Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan quake: my experiences

Unless you've been living under a considerably large rock you will by now have heard about the super-disaster in Japan: quakes, tsunami and a looming nuclear threat. Though relatively trivial compared to some of the incredible stories I've heard so far, I wanted to keep a record of my experience.

The earthquake struck at 2.46pm Friday 11th March. It was the largest recorded in Japan's history and has now been ranked as the fourth largest the world has ever seen. I was at work at the time, on the 3rd floor of a large concrete and steel shopping mall building. I was just crossing the carpark on my way back to the office after a break, and things began much like the small tremors we are all used to feeling and barely acknowledge. Around the time when it should have waned and disappeared (as it always usually does) it began to get stronger...and stronger... until I was faced with the thought of 'oh shit... this is the big one' (according to the experts, Tokyo has been 'overdue' for a super quake for some years now, so it is always in the back of most people's minds).

The concrete and steel building I was in shook violently back and forwards like a house of flimsy cards. The sound those kinds of materials make when under stress like that is indescribably horrifying... despite warnings not to run out onto the street in an earthquake (to avoid the risk of falling debris) all I could think was 'I do not want to fall from the 3rd floor'. So along with a very frightened and screaming Japanese woman (she had a small child clinging to her and was screaming in English for me to help her) I ran for the emergency stair well and ran down 3 flights of concrete stairs praying (to whichever god was listening) that the stairwell wasn't going to cave in. Seeing Japanese people screaming for their lives was very un-nerving, as we foreigners half expect them to be 'used to it'. But in reality, most of the current generations have never felt anything like this, the last significant quake in Tokyo was way back in 1923, and is known as The Great Kanto Earthquake. Japan suffered a devastating quake in Kobe in '95, but Tokyo was relatively unaffected.

Upon exiting the building it became apparent just how many people had fled outside (as I said, apparently a 'no-no' in a quake), but instinct prevailed and people on top floor buildings would rather attempt to dodge falling debris than risk falling from such a height in the event of a building collapse. Many Japanese buildings are engineered to withstand most earthquakes, as they are built to be flexible. However this assurance doesn't make it any less scary when materials you think of as solid are acting more like a big bowl of jelly.

After a few minutes of everyone standing outside just looking confused at one another, as though searching for answers in each and every person's face...(most of us were shaking in shock), we started to calm down and make jokes about people who would've been 'getting a shave' at the time. Despite still being terribly shaken, humour is often a natural reaction to diffuse stressful situations. About 5 minutes later an aftershock hit and people began scurrying again, it was at this point my colleagues and I decided to head to a nearby field. One of my colleagues had been teaching a student in a wheelchair at the time, so she bravely helped evacuate him and stayed with him the entire time, ensuring our escape route to the field was always wheelchair friendly. It's amazing the courage some people show in the face of adversity. The student himself was surprisingly positive and always remained calm. When we arrived at the field we breathed a sigh of relief, open space felt better than being under powerlines and slabs of concrete.

At this point we had no idea that the earthquake wasn't actually in Tokyo. Of course most of us assumed that it had struck directly underneath the city, as we had no reason to think otherwise. Eventually a colleague checked for info on his iphone and everyone instantly felt sick at the news that what we felt was merely a 5.0, and Miyage, the epicentre, was hit by an 8.9. We started to panic as most of us knew people in this region, some had family there, and everyone immediately went for their phones, but the networks were down and contact was impossible. I was so worried for my friend's family in Miyagi and Sendai, who we'd only just visited at Christmas time (fortunately she has since heard they are OK).

We realised the news was going to be hitting international TV within minutes and we were all eager to reassure our families and friends of our safety. Thankfully some phones still had access to facebook and I managed to borrow a colleague's phone and update that I was OK. What none of us realised at this point was that the ordeal was far from over, and a tsunami was just seconds from hitting Sendai and surrounding areas. It wasn't until we made our way to a nearby university to take shelter for the night, that we saw the Japanese news... and the extent of the damage. Entire cities on fire, others wiped out by water, and more shaken to the ground in the 8.9 quake. The images were devastating, and my colleagues and I just felt numb, we couldn't even cry. No-one could comprehend that so much destruction had occured within minutes. Suddenly, this beautiful part of the world was in ruins.

