One Year After the Quake

Exactly one year ago, the ground underneath my apartment in Abiko began to shake.

I was downstairs in my guest apartment doing some work when the trembling began. I stopped, as I often do when tremors occur, to see if it would get big enough for alarm. Most of the rumbles we get are small enough so that nothing falls over, and in a few seconds it’s back to life as normal. But this one was different. In 15 years of life in Japan at that point, I had experienced only one quake that had made anything fall off shelves. As I sat, paused and alert, in front of my laptop, the quake strengthened – and then, first one, and then one after another, things started to fall off of shelves – and then out of cupboards…

The shaking wasn’t letting up. Different people give different advice about what to do in earthquakes. Some say hide under a table or desk. Some say crouch next to a wall or a heavy, large object. Some say to make sure the doors are open so that you can still get in/out if the frame of the building shifts, which can make closed doors hard to open. After waiting for several seconds to see if the shaking would abate, I elected to go outside. I didn’t like the feeling that the whole building might come down on top of me, and that’s actually what it seemed might happen. So I grabbed my laptop and headed outside, making sure to steer clear of overhead power lines, which were swaying like tree branches in a strong breeze. Street light posts were swaying, parked cars were bouncing on their suspension, and hedges, fences and walls – and my apartment, as I stood there in the street looking at it – were all shaking too and fro. But perhaps the most unusual thing about the whole situation was the sound. It had never really occurred to me how much metal is all around us all the time, and how it would sound if all of that metal was being shaken around all at the same time – fence and gate latches, mailbox lids, everything metal right down to the silverware in every house in the neighborhood, it was all shaking together. I’d never quite heard anything like it before – and it was unnerving. It was the type of all-pervading sound that you might imagine would immediately precede the apocalypse.

The main quake lasted several minutes. I didn’t time it, but people in my area say 3-5 minutes. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but most tremors last less than 20 seconds. 3-5 minutes is a long time when the ground underneath you is quaking so badly you think it might open up and swallow your apartment building. During that time, I did what any info-documenter would do after ascertaining immediate safety – I started filming. (I put up some of the video footage on my YouTube page.) After the initial quake died down, I went back inside to survey the damage – and was glad that I had gone outside. Furniture was knocked over, cupboards and drawers had come open. Broken glass was mixed with scattered items and books flung across the apartment. It looked like someone had taken everything I own, put it in a box, shaken it up, and dumped it back into my apartment. Electricity was still working – I shut off the gas line. I got online to try to figure out where the epicenter was and how strong it had been. As usual, the first place I checked was the website of the US Geological Survey’s Asia section. It took a few minutes for it to be updated, but meanwhile Twitter and Facebook began to light up with messages from people. What I had felt was a magnitude 5.0, but I was 350km away from the epicenter, where the force had been magnitude 9.0, the largest quake registered in Japan to date. Within 5 minutes came the first aftershock, measuring 7.5. We had strong aftershocks of at least 5.0 at least every 20 minutes for the next 3 days. It literally felt like the world was falling apart.

Tokyo was in chaos. Trains weren’t running and people were all trying to drive/taxi/walk about of the city center. I was sure glad to be working freelance from home and not holding down an office job in Tokyo like so many people I know. I immediately went to the store and bought bottled water and supplies. I was glad I acted quickly on this because in the next few hours, everything was empty – and would remain that way for at least the next week. Petrol stations quickly ran out of gas, and the few remaining open had line-ups of cars up to several kilometers long, and were only selling 2,000 yen of petrol to each customer. Stores began to do the same with their bottled water when they could get it in stock. In the following hours, news began to emerge of the huge tsunami waves the quake had generated, and the following day, more news about the scale of the disaster in the Tohoku region and the growing problem with the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. Worry gripped the nation, and I quickly realized both the things that I had done correctly to prepare for such an emergency, and also those parts of my “disaster plan” that were clearly lacking. I quickly did what I could to put together a fully-equipped “go bag” that sits beside my door to this day, ready to grab on the way out if needed.

One week later, with news of the nuclear situation still worsening, I made the decision to leave the country temporarily. The Japanese government is known for playing down disaster situations in order to avoid causing panic and chaos among its dense population, and foreign media are known for sensationalizing news in order to sell stories. So with the Japanese media saying things were relatively safe and the foreign media creating panic and frenzy, I decided to take the safe road and go back to Vancouver for two weeks to spend time with family. Doing this allowed me to both satisfy my family that I was safe and also to assess the situation in Japan from a safe distance, with solid ground under my feet. Those of us who chose to leave were heavily criticized in Japan. Many foreigners working in Japan left, many of them never to return, and so the “gaijin” quickly became known as the “fly-jin”, those who were deserting their host country in her hour of need. Some Japanese left as well, and they were criticized even more heavily in the media by their countrymen for abandoning the motherland and leaving their fellow Japanese behind to bear the burdens of a nation in need. It is unfortunate that in some cases fellow resident foreigners were openly critical of those of us who chose to temporarily leave, despite the efforts we did make to raise money and awareness for relief efforts.

Ishinomaki, about 1km from the coast

After arriving back in Japan 2 weeks later, I made plans with my friend Doug Wilson to go up to the disaster zone on a relief trip that we planned ourselves, in coordination with a local volunteer agency working in the worst-affected areas. It was personally rewarding to help those in need in a small way, and at the same time the scale of the disaster left us utterly speechless when we saw it first-hand. No amount of TV or Internet video coverage would have prepared us for the sheer scale of the disaster that met us face to face in Ishinomaki. We were struck to the core of our being by the scope of the physical damage, with town after town for kilometers on end reduced to nothing more than rubble and the stench of rotting fish carcases left behind by the retreating sea, but more than this even was the sheer level of psychological damage that we could feel almost palpably in the air. It seemed that everyone we talked to had lost someone they knew, if not an immediate family member. Current statistics put the number of casualties at around 15,000 confirmed dead and around 5,000 missing. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in temporary housing one year later, wondering when they will be able to start rebuilding their lives, still carrying painful memories of loved ones lost one short year ago. A few hundred short kilometers away, it is hard to fully realize the impact of the ongoing saga that the relatives who survived continue to live with.

Let us count our blessings, be thankful for what we are blessed with, and continually use what we have to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Posted on March 11, 2012, in Life in Japan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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