Earthquake pt.2


Everyone knew The Big One would arrive sooner or later, it was just a matter of when and where, and like many people, I had assumed it would hit slap bang in the middle of Tokyo and cause maximum disruption and damage. In the event, The Big One happened up north, in a relatively far-flung and unheralded corner of the country, although it has been no less disruptive or damaging for all that.

The numbers, in fact – of deaths and disppearances – have become so large as to be rather hard to contemplate, and every day I hear yet more heartbreaking stories: of the soon-to-be-married safety officer who continued to broadcast a tsunami warning over the town’s radio system until her studio was inundated (everyone here has a radio in their front room for just such an emergency that is permanently tuned in); of the father who was survived by his son, and by a letter he had written to be read on the day of the son’s graduation from junior high school; of the workman whose newly purchased machinery had gone, and with it his livelihood; of the boss who lined his employees up in front of their devastated workplace and told them he was sorry, but he was no longer able to pay them; of the brother searching for his siblings where they used to live, on streets that are now little more than rows of bare concrete foundations; of the survivor who, as he clung to his house for dear life, watched helplessly as a child was swept away out to sea; of the old man who has taken it upon himself to collect the precious satchels of disappeared schoolchildren (known as randoseru, these cost upwards of a hundred pounds each, and accompany a student for all six years of their elementary education); of the thirty-nine firefighters from a single district who lost their battle to close a flood gate whose mechanism had failed. I could go on, but ultimately, there is a case for not watching the news any more, as all it will succeed in doing is to upset you.

And yet, to live in Japan is to know at the back of your mind that one day, you may succumb to a similar fate. While I am loath to generalise about the Japanese character, particularly when my first-hand experience of the place is comparatively limited, I will go so far as to say that the ever-present possibility of disaster gives day-to-day life here a subtly different character from elsewhere in the world. There is, I think, an undercurrent of fatalism, although rather than making people believe they should live every day as if it was their last, or turn to drink in order to forget, what it has engendered in the Japanese is almost the opposite, namely a desire for order and stability, since that order and stability could be snatched away from them at any time.

As for me, I wasn’t here when The Big One hit, and while this was clearly a blessing, part of me is ever-so-slightly disappointed that I did not get to experience the unique sensation that must come with knowing that the whole country is literally moving beneath your feet (or rather stretching: the east coast is now somewhere between two and five metres closer to the opposite side of the Pacific than it used to be). Because the fact is, so long as they’re only minor, earthquakes can be perversely enjoyable – in the manner of a rollercoaster, for example – and if you happen to be foreign, add to the novelty of living here. Not only that, but even allowing for recent events, you are still more likely to die in a car crash (or commit suicide, even) than in an earthquake, a tsunami or an invisible cloud of nuclear radiation, and leaving the media barrage aside, the lives of the vast majority of Japanese have been comparatively unaffected by what has happened.

Not that one should take these things lightly, and to return to the subject of where the earthquake hit hardest, depending on where people happen to be from, there does seem to have been a certain amount of snobbery involved in their reactions. A friend of Mrs M’s who lives in London but hails from Iwaté was aghast at the response of her Japaense classmates, when their English teacher asked how they felt in the days following 11th March.

‘Everything’s fine,’ one of them said. ‘In fact, we’re inviting our friends over for a dinner party at the weekend.’ The students in question were from Kansai, and to put it bluntly, probably look upon those from Tohoku as bumpkin-ish at best – either that, or they were secretly relieved to have come through unscathed on this occasion, given that the previous Big One occurred in Kobé.

Ibaraki lies somewhere between these two extremes of both physical proximity and psychological effects, so that here you will find sympathy for those who have suffered, and at the same time relief that there is now a plentiful supply of food, water, gas and electricity, and a small enough amount of radiation that you do not have to worry about growing an extra head or an extra tumor.

One thing that is still in short supply – due to factories not functioning, apparently – is tobacco, as we found out last Tuesday when we visited Tsuneko-bah-chan (Mrs M’s great aunt) in Hitachi-ohmiya, who is now in her eighties.

‘Fortunately I wasn’t inside at the time,’ she told us. ‘I had a friend visiting and we’d just come out into the garden. Everything started shaking and pretty soon we couldn’t stand up – we had to sit on the grass and hold on to each other for support. I’m so glad I wasn’t inside – all of the crockery was flying off the shelves in the kitchen, and the house shook so much that in Ken and Rika’s bedroom, the wardrobe doors came open and everything slid to the other end of the room.’

Tsuneko-bah-chan runs a small cigarette shop next to Ken and Rika’s – her son and daughter-in-law’s – house, and the shelves were practically empty when we visited. Ken and Rika, meanwhile, were in Tokyo on the 11th: Rika with one of their two daughters in their ninth-floor town house, and Ken at work in the city centre.

We were holding on to the walls like this’ – Rika mimed heroically trying to stop a wall from collapsing – ‘and as we looked, the wallpaper was moving from side to side – you could see straight through the gaps to the concrete pillars behind it.’

‘My boss rushed round the office telling everyone to stay put,’ said Ken. ‘He told us it was more dangerous outside with all the breaking glass and falling masonry. It went on for ages, and sure enough, there was a big aftershock too, and we all got back under our desks. I’ve got loads of paperwork stuffed beneath mine, so there wasn’t really enough room. When my boss came past again he said, “Which is more important, your head or your backside?” My head wasn’t under the desk at all, and after all that, when we finally got up and looked outside, he’d done a runner and was outside on the sreet.’

Here in Ibaraki, otoh-san and onii-san were also working, and otoh-san’s first thought was to save the antique clock that hangs on the wall at one end of the barber shop.

‘The earthquake was so bad that eventually I just told him to take it down and get out,’ said onii-san, although none of the mirrors in the shop were damaged, the only broken window in the house was caused by a falling bookcase, and the building as a whole stood firm, with only a few cracked tiles in the bathroom and upended shelves and chests of drawers.

(Onii-san pointed out that in the same way otoh-san grabbed hold of his treasured timepiece, there were probably thousands of people all over the country trying to protect their new TVs: last year, the signal moved over from analogue to digital, and rather than digi-boxes or VCR re-tuning, most people splashed out on brand new flat-screen and wide-screen models.)

‘We were standing outside assessing the damage,’ onii-san continued, ‘when all of a sudden this guy came along wanting a haircut. He’s a young guy who’s always playing pachinko [pachinko is a form of pinball on which the Japanese gamble large amounts of money], and once the electricity went off in the pachinko shop, he had nothing to do. Stupid idiot!’


Mrs M and I went for a cycle ride around town a few days after arriving, and what houses that had collapsed were mostly either old, abandoned or both. The various road bridges shut to traffic had not been rendered so because of complete collapse, rather because engineers had deemed them structurally unsound or necessary to examine further before they could be re-opened. One of the more bizarre sights was the emerging manhole covers, which by some quirk of tectonics and engineering had been thrust out of the ground, some to a height of more than a metre, although the most obvious evidence of the earthquake has been its aftershocks.

At least when we arrived, these came along about once an hour, and while they have lessened in frequency and intensity, everyone is on edge, and instinctively stands up in readiness to head for the door when the tremors start. No doubt this will go on for some time, until the memory of what has happened begins to fade, or until, geologically speaking, the country finally settles into its new place in the world.