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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Before, During and After Shocks: A Former Expat Reacts to Japan's Superquake

One of several broken picture frames
in our niece's Tokyo apartment,
just after the quake.
March 11, 2011, 6:00 a.m., New York City. My husband's cell phone rings super early and I wake up. I assume it's his work colleague in Tokyo, calling about the story they are is writing on whether Japan's prime minister will be forced to resign over the latest political funding scandal.

Unusually for me, I can't get back to sleep. I get up and go over to my husband at his computer and ask: "So is Prime Minister Kan stepping down?"

"No, no." Looking over his shoulder, he seems a little surprised to see me. "There's been an earthquake in Japan. A big one."

"Does that mean Kan is saved?" I have a one-track mind, and besides, I'm not really awake, not fully taking things in.

"Saved by the earthquake...for now."

I stagger over to my computer, and the earthquake news starts rolling over me, in waves as big as a tsunami. OMG, can this really be happening?

I turn on CNN. Yes, it's happening. Not only that, but it looks like Japan has just had the kind of earthquake I dreaded for all those years when living in Tokyo.

As I take in the scenes of devastation, part of me breathes a huge sigh of relief. I wasn't there! For me, earthquakes were the biggest wrinkles on the Japan elephant, one of the features of life in that part of the world that I could never quite get used to.

Just as pressure kept building under the plates of the earth's crust that lie beneath the Japan Islands, pressure kept building inside the worry-wart region of my brain: how would I cope if the next really big earthquake struck? (Question inside my question: What was a nice East Coast girl like me doing in an earthquake-prone country like this?)

But relief at having escaped that fate is quickly followed by guilt. Why am I thinking about myself rather than others less fortunate?

The people who've lost their lives or loved ones.

The people who are still alive but surrounded by water and debris with no way out.

The people who made it to makeshift shelter but are desperate for food, water and heating...

Photo of Matsushima Bay,
courtesy Wikimedia
I'm thinking of the victims and I'm also thinking of places. Years ago, I went to Sendai on a company trip when I was working for a Japanese advertising agency. Sendai is of course the city in Japan that was closest to the quake's epicenter. It bore most of the brunt of the tsunami.

My work colleagues and I spent a pleasant morning touring nearby Matsushima Bay, ranked as being one of Japan's most famous sights for its many small islands (shima) covered in pine trees (matsu).

The sea looked so tranquil on that day. Never in a million years did I imagine it would one day generate huge waves that would pummel the Japanese coastline.

Our word "tsunami" comes from Japanese. I guess I should have known better?

The Ghost of Earthquakes Past

The last major earthquake in the Tokyo area was the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (7.9). It claimed 140,000 lives, mainly from firestorms. The quake took place in the middle of the day, when many people were cooking rice. Fire spread rapidly due to high winds from a nearby typhoon.

According to seismologists, such major quakes are periodic, occurring every sixty years or so. For the past 25 years, they've been predicting another big quake along a major plate boundary southwest of Tokyo, which like its 1923 predecessor, is likely to devastate Tokyo, Yokohama, and Shizuoka.

No one was therefore expecting the Great Hanshin or Kobe earthquake (7.3) of 1995. I was living in Tokyo at the time and remember watching in disbelief as some 200,000 buildings collapsed, along with much of the city's transportation infrastructure. The death toll rose to more than 6,000. Some 26,000 were injured.

Likewise, no one was expecting a massive quake in the northeastern part of Honshu, which like Kobe was not considered one of the island's most vulnerable areas. The Sendai earthquake occurred in a subduction zone, where the Pacific tectonic plate slides beneath the North American one. The plate boundary off the coast of Sendai may not have suffered a rupture like this for more than 1,000 years.

Earthquake Drill!

ARK Mori Building, Tokyo
Even in Tokyo, which was far from the epicenter, the March 11 quake struck hard, with buildings "swaying like trees in a breeze" as one American visitor put it.

Hearing such accounts brings back vivid memories of my own time in the city.

"ML-san, you go first!" my Japanese colleagues cry. We are standing on the plaza next to the ARK Mori Building, the 37-floor office building near the Roppongi area of Tokyo, participating in a mandatory earthquake drill. Our task is to make our way through a tent where they've simulated the kind of fire that might take place in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake.

