March 12, 2011

The Big One

My room after the earthquake.

People in Japan always talk about "the next big earthquake", the one cataclysmic earthquake that will absolutely paralyze Japan. We've seen had horrible ones in the past, but people still had a nagging feeling that worse could be infinitely worse.

But nothing could have prepared us for this earthquake. We know the routine -- the evacuations, the excavations, the tsunami. But the complete paralysis of the metropolitan transporation system was a major shock. I'd never seen so many people walking in the streets of Tokyo. We were all taking part in the giant exodus "home", which was almost laughable because it would be hours before the subways were up and running. A common reiteration was a dazed, "If the earthquake happened 400 kilos (250 miles) away and Tokyo is this crippled, what would have happened if the epicenter were here?"

Sitting out the aftershocks at Kyobashi Tsukiji Elementary School
My office is in Tsukiji, where the first earthquake was strong enough to cause alarm in some, but only mildly distract others. Experiencing an earthquake in Tokyo, with its cramped high-rises and often-old buildings would seem like a nightmare, but luckily I was able to make my way to the nearest elementary school, a designated gathering area for emergencies. I fretted through the aftershocks with over a hundred other people.  

When this is all over, I am going to find a way to thank the principal of the Kyobashi Tsukiji Elementary School. She directed not only her own students, but workers from nearby offices in a calm, decisive manner, making sure the school grounds were clear of any potentially dangerous equipment, and then ordering the dispensal of a blanket, a woven mat, and later, candy and biscuits to everyone. To go from being a leader of your school to a leader of the community is a daunting task, and the seamless way she inhabited that role undoubtedly eased many people's minds.

The local elementary school gymnasium, which was the emergency shelter area. Many tourists spent the night here.
After, I made my way to my grandmother's, a 20-minute walk away, and spent the night in an old folks' home. Once again, I was treated very kindly by the nighttime nurses, who must have been anxious about their own families. What I was most struck by during the whole experience was the way people put aside their personal worries and concentrated 110% on helping others, from schoolteachers to convenience store workers.  

The next day, back home near Tokyo Bay. The damage was much more noticeable than central Tokyo. Liquefaction on roads was so severe, some areas looked like there had never been any roads.

A kitchen cupboard full of glasses, some reduced to fragments.

Cosmo Oil Co.'s factory, still smoking 12 hours after the fire was reported. This was taken from my window.

The pipes aren't working in my area, so the Self-Defense Forces have brought water trucks to the local elementary school. It's unusual to see Japanese people freestyling: I've seen a man carting five 500 ml bottles in a stroller, and someone using those giant glass jars you use to make pickled plum sake. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I laughed out loud when I saw two boys carrying a slippery-looking fish tank half full of water. My family? We took an old plastic tank that is generally used for filling petrol (for room heaters), but one we bought years ago precisely for this sort of emergency. We knew that we might end up using it, but we had no idea when that would be.


Great said...

Sachiko san,

I have only recently "discovered" your Blog and have enjoyed your posts.

I lived in Japan for a 4 year period during the mid to late 1980's.

I have been able to contact most of my friends and know for the time beign at least they are safe and OK.

I hope the same applies to you and your family and friends.


Best wishes,

Sachiko Shiota said...



It means so much to me that you would read my blog and think of contacting me. If it weren't for friends outside Japan sending us good wishes, I know people would be a lot more discouraged. I'm glad that people you know in Japan are safe. I hope they continue to be safe.