Sunday, 17 April 2011

That Day ...





Other than posting the video of the quake I haven`t written that much about the day itself. Now that the new semester is starting I have been catching up and sharing stories with people I have not seen since before that day. (There are also many `foreigners` whom I have not been able to contact by phone and I am assuming that they have not yet returned to Japan. And may not return ever.) What we all seem to remember is not the quake itself but what happened after, mainly the aftershocks and their effects.



I had been working on something - can`t remember what - all morning on my computer and after lunch I had put the dishes in the sink and sat down on my sofa to read a journal article about narrative structures which I`m usually quite interested in, but this article was so staggeringly dull even for an academic piece that I dozed off. When the quake started it was the usual shake that we get once or twice a month so I wasn`t in the least worried. However on the Wednesday some friends of my sister had arrived in Japan on holiday right around the time of a 5 in the Narita area. As one of them is a geologist he said he was interested in quakes, and when I met them on the Thursday I said he might be lucky enough to feel a shake or two while they were here. (Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!) So on the Friday when the tremor started I got up and hunted around for my camera which also records video and I turned it on. By this time the quake had been going on for about a minute and I thought I might miss it altogether but when I pressed the record button it was still going. Then it kept going ... and then it got bigger. It was only when my tape recorder fell on my foot that it occured to me that this was bigger than we were generally used to but it was only when I actually couldn`t stand up any more that I decided to get under my table. When I crawled back out, the video recorded the time at 2.49 so the whole thing lasted 3 minutes. At this point I realised that the quake was more serious than usual but since the building was still standing and none of the windows were broken I didn`t feel too worried. The ground was still undulating as I put some outdoor clothes on (the day was sunny and bright but it was still below 10 degrees C outside) and then went out. As I was changing my clothes, the quake siren sounded.



Outside a woman had fallen off her bicycle. She was standing but, like me, she was shaken so we stood together and said things like, "Kowakatta ne!" (That was scary,wasn`t it?) and "Sugoi shock, da ne!" (That was a real shock!). We stood there and looked around at other people who had evacuated their homes. The hairdressers from the salon next door were squatting on the pavement - this is what many people do during quakes, they kneel or squat and look up for falling objects - and the ground and telephone poles and wires was swaying non-stop. Groups of people were standing around all along the road. After about 5 minutes, they began to disperse and the hairdressers went back inside. The woman said she was going to go home and I went back inside and up to my 3rd floor apartment. I looked around at all the things that had fallen on the floor and thought that I ought to phone my parents in England sooner rather than later to let them know I was OK. (As an oral historian who interviews foreigners in Japan I have several recordings of Kobe quake stories. One woman who was there said that the phones worked for the first half an hour or so but then went off.) I phoned home and said, "Hi, it`s me and I`m fine. There`s been a big quake but I`m fine". They said they would get on Skype so I hung up. At this point I didn`t know if we would still have internet but we did. (Sure enough the phones and mobile lines soon went off so the internet became an important resource for people over the following days and has remained so since.)



The aftershocks were constant, the apartment building shook every few minutes and whenever I put something back on a shelf it was shaken right off again. Dad put on the BBC in England and after some time he said "Tsunami!" so I turned on the TV in my apartment. The BBC and NHK were showing exactly the same scenes so I recall seeing the film of the house burning whilst it was being swept inland by the tsunami wave but as everything was in Japanese at that point I had no idea where it was nor how widespread it was. Also over the next few hours I had to go outside or get under my table every few minutes so I didn`t watch the TV much. And I still haven`t seen most of the tsunami footage, nor do I want to. (I only found out a couple of weeks ago that there was a tsunami in Chiba, just east of Tokyo.) The rest of the day I was on Skype or under the table or outside with the hairdressers. I kept the TV on with the sound down and at some point NHK started broadcasting their tsunami warning in English, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean as well. But I got most of my news from the BBC. I don`t recall hearing anything about the Fukushima nuclear power plant other than that it had been damaged. Radiation was not mentioned at that point, at least in English.



