Fault Lines – Personal Experience of March 11th 2011

Fault Llines

I have many faults. One of them is that I am extremely ignorant towards certain things if I feel that they won’t affect me directly. I know it is not the best quality to have.

As an example in the summer of 2013 I had no idea that Princess Kate was even pregnant let alone that the baby was rumored to be a girl (she was about 6 months pregnant at the time). I generally didn’t keep up with the news between Kate and William because in all honesty I didn’t see how it would affect me at all. In fact I strongly believe that 99% of the stuff the royal family (and most celebrity) will do won’t affect my day to day life at all. It is this kind of attitude that results in me being ignorant towards a LOT of things.

*Funnily enough at the time of writing this article it seems that she is rumored to be pregnant with twins

Just before I came to Japan on my year abroad there were a lot of people who would talk about how Japan was due for a big earthquake at any time and that it would hit Tokyo pretty bad. I generally ignored these people because I thought that they were probably over exaggerating and that it wouldn’t happen when I am over there. I thought it wouldn’t affect me.

In other worlds I was being pretty damn ignorant as I always am. Unfortunately it turns out that those people were half right, on March 11th 2011 Northern Japan (Tohoku) was hit with a magnitude 9.0 earthquake causing a 40.5 meters tsunami and resulting in the death of approximately 15,900 people.

Three years have passed since that day and support as well as relief is still very much needed for Northern Japan. In March 2013, two years after the disaster, around 2,040,000 people were still without homes. Also as explained in this Japanese article the extent of the damage to the nuclear reactor and full details concerning the hydrogen explosion is still unclear. Even now it is too dangerous to approach the reactor because of high levels of radiation.

All three members of Wijapan were in Japan the day of the earthquake. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on my own experience of the day and the following weeks.

Below is the message I sent to my family after arriving home on March 11th:

*For privacy I have edited out my girlfriend’s name. 

Hey ho,

 Thought I’d write up what it was like today as it was pretty surreal in some ways and I just want to let you know what it was like from my end. I imagine if you’re looking at the news you imagine Tokyo is in a state of utter panic but it’s far from that, though it seems Northern Japan was hit pretty bad unfortunately.

 I had arranged to meet [my girlfriend] in Tokyo, Yotsuya at 1:30. As the weather was supposed to be nice we intended on having a walk from Yotsuya to Ginza and then through to Shinbashi. After meeting up and realizing that both of us hadn’t really had anything to eat we popped into a ramen shop to grab a bite. We set off about 2:30 and from the ramen shop heading towards the imperial palace as it was on the way to Ginza.

While nearing the Imperial palace and crossing the road I suddenly felt extremely nauseous, my first thoughts were that it was something I had eaten at the ramen shop. However when I looked around I noticed that everyone was stood completely still. It was then that I realized that the ground had started to shake. Though I had felt small earthquakes before in Japan, this was completely different. It almost felt as if you were walking on water initially as the ground beneath you didn’t feel solid…but was moving left, right, up and down. Once we realized that this was the initially stages of an earthquake we quickly moved out of the road onto the other side of the street. By this time the earthquake had become a lot more violent so that by the time we reached the other side the street the street lamps and road signs were shaking quite vigorously.

 Completely rooted to the spot it was then that I realized that we were surrounded by towering buildings on either side and that those buildings much like the roads signs and lamps were swaying left and right too. Expecting the people around me to start running, screaming….something I was completely surprised to see just like me they were…..glued to the floor, almost mesmerized by the moving buildings. Not knowing what to do in such a situation and having no one to copy I just fixed my eyes to the top of the building reminding myself that they’re supposed to sway and that Tokyo has been built from the ground up to with stand earthquake like these.

 Once the earthquake had died down and I had regained control of my body again, I looked around, seeing there was no damage, casualties or anything to speak of, I felt extremely relived. After making sure my girlfriend was OK we decided to quickly make our way towards the Imperial palace grounds, as we knew there were chances of aftershocks and as the palace grounds aren’t surrounded by any tall building it seemed like the safest place to go for the time being. On the way there we passed people on the street crying, salarymen wearing safety helmets and others in a state of shock; just stood there. We arrived at the imperial palace with the sound of police sirens around us and helicopters overhead. As expected an aftershock hit relatively quickly after the initially earthquake but thankfully this time we weren’t surrounded by buildings and it wasn’t nearly as violent as the last.

 I had managed to send a quick e-mail from my phone to Dad but the services quickly went down. Also the trains had stopped running and the streets we flooded with people. Thankfully [my girlfriend]’s family were safe and we managed to meet up with her mother in Ginza who worked at a shop there. It was then that we learnt of how big the earthquake was and that it had caused a tsunami across North East Japan.

 That’s really the main bits about the earthquake itself and my own experience. In the end we ended staying in the store with the other Japanese people who worked there, hearing about the extent of the damage on the radio.

 Everyone was shocked and saying it was almost ‘like something out of a movie’ [my girlfriend]’s Dad managed to battle through the congestion and pick us up from Ginza and took me back to where I’m living in Nishi Kawaguchi. I arrived back about midnight, 7 hours after the earthquake.

 Thankfully as I said Tokyo is so well built to stand earthquakes that after the tremors had died down, the only evidence you’d have that something had happened here was the mass amount of people on the streets wearing safety helmets or the fact that the trains weren’t running. There was little or no damage and last time I checked the news they had ‘only’ been three confirmed deaths within Tokyo. So not nearly as bad as the other places that was affected.

