Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Earthquake Update March 13, 2011

It has been two days since the earthquake hit Japan. In some ways everything has changed; while in others, for those of us in Tokyo at least, seemingly nothing has.

On Friday, when the earthquake hit, I was at my friend Masumi’s boutique.
I was talking on my cell phone at the front of the store near the plate glass window, while Masumi, in her 70’s, was standing near-by. Unlike in some other earthquakes where there can be a sudden jolt and loud bang at first, this one rumbled slowly. It felt like a tide coming in and became stronger. At first, I had I thought it would be like one of the countless earthquakes I have experienced before.

“Ian, this is it.
Hang up the phone and take care.” Tada said.

“You, too”.
I looked at Masumi who was frozen and couldn’t move. The shaking became more violent and I looked outside at the swaying telephone poles. We had two choices: go back further into the shop and take cover or try to run outside to the parking lot across the street before the glass potentially started to shower down around us.

The concrete building, more than 40 years old, was shaking so violently that I wasn’t sure it would stay standing. I grabbed Masumi and half-carried her outside. Other people had already started gathering in the parking lot. Masumi, petrified as the ground moved us as if we were in a boat on choppy water, had tucked herself under my arm and had her face buried in my chest. I looked up to see what could fall on us.

The rolling lasted for so long, much longer than I had ever experienced in this earthquake-prone country.
Was it two minutes? It was so violent and at its peak, Masumi and I looked up and saw her three-story building swaying. What was she thinking at that moment? Her nephew was on the top floor. Her brother… was he on the second floor or had he gone out? In my mind I could see the building crumbling, I could see the street opening up and swallowing the cars and people.

But it didn’t.
The earthquake ended and the building was still standing. The twenty people or so that had gathered in the parking lot looked around at each other and silently bowed to one another. There had been no panic, no screaming. And we all still thought that what we had experienced had been centered in Tokyo.

I tried to call Tada back. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Everyone around me was on their cell phones and nobody could get a line though.

We went back into the shop (from which we fled again how many times during subsequent aftershocks?) to find the lights and electricity on. There appeared to be relatively little damage on the first floor. We went into disaster mode. Are there are any gas leaks? Are there any burst pipes? First floor: OK. Second floor: cracks up the walls, falling plaster. Third floor: a complete mess.

The third floor is where Masumi’s family lives.
The water had been flung out of the toilets and was everywhere. The refrigerator doors had swung open and the contents strewn on the floor. The plates and glasses had fallen from the cabinets and were shattered. Each room held a new, horrible scene. Masumi’s mother’s collection of dolls had been in large glass cases which had been thrown to the floor and smashed. Framed photos, previously on the walls, were now all on the floor and broken. Things had been toppled to such a degree it was hard to tell: was that a treasured memory of Masumi’s or a pile of garbage about to be taken out.

We found her nephew to be ok, but barefoot among the broken glass. We all put on shoes, something that even in this emergency felt wrong to do in a Japanese house with its delicate tatami flooring. We trampled over their prized belongings in our “outside shoes” to check for gas leaks. As it should have, the emergency shut-off valve had been triggered. Nobody hurt, no fire hazard.

Although we couldn’t get phone lines out, we quickly discovered that texts were getting through. Tada was ok. So was his mother. Between running back out to the parking lot during the large aftershocks, and enduring the countless smaller ones inside, we began to clean up the glass and debris.

Starting with the entrance ways and hallways to ensure a safe escape if needed, we worked our way through the front bedrooms and kitchen. The living room, with its glass cases of curios smashed into the tatami flooring was the last room. While we worked we turned on the TV to see if any news reports had started to come in.

We could not believe what we were seeing! Towns had been washed away by a tsunami. Fires. Devastation. I looked from the broken dolls on the floor to the images on the TV. We realized the earthquake hadn’t been centered in Tokyo after all. We were unhurt and cleaning up broken dolls. In the north, entire towns had been washed away. It was getting to be night. We had electricity and heat and water. In the north, they had nothing.

This is not to say that Tokyo had been unaffected: the trains had all stopped and people could not get to their families, to their children’s schools. There were some deaths and injuries, but it was nothing like what we were seeing on TV.

