Well, that wasn’t the experience I had in mind when I came to Japan. I was at work when this little nugget of chaos hit, and the trains immediately stopped so I spent all of yesterday evening (6.5 hours!) walking home, from Hongo to Kichijoji.  The route is in the map above, it’s between 16 and 18 kms (10.8 to 11.1 miles) and takes 3 hours 40 minutes without traffic lights. My experience of the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 1200 years was … a long walk. Anyway, this post will describe events from the moment it struck to my arrival home, with hopefully some observations on Japanese life during the ramble. I’ve set it out in sections for your viewing pleasure and I’m approaching it in a light-hearted manner but let’s not forget that while I’m writing this a handful of cities have been completely destroyed and over a thousand people are still missing…

The Quake

I share an office with 4 women, two of whom were in yesterday and one of whom is rather sensitive where earthquakes are concerned (we had several in the last 2 weeks). We’ve already had enough minor rumbles for me to know that she’s got a very good sense for these things, and so we were all aware the moment the slightest tremor started. We sat at our desks while it got worse and my colleague became increasingly agitated, but the building itself wasn’t moving so much, really. Whenever an earthquake strikes I look out my window and thank my luck, because our building is new, made of very solid stuff and surrounded by a kind of cage of concrete buttresses, which are themselves cross-hatched with huge diagonally-placed steel girders. They weren’t even moving, and things were rattling inside and it was a bit … mobile … but nothing bad. It was certainly not like the video footage of Fukushima. But things kept getting worse so after maybe another 5 or 10 seconds the women in my office broke for the door, and we saw other staff rushing by outside. Since I don’t know much about earthquake safety, and figured that Tokyo people know best, I followed. This is sufficient both to show that a lifetime’s exposure to safety information isn’t necessarily particularly effective (as you’ll see, we should have stayed!) and to illustrate how long and devastating this earthquake was. We are on the 5th floor of the Medicine faculty building, and before we left we grabbed our coats and bags (!) – I forgot my bag at the door and went back for it. We then had to walk down the corridor and down 5 flights of stairs, along the corridor and through the (still-functioning) automatic doors, and out under a massive concrete verandah(!) to the path outside. When we arrived, the ground was still rocking, and the earthquake took a few seconds more to subside. I’d say it was more than a minute long (we had to descend those stairs with some care) and it was at its worst when we were halfway down the stairs.

So why was going outside so unwise? First of all because the stairs were not the most negotiable of rocking, twisting obstacle courses, and we could have fallen. But mostly because when we got outside we found ourselves standing in a narrow valley between two 8 storey buildings, with nowhere to run if one collapsed, right next to a truck full of gas bottles. Imagine the timing, if a single bit of concrete set off something in those gas bottles, and wiped out the cream of Tokyo University’s medical faculty so thoroughly that there wouldn’t be enough flesh left to clone them[1].

The Wait

We then engaged in every post-apocalyptic drama’s most tedious part, the wait. Everyone stood around in the cold, trying to get a reception on their phone, while a loud speaker gave us increasingly disturbing news – first it was a magnitude 5, then a magnitude 6, then we discover the whole coast is affected, etc. The ground kept swaying occasionally, and we were all quite scared, so that sometimes you couldn’t tell if it was the ground or your own fevered imagination. At which point you could just check that truck, to see how much the gas bottles were wobbling… until the delivery chap came out wheeling a gas bottle, and tightened the whole lot up. People were wandering around, trying to call loved ones, looking around at the clear cold day and talking about how damnably scary a big earthquake is, and I was looking at that cage of girders and buttresses around our building and thinking, “bravo for Japanese engineering.” Eventually, after about 20 minutes, the loudspeaker informed us that we should all move to an open area and wait for further instructions. Sometime in this period the three women from reception emerged from the building, having taken the much more sensible approach of hiding under their desks while the world wobbled[2].

