We rode with friends up into Tokyo from our relatives’ home in Yokohama. My family and I moved from Japan back to the US in January, but we returned this week to finish off some paperwork and attend my daughters preschool graduation ceremony. The ceremony itself was frightfully formal; I wore my (one and only) suit and didn’t feel overdressed in the slightest. We gathered with other graduates of the same preschool program from various schools around the Tokyo area in a large concert hall. About 1:00 we filed into the hall and took our seats in the fourth row.
Like many of these types of events, the ceremony was really designed to service the parents rather than the kids; the children danced around on stage with their teachers and showed off their ABC skills, but the point was to reenforce that the rather expensive tuition had been worth it. I have to admit I rolled my eyes when the president gave a (thankfully short) speech with Enya playing in the background. Still, my daughter seemed to be having a good time up on the stage, and I figured that alone made the event worthwhile. I tried not to cringe as the token foreign teachers pranced around the stage to show off their foreignness. (No disrespect to folks who are teaching English in Japan; it’s the school organizations, not the teachers, that like to wave foreignness around like a flag.)
A group of two-year-olds were right in the middle of Old McDonald Had A Farm when the building began to shake. At first it felt like some overzealous parents were jumping up and down in the aisles. When the intensity of the shaking began to increase, I looked at my wife and we both realized it was an earthquake. Still, the shaking wasn’t strong, and I expected it to quickly abate. It didn’t. In fact, it increased in intensity dramatically. The teachers on the stage were just figuring out what was happening, but they were responding too slowly. A simultaneous yell rose from the audience; people were trying to get out of their seats but the shaking was so intense at this point that it wasn’t possible to stand.
The lights above the stage were swinging wildly. Directly above the children at the foot of stage was a large wooden box that I assume housed the stage curtain; it was also swinging around dramatically. I thought that if something was going to come crashing down, that was going to be it–the kids needed to get off the stage now. It was still shaking too much to stand, and some of the children and their teachers were huddling around the center of the stage. Another cry went up when some plaster fell from the roof of the hall, and at this point desperate parents were just making it to the first row of seats. The children were handed off the stage and even though the shaking was still intense, they were quickly moved into the aisles.
The lights and the curtain box did not fall down. In fact, nothing broke at all. The shaking stopped but the building continued to sway for what felt like a few minutes (it was probably more like sixty seconds). I realized that the building was moving so much because it had been built to withstand an earthquake; it was designed such that it could sway and bend with vibrations from the earth, thus releasing the energy instead of falling apart. My wife and I had seen demonstrations of this technology at model homes a few years ago; one method was to construct buildings out of layers that are separated by a sort of thick rubber cement, which allows a bit of movement while keeping the building together.
We finally got out of our seats and moved towards the exit. Even then, it felt a bit like being nauseous, only in this case the ground really was moving. My primary concern was to find my daughter, who had been somewhere back stage during the event. Since nothing had broken and the building seemed pretty sound, I wasn’t panicked with fear, but I did need to find her as quickly as possible to remain composed. Fortunately we located her with the rest of her class out on the foyer, playing with her friends and apparently oblivious that she’d just been through a major earthquake. In fact, all of the children were safe and accounted for. All of Tokyo pretty much withstood the quake as well as our building did; there were only a few injuries in the entire metropolitan area, and no major structural damage.
There were several aftershocks, not as strong as the first but enough to send the lights swinging. I saw huge crowds of businessmen in their suits stream out of the nearby office towers; it had probably taken them several minutes to exit the building because the elevators had all turned themselves off for safety. The cell phone network was predictably saturated; after an hour of trying we were able to get through to relatives and let them know we were ok.
My concern turned to our trip home. We had come by car, but I suspected that the roads would be clogged, possibly with accidents caused by the earthquake. The trains were stopped, much to the dismay of that army of suited salarymen. We were much too far to walk, and sticking around the concert hall didn’t seem to make much sense. We decided to head out in the car and try to stick to the back roads instead of taking the freeways. This turned out to be the right plan, and we made it home in very little time (friends who tried to take the freeway were stuck in transit for more than four hours, we later learned). It helped that our driver knew her way around some residential areas, as we were able to skip passed much of the congestion (not to mention avoiding the main highways, many of which were closed immediately following the quake).
Our trip home confirmed that Tokyo is built from the ground up to withstand earthquakes. I didn’t see a single broken window, nary a cooked street sign. Other than some power outages (most of the area’s nuclear power plants shut themselves down automatically without error; the problematic plant in Fukushima also shut down, but it’s backup pumps failed), Tokyo and Yokohama looked pretty much exactly the same as they always do.
Even so, we hadn’t quite recovered from the event. The evening sky looked bleak and threatening somehow. I thought that I’d eaten something disagreeable but then realized that the problem with my stomach was caused by stress rather than food. We arrived at home to find everything intact, our relatives healthy. News of the tsunami disaster in the north was starting to roll in, the TV channels were all on emergency reporting mode, and the death toll was starting to rise. It all seemed unreal. We had just sat through Japan’s largest earthquake in almost 1000 years, and while the northern part of the country was absolutely devastated, in Yokohama not even the china was chipped. Still, for the next three days I slept very poorly. There were (and continue to be) a series of aftershocks, each too small to cause damage but large enough to be unsettling. I woke up several times to the feeling of the floor vibrating, and even when it wasn’t moving, I was constantly worried about my daughter lying in the futon next to mine.
In hindsight, Japan withstood the earthquake extremely well. It is the subsequent tsunami that has claimed the lives and homes of so many, a tragedy that is much harder to avoid. I can’t even comprehend the state of places like Sendai and Fukushima right now; the areas near the water are utterly flattened.
For the first two days after the quake, Tokyo city life seemed to return to normal. The trains were mostly running, shops were open, and other than the cell phone network still being down (which was somewhat alarming given that the immediate danger had passed), you might not notice any change. But now the government is using scheduled blackouts to conserve power, and panic is on the rise about the lack of food and gas, not to mention fears about the nuclear power plant in Fukushima leaking. I think it’s a scary time to be in Tokyo right now. Then again, compared to the situation up north, blackouts seem like a minor inconvenience.
We flew out on Monday, on a plane we had planned to take before the earthquake hit. We arrived safely in the Bay Area, and though I know that none of my friends or family in Japan are in danger, I was glad to put some distance between us and Tokyo. I think Tokyo life will probably go back to normal in a week or two, but the damage done in northern Japan will impact the region for years. If you’d like to donate some money to helping folks there, here’s a link.