Then a manager from the wedding/ events company that I work for on the weekends called (I later learned that calls from some landlines were going through with a greater success rate than from cell phones as the mobile network was simply overloaded). After checking that I was ok, they informed me that I was to report to work in the morning as usual(!) as we had dozens of weddings scheduled- seven of which I was personally responsible for. I let them know that I was an hour away from home by train and reminded them that the trains weren’t moving. They said that they would call me back.

As it grew later, more and more train lines announced that they would not resume service that day. Some people joined streams of orderly, polite commuters who calmly made the journey home. On TV it showed thousands and thousands of people who had decided to walk home- some for three, four or more hours across this sprawling metropolis. Others had decided or were required to stay put in their offices.

I decided to stay the night where I was. Without gas, we had no way to shower or cook, but compared with the people near the epicenter we could not complain. We went to the supermarket to buy something to eat. It was so orderly! There was no panic! People were buying simply what they needed for that day. There was no hoarding, no pushing, nothing even impolite.

Exhausted and finally allowing ourselves to relax enough to feel the stress, we picked at our food in the warmth of the TV even as we watched images of the displaced in shelters who had no food. No water. No heat.

Close to midnight my office called again. They had required the full time employees who had been working that day to stay in the office to work through the night and organize the 300 part-time employees who were obligated to be at work in the morning. They apparently had tried to send a car to get me, but it had had to turn around after sitting for hours in the massive traffic jam of nervous people who were either trying to get out of Tokyo or get back in. As I hung up the phone, I was still having trouble believing that I needed to report to work in just a few short hours. Were they not seeing the same news that we were? Were people actually going to carry through with their plans to hold a wedding in the midst of all that was going on in their country, not to mention to risk congregating in buildings that may or may not be still structurally sound after enduring such a powerful earthquake? With all the train lines now stopped and the airports closed, with all the dead, with all the unknowns, I couldn’t even believe that the issue was being discussed.

In Japanese, there is a saying: company first, family second. It is simply a reality here. Does it sound cold and heartless? I have thought a lot about that over the last couple of days.

When I got to work the next day I learned that when the earthquake had hit, hundreds of customers were attending a banquet at the facility. After everyone was evacuated to the parking lot, the building was inspected to make sure it was safe for everyone to go back in. As it would take a long time for the inspection of such a massive complex to be completed, the employees were sent back in to get chairs for each and everyone guest standing in the parking lot. Within minutes, they were distributing bottles of water and had passed out table clothes for people to wrap up in to keep warm. The owner of the complex simply would not have his guests uncomfortable in addition to the inconvenience. With the trains stopped and without a way to get home, 200 guests were stuck without a place to go. The owner invited them to spend the night. They were fed dinner and breakfast the next morning. Mats were rolled out in the largest dinning room to try to make a place for them to lay down. Among the guests: a few babies, some elderly persons and a pregnant woman. The employees remained there working all night to take care of the customers. Who would have done that if the employees had all gone home to their own families?

Back at Masumi’s, we all decided to try to get some sleep. Large aftershocks were happening at the rate of two an hour and were so unsettling. With the images of the devastation we had seen on TV still in my head, I decided to sleep with the light on. I hadn’t allowed myself the luxury of changing into the pajamas that were Masumi’s father’s that she had laid out for me. I wanted to remain in my jeans and sweater- even if they were soiled- in case we had to run out again to the parking lot suddenly.

It was almost one in the morning, and I laid down and turned off the news. As I tried to rest my mind, I couldn’t believe my ears! Was that the sound of Karaoke coming from the bar across the street?! Could people actually be in the mood to go out for a night of drinking and singing at a time like this? The party went on until the morning. Needless to say, between aftershocks and endless bad renditions of old favourites like “My way”, I slept little and wondered much about what the world was coming to.

I heard Masumi in the kitchen at five. She hadn’t been able to sleep either. I asked her what she thought about people singing Karaoke at a time like this.

She said, “The trains are stopped and the people can’t get home. If the bars and restaurants close, these people will be out in the cold. Even if the owners can do nothing else, they must stay open.” I again realized things aren’t always as they appear.

