The Japan Mega-Quake of March 11: My Surreal Walk Through Central Tokyo

More On The Quake:

In the early afternoon on March 11, I was at a meeting with a friend in the high-tech industry in the Yurakacho area of Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace.  We had sat down with cups of coffee when I felt a shaking, then noticed ornaments on a wall swaying.  I said that

it was an earthquake – my friend was nonchalant.  The shaking got worse, and I rose.  Another person dashed out, and I followed – fortunately, we were on the second floor, and instead of the elevators, I followed him down a swaying stairway like a Dali painting to the ground floor, then outside.  In the street I thought I was in a movie set, as people streamed out and watched the buildings swaying.  One 20-story building was moving back and forth doing a surreal dance; a construction crane was dipping up and down like a child’s toy.  I heard ambulances in the distance.

We walked to the Imperial Palace grounds (the same area where evacuees huddled in fear after 1923 Tokyo earthquake) where groups were gathering, led by people wearing construction helmets.  We all gazed, like hypnotized mice, at the swaying buildings.  It was like a force from another dimension could do anything at its whim, and people or animals or trees or skyscrapers were utterly helpless.  Of all things, I thought of the malevolent Martian space ships attacking Earth in “War of the Worlds”, the burning passenger ship, the terrifying fiery train, the cities ablaze.  There was an after-tremor and some women stumbled to the ground.  I called my wife, but a “Call Failed” sign flashed on my phone.  Police with loudspeakers shouted that the subways and trains had stopped, literally on the tracks; passengers were streaming out of a subway station into the street.  I started to walk, pausing every 50 feet to either send a text message or call my wife.  Finally, I could send an Email (my Instant Messages were blocked, as well).  Lines were forming in front of payphones – as mobile phones were now useless (as during the after-math of the Great Kobe Earthquake).

I kept walking through central Tokyo.  All the taxis were filled with former subway passengers.  Police were guiding traffic, but the cars were not moving in front of the Imperial Palace.  I saw a white shinkansen bullet-train stalled on elevated tracks.  In another surreal scene, some Western business people were drinking beer at an café.  Finally, I received an EMail response to my phone from my wife – she was OK, standing in front of our apartment building.  After an hour of steady walking, passing streams of people (oddly I met a former colleague at a stop light and exchanged business cards in midst of the anxious crowds), I reached my apartment building.

When I met my wife she was greatly relieved.  She said that she was in the middle of a Skype video-chat with our daughter when the earthquake hit.  Our daughter was terrified as she watched helplessly (again, just like a movie) when my wife darted out of the room – the camera still on, as books and files dropped to the floor (I would later remark to my daughter that the mess was not that different than my usual environment, and aside from a speaker on the carpet and spilled shampoo in the bathroom, there was no other evidence of a mega-quake in our apartment).  We called my daughter and told her we were fine.  Then we sat down and watched endless TV news reports.  While sipping water and calming down, I was reminded of an earlier essay that I published on the 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake, and of the courage and resilience of Japanese (featuring my wife’s father, a six-month year old baby at the time of the Tokyo quake):×2.html

In the evening of Friday, March 11, Tokyo was paralyzed by off-on train and subway service (the expressways are shut-down).  Tens of thousands of people are stranded at stations, unable to reach their homes in the suburbs.  However, the earthquake could have hit Tokyo in an apocalyptic way, but Tokyo was spared tremendous damage (electricity, gas, Internet, sewage, some landline phones — all work – except for the mobile network).  Northern Honshu (where I was born) – sparsely populated – yet with port towns and cities, like Sendai, along the coast, was hit with ghastly tsunami waves, recalling the devastating December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Thailand and Indonesia, and I am afraid of the media reporting of many deaths and injuries this weekend.  The destruction of Tokyo after the 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake was not due to the earthquake, but to the fires (when the earthquake struck just after noon, tens of thousands of small charcoal braziers had been lit for lunch preparation all around the city — and they toppled onto wooden floors).

Earthquakes are truly frightening, and this one was the worst I have experienced (after-tremors continue throughout the evening into the night — and we sleep with the door ajar, in case it is jammed shut by a tremor).  I have been through many, and I hope that I never go through another as powerful as the March 11 quake.  However, Japan is resilient, and recovered in great form from the terrible Great Tokyo and Kobe earthquakes in 1923 and 1995, respectively, and will again pull together to re-build towns and cities.  Tokyo will recover quickly, as a highly-livable metropolis with world-class museums, parks, and beautiful neighborhoods.  For other Japanese , though, with lost loved ones and missing friends in northern tsunami-devastated areas, quickly erasing the mental anguish of the anxiety and horrors of the mega-quake is another matter.

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