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Moment that mattered: A 9.0 magnitude earthquake hits Japan Jon Wilks

“The first quake struck slowly, or at least that’s how it plays back in my mind. We’re used to earthquakes here in Tokyo. They’re not daily, exactly, but they’re regular enough for most people to feel strangely blasé about them. So the initial movements went almost unnoticed.

“Earthquake,” I pointed out to nobody in particular.

“Yup,” nodded my colleague, eyes still glued to her computer screen. Nothing odd about it at all. Just the standard reaction of your typical Edokko – someone born and raised in the nation’s capital. Seconds later, the room seemed to upturn itself. Books were sliding off shelves and coffee cups were emptying themselves across desks. A guy at the next desk grabbed his iMac as it rattled towards the precipice.

I looked again at my colleague, hoping to find the same dismissive calm.

“What do we do now?”

No answer. She looked stunned. Everyone else was making
for the door.

In the car park opposite the office, buildings lurched around us. The corners of the neighbouring multi-storey department store looked as flimsy as a plastic storage box, buckling and twisting under severe strain. At the centre of all this, huddled, whimpering, stood the inhabitants of the surrounding offices. Nobody had any idea how to react. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” swore one man who, only days earlier, could be heard boasting his Edokko credentials. If these hardened Tokyoites were scared, then this was serious. Nobody was saying it, but I suspect everyone was thinking it: that this could be The Big One – the quake that Tokyo has been silently fearing for decades.

The earthquake training these people had received in school proved useless in practice. Understandably so. When the concrete roof threatens to fall on you, the last thing you want to do is crawl under your desk. Your fight-or-flight response won’t let you. And now, in the great outdoors, not one of them knew how to protect themselves. So they stood in a circle, some of them facing out, yelling random directions – “This way a bit! Fuck! That building’s gonna come down! Get over here!” – trying to outmanoeuvre the shadow of a minor skyscraper. It can’t have lasted more than three minutes, by which point I was already on Twitter.

Not because I trust it above all else, but because it was the only line of communication still open. It was instantly obvious that a lot of foreigners had no idea how to react, and weren’t getting any immediate assistance from the Japanese authorities, or from the local news streams. It was from Twitter that I learnt that the north was being pounded by waves bigger than Japan had prepared itself for. I passed the news on to my colleagues before it had even appeared on Japanese TV. They didn’t seem to believe me, but an hour later they were glued to NHK, silent, disbelieving.

The first big aftershock followed within 20 minutes of the initial quake, and I heard it growling before it struck. I remember saying, “I can hear another one coming.” My colleagues only understood what I was trying to say as the building began to convulse again, as severe as anything they’d felt in their lives up until that afternoon. They fled the building, but I stayed at my desk, not out of bravado, but because I had begun collating and translating whatever verifiable information I could get my hands on that might be of use to non-Japanese speakers confused somewhere in Tokyo. The joists buckled in my peripheral vision, but I felt safer inside than out; better getting involved somehow than not. It was the beginning of a very long week.

There were moments that mattered as much over the following month – the heartbreaking attempts to locate missing relatives being read out solemnly over the radio; the anger on the prime minister’s face as he explained how he witnessed the second Fukushima explosion on TV along with the rest of the nation,only receiving official word an hour later; the Japanese press finally growing a pair of bollocks and going for the jugular at yet another Tokyo Electric Power Company conference; the incredulity we all felt reading the UK tabloid headlines that insisted we were living in a ghost city, clawing at our throats and collapsing in a cloud of radiation.

Tokyo, in truth, never suffered hugely, but in the days following the quake there was a real sense of camaraderie – strangers conversing with strangers in a way that Tokyoites famously never did before. Whether that continues, we’ve yet to see. At our lowest, the worst we felt was helplessness; all of us, to a man, wishing that we could somehow help with the tragedy that has unfurled a few hundred miles north. Sadly, it’s unlikely that we’ll feel any different anytime soon.

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