The next thing I know, I am on my hands and knees, trying to feel out the edges of tent. I can't see anything, the smoke is so thick.

Later I tell off my colleagues for putting me in such a frightening, humiliating position. They laugh and say it was for my own good.

Around this time, I decide I don't like working in a skyscraper. Every time we have a tremor, the building sways, and I get seasick — and suffer from severe headaches for about a week afterwards.

Japanese earthquake kit,
courtesy Mr Wabu (Flickr)
After this drill I seriously consider getting an earthquake kit, with transistor radio, bottled water, flashlight and so on.

In the end, I don't bother with the kit, but I do get a small flashlight that I keep in my purse, as a kind of talisman to ward off the Big One.

Minor Tremors Can Be Fun

Upon learning of Japan's monster quake, I reflect, as I have countless times before, on what a difference a few shindo (seismic intensity, literally "degree of shaking") can make. Believe it or not, little earthquakes can be fun.

I'm thinking all the way back to my first sojourn in Japan, on a research exchange in Yokosuka, about 31 miles south of Tokyo.

I've just come home from a drinking night with some Japanese friends. I fall asleep as soon as my head touches the futon on the tatami mat floor.

I awaken around 3:00 a.m., noticing the pendant lamp on the ceiling swaying around.

Am I still drunk, or is this my first earthquake?

If the latter, it's not as bad as I thought.

Fast forward to several years later, and I am lying in bed in my apartment in central Tokyo. It's again around 3:00 a.m., and the building is shaking like crazy.

I try to picture myself heading out to the local shelter dressed in a nightgown and with my hair in curlers. "Just not happening!" I turn on my side and go back to sleep, an expression of amusement on my face.

Even during the daytime, the little ones can be fun. They are a conversation piece (where were you when it happened?) and a meeting stopper/interrupter, something office workers relish as a break in their routines.

There's also a practical reason for liking the less serious tremblors. The more little earthquakes you have, the less likely a big one is. Pressure is being released instead of building.

My Only Big Earthquake Experience, and a Moderate One at That

When God-awful things happen to innocent people, other human beings can find it traumatizing as well. They tend to relive emotions from similar, or even remotely similar, events in their own lives.

This time, because I actually lived in Japan, I'm replaying in my head my first scary quake, even though it doesn't in any way approach the scariness of the March 11 quake, the largest in Japan in recorded history.

I'm back in Yokosuka, sitting in a packed-out medical clinic, the only non-Japanese in the room.

I know only a few words of Japanese and am feeling a little intimidated, especially as I'm surrounded by people all of whom seem to be staring at me.

Actually, I can't really blame them. Most of the Americans who live around here belong to the U.S. naval base. They have their own doctors. That makes me an oddity in a public health clinic.

Eventually, my name is called, and I find myself in one of the doctor's cubicles. His desk is rather cluttered, and he, too, looks disheveled. I wonder if he's overworked and underpaid? He says he doesn't speak much English. I say I don't speak much Japanese.

Just at this moment, the room begins to shake. Nurses start running back in forth, and I hear some of the patients in the waiting room screaming "Jishin!"

"Earthquake?" I venture to the doctor. (Talk about learning language in context!)

He is sitting back in his chair, with his eyes closed, looking very Zen.

"Yes, earthquake," he says very slowly in English.

"Um...should we get under the desk?" The books on the shelf above us are rattling. I don't fancy a medical tome falling on my head.

"It's...okay," he says, and at that very moment, the shaking, which has been gaining in intensity, subsides.

Later I find out it was a moderate earthquake (6.7), and I congratulate myself for having the good sense not to take the pedestrian flyover when walking back home from the doctor's.

The Morning after the Tohoku Kantō Great Earthquake

March 12, 2011. I wake up today thinking about how much I admire the Japanese people for their gaman, or stoicism, in the face of major disaster.

So many of them are reacting to this catastrophic event with dignity and calm. Even more incredibly, some in the Sendai region are already hard at work clearing out the mud and rubble from their homes and other properties.

As for me, I'm starting to fret again. What if this earthquake is just the prelude to another, bigger one, as happened so recently in New Zealand?

