There is something that I have wanted to write about for a long time now. It’s about one of the most exciting, scary and unforgettable days of my life. A day that will never be forgotten in history and I was there to experience it – The March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Memories have already started to fade a bit so I want to make sure I can write everything I remember about that day before I forget most of it.
It started off just like one of those ordinary days. It was a Friday, a good day of the week usually because it’s the weekend from the next day. I went to work as usual and there were no warnings of what was going to happen later that day. Incidentally March 11 happens to be my Dad’s birthday, so after I got to the office I called him up to wish him and then continued with my work. After we finished our lunch and came back and sat in the office, at around 2:45 PM (I got that from wiki because I didn’t note down the time then) the building started shaking a bit.
Now you should know that earthquakes are pretty common in Japan and when they occur nobody even cares. They just go on with their work. The first time I experienced an earthquake in Japan, I was in a Church. The preacher was giving the sermon and my chair starts shaking. So I thought the person behind me accidentally kicked my chair or something, but then it kept happening for a few seconds and I was wondering if should turn back and tell him to stop shaking my chair. Then the preacher announced without much change in expression or tone of voice “It’s an earthquake” and she continued with the sermon. For a few seconds I was perplexed by what just happened. There was a freaking earthquake and we are still sitting inside???
Now, going back to our story, the building starts shaking, no one bothers and they continue on with their work. I still remember me turning and looking at Sujit who was sitting next to me and with a fake smile saying something like “it’s an earthquake”. We weren’t very bothered either; we had been in Japan for about a year and had felt plenty of earthquakes. But then it didn’t stop, it went on for a few more seconds and with each passing second the tremor got stronger. When I heard a few women screaming, I knew this wasn’t normal. Then it just started shaking violently, there were tables moving, files and folders falling down – it was just chaos. Now looking back, it seems comical to think about each person’s reaction and I kind of remember their expressions. But when I was there it was anything but comical. If I had to sum up their expressions in one word, it would be ‘Fear’. Thinking of myself – I don’t know if I was afraid or not afraid. Somehow in my mind, an earthquake had been registered as something that you don’t be scared of, since everything in Japan is built to withstand earthquakes. But then this was different, I had never seen people panic in an earthquake before. So if I had to sum up my reaction, it would be ‘Black Out’. I mean my eyes were still open and I could see everything, but it didn’t really look like my brain was functioning at all. Maybe my black out was a result of intense fear. I don’t know. I did nothing. I just sat in my seat and looked at everyone. There were people doing literally everything. Some were screaming, some wearing helmets, some hiding under tables, some frantically running down and some were working. Yes! WORKING! There was at least one person I saw who just put on his helmet and continued his work. I can only think of the famous line from the movie 300 – “This is Madness”
It was and still is probably one of the most sensational few minutes of my life. After the earthquake subsided, there was a sense of relief in everyone’s face. I immediately called up my dad and told him that there was a huge earthquake and they’d probably hear about it in the news soon, but things were ok. It was good that I had called so soon, in another 10 minutes or so none of the phone lines worked. Everyone was calling his or her friends or relatives I think. I asked my Japanese colleagues if they had felt an earthquake this big in their life and everyone’s answer was ‘No’. This was the biggest they had felt in their lifetime. We looked out through the window and it didn’t look like there were any big damages. There was a small fire coming from one of the buildings a little further down. But that seemed small compared to how huge the earthquake was.
Then we were all asked to go downstairs immediately as it isn’t safe to stay inside a building after an earthquake. Now after an earthquake like that, the aftershocks go on forever and I mean forever or at least it feels that way. The earth beneath us was shaking for the next few hours – ranging from mild tremors to quite strong ones. I think I felt the effect of what this earthquake and the aftershocks had done to me for the next whole year or so. Even though I had come back to India a while after that, I would get up from my sleep suddenly or even when I was working, would suddenly stop because I would feel like there was a tremor but there was nothing.
