Tokyo, briefly terrified by quake, recovers quickly

This  article was first published at the Atlantic’s website in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Click here for the original.

TOKYO, Japan — Your first Japanese earthquake is your most memorable. Or so I thought until, along with about 50 million other residents of northern and eastern Japan, I was transfixed by Friday’s whopper.

It was all such a contrast with my first, which I experienced 25 years ago as the newly arrived Tokyo bureau chief for a British financial magazine. On that occasion I was having lunch with a Japanese financial executive. The tremor hardly rattled the ice in the water jug but it was a new experience and my face evidently betrayed some reaction (we were in the basement of a fairly old and seismologically questionable building, so I had some excuse). My host inquired what was the matter. At the time, his sangfroid seemed like affectation. I later realized that, for him , that tremor in 1985 was so minor — probably not much more than a 1 on the Richter scale — that it wasn’t even worth remarking on. Soon enough I became sufficiently localized to take a similarly imperturbable view of Japanese seismology.

Friday was different. The shaking was by far the worst not only in my experience but that of everyone I know. But we in Tokyo, about 200 miles from the epicenter, were lucky. God knows what it was like closer in, but the deaths are clearly going to be in the thousands. And the economic damage may prove the worst since World War II.

I was in our office on the 11th floor of a building in the Shiba district of central Tokyo. Things started gently enough but, within a few seconds, the building was swaying violently. The first and most frightening episode probably lasted no more than three minutes but felt much longer. The motion was like a drunk’s staggering gait — somehow both rhythmic and erratic at the same time. Normally, earthquakes in Japan are felt mainly as a quick jab that subsides before you can think. On this occasion I had more than enough time to wonder whether things might get much worse. I looked around and wondered which bit of furniture, not least my wall-to-ceiling bookshelves, might go flying. An additional question, as our office is a glassy affair in a corner of the building, was whether we might be propelled through a window — unlikely, no doubt, but rational thinking did not come easily at the time.

Then there was our dog Kuro, a wild-looking fellow with a lot border collie in him. Like the bad girls of Mae West’s remark, Kuro goes everywhere. My wife Yasuko, who shares the space with me and runs her own small company, takes him to the office everyday and drives with him to many outside appointments as well. On this occasion she was visiting the Ministry of Economy, evidently a no-dogs zone, so Kuro was confined to base and it was up to me to calm him and keep him away from heavy furniture. Dogs, I have noticed, seem particularly spooked by earthquakes and even minor ones send Kuro into meltdown.

The minute it was over I did what everyone else did — picked up the phone. I was relieved to get a line and tried to reach Yasuko on her cell. Impossible. The message kept telling me that the phone system was heavily overloaded. She, I later found out, was having the same problem. Though the Japanese telephone system is one of the world’s most advanced, cell phones are largely useless in such a major emergency. The best way to get through is via old-fashioned coin phones, which are automatically given priority. A good second-best is email or texting, but I also didn’t find that out until later.

My instinct was to get back to work. But, presumably out of fear that an even worse episode might follow and partly because, with the phone system down, work had become nearly impossible anyway, bosses closed offices and within twenty minutes the streets had filled with workers.

In our building some brave souls were still using the elevators, although the cars have a notice in both sign language and in Japanese warning that elevators are, of course, just about the worst place to be in an earthquake. I had an enervating time stumbling down the stairs behind my frantic dog.

I went home — about a ten-minute walk away — and found to my surprise that apart from a few cupboard doors and kitchen drawers flung open and some books scattered on the floor there was nothing to show for what had happened.

Yasuko had not been so lucky. She was on the 14th floor of the Ministry of Economy building. As befits a famously powerful Japanese government agency, the ministry’s building is unusually well earthquake-proofed. But because the building is designed to “roll with the punches,” its inhabitants had an even more terrifying experience than we’d had in Shiba. After the quake, she took the stairs down fourteen floors to street level and walked home — about two miles. The authorities had immediately shut down all train services for inspection and taxis were suddenly impossible to find.

But even Yasuko was lucky compared to most Tokyo office workers, who typically had to walk five to ten miles to get to homes in the suburbs. Even those with cars took three to four hours because the roads were so congested, perhaps more than at any other time in Tokyo’s history. Many salary men with longer commutes chose to have a night out on the town and sleep overnight at their offices.

For Tokyoites, at least the immediate crisis is over and the city is rapidly getting back to normal. Most public transport services came back online today and, though there are fears of food shortages, it seems likely that most workers will return to work on Monday.

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