Seismologists by their own admission are appallingly bad at predicting where and when the next deadly quake will strike, let alone the conditions that will produce a tsunami. I'm now thinking we should implore our family and friends in Japan to consider living somewhere other than the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Perhaps I'm overreacting? Moving is no guarantee against being blindsided by disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Speaking of which, Japan's natural disaster appears to have precipitated a manmade one, as officials now presume that partial meltdowns have occurred at two nuclear power plants. (Will horrors never cease?)

But back to my main point: no one here in NYC anticipated 9/11. Who's to say another place will necessarily prove safer?

Still, there is something a little creepy about not being able to trust the earth beneath one's feet.

And what about the water? I am remembering the waters of Matsushima again, so blissfully tranquil that even the famed Edo poet Matsuo Bashō was at a loss for words.

And now it's our turn to be nonplussed. In the battle of Man vs. Nature, it can be hard to remember that Nature holds a lot more cards. Or to put it in terms of this blog's central metaphor: don't be seduced by the elephant's majesty!

Question: Where were you when you heard about Japan's big quake, and what were your first reactions and thoughts?


Kate said...

Dreadful. There's not much else I can say.

I'm increasingly annoyed by news coverage which seems to treat this disaster as yet another reality show -- a new series of Survivor, perhaps? -- with sensationalist headlines that pay little heed to the suffering in their 'Amazing Videos' (and I quote The Weather Channel there.)

Anastasia said...

@Kate. I know. Since when is an earthquake or a tsunami "weather"? Or is the climatology position on the news for all natural disasters?

@ML strange you mention 9/11 and New Zealand's quake, and the idea of moving somewhere 'safe'...since after experiencing 9/11 from my Ground Zero home I thought of moving to New Zealand. There's nowhere to go. And I write this from the abysmally-prepared-for-an-earthquake Istanbul.

Almost American said...

I found out when I logged into Facebook as I was reading my breakfast and friends in Taiwan had posted "Thinking of Japan" - I knew something big must have happened. My first thought after finding out it was a big earthquake was to think who I know in Japan and wonder where they are . . .

This site had some interesting commentary on the differing media approaches in Japan and Taiwan to the tsunami. (Use Google translate if you don't speak Chinese.)

ML Awanohara said...

Your mention of wanting to move away from disaster-prone areas reminded me of a Japanese woman (now friend) who once worked as my assistant in Tokyo. She had an obsessional earthquake phobia, far worse than anything I've expressed here. My colleagues and I would sometimes try to jolly her out of it, but she wasn't having any of it. She was determined not to spend any more of her adulthood in the Tokyo area.

She had an English fiance, and the pair of them were thinking about moving to Kobe after they got married, an international city in Kansai region of Western Japan (between Osaka and Kyoto). Kansai was known to have fewer earthquakes than other parts of Honshu Island.

In the end they decided to settle in his home country and moved to Haslemere, the most southerly town in Surrey, where her husband is from and his family still live.

Imagine their relief they'd chosen Surrey over Kobe when the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred a couple of years later!

From Berkeley, NYC, and Istanbul to Haslemere? I know it sounds strange. But if you were seriously considering NZ, then perhaps Haslemere merits a place on the shortlist?!

ML Awanohara said...

@Kate @Anastasia
Interesting what you say about English-language coverage of the catastrophe. We've been tuned into NHK (Japan's PBS or BBC, which we can get on cable) almost continuously, so I haven't really been following the American media, except some CNN at the beginning.

@Almost American
I used Google translate and my iki jibiki [walking dictionary] hubby (since the translation was a little rough) to look at the Taiwanese blog post you recommended. And one of the main points the blogger makes has to do with the dignity of NHK's coverage of the tragedy. This Taiwanese blogger seemed pleasantly surprised to discover that there are media anchors in Asia "who do not broadcast disaster as a horror film." This is in stark contrast to the Chinese and Korean press, both of which favor constant crying and wailing.

Hooray for NHK!

Almost American said...

@ ML Awanohara - thanks for confirming that I understood the gist of that blog article from Taiwan! As you say, Google translate can be rough!

Peter said...

