I had been thinking of trying to write about something other than the earthquake but then the aftershocks started up again. Not just aftershocks either. Several of the tremors we’ve felt over the last week have been separate quakes in their own right.
Last monday was the one month anniversary of the quake. I was in the office, just like I was a month before. At 2.46 pm people around the country spent a minute in silence to remember the event. A couple of hours later, we felt the now familiar sensation of the building starting to shake. Just like a month before, we looked around at one another in the office. Just like a month before, the looks on people’s faces started to look a little concerned as the quake started to go on just a little too long for comfort.
Thankfully, this time the shaking did subside before anyone got worried enough to bolt out of the office. Even so, the quake was a detructive 7.1 magnitude at its epicentre in Fukushima and was enough to shake me up a little.
The experience also brought back vivid recollections of the event one month ago when I was in exactly the same place with exactly the same people. It got me thinking about memory and how it is affected by events like the one we went through here
There are some moments that you know that you will never forget. I don’t have much recollection of what happened on the morning of the quake. I was at college and it was a day much like any other. I don’t remember what I studied or if anything special happened. But the time around when the quake struck is vividly imprinted on my memory.
The brief moment of panic before we all fled the building. The time we spent just outside our office watching the buildings around us sway and the cars bounce up and down. The sight and sound of the building we had just left rattle and shake during the strongest shocks. Desperately trying to call my wife. The journey over to out nearest evactuation point at the local school.
Highly emotional events tend to stick in our memory. These moments of extraordinary arousal would in our collective past have likely to been life or death situations, as our caveman ancestors battled with a hostile environment. Fight or flight. What happens at these times matters for our survival so it seems only natural that we should remember them, the better to learn from them.
The quake certainly felt like a potential life or death situation at the time and if I ever do experience another of a similar or – god forbid – higher magnitude, then I might have a slightly better idea of what to do. It’s not like you can run away from a quake. One of the scariest things about them is that they’re everywhere at once. But maybe I would be more likely to get to a place of safety. Or more likely, less liable to panic.
What I am sure of though is that the experience has imbued the last month with a deep significance. What was a completely unexceptional car park behind our office the will now forever be etched in my mind with 5 of the most intense minutes in my life. The following month too I will always carry with me.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s clear that for the country as a whole the event feels like some kind of turning point. Whether the repercussions are ultimately positive or negative for Japan, the events will shape the future of Japan and the people who live here. I’ve heard it described by one person as being like what 9/11 was for America.
Perhaps though the experience is slightly different for a foreigner?
I can sympathise with what are now being called ‘flyjin’, a play on the semi-dergoatory Japanese terms for foreigners ‘gaijin’ that has become popular here to describe the ex-pats that left the country in the days and weeks following the quake. For those with kids especially, I can understand why they took the option to leave and minimise their risks. Flight has always been a good survival strategy.
However, for other foreigners living here, including me, the intensity of the experience has done something very different. The sense of having been through something important, individually and collectively, has created a sense of attachement, a personal and social bond.
By going through this experience in Tokyo, in some way I feel like Tokyo has also become a part of me.