They say you never forget your first story and I'll always remember my first yarn here in Japan.

It was December 2008 and the Tokyo Metro had just launched a new manners campaign. It was a bid to remind commuters of their social obligations to be polite and considerate to fellow travellers.

There were signs up begging people not to put their make-up on while on the train, others imploring them not to blast music through their headphones and my favourite - a poster that pleaded with them not to drink too much and pass out on the seats or the floor of the train.

So my first shoot in Japan involved stalking the late night train and subway lines, filming mainly middle-aged salarymen vomiting, occasionally throwing the odd jab at each other and often passing out dead drunk on the seats.

It made for a classic Christmas comedy piece for TV news back in Australia.

But of course, as I learnt, Japan is more than a nation of stereotypically sloshed salarymen.

It was the complete opposite to my previous posting in Jerusalem as the ABC's Middle East correspondent.

Here, the people embraced with fervour the concept of queuing; here they bowed politely to each other instead of exchanging insults or gunfire. And, here they separated their garbage into specific recycling bins instead of hurling it out onto the street.

So, I quickly settled into life in Tokyo, enjoying the calm, the cuisine, and the curious mix of characters.

One night I even had a top-ranked sumo wrestler over to dinner. This 198-kilogram goliath ate modestly, but I watched in awe as he consumed 19 large cans of beer.

He may have been a feared exponent of the Japanese fighting arts, but by far the most fearless person I've met in my five years here would weigh less than one of his thunderous thighs.

At 45kg wringing wet, Yayoi Eguchi may be tiny, but she is a force of nature, a whirling dervish of dogged determination and relentless energy. I quickly learned that Yayoi is like one of those terriers that latch on to your ankle - she won't let go until she gets the story.

Although, early on in the piece, I did manage to do what no other correspondent here has ever done and that's stop the indomitable Yayoi right in her tracks and shock her to the core.

We were doing a yarn was about Japan's irrepressible elderly. How, despite the onset of old age, they refused to slow down.

We interviewed a 103-year-old TV show presenter; we filmed an 85-year-old rugby player and, much to Yayoi's horror, we profiled a 74-year-old porn star, who we stupidly decided to meet on the set of his latest movie.

We just wanted an interview with him and that's what we got, but then suddenly he and his 32-year-old co-star started stripping off to film a scene.

One thing that surprised me was that the guy's wife didn't know what he did.

When I look back at the yarn about the geriatric porn star, it seems like it was from another era, and in a way it was. Because my time in Japan has really been made up of two postings: one before, and one after March 11, 2011.

Most of you probably know what happened that day. My wife Suzie certainly does, because like tens of millions of others in Japan, she was forced to ride out the most violent earthquake in the country's recorded history.

"It was very scary. As soon as it happened I knew that the intensity of the earthquake was much greater than any I'd ever felt before here. So, I took our little daughter, Eva, and went straight under the table and sat there for, I don't know, five or six minutes - it felt like forever - until it finally stopped and we could come out," she said.

"I had no idea that it would trigger a tsunami like that. It didn't occur to me; I just thought that the earthquake itself was quite severe and I couldn't imagine what was to come."

And what came changed everything.

The magnitude 9 earthquake would send a 600km-long tsunami barrelling towards Japan's north-east coast at the speed of a jetliner.

Almost 20,000 people would be swallowed or swept away, and the monster waves would surge over the sea wall protecting the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, triggering multiple meltdowns that sparked the evacuation of more than 150,000 people.

The ABC Tokyo crew and I would spend months in the tsunami and nuclear zones, clomping through the brackish remains of communities scrubbed flat, and watching teams of police and soldiers carry away badly mauled bodies.

We would sneak through the eerily deserted streets of irradiated villages and towns, and interview those who were forced to flee the fallout.

I would get to know some amazing people, like Norio Kimura, who lost his daughter, wife and father to the tsunami. And then his community to the radioactive fallout.

Like, Naomi Hiratsuka, whose daughter Koharu was swept away with 73 other students from her primary school, all because the teachers dithered instead of taking the kids to higher ground.

To me, it was a terrible reminder of how many in Japan can't make a decision without an instruction manual, how they are powerless in times of crisis because they simply can't or won't trust their own common sense.

When the official search ended weeks later, without a trace of her daughter being found, Naomi went out and got a mechanical diggers licence so she could keep searching.

Months after the tsunami took her life away, Koharu would be found floating in a bay kilometres from where she was lost.

I spent many, many hours with people like Norio Kimura and Naomi Hiratsuka, and I would always walk away admiring their determination, their dignity, and their spirit. But, I could never - no matter how hard I tried - ever fathom the magnitude of their loss.

They are what we journalists like to call "ordinary people", but they are also the finest of people. To me, they are the Japan I will remember.

I may be leaving Tokyo, but never fear, there will still be a Willacy in the ABC office here.

You see, I haven't just been playing correspondent, I've also been playing cupid.

When my brother moved to Tokyo for work a few years ago, I introduced him to Yumi Asada, the other ABC producer. They were the same age and both were single. They ended up getting married so even though one Willacy will be leaving soon, one will remain.

"Yes, I'm getting the legacy in the office; it's not going to die here," Yumi said.

While one Willacy will remain in Tokyo, another will be leaving with us and that's my youngest daughter Eva - born here in Japan just seven months before the tsunami.

She sheltered with her mother under our dining room table that terrible day, as the earth refused to stop shaking, but of course, she was oblivious to the massive natural, nuclear and human drama that was playing out, and which would define my time here.

One day, when she is old enough to understand, I will tell her about our time in Japan and about that one-in-a-thousand year earthquake she experienced and which caused so much grief and heartbreak to so many here in Japan.

 

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