Saturday, March 12, 2011

All Shook Up

Seeing the headlines on Friday morning, making my way in a dazed state through the CNN reports and filmed disaster of a devastating earthquake in Japan, concern for friends and all affected people was an immediate concern. Pictures and reports were horrible, but the worst of those were from northeastern Japan, a good distance from Tokyo. The city looked badly rattled but without the catastrophic collapse and inundation of Sendai 300 miles north and near the quake’s epicenter. Continuing to read the incoming reports it was hard to stop the thought of what if…? One year ago today I was preparing to leave Japan. With departure imminent, the house was more than usual in a muddle of sifting, sorting and unsecured piles of everything from furniture to knickknackery. What if an earthquake of 8.9 magnitude had hit Japan at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2010—what would I have seen?

With classes still in session ongoing tremors trigger an alarm recognizable by all as a signal to evacuate the buildings and move away to a pre-determined distance and location. Because of the severity and continuance of the tremors—only 5.0 in Tokyo, three hours south of the epicenter—students and staff are instructed to return home either by bicycle or on foot without returning to the school buildings. All trains have been automatically stopped so those without bicycles—about fifty percent—have no choice but to walk home, be it near or far. Most students have cell phones but service is down and they are like everyone else, unable to contact family and friends for the present. For me the walk home is eighty minutes, much of it through areas free of traffic and buildings. Everywhere people are out on streets and sidewalks, even strangers are talking, commiserating, offering help or whatever is needed. It is a time when all come together without the smallest thought of discrimination or reserve.

In Kugayama, approaching my apartment building I find five or six of the residents out front and I stop to talk with them, to ask for news or about conditions inside the building. Much of the dramatic description and rolling eyes I put off as exaggeration and head up the stairs to my third floor apartment. The greatest worry is an eighteen gallon aquarium, the horrible thought of it knocked down and smashed with a flood of water and tropical fish. Opening the door and looking in is an anxious moment, but the indoor scene shows less collapse than expected. The fish are fine, but there in the middle of the kitchen floor lay the shards of several irreplaceable old Japanese dishes and bowls. The top of the paulownia chest of drawers is a jumble of collapsed figures and trifles, two CD cases have tipped over spilling their cargo into a hash of plastic and glossy covers. A mirror has fallen to leave shards of bad luck on the living room carpet and a reading lamp leans awkwardly over a reading chair, saved from a crash by the cushioned arm. I take a few deep breaths, relieved that it’s not as bad as my imagination had painted. But I have no electricity and no water, no telephone and no Internet. For the time being talk with neighbors will have to serve to keep me posted on conditions in a shaken but intact city. Easily the worst earthquake in my experience but in Tokyo at least we’ve been spared.

News reports have mentioned more than once that Friday’s earthquake in Japan was the worst in a hundred years. Some truth to that but many are forgetting that at noon on September 1, 1923 the Tokyo area was rocked by a cataclysmic earthquake that killed over 100,000 people in the city alone, with 570,000 homes destroyed and 1.9 million left homeless. The Great Kantô Earthquake of 1923 hit with a force of 7.9 but conditions made it a disaster of biblical proportions. At that time all homes as well as many of the city’s buildings were constructed of wood, an extremely fragile structural base. The quake hit at an hour when many were preparing lunch over open fires. The spread of fire was an immediate threat and to add a big measure of ill fortune, a typhoon was blowing from the north fanning the flames into a firestorm which trapped many in melting tarmac, burning them where they stood. 38,000 died in a huge clothing depot when the fire induced something called a fire tornado. But in looking back at that disaster we can see that preventive measures were nonexistent, buildings and planning much different from the architecture and infrastructure of Tokyo in March of 2011.

Modern Tokyo is a city designed with earthquakes uppermost in the mind of civic engineers and architects. An earthquake with the power of Friday’s temblor is certainly not anything that Tokyo or any other large city can ignore, but the chances of loss in both life and property on the scale of 1923 are unlikely today. While it may be true that twenty-four hours after an 8.9 earthquake 300 miles distant, four million homes in Tokyo remain without power and while trains sit unmoving and people are still finding their way home, there is great relief in the small number of human casualties today in Japan’s capital.


  1. What an incredibly sad day for the Japanese people. I don't know why, but I never realized how prone to quakes Japan is. Hopefully all your friends are safe. Wonderful post - thank you for writing it!

  2. Dear Friend, I wanted you to know that after following a link from the Pen Addict blog, I read this thoughtful post on the earthquake in Japan, then spent two hours following your journey backwards from Florida to Japan.

    I look forward to reading more of your delightful and informative writing.

  3. I was worried wondering what you would report about the events in Japan. The earth is going through changes and I don't think it's noticed there are billions of us hanging on for dear life. (Have you considered moving away from the coast yet?)
    Take care, and keep entertaining us with your stories.

  4. Good post. And like you we all stand in awe of the visible power of the destruction. Having seen so many disaster movies (even those with big waves, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE PERFECT STORM), besides the basic problem of seeing is believing, for some viewers, I imagine, there must have been a total disconnect for longer moments than most, longer for the reality of it all to sink in. For the people of Japan, this WAS Godzilla wading ashore and sweeping away everything around him.

  5. In reading your post I couldn't help but keep saying "what if". This is a sad time for the Japanese people and my friends who are like extended family to me. If this had happened last year at this time and if you had been affected, what would today be like for you. Thank you for the background on Japan's earthquakes.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America