This is an account of my experience of the Tohoku Earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th. I have been honest and not let artistic license trivialise this immeasurably tragic event.
I have been in Japan for two months. Earthquakes are a common occurrence, but I have failed to notice any of the frequent minor seismic quakes whilst I have been here. People I have met are surprised when I tell them this, I attribute it to the amount of time I spend on trains and buses, keeping me off the tarmac. Possibly I just don’t notice them because I am not expecting them. It is Friday morning and I am walking through the back streets of Harajaku, peering into the clothes boutiques and wishing I was a bit shorter. I suddenly feel unsteady, like my legs may give way beneath me. I realise that I have just felt an earthquake. I look around but no one else seems to be concerned. It’s hard to make a comparison, but it feels similar to crossing a suspended wooden bridge in a children’s playground. I am enthused to have had the experience, but it is unnerving to be so completely out of control of your surroundings. The time is around a quarter to two and I decide to walk the mile or so to Shibuya. It is a bright, warm spring day so I walk along Meiji Dori at a leisurely pace.
I have arranged to meet Jeremy and his friend Eugene in front of the famous statue of Hachiko the dog, next to Shibuya Station. It is now twenty to three and I am a little bit early. I decide to waste some time in Tsutaya, the huge entertainment shop on the opposite side of Shibuya Crossing. My destination is the seventh floor so I let the escalator carry me up past the crowded Starbucks and the endless shelves of CDs, DVDs and books. The escalator ends at floor six so I have to cross the shop floor and use the stairs to reach the seventh floor. My Japanese is too basic for me to be able to read a novel, but floor seven is where they keep the comics. I wander through the isles, selecting interesting volumes by familiar authors. I have in my hand a copy of Katsuhito Otomo’s ‘Goodbye Japan’. The cover depicts a huge white whale of beyond Melvillian proportions, its ivory bulk adorned with a bright red circle. A vast and indifferent force of nature, impassively crushing a metropolis and its inhabitants.
The time is two forty seven and the floor starts to shift. Signs suspended from the ceiling by wire seesaw in unison. The sound of metal flexing and straightening grows louder. I look around at the other shoppers and recognise a look of panic mirrored in their faces. The shaking is getting increasingly violent. Well drilled members of shop staff leave their tills and shout instructions loudly in Japanese. I don’t understand the words but I follow the example of everyone else and allow myself to be shepherded into the re-enforced door arch of the elevators. The shelving units pitch too and fro, animated by the angry earth the books descend in torrents. We are encouraged to crouch and cover our heads. I imagine it is a similar feeling when you are told to assume the brace position in a struggling plane. I can feel the colour has drained from my face and a prickly sweat appears on my forehead and under my arms. My thoughts turn to my family and to Emilie; I consider the possibility of death. It seems real and imminent. I hear the quiet beginnings of a scream to my left as the world continues to lurch around us. My arms are stretched out to my sides, instinctually reaching out for stability, but finding myself trapped in terrifying motion. It lasts an eternity and is over in an instant. The rocking subsides and the world becomes still. There is a long moment of held breath and inaction, then the book shop staff spring up and start clearing a path to the fire escape. Still crouched on the ground, I help stacking books to one side. I want to talk to the people around me so we can express our shared relief, but I don’t have the words. We are lead down the seemingly endless iron stairs of the fire escape and out into the street. Shibuya crossing is chaotic at any time of day and countless numbers of people on the street seems normal. I cross the road and hear Jeremy call my name off to my right. After an event like that, the comfort of hearing your own name and seeing a friendly face is immeasurable.
Jeremy and Eugene have both lived in Tokyo for six years, but they both tell me they have never felt an earthquake of this power. We later find out that no one in Japan has. We decide to head towards the park next to the Tokyo Swallows’ baseball stadium; somewhere away from tall buildings and electricity pylons. The streets are busier than I have seen them. The pavements are filled with worried and excited people, standing outside their places of work or next to their stationary vehicles. People are holding nervous conversations with one cautious eye on the windows of surrounding buildings. Everyone’s concentrating on what they can feel with their feet. Then a big aftershock begins, the ground undulates, the telegraph poles shiver and the windows of buildings seem to pulse in their frames. People are screaming. Jeremy, Eugene and I quicken our pace as we thread our way through the stopped cars and down the middle of the road. We are waiting for the glass and masonry to start falling. It doesn’t and we arrive at the park.
We spend a couple of hours in the park, drinking beer from the vending machines there. We use Eugene’s iphone to send messages to our concerned families in England. Then we find a pub where we watch the news coverage on the television. We see the tsunami destroying the homes and lives of tens of thousands of people whose families will never receive messages. Many will never bury their loved ones, their bodies swept back out to sea as the water retreats. I drink until I feel more able to cope. The swaying in my head and unsteady ground beneath me seems justified and natural now. We walk to Jeremy’s house as the trains are not running. I sleep through many aftershocks that keep Jeremy and his wife, Kuniko awake all night.
The following days are spent watching the coat-hangers on my hotel wall. Sometimes the aftershocks I feel are imagined. More often than not the hangers swing back and forth and the building creaks. They all amount to nothing and soon enough I am on a plane, then back in Reading and with my family.