So off we all went, me and the women from my office at quite a pace, because that gas truck was a bit disturbing. Halfway there another big tremor hit, so you could see all the topiary of the medicine faculty grounds shaking and grooving – had the topiary been dinosaurs and not mere tree-shaping, the effect would have been quite excellent. My colleagues and I decided to move more rapidly at this point, because I have already decided that I intend to die at the wheel of a ferrari during my mid-life crisis, not in a hail of broken glass from the university admin building. So we arrived expeditiously at the centre of the campus, and more standing around ensued. One of the reception staff managed to produce another ingenious Japanese invention – a combined torch and radio – and we listened to increasingly alarming news from up north – a 6m tsunami forecast for Fukushima, all underground trains halted, risk of aftershocks. Which kept coming and coming, so that every few minutes the ground kept shaking.

After another little while two of our colleagues were dispatched to check the building, and the all clear was given. We returned to our offices but no-one was in the mood for work. One of my colleagues walked around distributing water bottles “just in case” and we all spent the afternoon checking the internet. At about 5pm it was decided to leave early, because none of the trains were working, so we were going to have to walk home. With typical Japanese quiet calm, teams were organized, to ensure that the foreign staff who speaks no Japanese could get home, and the completely new guy who doesn’t know Tokyo (i.e. me). One staff member had ordered sushi for a party that was now cancelled, so we ate some sushi and off we went, leaving behind four staff members who live so far away that their only choice was to stay the night in the office.

Disaster Japanese

I should mention at this point that my Japanese is neither good enough to understand Japanese spoken on loud-speakers, nor sufficiently stocked with disaster words. Also, although I can read some Japanese I don’t read nearly enough to be able to navigate information sites quickly, nor can I understand much of radio broadcasts, so I was very much dependent on my colleagues’ support when it came to working out what was happening. I also don’t know anything about Tokyo so had no idea how to get home. My heart goes out to all those people in Japan who don’t speak or read Japanese and found themselves stranded and far from home in such a situation, because it can be bewildering even if most day-to-day conversation is manageable. By the end of the day my colleague who doesn’t speak any Japanese (a British visiting professor) was beginning to get quite frustrated, because even though people translate the essential stuff, when people are scared and confused they naturally exchange a lot of information very rapidly in their mother tongue. Certainly in the shock of the event my Japanese went a little backward, and my sentence construction fragmented. Plus, who prepares the necessary vocabulary for a situation like this in their second language? Who thinks to themselves “I really should learn all the apocalypse words in my second language”? Well, actually, I have learnt a pretty weird vocabulary in my time here, but I’m a nerd. And my weird vocabulary might include monsters, but it doesn’t include words like “evacuation” and “elevated ground”. So, handling a disaster in a second language… not the best way to deal with the situation[3].

The Walk

So we set off, me and two colleagues, for a walk we predicted to take about 3.5 hours. One colleague was separating at Shinjuku, and one at Shin Nagano. At that point I would be on my own, and I had rather sensibly elected not to print a map. Of course, this is Japan so you can guarantee that someone will help you, but I think it should be clear here that I’m not part of that small elite of people who are going to survive the apocalypse. Though I did have good walking shoes (I recommend Whoop-de-doo shoe company for all your apocalyptic footwear needs). We set off at 5:30, and as soon as we emerged from the campus we entered a river of people. As we got closer to Shinjuku station this river widened, like the famous graphic of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow; everyone was heading the same way, towards the huge junctions at Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. The same river was flowing on both sides of the road, and in between us was a river of traffic, all moving very slowly and forced to delay at every crossing as thousands of people crossed the roads. The crowd was cooperative and quiet, as crowds always are in Japan, not pushing or getting in each other’s way even at the stupidly-designed crossing near the Shinjuku rail bridge, where a crowd 10 abreast coming one way hits the same crowd going the other way, at a corner where the pavement is barricaded from the road and narrows to two people in width. Even bicycles negotiated this chokepoint without yells or complaints. People just accepted that we were in this situation, and moved through and past each other with that quiet Japanese manner that makes everything here flow so smoothly.

