The shaking was getting worse and worse, it was already the worst earthquake I’d ever experienced. I remembered hearing once that doorways were supposedly the strongest parts or a house, so I went to stand in the most stable looking one my apartment had. The shaking just kept getting worse; I could hear small objects falling off my bookshelves in the other room, and I now had to brace myself in the doorway in order to stay on my feet. Directly across from me was my kitchen’s china cabinet (in which I kept food but very little china); some light items tumbling off the top of it drew my attention. As the shaking continued I noticed that it was really starting to sway. This wasn’t too surprising as it was the tallest and heaviest thing in my apartment. It rocked back and forth, and I feared for its glass front if it were to actually fall over. I thought that I had better go over there and hold it up, and was just about to when it struck me how dumb of an idea that was. I could picture the article in tomorrow’s newspaper,
“A fairly serious earthquake occurred yesterday. There were no casualties. Except for one foreigner who stupidly thought it would be a good idea to hold up a huge heavy cabinet with his body and was appropriately crushed to death.”
I laughed to myself at the idea of the only casualty in this earthquake prone country being one of the few foreigners, having killed himself through his own stupidity. Realizing that there was nothing I could do except keep myself safe, I sat down in the door frame and waited it out.
Eventually the shaking subsided (and my cabinet did not fall over), and I left my refuge to confirm my suspicion that the power was out. The water was running still, but I figured I’d better not use it straight until I could confirm where or not there was a boil water notice in effect (a common enough occurrence where I come from, but when I later asked someone about it here they had no idea what I was talking about). As my apartment complex is served by propane tanks that sit chained to the building, my stove still worked so I wasn’t too worried. I managed to send and receive a text from my partner to confirm that we were both fine before the network got too jammed up to work.
That evening a friend of ours drove over to check that we were OK, and gave us a flashlight and a portable radio. Listening to the radio we were able to surmise that the water supply was probably fine, and we slept soundly that night. With no power anywhere around us everything was especially quiet.
The next day we discovered that all the shops were closed, which made sense as there was no power, but was pretty inconvenient since we needed gas for our car. It was nearly empty and I had been planning on filling it up that very day. Fortunately our apartment was close to the city’s largest hospital, so our power was restored in about twenty-four hours. A lot of people got theirs back much later, and as it turned out our power was provided by some giant diesel generators the city possessed. A friend of mine who works for the city would later tell me about how she had to take a turn during the night keeping them full of fuel.
And so it was that I was able to watch television for the first time since the earthquake and got hit by a flood of destruction and sadness. Up until that point it had just been an earthquake; I didn’t realize both how far away it had been and the fact that it had occurred offshore. While such a powerful earthquake was a new experience, not having power was something I had grown up being used to. But the television now showed me the awful destruction wrought by a tsunami that I hadn’t even considered. It was like something out of a movie, far worse than I could possibly have imagined. Yet the buildings the TV showed being smashed into each other looked exactly like the buildings around me that I had grown so accustomed to, and the towns that were being wiped off the map looked exactly like the one I lived in. It was so incredible and so real and so sad. Three years on I still can’t look at footage of the destruction without welling up.
I now was fully aware of just how serious this thing was. Everyone made efforts to conserve every watt of electricity they could, and power was restored to my whole city before very long. Stores reopened, and things locally started to get back to normal. The destruction was remote, but certain things like gasoline took a long time to resume delivery, so many people who had also ran out of gas resorted to walking to work. The nearest grocery store to my place was at least an hour and a half round-trip by foot, the return journey being particularly difficult when laden with groceries, but they never ran out of things to sell entirely. Certain things like instant ramen that came from factories a great distance away ran out in short order, but there were enough locally produced vegetables to keep everyone in full and in good health. I remember bean sprouts as being the very last thing to finally be restocked, long after the disaster. Everytime a gasoline tanker truck came in, though, there were already plenty of people waiting to get filled up. As I only had the tiniest amount left, I couldn’t risk waiting in line for some station to run out before I got to the front of it, but eventually we got a tip about a tiny station nearby that got a truck in, and managed to get twenty dollars worth into our car. After that things really returned to normal.
Of course, things continued to be horrible in the disaster areas, and electricity was in short supply. I remember getting a notice in mail slot telling us of what block we were in for the scheduled rolling black-outs they were having to institute. But they only ever happened for one day, so it never even made it up to us. After the first day the power companies got torn apart by reporters because in one of the first areas there was an evacuation shelter, so disaster survivors had to endure their power being cut for a few hours. Reporters continually demanded to know if the power company knew about it before hand, to which they could only apologize and try and evade all answers. Since neither the power company nor regular people wanted a repeat of that, everyone pushed extra hard for power conservation, and use was able to get under production enough that the rolling black-outs plan was called off.
The only other thing worth mentioning is the hysterical English-language media in regards to the nuclear power plant. Many of the foreigners in the area left, some of them never returning, but I can honestly say that I never even considered going anywhere. I wasn’t in an evacuation zone, and no Japanese person I knew was going anywhere, so why would I leave? I would evacuate if everyone else was, but I wasn’t about to abandon my adopted homeland otherwise. Even if I believed I was in real danger, how could I leave all my friends behind to die? If you’re merely on an extended vacation, though, I suppose it is a different feeling.
So here it is, three years on. Reconstruction continues in the disaster areas where over a million buildings were damaged or destroyed, and the scars that come with almost twenty thousands deaths will linger for a long time yet. But Japan and its people are incredibly resilient, and there’s no where I’d rather be.