The Great Tohoku Earthquake

When the Tohoku earthquake happened, I was sitting at my tiny Japanese desk, in the middle of a giant Japanese office, in the middle of Tokyo, just hating life.  I was working elbow to elbow with about a hundred people, facing a row of unsmiling coworkers across from me, crouched in front of my pc, without speaking from morning until night.  The most exciting part of the day was lunchtime, when we’d all take out our bento boxes and eat lunch together without talking.  I couldn’t imagine it could get any worse.

Funny about that.  You never really think about something like the floor too much, at least until it starts jumping around, which is what suddenly began happening.  In an instant, our building went from a solid structure to a loose bunch of concrete and glass rocking side to side, as a hundred people gave out a collective, cautious “Whoooa.”

Now, in preparation for just such an emergency, our company had provided every employee with a liter of water and two cans of bread.  I’d long gotten used to strange food in Japan, so the idea of bread in a can didn’t seem that abnormal.  What I really couldn’t figure out though is why we hadn’t also been provided with, say, a can of tuna and a jar of mayo.  But in any case, I reached for those cans, since that seemed to be the only thing within my control.  But bread or no bread, it soon became apparent the shaking thing had moved from the floor to the walls and ceiling.  You could see the windows starting to flex.  We all looked at each other for about a second as a deep rumbling came up through the building, and then, with a tremendous crash, all hell broke loose.

I learned that I don’t really fit beneath my Japanese-sized desk.  It was kind of like a cat trying to crawl into a paper bag, where he gets his little head in but the rest of his big body is sticking out.   The floor started going up and down and things came off the walls and people started to yell and scream.  I opened my cans of bread and prayed, but it seemed like the walls wouldn’t stop shaking no matter how much bread I ate, which by the way tastes terrible.  By the time it was over I’d polished off both cans and was halfway through my bottle of emergency water.  There were crumbs everywhere.

It was only later that the severity of things became apparent, as news of the tsunami started coming in.  I don’t think anybody realized how bad it was at first, but as we listened to the radio and watched the TV, it started to look heavy.  Like really heavy.  And then, because we’re in Japan and the Japanese have about one response to everything, we went quietly back to work.  A huge aftershock happened a few minutes later, but since I was all out of rations, I just kept on working along with everyone else.

When evening came, it seemed there was another problem, as the trains had stopped, meaning that no one could go home.  My coworkers just kept on working throughout the night, until they fell asleep at their desks.  I left the office, and my first thought was, as always, to sleep in the corner of some bar.  But every izakaya and noodle shop I went to was either packed or closed, so that idea was out.  So I had a few convenience store cocktails to sharpen my crisis management skills, and then started walking home.  The sidewalks were teeming with people in dark suits trudging forward, and the overpasses so crowded that folks waited in line just to climb the steps.  Taxis, cars, nothing could move.  At one point, I boarded a bus, but the traffic was so heavy that it only went forward about a yard in twenty minutes, so I got off again and kept on walking.

It got pretty cold.  There were no hats or gloves left in the stores, so I bought a surgical mask, which helped keep my face warmer, and cans of hot coffee for each pocket.  I walked.  I looked at maps.  I asked directions.  And I walked some more.  I hoped I would find a running shoe store or maybe steal a bike, but neither happened, so I kept going in my pointy Japanese shoes.  I walked for five hours.  Then I got to Ikebukuro, went straight to a bar, had some corn nuts and beer, and rested.  Then I walked some more.  Maybe another two hours.

When I got home, my old wooden house was still standing, although some tiles had fallen off the roof, one of the beams had split, and my room was an utter mess.  Clothes and books were scattered everywhere.  Then I remembered that it always looks that way, so I couldn’t really blame the earthquake.

Today, it’s lovely and warm, and sakura blossoms are drifting in the wind.  But even now, the aftershocks continue.  Maybe we’ve had a hundred or more.  The reports of the death toll up north and the nuclear meltdown have become real.  The stores are empty of food and tonight, again, the lights will be out all over Tokyo.  Why does Japan have to be so beautiful and yet so terrifying?

7 Replies to “The Great Tohoku Earthquake”

  1. Hi Ken. Re-reading some of your old stuff. Hey, this was really nicely written.

    Had a bit of a jumpy time recently. For some reason we went to Hakone anyway the other weekend. I’m still alive tho so there that.

    I don’t know if you are interested in anybody guest-writing for your blog btw, but here is a topic that I think works thematically with what you do…

    1. Me. Some white guy learning Japanese because of all the typical reasons. Looking at that from the frame of life as I used to know it. The kinds of priorities I used to have. Reading AJATT. Winning the fight. Marching forward…

    2. Reality. A bit ol painful shifting of the framework through which I had seen everything I was doing. Finally having to deal with seeing what was in front of my face. Maybe less of “culture shock” and more “deprogramming” my assumptions.

    3. Slowly learning to be less bitter about the whole thing and trying to be an adult without giving up on having dreams about learning things and changing my situation.

    How about it? Your blog is too excellent to not have an update for months!

    1. Thanks, Danchan. Yeah, that might work. Be good to get some fresh blood in here. Let me email you and we can talk about it.

  2. Thanks for this take on 3/11. Almost every other account I’ve heard from a foreigner in Japan at the time is sensationalized to some degree, but yours seems very… well, about exactly what would happen in that scenario. It’s refreshing to get the real deal sometimes.

    I’ve been reading a few of your articles recently, and I gotta say, I envy your relationship with alcohol. Whether it be restoring ever-vital electrolytes, or sharpening your crisis management skills, your indulgence in booze always seems to be part of some plan or aspiration. I’ve got to adopt a more positive attitude to my own drinking 😛

    1. It’s certainly a fine line between drinking enough to have a good time, and waking up face down in the shrubbery. I try not to cross that too often. Once a day at most.

      1. I basically don’t like the part where I don’t remember what people claim I said, that means I drank to much. I don’t care if I slur and/or walk funny though.

  3. Your articles always crack me up with the type of humor you use.

    I’m still a little sore about not being allowed to participate in Operation Tomodachi back then, but I guess I avoided some extra doses of radiation.

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