We heard about it when we woke up and checked in with the news online, as we usually do. I must say my first reaction was "I'm so glad it didn't hit Tokyo itself". But all the news footage coming in since is just horrible, the sheer devastation of so many little towns. And the nuclear problems are deeply ominous. I just hope there isn't another really big aftershock.

Simon Mackie said...

The last few days have felt like an emotional roller coaster for my Japanese wife, who moved to the U.K with me to live in an earthquake free area and who you mentioned earlier. She feels guilt for not being with her friends and family in Japan, a dreadful sense of loss and helplessness and yes, relieved but a kind of guilt for feeling relieved. We bought tickets to go back to Japan in 3 weeks time but we've cancelled the holiday.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm hoping this post will serve as a kind of record of first reactions to the news among not just Japanophiles but also people who care about their fellow-creatures (as George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver character put it in The Mill on the Floss.)

Your admission about being glad it wasn't Tokyo rings true. One of my first emotions was relief: so glad it wasn't me, so glad it wasn't Tokyo (where friends and family live). If not especially charitable, I suppose it's only natural. And in my case, it was the event I'd most dreaded.

But the relief has now been replaced by grief and a deep sense of mourning for the loss of what was and will never be the same again. I just now finished The Mill on the Floss, which ironically ends with the river flooding and the deaths (by drowning) of Maggie and her brother, Tom. In her conclusion, Eliot writes:
Nature repairs her ravages--repairs them with sunshine, and with human labor. ... Nature repairs her ravages, but not all. ... To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.

As a former Japan expat, I shall always have "eyes that have dwelt on the past."

Thanks also for bringing up the nuclear problems, which were only just manifesting themselves as I started writing this. While living in Japan, I absorbed the nation's aversion to nuclear weapons that came from their WWII experience and am already recoiling, in sympathy with my Japanese brethren, at the thought of long-lasting radioactivity from the plants.

I may need to do another post!

ML Awanohara said...

@ Simon Mackie
I really appreciate your comment.

Please tell your wife, Chiaki-san, that I can relate to the rollercoaster of feelings she's been having, of relief combined with guilt and sorrow, in the wake of this news.

Personally, I'm glad she--and you and your kids--weren't there. Given her life-long aversion to earthquakes, I don't think she could have coped. I doubt I could have either, though I suppose one has no choice!

You mentioned canceling your holiday to Japan. I've been picking up reports through my Twitterfeed that tourism to Japan is expected to decline, also that some expats are thinking of leaving. If travel to and stays within Japan are severely curtailed, that will be yet another sad consequence...

p.s. BTW, did I spell Haslemere correctly? (Hasel or Hasle?) Perhaps the two of you should create a retreat there for shell-shocked quake victims. I'm only half joking. I still have a vivid memory of the landscape from my one visit: such a special place. (That area hasn't changed, right? I ask because I see that Bill Bryson is now running the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which suggests that it's under threat...)

Jeffrey said...

I heard the news from NPR when the clock radio clicked on at 5AM PST. As soon as I could, I booted up the laptop to get details.

I was also hoping it wasn't "the big one," meaning Tokyo. We have lots of friends in the area, but no family in the Kanto and don't know anyone in Tohoku.

ML Awanohara said...

How did you find the news coverage of the catastrophe on the West Coast? (See comments by Kate and Anastasia above.) I imagine it's different there because of being part of the Pacific Rim--perhaps more thorough?

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. Also, are people out there making a comparison between Tohoku and the Pacific Northwest, which likewise has placed a string of nuclear power plants in an area prone to earthquakes?

Jeffrey said...

Because there were tsunami warnings for the whole Pacific Coast, there was a heightened local interest. With a relatively large ni-sei and san-sei population here, Seattle and Washington have a closer relationship with and greater interest in Japan than most other states.

I rarely watch local news anymore and what I saw was as pathetic as usual. But no worse really than what I saw on CNN, etc. - mostly the same sort of arm's length reporting since few U.S. news organizations have people in Japan any longer. Seems they've all closed their Tokyo bureaus and moved shop to Beijing or Shanghai. It wasn't until I tried the Japanese channel on Comcast and found that they had "unblocked" this so that people could see the NHK broadcast (normally only available with the super premium package). Decent of them, though I haven't checked yet to see if this is still available after yesterday.

