But it was just the beginning. A furious and merciless wall of water charged towards the stricken country, and in a matter of minutes the Japanese would fall victim to a rare but epic event. For the first time in world history, we witnessed -- live from our living rooms -- a tsunami devouring one city after another. We watched in disbelief as thousands in its path were swept away.
But what we saw was nothing compared to the horror of being there. Kenji Saito recorded both the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami from the small fishing town of Ofunato. Though Saito survived, today there is almost nothing left of where he once lived and worked.
Once home to a thriving community and land that was once fertile and rich, Rikuzentakata is now washed away. The tsunami hit this place with remarkable speed and power. The wall of water was 36 feet high. Those who thought their upper floors would keep them safe were wrong. Even designated evacuation shelters failed. Many died in places they were told would be safe.
Los Angeles resident Masako Unoura grew up near Kesennuma. While on a visit she had a meeting at an office building that fateful day. The earthquake struck when she and her aunt Noriko were driving to the meeting. After the shaking stopped, they continued on by car. But stuck in traffic and with a growing sense of danger, Unoura and her aunt abandoned their car and set out on foot. A chance encounter with Daisuke Watanabe, who is in the coast guard, saved her life as he led the women on a desperate race against time to the safety of a rooftop.
Off the coast of the picturesque seaside community of Kesennuma, coast guard vessels continue to search for bodies. Some estimates range as high as 5,000 bodies were never found after the tsunami. All are believed to have been washed out to sea. Many children in this fishing community are now homeless.
Bruce Osborn is a native of Los Angeles, but has lived in Japan for decades. After the disaster he wanted to help, and he found the perfect way when he discovered people in the evacuation shelters were distraught over losing one thing in particular -- their family photos.
So he set out to do the one thing he knew how to do well, which is to make people smile for the camera. He puts them in the middle of the disaster zone and almost dares them to laugh at fate. His photos are an invigorating contradiction. Families who have endured so much suffering, pictured smiling and almost celebratory. They are alive and still have each other.
Each sunrise in Japan brings an opportunity to take a small step forward. Perhaps that step is as simple as being able to smile again, or to gather with family to give thanks. Perhaps it's another ounce of strength to deal with unimaginable loss, or to come to terms with the reality that you may never find what you're looking for.
With each sunrise there is a new home. There's a new opportunity to play, to enjoy music, to say thank you, to look back at the past -- and then find the courage to forge ahead.