 It’s been a long as day. I’m sure Gran and other people are worrying but they had been saying for some time that a big earthquake was going to hit Japan so it isn’t entirely out of nowhere. I’m completely fine and there’s defiantly no need to worry about me or anything.

 Well guna grab some sleep.

 Love you all loads

 Luke

At the time of writing that e-mail I will still un-aware of the true extent of the damage that had been inflicted upon Northern Japan and also the critical state of the nuclear power plant. Out in the streets in Tokyo with no phone or internet it was hard to know exactly what was happening.

It was the week after the earthquake that I will remember the most. Waking up the next day all I remember is the emergency TV being on, people going frantic in the dormitory and everyone talking about the nuclear power plant that an enormous amount of radiation had been released and was coming to Tokyo. We were told not to go outside if possible and that they would soon be power cuts in the area.

Emergency TV

Example of the Emergency TV that was one 24/7 at the time

Over the next couple of days hundreds of people started leaving Japan and Tokyo. Many of the exchange students that were staying in our dormitory been told by their universities that their exchange programme was over and that they had to come back home right away. Many embassies were also telling their citizens to leave Japan and for those who were still there to register their details. Also due to fears from further explosions at the nuclear power plant and the release of further radiation many people left Tokyo for another part of Japan.

I remember when I suddenly got a phone call from my girlfriend one morning telling me that she was in the car with her family leaving Tokyo and heading for Kyoto. The day previously I had decided to bike to her house (due to the train not running) and actually got lost in a field mid-way. While in the field I got a phone call from her saying that they had been another explosion at the power plant and that I needed to get inside as quickly as possible. Having passed a McDonalds 10 minutes earlier I peddled like crazy to get back there and literally dived into the store. No doubt the staff were wondering why the hell a sweaty gaijin (foreigner) had just jumped through the doors in their restaurant.

Looking back, it all seems a bit ridiculous and over the top. But at the time you really didn’t know if the next explosion would be the one to cause a meltdown at the power plant and thus causing the release of an unthinkable amount of radiation. It was a very scary time to be in Japan. It also didn’t help the fact that everyone you knew was leaving and even the Japanese people themselves didn’t want to stay in Tokyo due due to fears of radiation.

I was really shocked when I got the phone call from my girlfriend that morning. They were half way to Kyoto and this was the first thing I had heard about it. The fact that they took the dogs made me realize that they weren’t exactly thinking short term either. Unsurprisingly it was around this time when I began seriously considering leaving Tokyo.

My parents wanted me back in the UK and many of the people I had come with from university had decided to head back home. We also hadn’t had a final decision from the university or embassy on if we HAD to go back yet. I had waited 5 years to finally come to Japan and this feeling that if I did go back to the UK then there was I chance I wouldn’t be able to come back to Japan.

After hours of talking on Skype with my parent as well as my other friends that were still left in the dormitory, we all decided that myself and two other of my friends would leave for Taiwan as they had an apartment there and it wasn’t too ‘far’ from Japan. While I was against going all the way back to the UK I felt I wasn’t entirely ‘bailing out’ by going to Taiwan.

After everyone had agreed we booked the flight and in less than 8 hours were on the plane. I was in a complete mix of emotions. In the space of a week I had gone from eating ramen and having a walk around Tokyo with my girlfriend to blackouts, 24/7 emergency TV on an exploding nuclear power plant and to top it all off, now a one way ticket to Taiwan!

Taiwan

My first blurry (not the best picture taker) sights of Taiwan

I knew NOTHING about Taiwan (the joys of being ignorant towards anything that I don’t have an interest in). I also had no money or idea of when I would be back in Japan or generally what the hell was going on. Even lading in Taiwan we were measured for our for our radiations levels and I was sweating buckets at immigration because my friend in front of me, who is half Taiwanese (!), was getting a grilling at the gate and there I was 100% non-Taiwanese with a one way ticket, no money and not evening the damn address of the place I was going to stay over. By some dumb luck I made it through passport control.

I ended up spending two weeks in Taiwan while I talked with my university both in England and Tokyo to see if the year aboard course would continue and what was to happen. Of cause news regarding the nuclear power plant was being updated every day and people were still unclear if how safe or un-safe Tokyo was. The Taiwanese news actually more worried about how safe Taiwan would be if the unthinkable happened and the power plant did go into total melt down.

In my case both my university and Japanese university gave me the OK to go back to Japan. Unfortunately the two friends I had come with were not so lucky, they both had their year abroad cancelled and had to go back home. I went back to a pretty empty dormitory and the numbers in my classes had also dropped by about half. Luckily Joe was still there though.

TV Interview

Sometime after the Earthquake I was interviewed briefly about my experience with the earthquake and going to Taiwan. The focus of the programme being on the large number of foreigners that left Japan at the time.

Returning back to the UK in August 2012 I remember always being asked about what it was like to be in Tokyo at the time of the earthquake. As I wrote in my e-mail on the day of the disaster it was a very scary and unnerving experience. But I will always remember the weeks following the earthquake as being even more frightening and nightmarish due to the constant tension of what was going on with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Though I am still very much the same ignorant and self-centered boy that I was back then.

For the 2 Million plus people that are still homeless and thousands of family’s that lost a loved one on March 11th 2011 no doubt that nightmare is still continuing. Just like any disaster such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, while the rests of us that weren’t directly affected can eventually wake up and move on, unfortunately those that were don’t have that luxury.

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