We have just one operating nuclear plant left in Washington (though the biggest nuclear mess in the country) and the only plant in Oregon closed years ago well ahead of it's life term.

The greatest commonality locally is plate tectonics. Washington has about a half dozen intersecting plates with a recently discovered fault line running east-west under Seattle. While the Nisqually Quake of ten years ago was relatively big (6.8), it did very little damage because it was centered in Puget Sound, which is too small to generate a tsunami, and relatively deep. We've been due for a big for quite sometime.

That labeled K on the map was the source of our last major quake in 2001.

Jackie Pias Carlin said...

Japan's devastating earthquake reached across the Pacific to Hawaii, where I live. Having experienced a tsunami in the 50s when there were no sirens, I was certainly concerned for our safety, but we had plenty of time to evacuate. Fortunately, the waves we experienced here on Maui were just little ripples. The ocean's onslaught in Japan would have wiped us out completely if it had happened here. I feel for the people of Japan and hope they recover as quickly as possible. We can help by donating to the American Red Cross.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Jackie
Thanks for giving us an account of how you felt in Maui Island. Jeffrey has mentioned the large nisei and sansei populations in the Seattle area, where he lives. Well, Hawaii has an even bigger Japanese population (something like 20%?), including many Japanese nationals who've retired there.

I went to Honolulu several times from Japan and always felt I was still in Japan (ironically enough, given the history).

Incidentally, I was very moved when President Obama, who grew up in Honolulu, mentioned how heartbroken he feels, in his news conference on March 11:
...the Japanese people are such close friends of ours, and I have such a close personal friendship and connection to the Japanese people -- in part because I grew up in Hawaii where I was very familiar with Japanese culture -- that that just makes our concerns that much more acute.

Note to other readers: Jackie provides a fuller account of her reactions in a blog post of her own, "Too Small Tsunami."

ML Awanohara said...

@ Jeffrey
Thank you for explaining the earthquake and nuclear power situation in the Seattle area. I wouldn't be surprised if the U.S. takes a hard look at its own preparedness (or the lack) for a catastrophe of this nature--at least for a while.

I noticed that the so-called Prophet of Doom, earthquake scientist James Roddey, is having his finest hour right now, with appearances on CNN and so on.

To be honest, I haven't really thought about nuclear power plants since living in Suffolk, England. Several of my friends and neighbors joined protests against the building of a nuclear power station near the small fishing village of Sizewell.

Thus I found this map showing where America's operating nuclear power plants are quite revealing. (Susumu thought he'd toured one on the Washington state coast back in his Far Eastern Economic Review days, but I guess it is no longer operating?)

Last but not least, I got a lot out of reading this op-ed by Brahma Chellaney on Project Syndicate, "Japan's Nuclear Morality Tale." His conclusion is a little ominous, though: "If the fallout from those incidents is a reliable guide, however, nuclear power’s advocates will eventually be back."

Jeffrey said...

(Susumu thought he'd toured one on the Washington state coast back in his Far Eastern Economic Review days, but I guess it is no longer operating?)

It was probably the Trojan plant (yes, a very unfortunate name) near Rainier, OR, just across the Columbia River from Washington in NW Oregon. Not far from the coast.

The same style of plant as at Three Mile Island, it was decommission in 1993.

Joy Browett said...

I've been glued to the news here in Yorkshire. Every programme brings more and more tales of devastation. It is a powerful message to see how a sophisticated country like Japan can be brought to its knees by the forces of nature. It is a real challenge to the grandiosity of human kind. We are flotsam and jetsam when nature unleashes its power.

Hannah said...

Beautiful post ML. You wonderfully balance the historical and the personal, it's quite moving

"Still, there is something a little creepy about not being able to trust the earth beneath one's feet. "

This quote also beautifully expresses one of the points I've found most disturbing about this tragedy. It somehow seems to exist on another level than other disasters that we have recently lived though - just the idea that the place you live can destroy you so quickly and with no warning or chance of prevention.

D said...

Like you, I once found small tremors to be sort of fun. My wife thought I was insane.