My office called again and asked me to try to take a taxi into town. I hugged Masumi and thanked her for her hospitality. She handed me a few hundred dollars in cash just in case I got into trouble along the way as the ATMs weren’t working. I went outside to try to find a taxi.

It was eerie. Even at 5:30 in the morning, there were lots of people out. Many haggard-looking men in suits and dress shoes had been walking all night and were still not home. I found my way to the main street and eventually hailed a cab.

During the hour drive, I was thinking about what I would find when I got to my apartment. Would it still be there? Could there have been a gas leak? I opened the door to my apartment and a piece of shattered pottery fell out into the hall. I just left my shoes on and went in.

I swept up the shards and broken pieces of things that I had cherished so much at one time and yet now, as mere things, meant nothing when compared to what really matters. With no gas for a hot shower, I boiled some water in the electric pot and found an unbroken bowl that I used to take a sponge bath. The news images of the devastation flashing in the background, I put on a suit. And then I walked to work.

Out of the seven weddings I was in charge of that day, four had been cancelled. Of the 25 weddings in total that were scheduled for that day at the events complex, 12 went ahead as scheduled. It was an unbelievable day, filled with big aftershocks, tears for family members who were still unaccounted for and many people still in shock about what had happened. One of my co-workers spent our lunch break sitting on my lap crying. A dancer at Disney Land, she was at work when the earthquake hit and saw people stuck in rides. Believing they were going to die at the time, she was grateful there were no deaths at the theme park, but was traumatized by the peoples’ screaming.

I still haven’t worked through all of my feelings about what is happening either.

After work, my friend Martin came over for dinner. He had found some eggs at the grocery store near his house. In my neighborhood I hadn’t been able to find any milk, bread, rice, water or eggs. I did manage to get some oranges and a few other things and, of course, I had things in the house as well. It was nice to just have someone over, and we watched the news as we ate. We wondered how people would react if the earthquake had happened in America. Everyone here is just so calm and orderly! We watched footage of a volunteer passing out food at a shelter. There was only enough rice for each person to have one riceball. Although they were on a big, open tray, each person took just one riceball and sat back down quietly.

The first time I even heard the Japanese word for “looting” was during the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and I have since forgotten it.

Martin and I had both gotten in touch with our families who were very much relieved after having seen the news. We were both feeling a little… is the word homesick?... and we were playing a round of SkipBo to try to distract ourselves for just a little while from what was happening. The doorbell rang, and we opened the door to find a delivery man from Japan Post with a package for me from my sister, Amanda. In the midst of all that is happening and at 8:00 on a Saturday night, a care package from home made its way to me! Inside, homemade pumpkin bread and chocolate chip cookies… heaven! And a small prayer shawl Amanda had knitted for me. How could she have known the significance of that package and its perfectly timed arrival when she had sent it a week ago. One of the Mysteries of life.

Another sleepless night and then I went to work again today. More weddings and events, more strange and thought-provoking happenings, more news of devastation up north.

I have spent my free time both yesterday and today gathering supplies. I found some peanuts at one store. Although there is no bottled water anywhere, I did find a case of sports drinks. And I found a box of little candles that are meant for use on a Buddhist altar. I have just come back form the supermarket where the possibility of what could still come became so real- there is almost nothing on the shelves. Even still, on the way home I passed restaurants filled to capacity with people eating and drinking. This gap is so strange.

Because of the problems with the nuclear power plants, they are calling for rolling blackouts beginning tomorrow, so it could be a while before I can write again.
I appreciate your thoughts and prayers so much, but rest assured that here in Tokyo, I am ok. Please keep the people in the most affected areas in your thoughts and prayers.

1 comment:

T. said...

Hi, Ian.

I'm American, and it seems strange to us, but life goes on.

Babies get born, weddings take place, and it just keeps on.

I'm glad you're okay and you managed to post. My question is this: remember how much you appreciated that care package from your sister?

I'd like to send a small one to my friend and her three daughters in Yokahama.

She says their house is standing, so they have clothes and (some) access to food, but only 3 hours of electricity a day.

So here's what's in my package so far:

One crank/solar powered flashlight.

Hand alcohol/wipes


Can you suggest some candies they might like?

Do the Japanese like Peanut Butter?

Thanks, Tanya.