The Morning After

I’d like to preface this post by saying that my thoughts and condolences are with all those affected by the disaster that struck yesterday. What follows is an account of my earthquake experience, though it seems trivial in comparison to what many others are facing.

*****

It’s not quite 8:00 AM on Saturday in Japan, and I’ve already been awake for at least two hours. Last night’s sleep was fitful, restless – more like a series of short naps than a long, continued rest.

4:30 AM: My phone issues a frightening alarm, warning of an earthquake in Tochigi prefecture. Already half awake, I leap out of bed and open the already-unlocked door, in case it should become jammed. Standing in the threshold, I stare out the hallway window into the dark – the view shifts with the building, streetlights united in a jerky dance. An eerie alarm sounds throughout the neighborhood, the word jishin echoing into the night. Thirty seconds pass, and I return to bed.

6:30 AM: Another alarm, this time for Nagano prefecture. NHK reports the quake was magnitude 6.7, centered in the northern part of the prefecture that borders on Niigata.

Lying awake, I listen to the building creaking, faint little bursts of movement manifested as sound. If I weren’t so petrified by the thought of another aftershock, I might be able to focus on how amazing our earth is, how energy transmits through the mantle to the crust, how we’re just floating on the surface. As it is, I remain frozen, waiting for the next alarm.

*****

Yesterday, my colleagues and I were in the pleasant daze that often settles over the office after lunch. The room was quiet, and there was a sense of productivity in the air – fingers tapped away lightly on keyboards, people shuttled off to the outpatient area to deliver files, phone calls were fielded and directed.

I don’t quite remember when the shaking began, perhaps at around 2:30 PM. From that point on, though, I lost all track of time. The tremors worsened, rattling the framed accreditations on the wall. We gripped the desks, moving away from the towering bookshelves packed with medical textbooks and old computer equipment. The hospital’s public address system sounded into the office. The woman on the other end, usually calm, was clearly disturbed. The choking sound of fear crept into her voice.

At some point, someone opened the door. She noted that the heavy fire doors had already closed, blocking access to the elevator and wards. It was now difficult to remain standing, as the desk jerked violently back and forth. Unsure of what to do, I looked to my colleagues – most were standing in the center of the room, trying to remain calm. An iMac came crashing down from a bookshelf, prompting us to cry out. My manager looked at me, her face pale and eyes wide, and told me to go under the desk. I was already halfway there.

Gripping my head, I began to imagine what the building would look like collapsed. There would be no hope for us, crushed by the weight of the six floors above us. Should we all go outside? Stay here? Will I be able to reach my parents, my friends? When will this end? Someone whimpered from a corner.

At some point we reemerged, looking to each other for reassurance that the worst was over. No one was panicking. It was as if people had been preparing their entire lives for this one moment. In some sense, I suppose they had. Shaking, I bent over the desk, unsure of whether the ground was in fact still moving below me. Someone had turned on the TV; a map of the country was flashing, highlighting coastal areas at risk for a tsunami in red, pink, and yellow. Saitama prefecture and most of Tokyo appeared to be at low risk. A hospital guard wearing a white helmet came by to make sure there were no injuries. We assured him all was well and he continued his rounds.

A strong aftershock prompted me to dive under the desk again, this time gripping the legs for support. Thankfully, it was brief.

Finally, someone made a pot of strong tea and opened a box of cookies. Gathered around the television, we sipped nervously, gripping the cardboard cups with white knuckles, watching as rice fields were devoured by muddy, debris-strewn water. A ship floated inland, and houses were on fire. Cars and trucks continued to drive on nearby roads, oblivious of the threat or unable to make it in time. Soon, they had been swept away like toys. It was awful to watch.

*****

Later that evening, I went to dinner with a few colleagues at a local sushi restaurant. Grates had been pulled down at both train stations, leaving hundreds in the cold. Some waited patiently for local buses, while others simply sat on the ground, trying in vain to reach friends and relatives. The local convenience store was doing brisk business in onigiri and sandwiches. We quietly passed through the crowds, heads slightly bowed, as if in acknowledgment of the tragedy.

The mood at the restaurant was jovial, full of relief. We toasted our survival with wine, feeling guilty nevertheless. Silently, we wondered if relatives and friends in Ibaraki, Hokkaido, Niigata, and elsewhere were okay. Throughout the evening, the lights hanging from the ceiling swayed ominously.