On the way we passed many things, but one thing we didn’t see was any evidence of earthquake damage, and everyone was chatting and joking as if this were a funny little outing, or a charity walk. At about 8pm everyone in possession of a docomo phone finally got their earthquake warning call (for the 2:40pm earthquake), and there was more joking about this. We didn’t have proper reception so noone could watch TV or receive information, so mostly we didn’t know about the catastrophe unfolding further North. I passed a bicycle shop where a queue of maybe 20 or 30 people were waiting patiently to buy bicycles, the staff frantically trying to assemble and register the bikes as quickly as possible; every macdonalds had huge queues outside as people gathered for food, and all the convenience stores where thronging with people, many queueing for the toilets. Some restaurants had put out signs saying “We have toilets, please use them,” which was a nice touch. Some shops had to close due to damaged stock (particularly the alcohol shops) but most restaurants were open and doing a roaring trade. I saw a cute scene of a man entering a rental car shop to be greeted by a staff member bowing with good-humoured and exaggerated obeisance, to make clear that this time, at least, the lack of available cars was entirely beyond his control. I passed a group of girls standing around their friend, whose feet just weren’t up to the task in her work shoes – I think this must have been a problem for many people. Groups of people were camping out in the rooms where the cash corners are located, some with their laptops out. At Shinjuku I saw the fascinating contrast of twenty or thirty people crouched under a shop entrance, with nowhere to go for the night; in amongst them was a homeless man with his possessions and, of course, his cardboard house, suddenly a prince among paupers as the usual order of Japanese life was turned on its head by nothing more than the collapse of the transport system. But for all of this sea of humanity with its congestions and minor tribulations and difficulties, I didn’t see a single person get in a fight. And no one smoked as they walked. They stopped at the smoking spots before continuing, preserving even the smallest of Japanese manners at this moment of confusion.

All these people of all walks of life converged on Shinjuku, the hosts swaggering through the crowd past salarymen and schoolgirls and office ladies in little elegant gaggles, every tenth person wearing a mask. The traffic was still trapped in gridlock, inching forward, and we were moving much faster. Under the Shinjuku bridge and onward up Blue Plum Road, already 3 hours into our journey and me only halfway home. At Shin Nagano when my colleague left me I bought some hand-warmers (kairo) and stuffed them in my pockets, and kept walking until I stumbled on a cute little cafe, Doggie Boogie Cafe, where I took a break and had what I think is the best Thai food I’ve eaten in a long time. Here I rested for an hour before continuing, and now I walked alongside a pair of office workers who had set off an hour before me from Tokyo station, and had just finished their second break (this one, in the cafe with me, was for booze). They were still cheerful despite 4 hours of walking and 3 more to come, and they and the restaurant owner helpfully directed me to a shortcut to Kichijoji, down Itsukaichi Road. Here I found a bus stop for a bus going to Kichijoji station, but it was 10 pm and the last bus left at 9:20pm. Too bad! I had my ipod on now, and kept walking. At 10:50pm I passed that last bus, stuck in traffic and jammed with people. Further on I found the 9pm bus, stopped at a bus stop, and finally got to see something I have always heard of but never seen – two bus company employees actually pushing passengers into the bus to fit more on. One often sees this on TV but I’ve never seen it in real life, so that’s a Tokyo experience I can tick off… and I’m glad I didn’t have the experience of being pushed onto that bus, because I beat it to Kichijoji station when I arrived at midnight.

So, I finally got home at about quarter past midnight, my only information about the disaster unfolding to the north coming from a single mail from my partner, that arrived during a patchy period of uncongested transmission at about 9pm, telling me it was bad. I have a friend in Iwaki City, which has been partially destroyed and may have to be evacuated due to the nuclear plants; I spent the evening occasionally trying to call him but the reception was impossible. Occasionally mails would reach me from various people, asking if I was okay or telling me they were okay, but this was intermittent. It was just me, alone in the cold neon night amongst a river of a million people just like me. And when I got to Kichijoji at midnight that river was still flowing but I, thankfully, was at the end of my earthquake odyssey and able to find out the true magnitude of the horror unfolding to the north. This morning Tokyo feels just like it did yesterday, as if nothing happened, except for the regular little aftershocks. I think it’s safe to say that this is a very good country to experience a disaster, even if (or maybe especially if) you don’t speak the language. Nonetheless, I’d have happily traded this experience – especially that minute in my office, wondering if I’m about to become a statistic (東京外国人1人死亡)- for a quiet evening with a glass of wine and a book.

fn1: We’re across from the experimental research facility, where they probably have that technology.

fn2: As a general approach to problem-solving, this is probably excellent

fn3: Though I pride myself on understanding all of “A tsunami warning is being broadcast for the Fukushima Prefecture, and all people living in coastal areas should immediately evacuate.”