In the early evening, I stopped Skyping and decided to tidy up. The earth was still moving constantly. Around 9pm I decided to take a quick shower and it was at this point that I realised I had not eaten or drunk anything since the quake because the quake had tripped the emergency cutoff and the building had no gas. I hadn`t even made a cup of tea. I went outside to look at all the windows in the building but no-one was home. (All trains and subways had stopped. People in the centre of Tokyo either had to sleep in their offices or walk home. None of my neighbours made it home that night.) So I went back upstairs, hunted out my gas safety manual and sat for half an hour looking at a very complicated diagram of the gas `junction box` or whatever it is with a button on it. There was a picture of a hand removing the cap from the button and then a finger pressing the button. Then a cartoon figure in glasses pointed to a bubble which said "3 minutes". I got my torch and went outside with the manual and opened the junction box. I took the cap off the button and then hesitated whilst I wondered if I was about to incinerate the neighbourhood. This was probably the scariest moment of the day. I pressed the button. Nothing happened. I came back in and waited for three minutes. Then I turned on a gas ring. It worked! I took a very quick shower, made a cup of tea and a sandwich and went back to sit in front of the TV. Every few minutes we had aftershocks and the TV screen would make a beeping noise and then the details of the quake would begin to scroll across the screen. The tsunami warning was still in full force as I recall. In the end it was all too much and I switched the TV off. When it`s on and constantly giving out warnings or showing tsunami damage you just stand in front of it for hours and hours which is what I had done.


When Japanese people are expecting a big shake they sometimes say they will sleep in their clothes. I didn`t sleep in my clothes but I did put my futon under my table and slept there for two nights. I didn`t find out until I saw the animation above for the first time yesterday that there were 575 aftershocks, on average 1 every 20 minutes in the week after the big one and over a hundred that first night, but I can believe it. I don`t think I got more than a few minutes` sleep that whole weekend after the quake because every time I dozed off the table would start shaking and books would fall off the shelf again. In fact my starkest memory of the whole incident was lying in my bed watching all my furniture and the wall and books and the curtains lurching back and forth all night in the semi darkness.



I don`t recall if there was much traffic outside that first evening. The noise of the quakes drowned everything else out. But from Saturday morning it was very very quiet. Saturdays and Sundays are usually pretty busy with people driving out to parks and shopping centres. That weekend, nothing. Gradually I heard my neighbours returning home and the crashes and bangs as they started to pick up their apartments.


That Saturday and Sunday I was very tired. I don`t clearly recall what I did except speak to my parents on Skype again and try to contact my sister`s friends which I was finally able to do. (I was able to get hold of them on their British mobile phone with global roaming when I was not able to contact any friends on the Japanese mobile system. Why?) The quakes kept on coming all day and all night.


Gradually that weekend I became aware that there were problems at Fukushima but it was not until the Tuesday when I received an email from an expat who told me they were leaving Japan that I switched the TV on and watched the press conference in which someone ... Kan or Edano ... I think it was Naoto Kan ... announced that they had lost control of the plant and that radiation was escaping and was heading who knew where. (In fact by that Tuesday morning it had already reached Tokyo.) They told people in the immediate area to evacuate and people within 30km to stay indoors. That is when people really started to panic. I packed some bags and headed down to Nagoya just ahead of the mass evacuation of foreigners and Japanese on the Wednesday morning. By that time, I had not had a full night`s sleep since the quake and I was completely punch drunk. It is only recently that I have begun to find out what was actually going on during those first few days. I did not know that there were so many aftershocks but of course I felt them. In fact I have felt two small tremors whilst writing this but people have come to be very blase about them now. A 5? Not getting out of bed for that. A 4? Not really even feeling those any more.


I have to say though that like many many people I have "quake sickness" which is thinking we are having a quake when are not. It`s something to do with the inner ear and general quake tension. A lot of people including myself seem to be more tense when we don`t have them than when we do.


Time for lunch. Every time we have a shake I get really really hungry, especially for meat or raw tuna. On the plus side I have started sweating again. Many people, including myself, got very dry hands and skin after the big one. We seemed to stop sweating altogether. Now the sun is out and the weather is warm and all seems to be well again. Enjoy the animation.


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