, it’s true…but

            the Fukushima rice,

            peaches, apples,

            pears, persimmons, vegetables,

            and people

                        are still around

Toko MiharaFukushima, January 2012


the first time

for me to receive

so many guests

at my temporary dwelling—

like family

Nobuko Kato, Iwate, December 2012


I take comfort in the flowers

of the eggplants

and the cucumbers I raise

here in my refuge from

the nuclear disaster

Keiko Hangui, Fukushima, September 2013