We waited downstairs and chatted about each of our experiences. How we felt, what we thought was going to happen and stuff. It was quite interesting I should say. We were informed that the train lines had stopped functioning. I think we waited downstairs for at least an hour. Then our manager told us that we could go home. One of the managers in my company was gracious and informed us (6 Indians) that he lived in Urayasu which is the next train station from where we lived in Minami Gyotoku and that he was going to try to get a taxi or walk home because the trains weren’t functioning and we could come along with him if we wanted.
Thus began our long exodus. We started walking and quickly realized that our chances of getting a taxi were quite less as everyone was frantically looking for one as well. So we walked and walked and walked.
In the middle of this, I called my mom from my cell phone. It took me a while to get through but then I did get through a couple of times. She said that in the news they were saying that the whole of Tokyo was burning. It’s kind of funny what news channels report these days. Especially the Tamil news channels that actually have no access to what’s happening in another country and are solely reporting based on information from another news channel or based on assumptions! I looked around and everything seemed normal, I couldn’t see any building burning down. Of course at that time I didn’t know about the tsunami that had hit or was going to hit the Sendai region.
By the time we reached the Tokyo train station from Shinagawa where our office was, it already felt like we had walked a long distance. But that wasn’t even half the way. We were exhausted and decided to wait at a bus stop and see if we could get a bus.
There is another thing I want to mention at this point. The Japanese people are amazing sometimes, and I mean amazing!! I was quite literally shocked by how organized they were. So there is a huge earthquake, the trains aren’t running everyone needs to go home and there are buses and taxis only from a few places but it’s packed with people. But they all wait in lines. The lines at some bus stops were super long but no one’s rushing or pushing the person in front or asking them to move forward or trying to cut into the lines. Man, I was shocked. I thought of India – No earthquake, just a normal day – a bus comes into the bus stop. People run after it like their life depended on it. No one cares if they push others, hit them or trample them. Some jump into the buses before it even stops. They want to get into the bus and get a seat and no one’s going to stop them. Don’t get me wrong, there are amazingly good things about India as well but this is one thing that we as Indians should learn from the Japanese – to behave more civilized.
So we waited at a bus stop that had services running to Minami Gyotoku/Urayasu. But it was useless; there were no buses from there that night. We waited for about an hour and then decided to walk again. There was this Japanese girl that was at the bus stop who was talking to us and when we said we were going to walk it, she asked if she could come along because she lived in that area as well. She surprisingly spoke pretty good English and so was good company for us. She was quite curious about India I think. She asked us many inquisitive questions about our country. The eight of us then thought we should eat first. So we went to a small Izakaya kind of place, had nice food, talked about the day and took some much needed rest before the next half of our journey.
Then we started walking again. We stopped to check at one of the stations if the trains had started running. But that was just hope I guess. It was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and expecting the trains to run so soon after that is asking for too much. It was quite a long and not so interesting walk. We walked along the highway and everyone was tired. I was happy that there were two Japanese people with us, because I had no idea where we were or whether we were even going in the right direction. When we reached Nishi Kasai (this place is two stations away from Minami Gyotoku – our train station), we looked across and guess what? The trains had started running again. It was a bit annoying because we had walked all the way. But then, it’s not like we get to walk home everyday so it was a good experience.
We reached home at about 11 PM. We had walked for more than four hours. The total distance from the office to our place is about 20 Kilometers, but then we walked along the train route that we know so it was close to 30 Kilometers. Things in the house looked a little displaced. But surprisingly nothing had fallen down or broken. I was quite worried if the TV in the house might have fallen down. The company had just bought us new TVs – big flat screen ones and I loved watching Japanese programs on it. Some of the shows were so funny even though I had no idea what they were saying!!
I had told someone who was visiting Japan that week that one of the things they had to experience before they leave Japan was an earthquake as it was part of the Japanese experience. But I never had this in mind. The tremors lasted through the night. I was happy that I was home safe. I was relieved that it was Saturday the next day and I secretly hoped that Monday would be a holiday due to the earthquake. Little did I know that this wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning of another long and unforgettable week. But I guess I’ll write about it another day.
Here is the post of another person’s experience on the same day. Do you have a similar experience about the March 2011 earthquake?