After the Quake

R.T. Ashcroft · In Tokyo

I’ve been living in Ichikawa City, on the outskirts of Tokyo, since January. It all feels a very long way from Berkeley, California: my neighbourhood here has a public address system, for example, which quietly reminds us at 4.30 every afternoon that the children are on their way home from school and we should try not to run them over, and half an hour later plays a thirty-second excerpt from the New World Symphony (arranged for organ).

With the few minor earthquakes I’ve experienced in California, it’s often been hard to tell whether it‘s really a quake or just a heavy truck going past, and by the time I’ve shambled over to stand in a doorway the whole thing‘s already over, with no harm done except maybe a couple of broken plates. No one I know in Berkeley has a disaster kit or a disaster plan. The consensus seems to be that it probably won’t happen, and even if it does, as long as you’re not on the Bay Bridge you’ll be fine.

There was no doubting what was happening when the earthquake struck here this afternoon. My girlfriend and I looked at each other and made for the nearest supporting doorway. We weren’t especially worried at first, expecting the usual thirty seconds of rattling crockery. But it must have lasted three times that. The house swayed backwards and forwards, gently at first, but with increasing force. It felt like being on a boat, but without a fixed horizon as a reference point. Cupboard doors flew open. The main ceiling lamp in the kitchen came crashing down (now I know what that chain was for).

After a little over a minute – I would guess – the force began to dissipate, and the movement of the house began to slow. We felt dizzy and light-headed. After checking the gas we went to our computers to see what was happening. It was only as the pictures from further north started coming in and the scale of the disaster and the loss of life became clear that we realised how lucky we’d been. We were even lucky not to have gone in to Tokyo, as we’d meant to: there’s clearly much more damage and debris among the downtown high-rises, and at the very least we could have been stranded there overnight.

Within minutes the prime minister was on TV, in an unflattering disaster anorak-cum-shellsuit, asking everyone to remain calm. Helicopters were soon in the air. About ten minutes after the first shock a voice over the tannoy informed us, in the usual measured tones, that there was a tsunami warning and we should brace for aftershocks. These came thick and fast, every ten minutes or so for at least a couple of hours. There wasn’t time to recover between them, and the cumulative effect was nauseating; I never thought I’d have motion sickness from sitting in my living-room. The tannoy came back on to inform us that the tsunami would be here shortly and we should keep the door shut, which seemed like sound advice, though in the event the waters didn’t reach us.

The announcements kept coming over the course of the afternoon, and after checking on Twitter and Facebook that friends and family were safe we headed out to the local shops to put together a belated disaster kit: water, bread, chocolate, bananas, beer. It was strangely peaceful outside: people were moving around purposefully but calmly, with the usual lines of bicycling salary-men on their way home. There were even some children playing in the street. Although there is still chaos in other, worse-hit parts of the country, life here seems to have returned to normal surprisingly quickly. At five o’clock we even received our daily dose of Dvořák.


  • 11 March 2011 at 11:47pm
    jonathan_lewis says:
    There's not much "damage and debris among the downtown high-rises". I was on the 10th floor of our 32-storey building on the Tokyo waterfront; a few books fell off the shelves. Scary as hell, though.

  • 12 March 2011 at 1:04pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    News channels in Europe seem to focussing on the possibility of a melt-down. There's very little on the damage caused by the earthquake and the Tsunami. The nuclear power fetischists are already proclaiming "no danger, no danger" (they mean here in Europe) but the Japanese will know different. Time for a complete ban on nuclear power, I think.

    • 13 March 2011 at 8:59am
      Joe Morison says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Well, definitely time to stop building and using them on fault lines between tectonic plates. As today's Observer shows, the Japanese government had been warned that something like this was 'highly likely to occur'.
      However, altho' i used to be anti-nuclear, i'm now a lot more afraid of global warning which could produce scenes like we are seeing in Japan today but over an extended period and over most of the world; but that's a whole different argument.

    • 13 March 2011 at 12:23pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Joe Morison
      But the arguments about the dangers of nuclear power are far more compelling than the dangers of global warming - remember that the Tsunami was a result of the earthquake, but in total I think that you're right in the sense that the floods in Pakistan were probably a consequence of weather changes. Greenpeace estimates that we could save far more energy than is produced by nuclear power world-wide by implementing sensible energy saving policies. I couldn't believe that Japan built some of its power plants in such a dangerous region, but then I heard that it's a Japanese nightmare to be left without energy, Hiroshima or not. In the thirties, the USA imposed a boycott on Japan fter the invasion of Manchuria and that is always in the minds of the politicians. So I guess we can blame the Americans again.

    • 13 March 2011 at 1:15pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Geoff Roberts
      It's such a huge issue. You cite Greenpeace, i could cite James Lovelock and George Monbiot (who recently concluded the the harm from warming will be worse than that from nuclear energy). These aren't matters of principle but of science and anyone who is serious about looking after the planet will consider both sides with an open mind - i'm certainly not convinced of my arguments. All i'll say is: worse case if we widely switch to nuclear power is a few catastrophes killing and poisoning a few million; worse case if warming starts to feed on itself (methane release from the tundra, &c.) is the end of humanity.

    • 13 March 2011 at 7:23pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Joe Morison
      They are both huge issues, I grant you that. The immediate problems facing Japan are how to deal with the enormous destruction caused by the Tsunami and how to get the power stations under control. They seem to be doing a better job than the Russian did but who knows? I just don't buy into the argument that we need nuclear power stations. Only in France do they produce most of their electricity through atomic energy, where the Greens are strangely silent. Reports of leakages at Sellafield or around German power stations have been rigorously repressed because of the number of cancer cases that doctors have reported. Nuclear power is far too dangerous at a catastropic level and as a daily danger to health for the people who live near a power station.

    • 14 March 2011 at 1:13pm
      semitone says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I don't think the dangers of global warming are less compelling than anything. But Geoff (and others) if you fancy a bit of serious fun, get onto the Department of Energy & Climate Change's website and see if you can come up with a way to meet our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by 2050 without new nuclear build. I'm told it can be done, but you need an awful lot of windfarms! Here's the link:

    • 14 March 2011 at 7:28pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ semitone
      Stop eating meat for a start. J.S. Foer writes that animal agriculture makes for 40% more global warming and is the number one cause of climate change. Yu know it makes sense ...

  • 7 February 2014 at 8:55pm
    scatman says:
    Hard to get excited about global warming when it's as cold as it has been for more than two months (Dec/Jan) in 2013/2014 Chicago. "Climate change" is different, meaning that the patterns are becoming so chaotic that no one knows what is coming next.

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