A colleague of mine was eating in a nearby restaurant at the time the quake struck and we all teased him (there's that reasurring humour amoungst the trauma again) because he hadn't even taken a bite of his meal yet, but he still threw a thousand yen note (around $10) on the table before he ran out of the building. We were all saying "that is such a John thing to do" because he is one of those genuine nice guys. For all he knew the world was ending, but he made sure he paid for his meal. Most of us left the building without our bags and coats, and it was a particularly cold day in Tokyo. I was also concerned as my passport was in my bag under my desk back at work. When the ground had stayed still for a run of about 10 minutes (a record at that point) John decided he was going to head back to the restaurant and grab his coat. We were all a bit concerned but decided we would probably have done the same as the restaurant was on the ground floor and relatively close by. We all remained inside the university building, watching the news and waiting on further instructions from the authorities. All of a sudden we saw John, almost in slow motion, like a hero scene from a hollywood action movie, sauntering up the university stairs draped in everyone's coats and bags... we all screamed with joy at the sight.. what a hero. He'd somehow gone back into our office building and got everbody's stuff. He got a few punches in the arm for risking it, but we were all so happy to be warm and have our wallets/phones/passports/etc. It was a moment of relief in an otherwise very stressful series of events. We continued to tease him about being the nicest guy in the world... (he also informed us that the restaurant owner had returned his 1000 yen) when we were snapped back to reality by a news update that an aftershock was due to hit again, near Tokyo. We all scrambled under tables and glared nervously at one another. As expected, the ground shook, but not nearly as violently as expected by the nature of the warning. These warnings continued throughout the night, and eventually, despite being scared, a few of us stopped going for the tables, as none seemed to be too bad and we were desperate for any kind of rest. We were also repeatedly reassured by a very friendly Japanese university professor, eager to use his English skills, that the building was 'earthquake-proof.... so please don't worry!'....

Seijo University became a temporary evacuation centre

John, the 'bag & coat' hero... trying to get a bit of rest

Despite Tokyo being one of the 'luckier areas' as it turned out, people were still shaken and stranded as phones were down and trains had stopped running (they stop automatically in such an event, for safety). The Japanese government responded with a very Japanese level of efficiency - we had blankets, food and water within half an hour of arriving at the shelter. When it became apparent that trains were not going to run again any time soon, a few chose to walk home (some walked for up to 4 or 5 hours through the night) while the rest of us decided it was safer to sleep in the shelter that night, as we were all completely aware of the risk of aftershocks, which can be just as big as the original quake, and can occur anywhere in the general region at any time. Aftershocks continued to rumble throughout the night and not many people slept, one Japanese girl spent the entire night cowered under one of the tables trying repeatedly to call out on her phone. I imagined she probably had family in Miyagi or Sendai and was frantic with worry. It was heartbreaking.

The next day, the trains started to run again and we all warily made our way home to inspect the damage to our apartments. I was mentally preparing myself to see all my stuff smashed and broken. I was trying to prepare for the worst so it wouldn't upset me. It was a mess, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. Luckily, two of the more breakable items that were on shelves, fell into a bin full of snotty tissues and were saved! The only casualty from my apartment... my little owl brooch which I have now dubbed 'umeko'. She gave up part of her wing in the quake, but she will live to be pinned another day. I quite like her alteration, it's a reminder of just how lucky we all were in Tokyo (this time).

In the days after the initial quake, some scary events began to unfold. The quake had damaged a nearby nuclear plant in Fukushima, causing the reactors to overheat...and the tsunami had wiped out back-up generators responsible for continuing the cooling process should the initial power fail. It seems they were prepared for a quake or a tsunami, but not both at once.

My flatmates and I barely left eachother's side in the days that followed the quake, glued to the English news channel NHK. Everytime the ground shook in those days after we were wondering if this was the next big one. It became difficult to tell when the ground was actually moving (and that was often) and when we were just imagining it as our sea-legs began to kick in. None of us wanted to take a shower in case another aftershock hit while were were naked! Saturday afternoon (the day after the quake) we had all headed to the shop to buy water and supplies, we were concious not to panic and hoard anything, but we wanted to be prepared for the worst, which it seemed was becoming increasingly possible with each news update. On the way to the shop someone started singing 'I feel the earth move... under my feet' which lightened the mood with a few nervous giggles. We also scoped out parks and other 'open areas' that we could possibly run to if needed. We were in complete survival mode but trying to stay positive and not panic. That night, I slept in my clothes, my bag packed, my light on and my door wide open. We also left the main entrance door to our apartment open incase a quake shifted the door frame and jammed the door shut. Yep, we were paranoid as hell but rightly so.

I had packed in a bit of a panic the night before, and as a self-confessed hoarder of trinkets, I surprised myself at how ruthless I was with some of the things I'd collected during my Japan adventure. I either left it where it was, or threw it in a 'not-taking' garbage bag which I assumed would be thrown out (or hopefully kept and used) by someone in the near future. Now, I keep remembering little things I left behind and suffer a slight sting, but at the time I was not thinking about such things.

There was, and still is, a lot of mis-information and conflicting reports surrounding the risk, however due to the unprecedented nature of this issue, no one can accurately predict what the outcome will be. Therefore, through a lot of dilberation, talks (and tears) with my family, I made the tough decision to return home and re-assess my plans. My original flight out of Tokyo was cancelled, and I made the decision to head to Osaka about 2 minutes before the taxi arrived. The nuclear situation was getting even worse, and my flatmates decided they too were going to head to Osaka later that day just to be safe.