I got home that Friday at about 2-230pm and the quake hit at 2:46. it started as one of those small tremors, but soon passed the point where you knew it was going to be more than small. It quickly increased in intensity, and stayed at that level for a long while until it became more intense. It remained there for an very long time (lasted 5 minutes according to Japan Meteorological Agency) compared to any other I have experienced before very gradually easing. It was the most severe I have ever experienced in Tokyo, as well as most Tokyo natives I have spoken with. (For some absurd reason, I was trying to shut down my computer instead of ducking under a desk, but could not hold the cursor still enough. I was sitting but got something like a case of vertigo as I tried to balance. I cannot imagine the full impact of a M9 quake, nor do I ever want to experience one.

At first I was concerned with the damage in Tokyo as twitter lit up with reports from people about the quake in their area of Tokyo, Chiba, or Yokohama. TV showed numerous fires in the city.

Within 30 minutes, the first tsunami were shown on TV, and it was obvious that there had not been enough time to evacuate and serious loss of life was near certain, and that Tokyo had been relatively lightly hit.

In the days after the quake,Tokyo pretty much returned to normal except for transportation problems and concern over Fukushima---I saw/heard of no panic at all. It began to feel unreal. We had been shaken, worried about the problems at Fukushima, irritated at some of the exaggeration in some foreign media, but in the tsunami hit region people lost their lives, their children, their parents, their home, many lost everything. We are so extremely lucky. It's surprising how widespread those sentiments are.

I don't know how Japan will change, but I suspect things will never be the same as before the quake.

D said...

Speaking of the media, yes, much of the overseas reporting seems over-the-top. It seems to overstate the problems with Fukushima, or else they are being completely understated here. Perhaps a combination of both. The overseas reports are what is driving people back home to to convince us that we have to get out of Tokyo---or entirely out of Japan. Most non-Japanese I know are getting this from friends and family.

However, there is no evidence of that sort of imminent danger in my opinion. I don't remember Three Mile Island that well, but I don't recall people fleeing the East Coast.

The best, most useful source after the quake? Twitter. We could get a sense of how bad it had hit different parts of Tokyo, and later could exchange all sorts of important information, and information on how to held (not a lot at first) people in the tsunami hit areas. Our Man in Abiko has come up with an excellent idea to raise money for those affected, and has just about completed it over the weekend. So the idea of Twitter (and perhaps Facebook) as being increasing important means of communicating in emergencies is true

ML Awanohara said...

@ Hannah

One of my earliest friends from when I was an expat in England called the other day to express her sympathies about the earthquake. She reminded me that, when we first met in a yoga class in Suffolk (eastern county between Norfolk and Essex), our teacher constantly stressed the need to "ground" or connect ourselves with the earth. That way, you can feel grounded psychologically, and worry won't enter your mind.

As my friend pointed out, there's something deeply unsettling about the earth not being there for you. As Joy says, we are flotsam and jetsam when nature unleashes its power. A truly humbling realization...

I wonder what our yoga gurus might say? How can one act in harmony with nature when the natural world turns against us like this?

ML Awanohara said...

@ D aka David of Japan without the sugar and an interviewee of this blog

Thank you for giving us our first firsthand account of what it was like to be in Tokyo during the quake.

I found it interesting what you had to say about Twitter as a vital (because accurate) information source. I noticed that Tokyo Timeout recently hailed six Tokyo tweeters who kept the city informed.

In addition, I was struck by your remark: "I don't know how Japan will change, but I suspect things will never be the same as before the quake." I'm remembering how, when living in Japan, I used to get so frustrated with what I perceived as the country's profound resistance to change. People would constantly talk about Japan being on the verge of change--and then nothing would happen. I became deeply cynical about the Japanese people's ability to bring about real reforms to their financial, political and social systems.

But part of me always wondered whether the Japanese antipathy to change had to do with geographical location: i.e., people cling to the status quo because they know that one day everything will change due to external forces. Such is the psychological impact of living in the Pacific Ring of Fire...

Hmmm... The only think wrong with that theory is that it doesn't explain Californians. They positively embrace change! Still, they have yet to suffer a 9.0 quake...

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