Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Earthquake

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.


  1. My heart goes out to you all in Japan. The coverage we are seeing in the USA just looks devastating to your farming regions. But maybe there is a light at the end of this tunnel.

  2. I'm glad for the update, and am so glad you're safe. I suppose the man in the gym must have surely been in denial, yet I think of the WWII Londoners making breakfast as usual in their bombed-out homes, and I wonder if emotional security doesn't come from making the attempt to have an orderly existence in the midst of chaotic environment.

    Did you know that depression rates actually dropped in London during the Blitz? Have you noticed anything similar?

  3. @In the Pink
    Thanks. Who knows? For now we just need to endure and get through things as best we can. It is now Monday morning and the aftershocks are still coming. Another large one is predicted in the near future, but who knows?

    Although it sounds crazy and seemed strange at the time, I guess it was not so mad. He was in a pretty new building, and after the big quake I guess he figured he could go outside and stand around or just keep working out.

    For myself, I have got a horrible combination of cold and allergies right now, which make life not so fun, and is probably the way the stress is effecting me. It started before the quake but just doesn't seem to be going away.

  4. What a horrific tragedy after tragedy!! I just can not imagine what people are going through there. & I didn't know about the already high suicide rates in Japan. All of this certainly won't help that situation either. So very, very sad!!

    Thank you for the update on my blog. Following and will be back soon!! Take care of yourself and hope you feel better soon!!
    Big Hug,

  5. I was so relieved and happy when I got your comment on my blog to say that you were okay. I have been watching the situation closely with a very heavy heart and have been absolutely horrified by the pictures and videos I have seen. Japan has always had a very special place in my heart.

    In situations like this always bring out the very best in some people and the very worst in others. I still have no doubt that Japan will come through this, obviously it won't be easy.
    Stay safe buddy!

  6. @Velvet Over Steel
    Thanks for the cyber-hug. I was in Harajuku on Sunday, and there was one of those guys with the "Free Hugs" signs outside the station. I got a hug from him - everyone can do with a hug or two in this situation!

    No worries. From what I can see everything is pretty quiet. There isn't any outward panic or anything like that, but the supermarkets have been more-or-less emptied by people hoarding. Where I live there has been no power problems but there are planned blackouts in other areas. There seem be radiation problems from the accidents in Fukushima, and it is always possible we will have another serious aftershock. Time will tell.

  7. D.R. - I am so glad you are okay! I thought of you right away when I heard about the earthquake and the tsunami. You are the only person I know in Japan, and I'm glad you are not living in the area that got the worst damage. It sounds right now like they are really getting worried about radiation in the air. I truly hope the worst can be averted, though I am hearing reports that this is the second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl. I wish this was not such a grim situation. My thoughts are with the people of Japan at this terrible time, and I do hope they pull together and come out of this with the resilience you spoke of here. If radiation rises high in Tokyo, would you have the option of leaving?

  8. Thank you for the blog post, as you can see, many of us were concerned! Our thoughts are with you and the Japanese people. It is understood that they are a resilient lot - and I believe they will prevail. However, I wish that as individuals we could do more to assist - my actions have been to pray lots, check your blog and donate a few dollars, but that's a drop in the ocean, really.
    Please rest up as much as you can, look after yourself and that cold. And please let us know if we can assist if any way!

  9. Think about you and I continue to pray for all the people in Japan!!!! Please let us know how you are doing from time to time!!

    Another Big HUG!!!!!
    ~ Coreen

  10. @Jen - Thanks for the concern. What is happening in Fukushima is the biggest nuclear accident since Chernobyl, but my understanding is that they are almost too different to compare, in terms of the plant design and the response to the accident. The situation is not great but it seems to be coming under control. I can leave, either to go to Australia, western Japan, or Korea, but I don't plan to. The media hype has been ridiculous, in my opinion, and my understanding is that even if there is the worst-case scenario, Tokyo is far enough away to be fine.

    @Up The Mountain
    This is the kind of situation where we feel very powerless, isn't it? I guess the reality is that there isn't much we can do, but of course any donations to the red cross or other charities will no doubt be of help.

    It is good to hear from people, so feel free to keep checking in! I appreciate the cyber-hug too!

    @Velvet Over Steel
    Thanks for coming by, I'm doing okay. A bit tense of course, but things seem to be getting better. Thanks for the cyber-hug!

  11. How are you D.P? I have been hearing some really awful reports my side. I am trying to remember that media does exaggerate sometimes but the pictures I am seeing have been shocking. Are you able to buy food? Are you going to work? How are the aftershocks?. I am sorry if am being to intrusive :/.

    I know that there is no real threat ( at the moment) from Fukushima...did you hear that people in China are starting to panic and hoard food?. Human beings will always assume the worst. I guess it's how we survive.

    I am so sorry for what is happening. But you seem to be taking it all very well, considering. Thanks for all the updates. Take care of yourself!

  12. Hi Stephi,
    Yep, I'm fine. A bit stressed, but allright. Yes, food is available, I'm going to work, and the aftershocks are annoying but not dangerous.

    Panic is very contagious. People freak out easily. The last week has been long and stressful but the way people in China, North America, and other places have freaked out is just ridiculous. For further reference please see my most recent post!