It is just past midnight as I begin writing this, so it is now March 12. But earlier on what still feels like today – Friday, March 11 – Japan was hit by what seems to be one of the biggest earthquakes in history. It occurred offshore far to the north of Tokyo, and the resulting tsunami in that part of the country has caused stunning destruction and horrific loss of life.
I was in the Tokyo suburb of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, when the earthquake hit. Although we are well out of the tsunami zone, this area was still shaken pretty hard.
What follows is a purely personal account of how I experienced the event, very far away from the worst of it.
Tokyo had been shaken by a smaller but still significant earthquake on Wednesday morning that had been centered in the same general part of the Pacific Ocean off northern Honshu. As I was preparing breakfast in the kitchen on Friday morning, the vibration of the closing refrigerator door caused a coffee cup to fall off a high shelf and smash on the floor. It was one of those “nice” coffee cups we save for guests, on a high shelf we hardly ever touch. While cleaning up the mess, I surmised that the earthquake earlier in the week must have moved it just close enough to the edge of the shelf for it to fall off a few days later.
Events later in the day would show that I shouldn’t have bothered cleaning up just yet.
That afternoon, I discovered that my computer’s printer had run out of ink, so I set off on foot for Yamada Denki, a giant electronics store about a 20-minute walk away. I was within 50 meters of the place when an air-raid-style siren began to whoop a few blocks away, followed by a public-address system announcement that was so tinny and so garbled by echoes as it came down the street that I had no idea what it was trying to say. As you might guess – but as I did not yet know – this was an earthquake alarm.
My Japanese language skills are far from perfect, but I would have gotten the gist of it had the transmission been clear – and if I had bothered to pay it any attention. But there are so many recorded announcements played over public address systems in Japan – “Please hold the handrail on the escalator”… “This is a no-smoking building”… “Thank you for shopping with us today”… “The train may stop suddenly in case of an accident, so please be careful”… “Please set your cell phone to manner mode to avoid bothering others”… “Please follow the instructions in this recorded announcement” – that many people, including me, simply tune them out.
I had no curiosity about what the announcement was saying. There was no reason to think it was any more relevant than the usual ones. Instead, I strolled along trying to think of how to best describe the whooping alarm that had preceded it. In its mix of musicality and harshness, it might be likened to an industrial-strength bird call. Or perhaps the mating cry of a giant robot.
Except that there wasn’t any wind.
Inside the store, I noticed that everything was rattling. And the floor seemed a little unsteady. The signs hanging from the ceiling to identify different departments were swinging back and forth like trapezes, and everyone in the store seemed to be looking around in alarm.
It finally hit me that we were having an earthquake. I decided I liked my chances better outdoors, so I quickly turned around and left.
On the sidewalk, I ran into an old Japanese man who greeted me with a broad grin. This is not as odd as it sounds. When a foreign-looking person such as myself is caught in an earthquake, Japanese strangers nearby will often smile reassuringly. Don’t worry. It’s just an earthquake. We have them all the time. You’ll get used to it.
But before the old man could vocalize any of these messages, the shaking grew even stronger. With that, his smile disappeared, and he bolted for the parking lot.
I decided to follow him, because once I was out of the building I realized that I had put myself in danger of falling glass should any of its many windows break. I also didn’t like the way the overhead electrical wires were twirling like jump ropes. The open center of the parking lot seemed like the safest bet.
Most earthquakes don’t last very long, but this one was still going strong by the time I reached the center of the small parking lot. In fact, it got stronger.
In the movies, earthquakes are depicted as rumbling. But most of the ones I have experienced have been silent, while the larger ones are accompanied by a lot of squeaking and creaking. This one had plenty of that, especially since the building housing the electronics store was wiggling and jiggling like a seven-story Jell-O mold. I saw this with my own eyes.
In fact, I saw it a lot closer-up than I would have liked, but there was nowhere else to go. Any direction that I might have run would have taken me closer to another building, and they were all shaking. An earthquake is not like a fire, from which you are safe as soon as you move away from it. One of the defining characteristics of an earthquake is that it is happening everywhere.
Damage was clearly occurring not far away, as I could hear the clanging and bonging of metal pipes falling to the ground somewhere. Off a truck? Off a construction scaffolding? I didn’t know, but I hoped that no one was getting hurt.
Standing still in one place was an effort, as the ground was moving like the deck of a ship. The old man crouched down and put one had on the ground to steady himself. This looked like a good idea, so again I followed his example. Around us, the two dozen or so cars in the parking lot were all bouncing madly on their springs. I was grateful that car alarms never caught on in Japan the way they did in the United States, or the noise would have been deafening.
At last the action of ground abated. As soon as I felt safe to stand up, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and tried to make a call. Unfortunately, millions of other people had the exact same idea at the exact same moment, and the phone system immediately overloaded. It was more than an hour before I could get through to anyone.
It is hard to tell when a big earthquake is over, as it can give you a rush of adrenaline that may keep you shaking after the ground has stopped.
