The recent events in Japan have been a shock to everyone, as thousands continue to struggle with the aftermath of the biggest postwar disaster the country has seen. The Tohoku earthquake on March 11 literally shook the entire world, pushing it off its axis and shortening the day by a few microseconds. The subsequent tsunami that hit that same day caused havoc throughout Northern Japan, as over 15,000 were killed and countless were left homeless.
My coworkers and I were on the 14 floor of our building in Tokyo when the 9.0 magnitude quake struck. I had been studying abroad in the city, interning for a public relations company until my spring/ summer semester at Waseda University, which was to begin at the end of the month. Geographically speaking, Tokyo is quite far from the epicenter of the northeastern rim of Japan where the fault lines lie, but the quake and ensuing aftershocks were felt in other urban hubs, including the Kansai region which houses Osaka and Kyoto. Now earthquakes are nothing new to Japan; during the three months I’d spent in Tokyo this year alone, I personally felt four or five minor ones. But when the quakes started getting more powerful, I saw the fear in my coworkers’ faces and knew this time was different. During the next five minutes, our entire office was shaken up and we prayed our building would stand.
The first thing on everyone’s mind was to get in touch with their loved ones, though text service was knocked out instantly and most mobile phones had no service. I managed to get through to my family after 20 or 30 tries, though the majority of my office wasn’t as lucky. We waited in disbelief as the early warning system blared over the PA, and the floor shook so much that at times we couldn’t get to our feet.
As the hour went on, the aftershocks continued, though none as powerful as the first wave. We were distributed chrome-colored emergency bags, which contained enough water, food and supplies to last for about three days – when it comes to preparation for natural disasters, few countries are more ready than Japan. Despite not knowing what would come next, everyone maintained composure and began preparing to exit the building.
My coworkers slowly began to return to their families, and I had a dilemma on my hands: do I wait things out in my office or return home? I knew that our building was quite sturdy. We actually felt more of the quake than most because ours was built with diagonally reinforced pillars that absorb shock by swaying. However, I was close enough to my apartment that I’d have an easier time getting back than most office workers, some of whom ended up traveling up to five hours just to get back to their families.
I lived about a 20-minute train ride away from my office, though the majority of the metro system was offline. I’d had plans to visit friends in Osaka that night, but as my bullet train route was dangerously close to the coastline, the threat of tsunami caused that to be shut down as well. As I headed out of the building with my emergency bag in hand, I kept expecting to see looting or crime of some kind, but was surprised to find quiet streets filled with calm men and women, patiently waiting in bus and convenience store queues.
As I pressed forward following the train tracks to my building in Aoyama, I noticed the vending machines were giving out free drinks to thirsty commuters, many of whom were struggling to make it out of the city back to their suburban homes. Along the way I met several other young people who, without text or phone reception, seemed to be at a loss of what to do. Everyone was in the same boat, but in our mutual confusion, the same people who might have otherwise been plugged into their iPods or busy typing away cell phone messages opened up in a way I’d rarely seen in my years spent in Japan.
The next few days brought about unforeseen problems of their own, but I really cannot give the Japanese people enough credit; not only for having gone through this disaster, but also the strength and composure they’ve shown in the past month. Despite conflicting media reports, nuclear meltdown, tsunamis and earthquakes, every single person I know has stayed optimistic in the belief that their country will overcome this tragedy. As a community that has survived both nuclear and financial disasters before, the nation is no stranger to having to rebuild. But as I parted ways with my new friends, I was taken a back by their strength despite the situation.
As I turned and left for home, the group shouted a final ganbatte to me, a phrase that roughly translates to a mixture of “give it your all” and “keep at it.” It’s a word that every Japanese student learns to use very quickly, and the essence of the expression permeates nearly every aspect of the culture. I couldn’t help but smile back at them, because there was not a doubt in my mind that this very spirit would carry them through whatever issues came their way.