I headed to Shinjuku in a cab, then trained it to Shinagawa and took the shinkansen (bullet train) down to Osaka, with no solid plans, no hotel, and not much of an idea where to go from there. A friendly lady at the station information booked me a nearby hotel and I began to relax a little.  However at around 1am, I was awoken by an aftershock. I immediately looked out of my 24th floor hotel window and saw a very eery sight... every single vehicle (cars, taxis, buses) had pulled over to the side of the road, for as far as I could see in the distance, with their hazard lights on. (This is common procedure in an earthquake). Sirens added to the creepiness. I rang hotel reception for reassurance and he calmly told me 'Yes, there was an earthquake, but don't worry, hotel is safe." I googled it and saw it had hit just off the coast of Tokyo, and was another 5.0 in Tokyo, the same as what I'd felt on Friday. I was thankful not to be in my rickety old apartment at that point. The next morning I attempted to eat something at the otherwise breathtaking buffet but it just wasn't doing it for me, so I decided to head straight to the airport and hang out there. Despite many flights to Australia being delayed or cancelled (a flight to Sydney just before mine was delayed from 8.30pm to 5am the next day).. mine took off without a hitch and I was back on Aussie soil by early Tuesday morning, much to my family's relief.

I am devastated that my adventure was cut short and that I had to leave so much behind (my job, my apartment, friends, clothes, shoes, books, a lot)... however it's hard to feel sorry for yourself when so many have lost a great deal more than I have. But trauma doesn't really have levels, it's all relative, everyone affected by this disaster, no matter how insignificant your story seems compared to those worst affected, will be suffering in some way. My thoughts will be with Japan for a very long time to come.

Sadly, there has also been a lot of friction between expats who made the choice to leave, and those who decided to stay. It's no secret that there has always been a slight territorial aspect to the expat community in Japan, and in some cases it seems the 'stayers' are reveling in the "I'm the 'real deal' cos I'm staying" attitude, though I would imagine a high horse is a rather precarious place to be sitting at a time like this. It saddens me to hear those who decided to stay, verbally bashing those who decided to leave, and vice versa. No one can say that their decision is the right one. There is a lot of panic in places where things are less dire than the worst affected areas, however we can't blame people for being uneasy about these looming threats (radiation no matter how small is frightening for people, plus more quakes are predicted). It seems that those making any kind of negative comments about people 'over-reacting' are being just as ignorant as people thousands of miles away in other countries who are buying iodine tablets. Bottom line - no-one has the ability to accurately predict the outcome, so make your own decision and live with the consequences. 

We all saw how things can change in an instant.. therefore no-one should be condemning anyone for their choices. Japan was my dream, and giving that up could be seen as brave too. Those who know me well know how much I wanted to be in Japan, and I certainly wouldn't have left for anything less. On the other side of things, a friend of mine who decided to stay, has copped a lot of negativity too. We need a little less judgement going on and a little more compassion. Instead of bad mouthing someone for their decision, how about using your energy to help somehow - donate some money or ask a friend if there is anything you can do to help them. If you decided to stay, then look after yourself and keep everyone in your home country up to date on your movements. For those who left, stay strong, if like me you had to make that difficult decision, then allow yourself some time to readjust. Try not to dwell on things that might have been, and don't absorb the naive and negative comments of others. My plans may have been yanked out from under me, I may currently be feeling slightly aimless, helpless and saddened by the images of destruction of this beautiful country, but I know in my heart I made the right decision for me and my family.  

I will be donating all profits from my work sold through Takara Gallery Japan. It's not much but at least it's something small I can do to help. If anyone else would like to donate, you can do so through the Red Cross.

I will also donate all profits from my latest print 'Hope' (below) available for sale here.

No matter what the future holds, or where I end up in the years to come, Japan will never be far from my thoughts.

Tiff xx


  1. beautifully written, thank you for sharing xxx

  2. Compelling writing and spare, excellent descriptions. I thank you, too, for allowing me to read a vivid report. I'm glad you're okay.

  3. I never got to say a proper goodbye.. Glad you got back safe and sound Tiff! Take care love

  4. Grace, it's so nice to hear from you. I so wished I got to speak to you again before I left. Hope you will keep in touch! xx

  5. Your post just brought me to tears. Your love of Japan is as strong as mine, and I'm just as heartbroken, that I had to leave before it was time to head home. I feel like I was robbed of my dream my dear mother nature but I know it doesn't compare to the lives lost and the lives radically changed by this all, but like you said it's all relative. Thank you for sharing I feel like I'm not alone now in my feelings. Here's the photos I shot, which is the main reason I went to work on my portfolio.
    I believe you visited one of my blogs this the one I update regularly
    I added yours to my daily reading, I really like.

  6. Thankyou for your lovely comment Jannese, reading other people's accounts really helped me too! And thanks for sharing your photos of Japan ~ they are wonderful... I adore your crafty love blog! Tiff xx


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