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.