We’re at home now and, except for the occasional mild aftershock, Tokyo feels eerily normal. The bin men are outside as I type collecting the rubbish that people put out this morning. But watching the terrible scenes around the country on TV makes us realise how lucky we really were. Our thoughts – like everyone else’s – are with those who are still suffering.
Yesterday I responded to a request from the Guardian Japan correspondent for an eyewitness account of the quake in Tokyo and the piece I wrote ended up getting published online in the Christian Science Monitor here.
Here’s an unedited and rather garbled full-length version written at speed last night…
I came to Tokyo from London three months ago with my Japanese-born wife to get the full experience of her culture. I certainly got that today, but in a way that all the Japanese lessons I’ve been taking couldn’t have prepared me for.
One of the thoughts going through my mind throughout the actual 5 minutes or so of the quake though was that I wasn’t the only one who seemed unprepared. I know that native Japanese go through regular drills at school for how you’re supposed to cope in this kind of situation but my Japanese colleagues at the job I started just a week ago seemed as much at a loss about what to do as I was. Perhaps there just is no way you can really prepare for an earthquake.
We were in our second floor office when the first shocks hit. They were relatively gentle, the kind of thing that I’ve already felt since my arrival and that seem pretty common place for Tokyo-ites. It didn’t take long for it to register that this was not the normal passing tremor though and as the force gradually built, my colleagues looks of acknowledgment started to look a bit more like panic. Then there was what seems like a few seconds of stunned silence. At this point the thought of getting under my desk ran through my mind, this being the one piece of advice I remember from my wife giving me some basic emergency drilling. As the shaking continued to build something much more primal was telling me to just get out of the building as soon as possible though, a thought obviously also running through the mind of my colleagues as we all seemed to dart for the door at once and down the flight of stairs to the car-park behind our building, joining people from surrounding buildings who obviously had similar ideas.
It was when we were outside that the most powerful tremors began to hit and seeing our relatively old building visibly shake from the outside, the external spiral staircase we had all just run down loudly rattling against it’s side, I was glad to have got outside. It was at this point that panic started to turn to fear though, as we looked around at the surrounding skyscrapers visibly swaying, like trees blowing in the wind. It was only talking to people later that I learnt that this bendiness is part of what makes them resistant to quakes. At the time I was genuinely scared that one of these 100 storey building could come down on top of us.
It all feels like a bit of a blur now but the main quake seemed to last a few minutes. I remember the cars around us being lighted off the ground. The power cables above our head swinging wildly. People staggering to keep balance. Some guys in another floor of our building who had obviously decided to try and see it out inside darting down the stairs to join us in the car-park, safely thank God, during a lull. My heart beating, wondering what I should be doing now and what exactly I was doing here anyway.
As soon as it seemed the worst had passed everybody’s thoughts turned to their loved ones and we all got our mobiles out at once, but of course the network was overloaded, meaning lots of frantic re-dialling but very little in the way of contact being made. Somehow the word got round that we should head to our local evacuation centre, a nearby elementary school and we made our way over as streams of people from elsewhere did the same. Phone networks were still down for calls but I eventually got through to my wife with a Skype message sent from my mobile and as soon as I knew that she was alright and had managed to get a message through to family back at home I felt the worst was over. Messages coming out over the loudspeaker saying that there was no serious damage reported in Shibuya-ku also helped. Still there were a few false starts moving, as a second wave of less powerful shocks hit and aftershocks continue to roll on, and it was a couple of hours before I set off for Shibuya with a few colleagues to meet my wife and make our way home.
Walking though Harajuku, the most visible effects of the earthquake were the crowds of people jamming the pavements, making their way home without the help of a shut-down public transport system. Otherwise what was really striking was the lack of damage. Apart from a few cracked tiles, there was virtually no evidence that a short time ago we’d just been through what my Japanese colleagues were describing as the worst quake they had ever experienced. I was still feeling shaken at this point but seeing how the city had withstood the shaking did at least reassure me. The fact that the buildings in Tokyo are built with the risk of earthquakes in mind must have saved a lot of lives today.
Shibuya was pandemonium when I finally met my wife, who had good news about the rest of the family, and we headed off on our two hour journey home to the South West of Tokyo. The closest comparison I have to the atmosphere is the 7/7 attacks in London, all a bit of a dream, an impression compounded by the lack of a damage.
It’s only when we got home that and turned on the TV that we really realised the terrible extent of the damage elsewhere in Japan and started really worrying about a friend in Sendai who we haven’t been able to get in touch with yet. And with small aftershocks still hitting every half hour or so, and the talk of there still maybe being more big ones to come on TV, it looks like it’s going to be a long night ahead.
As I say, amazing that we barely encountered any damage except for the occasional dislodged tile…
Unbelievable given the way the buildings were swaying earlier. And believe me, it looked way worse than this at the time!