Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

Doing the Improbable - Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

Disaster hits in three stages: first local, then national, and finally global. When the room starts to shake like a airplane in horrific turbulence, you don’t think about words like “epicenter,” “death toll,” or “recovery effort.” The room is simply shaking and you are gritting your teeth and hoping that the next second doesn’t bring you to your feet, or the ceiling down on your head.

But when it stops and news begins to stream in, you start to wonder. The screen vibrates with a violently colored graphic of Japan with its coasts painted in glaring red, and you start to wonder.

For me, it happened like this. Two days ago we had a slight tremor that was big enough to make people feel a little shaky. This morning, cycling to work, I entertained morbid thoughts about what I would do were I to find my boyfriend buried in rubble, some limb pinned beneath a piece of our apartment wall. It isn’t unusual for me to conjure up a mental image so graphic, as I use imaginary cycling accidents to curtail my more reckless impulses for speed. But I was struck with a lump in my throat at this morning’s thought experiment, as I realized I would be both helpless and ignorant in an earthquake. I even pondered taking a first aid course. I didn’t really think about how fucking useless knowing the Heimlich manoeuvre or the recovery position would be if your house is dwarfed by filthy, debris-filled water.

I was on the ninth floor of the Asahi Shimbun’s building in Tsukiji, which is next to the famous fish market situated in Tokyo Bay. I was just about to go on my lunch break when a few subtle tremors, similar to those we felt two days ago. My boss, also British, muttered “ah come on, gimme a bit more.” The mood was jovial, light. The earthquake, however, was serious.

They shift erratically and capriciously, these tremors. They dart around like an indecisive musical score making its way to a crescendo. While this one was still simmering the mood was light, though in a forced way—one of my colleagues locked his jaw and squeezed out a hard grin, as if to convince himself he was in control. It then came up to a raging boil and the smiles were wiped off our faces. A woman held, helplessly, onto the corner of a bookshelf that shifted its contents—around 200 books—onto the floor with a crash. Those in the IT section gripped to the boxes that housed dozens of new computers, looking somewhat glad for the support that the corrugate cardboard wall gave them.

Earthquake map Source: Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

Earthquake map Source: Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

It was going up and down, side to side—like a cruel wind over the Pacific when you’re in a light aircraft and the flight attendants are screaming. The office, however, was oddly quiet. I looked at my two colleagues and they looked back at me, our eyes darting around the circle, trying to intuit what emotion was flashing behind our one another’s eyes. It was as if we were trying to protect each other, by not obviously freaking out, by maintaining some of our famous British veneer. I think I asked a few times, ‘What do we do now? At what point do we get the hell out?”, but the tremors were such that even the thought of traversing the office floor, never mind getting down nine flights of stairs, was too much to contemplate.

After about two to three minutes—it’s hard to say since every second seemed insanely long—it started to simmer down, leaving everyone looked like they were clinging to the mast of a shipwreck. And then, with a great deal of aplomb, everyone picked themselves up, started chattering and muttering, “Sugoi… sugoi…” (a catch-all term for ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘incredible’) and turning up the volume on the TV.

“That was distinctly unpleasant, and very far from funny,” said my boss, with typical British understatement.

I felt an urge to laugh or giggle, inappropriate as it was. My heart felt like I’d just done too many lines of cheap speed, beating out of my chest and making my skin itch and my stomach hurt. So much for a lunch break; I felt like breathing in too heavily would make me vomit.

No one could concentrate. There was worried mutters and chatters, everyone turning to the television and shouting out numbers: magnitude, height of waves, populations. There’s something faithful and concrete in figures that somewhat numbs the shock, the feeling of helplessness. We were supposed to get on with editing, but who can concentrate with the screen jolting all over the place? One of my colleagues muttered darkly, “Fuck, they better hurry on and give me the rest of my work for today or I’ll be too fucking terrified to do it.”

There was more humour on the stairs, where people were lugging up crates of beer and tea. By the time they reached the 9th floor, on the way to the 13th, they looked exhausted. “You look tired,” I commented, and they shot back, “Jesus, this is tough,” but with a smile.

I can’t remember when we first started getting the footage from the epicenter in Miyagi Prefecture. The first stills on the TV were warnings of a 6 meter tsunami along the coast, to hit Miyagi as well as Iwate and Fukushima. In actuality, the waves reached 10 meter. The footage was too awful to describe, and the optimist in me kept thinking that maybe all those people were able to escape elsewhere. Maybe all the cars being pierced by debris and driftwood would be open and the people would have already escaped elsewhere. Maybe the van driving down the middle of a rice field as the wave slammed into the paddy next to it…escaped. Now that the numbers are rising, in that foreboding ticker tape that all Tokyoites seem to be plugged into, it seems more likely that my optimism is misplaced.

Out of the window we could see a thick plume of charcoal smoke, emerging from Odaiba, an area constructed on reclaimed land out in Tokyo Bay. The sky was dark at 4pm. The TV screens were even darker, with swathes of black liquid swallowing boats and cars like an insatiable, fictional slime. It was, and still is, impossible to imagine what those people experienced. It is even harder in a world where the images resemble a SimCity game of destruction. Too virtual, too removed, to be real.

The aftershocks started coming, and kept coming. It’s now thirteen hours after it hit- 4am- and they’re still coming, these sickening jolts and hums. You feel seasick in your house. The floor no longer grounds you. Everything else is just something that could fall on you.

It’s hard to describe the mood in the office. The best word to describe foreigners at my desk would be ‘giddy’. Still punch-drunk on adrenaline, reeling from the magnitude of what had occurred, and struggling to get back to normality to try and complete our jobs for the day.

We were told we could go home if we wanted, but all of the subway and overland train services had been halted until further notice. I was on my bike, so able to eventually escape, hoping for a fast ride to try to burn off some of the leftover adrenaline.

A sobering sight - Empty shelves abound © Sophie Knight

A sobering sight - Empty shelves abound © Sophie Knight

I had no such luck. I stopped at a convenience store to buy batteries, and found them to be about the only product left on the shelves. Thousands of people were walking in the street, in a long sombre procession to get home—if their homes were within walking distance. Some people set off to Kawasaki, about 20 kilometers away. Everyone in the line clutched bread and instant noodles, bearing in mind that many people had lost electricity and/or gas and they might not have any way to cook their spoils. Funnily enough, the only thing in lesser supply than dry foodstuffs was booze: the shelves were bare. While I was hoping a manic cycle would swallow the adrenaline, other people were obviously seeking the more direct route. The theme was the same in the rest of the supermarkets I passed.

The roads were hell. Every single one of Tokyo’s 13 million inhabitants seemed to have spilled out in their vehicles. Intersections were jammed with cars positioned diagonally across, having attempted to turn and having found nowhere to go. I had to snake around cars, other bikes, and a massive pedestrian exodus that was relentless for the whole of the 8 kilometers home. Some people were wearing white hard-hats, or helmets, which I think they were issued at the office. No one looked particularly distressed, or shell shocked. This is probably because Tokyo escaped relatively unscathed, but those who have relatives in Iwate, Miyagi or Fukushima might not be so lucky.

UPDATE: Things are getting really weird here. Radiation is now a worry although the govt and others are saying that dispersion means that levels in Tokyo won’t rise. But the minister Edano dodged a question about it in a press conference and wouldn’t give info. I got my hands on a report commissioned by the BBC and they say it’ll take 8 hrs for air from Fukushima to reach Tokyo. Everyone’s fleeing but for the moment I’m taking my chances and staying put.


1Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

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