On Friday afternoon at 2:46pm what is now known to be a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred off the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture north of Tokyo. At the time I was in a subway station waiting for a train to come to transfer. Earthquakes are very common in Japan and I've never really given them too much thought. The ground shakes for a short time, then everything goes back to normal. Ho, hum.
For the first few seconds I was just expecting this would be the same thing. But the shaking was very violent, and it just kept going and going. I looked around and the other passengers waiting on the platform didn't seem to be going anywhere. The roof was shaking back and forth, the ground was shaking - everything was shaking. I looked at the ceiling and thought about how Japan has strict building codes, and that I probably should be okay. It felt a little unreal. I didn't feel like I was really in danger, nor did I feel any urgent need to get out.
After a minute or two the shaking stopped and I went out. I used my cellphone to update my Facebook status and people started commenting on it immediately, and updating their own. The phone network was totally overloaded and it was impossible to call anyone or get through by cellphone email, but the internet still worked fine and Facebook was the best way to contact people.
I walked to the office, buildings still shaking around me, the sidewalks full of people who had just been evacuated from their buildings. I met my coworkers, who were on the street outside. No one really knew what to do. There was a public announcement that said something about going to higher ground. Did we need to expect a tsunami? No one knew. The closest higher ground was a shrine nearby, so I suggested we go there. We made our way through the hordes of people and went up the stairs.
A coworker and I went to check on another coworker nearby who had been at the gym. He was still there working out, not letting an earthquake get in the way of his exercising! We wandered back to the group, bumping into various people we knew who were waiting outside their buildings. Everyone was freaked out.
The trains were all shut down. The roads were soon jammed with traffic. Taxis were impossible to get and even if they could be found they weren't moving very much. We searched for a place to stay, but everywhere was closing. Finally we found a coffee shop that was not so full, and someone got some snacks and a deck of playing cards and uno from the convenience store. We checked the news on our phones, followed other people's Facebook posts, tried to contract friends and relatives. The damage in Tokyo was limited, but the northern part of Japan was a disaster area, with horrific images of tsunamis hitting the land and destroying houses, fields, roads - and lives. No one knows the final death toll yet, but it will be high.
Eventually we gave up on waiting for the train and everyone decided to walk home. All over Tokyo many people did this, walking two, three, four, or five hours through the cold to get home. Or more. Eventually some trains started running but they were very overloaded. Fortunately I don't live so far from work, so it didn't take me so long to get home.
The aftershocks continued all Friday night and through Saturday. On Saturday the trains were running limited services, and the situation at Japan's nuclear power plants because a worry, especially in Fukushima prefecture, with an explosion at the Number 1 reactor. As I write this on Sunday I know that many expats, especially Germans and Americans are leaving. From tomorrow there will be rolling three-hour blackouts throughout different parts of Tokyo to conserve power. Needless to say, this is all very worrying.
I don't know what will happen. But what I do know is that the Japanese people are tough and resilient. And historically they have met much larger challenges than this. They were forced out of self-imposed isolation at American gunpoint in the 19th century, and within decades were a world power. After the 1923 great Kanto earthquake which leveled huge parts of Tokyo the city was quickly rebuilt. And after world war two, when the country had been totally devastated by bombing, it only took a few decades for Japan to become an economic power.
Japan today faces many challenges. It is politically unstable, with six prime ministers since I came to Japan, and every appearance that the current one is in a lot of trouble. Japan has an aging population, a huge suicide rate, an increasing income gap, and the loss of jobs overseas. But maybe, just maybe, this disaster might be the thing that pulls people together, and sets the country on a different path. I don't know. But I hope so.