I had the is-that-an-earthquake-or-just-me experience several times over the rest of the day, as too many aftershocks to count came rolling through. The first one was in the parking lot a minute or two after I thought everything was over. But I looked around and, sure enough, the cars were bouncing again – but gently this time.
Eventually, people started to go back into the store, and I followed them. After all, I needed an ink cartridge for my printer, and what else was I going to do – stand outside in the parking lot all day?
As I stood looking at the array of ink cartridges hanging on metal pegs, most of them began to sway back and forth. Was that another earthquake, or had someone heavy just walked by? There was no one there but me, but as heavy as I am, I wasn’t moving my feet at the time. Ergo, another earthquake. Throughout the day, inanimate objects would seem to move of their own accord.
The Web site of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) lists all the earthquakes in the world that rank 4.5 or higher on the Richter scale. You can find the list here. On Friday, the list had eighty-seven earthquakes in that range off the coast of Japan. The largest was the magnitude-8.9 temblor that kicked off the rest of the sequence at around 2:45 in the afternoon.
As I was walking home from Yamada Denki, I noticed a lot of people out in the streets, especially women standing in clusters on residential side streets. It reminded me a little of the aftermath or Hurricane Frederick, which I experienced in Mobile, Alabama, in 1979. There were very few deaths in that storm, but widespread property damage. Everyone in the suburb where my family lived – including people we had never seen before — came out of their houses back then, too, pitching it to help clear away downed trees and rebuild smashed fences. It seemed that the people of Kawaguchi might enjoy the same social benefit.
Sometimes I’m almost too light-hearted for my own good. I was strolling along lost in cheerful reverie, thinking about how I would go home and write about this pleasant little adventure in my blog, when I became unsteady on my feet. More to the point, the ground became unsteady beneath my feet. The overhead wires began to dance again. It was another big earthquake. I would later learn from the USGS list that there was a magnitude-6.8 aftershock at 3:15 p.m. and a magnitude-7.1 aftershock at 3:25 p.m.
In any case, I once again ran for the nearest area of open pavement, which happened to be by the open gate of one of the small metalworking factories Kawaguchi is known for. As I got there, a middle-aged man came trotting out, followed by an older man walking more slowly, shaking his head and grinning as if in amused disbelief that this was happening again.
The three of us stood there not saying anything until the ground stopped moving, after which we exchanged brief greetings and the men went back inside.
As I got on my way again, I saw more people standing outside of more factories, and at one point I went down a side street with the idea of photographing a large group I saw standing around in the street in white coats and white hats near what turned out to be an industrial laundry. But when I got closer, I saw that the group was mostly women who appeared to be from the Philippines, and many of them still seemed shaken. Since I wasn’t wearing my journalist hat at the time – and only had a cell phone with me rather than a real camera – I decided not to add to their distress by being the weirdo trying to get a picture.
However, this took me down a street I had never noticed before, and beyond the laundry I spotted a little mom-and-pop izakaya pub with a chalkboard menu out front. Restaurant menus are one thing that not even an earthquake can dampen my interest in, so I stopped for a look. A woman who must have been the mom popped out to tell me that they didn’t open till 5 p.m., but she also seemed very eager to talk about the earthquake, and I happened to be the first stranger to pause at her door since it hit. She was impressed at how much of her menu I was able to read – but then, reading menus has long been my main linguistic strong point, just as heeding seemingly irrelevant public announcements is one of my major weak points – and I told her, sincerely, that I would come back to sample some of her cooking on another day.
Continuing toward home, I began to see minor bits of damage such as a dangling overhead wire that had been intact on my earlier walk to the store, and a section of wall that had collapsed behind a gas station. At the local Family Mart convenience store, the manager met me outside to apologize for the store being a mess, and but said that I could still buy a drink if I wanted. Going inside, I could see why people had to stay out of the food aisles – several shelves worth of potato chip bags and instant ramen bowls had fallen to the floor. Amazingly, the bottled drinks were all unharmed.
Finally, I got back to the building where I live. There were a lot of residents still standing around outside, but after a few minutes I decided to take my chances and go in. The elevators had shut down, so I had to climb the stairs to the 8th floor. Entering the apartment, I found a terrific mess, as these photos show.
I was very relieved not to have been home when the quake hit. Surfing the parking lot at ground level was one thing, but being in an 8th-floor room with furniture tumbling about would have been entirely too much.
I had only been home a few minutes when yet another aftershock hit, so I headed outside again for a while to continue trying to make a few phone calls and waiting for the earth to finally settle down.
Eventually, I came back inside, and started catching up with the world via the Internet. The videos of the tsunami areas were just horrifying.
Very late in the evening, I cleaned up some of the mess on the floor, and then tried to get a bowl for my dinner of leftover mapo dofu. As soon as I opened the cabinet door, a drinking glass jumped out at me and smashed onto the counter. As they say in the airline business, be careful when opening the overhead bins, as items may have shifted in flight.
So this rather bizarre day ended, for me, just the way it began – one earthquake set up a cup to smash itself in my kitchen that morning, and another earthquake set up a glass to smash itself in my kitchen that night.
Oh, and there goes another aftershock.