*****

As I type this, there are nearly constant tremors. At this point, it feels more like the gentle swaying of a ship than an earthquake, but that’s no reason for complacency. Soon, I’ll take to the streets for a walk, trying to process what has happened, feeling closer to everyone in Japan as a result.

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16 thoughts on “The Morning After

  1. Your Mom forwarded this post so I had to come to the blog to say first, I’m so glad you are okay and second, your post is beautiful and moving. I have my (figurative) arms around you, holding you in a big long hug.
    Love,
    Aunt Alice

  2. Dearest Emma

    What a tale! Your eloquence as a writer makes this come alive. I feel as if I were there. Hurry home, Honey!

    GrandDad

  3. What a beautifully and movingly written description of your experiences which were shared by so many. Thank you for sharing with us. We send you our love and thoughts. BE safe.
    marsha

  4. My dear Emma,
    Beautiful writer that you are, just as you are beautiful in so many ways, I am glad you are safe, and glad that you captured your experience in this way. I am sorry that you even have to go through this kind of ordeal in your life. We are sending our love to you.
    Aunt Betsy

  5. Mygoodness Emma,

    I’m glad to hear that you are okay. Beka posted the link to your blog from her FB. I am one of those who didn’t really hear about the quakes until last night. (I don’t watch a lot of news if I can help it) I sat in shock last night as my friends told me what they had heard/seen from news casts over the past few days.

    None of their tales however hit me as hard as your post. I was actually crying as I read though your words. I am very glad that you are safe and I thank you for writing about your ordeal, I could not imagine what it might be like being in your shoes. I’m not sure that I’d be able to keep myself in Japan after seeing what you did.

    Please stay safe, and keep writing, your very gifted.

    ~Teresa

  6. Dear Marsha, Aunt Betsy, Teresa,

    Thank you so much for your support. Simply hearing from people who are back home is a great comfort. Of course, my experience completely pales in comparison to what those in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima (and their families) are going through now. Please keep them in your thoughts, too.

    – Emma

  7. Em, this is so insightful. Why don’t you add a “Japan earthquake” tag to it in addition to “Musings?” Then more people will be able to learn from it.

  8. Dear Emma, I did not realize that you were back in Japan until your Mom forwarded the blog. You bring firsthand what we see from afar through the media. My Nephew and his wife and their three Japanese-American children are in Tokyo. They are, thank God, O.K.. I will share the blog with your many friends at Packer. My thoughts are with you.
    Ken

  9. I am a friend of your mother’s friend Julie. You will be in my thoughts as all the Japanese people are close to my heart, and to the ones that have perish, goodbye. They will be greatly missed by their families. Keep us posted… your safekeeping is our concern.
    Maria Santoro

  10. Hi Emma,
    I read your incredible story on your Mom’s phone yesterday before her
    haircut and just read it again at home. Very compelling and heartfelt.
    You are a seriously talented writer, among your many other talents. I will
    share this with friends and family. You are a most courageous young woman with a very big heart. When watching the news, I have a whole other perspective prompted by your story. I am so glad to hear you are OK. Your pain and concern for the others are evident in your words.

    I will pray for your safety and that of others tragedies…. Might you
    consider coming West until things calm down? Keep writing; keeps it real
    for the rest of us.

    Sending LOVE,
    Julie Marie

  11. Hi, Emma.
    I’m relieved to hear that you’re doing okay. Your written account is vivid and moving. We’ve been watching the coverage back here in the States; it seems there’s worse news every hour.
    I have fond memories of a trip to Japan six years ago and have great admiration for the people and their culture.
    Stay safe, Emma, and take care.
    Thanks to Ken Rush for posting your link.
    Cindy Copland

  12. Dear Emma,

    Just sent you an email, which of course, you can skip, having read this and now knowing that you are okay. Phew. Wishing you, your friends and extended family in Japan continued safety, good health and best wishes. You are all in our thoughts. All the best, Ellen

  13. Emma,

    It’s good to hear you’re doing ok… Keep writing notes in the coming days. You have a very compelling story here. And take care of yourself.

    All the best,
    Angela

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