Aftershock: A New Yorker on the dark side of Japan (eyewitness account of quake, from Tokyo)

[Photo: Citizens of Tokyo evacuate the city on train tracks, after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011. REUTERS]

The only thing more disconcerting than the typical calm Japanese people so often exhibit in the face of all manner of outlandish occurrences is actually seeing the normally buttoned-up, retrained populace lose their cool en masse. That is truly scary. And that is what I saw happen Friday afternoon, when Japan experienced what some seismologists are calling the strongest earthquake to hit Japan in a thousand years.

How strong was the earthquake? I would like to now point out that even as I'm writing this at 1 a.m. Tokyo time (the major quake hit at 2:46 p.m.) we are still experiencing very strong aftershocks about once an hour. So excuse me if my observations are still tinged by frantic concern that the ceiling may still come falling down around my head.

It began as a light tremor, something that one becomes oddly accustomed to when living in Japan. But then the deceptively gentle tremor kept going... and going... and going. Until the bemused giggles of my Japanese office mates gradually turned into full on screams of fear as everyone tried to duck under the nearest desk. But what really brought the thought that this might be my last Friday was the fact that the quake didn't obey the rules of good luck and suddenly stop once we all ducked under the desks. No. The quake lasted a very, very long time. Not unlike an animal's howl, the quake went from a deep rumble and gradually built up to a thunderous and sustained wave of rhythmic, humming, physical chaos. It lasted about five minutes by my guess. And if you've ever experienced an earthquake, you know that five minutes is an eternity compared to the run-of-the-mill quake. It was scary.

What I find most odd is that I'm not hearing the major cable news channels mention the fact that we experienced a similar (albeit far weaker), very long precursor earthquake earlier in the week. Clearly, that was the warning shot leading to the hit we sustained today.

After evacuating the building, most of my colleagues marched off to the area's designated safety zone: a cemetery. I kid you not. Needless to say, I begged off. If this did turn out to be the apocalypse, I had no intention of making the Grim Reaper's job not only easy, but geographically convenient.

As my friends and I made our way to Omotesando, the high-end shopping district in the center of Tokyo not far from where I live, the impact of the quake was apparent.

For me this was the most spooky kind of déjà vu. When lived in Greenwich Village, on 9/11 I watched as thousands of office workers trudged home on foot away from Ground Zero, clothes dirty with soot and smoke they'd have to carry with them for miles as the subway was shut down.

Today I watched with a strange recognition as thousands of well-heeled salarymen and perfectly coiffed office ladies made their way though the streets of Tokyo, some looking at five-hour walks ahead of them.

For some reason, that's when my old school journalist instincts kicked in and I started asking questions in horrible, yet quite serviceable Japanese. I explored the underground train stations and queried the obaasans (grandmothers) who seemed determined to wait for a train that had no promise of arriving any time soon, and I gently interrogated the station master, whose patience reminded me of why Japan is famous for its service culture.

Back topside, I poked my head into any shop that seemed to have recovered from the quake, at least on the surface. While most everyone was polite, and sometimes even informative, in contrast to the tough "we'll get through this, screw disaster!" flippancy I grew up around in New York, these people were very clearly scared, and with good reason.

Hearing the tale of The Big One is something of a rite of passage for anyone moving to Japan. The story goes (with random variations) that some scientists somewhere of some great authority have predicted that Tokyo is overdue to experience a cataclysmic earthquake that will make the Kobe earthquake of 1995 look like a game of seismic hopscotch compared to the impending doom of a major smack from Mother Nature that will rival the carnage and disintegrating buildings seen in the finale of the anime film "Akira".

So while the bespoke suits and $500 hairdos ever-present in Tokyo are indeed an integral part of Japan's frosty demeanor, just below the surface, most residents silently dread the long promised day when the Big One will come and end all the fun. It's in that mental context that many scurried the streets today very seriously prepared to believe that this might be the end.

The epicenter of the quake was about 230 miles away from Tokyo, but its effects were felt in the marrow of citizens in Japan's capital city.

After shooting a bit of video, and helping out a few foreign tourists, I made my way back home, straightened things up in my largely unscathed apartment, and immediately headed back out on my bike to survey the streets.

This is something of a personal ritual. In New York, whenever disaster strikes, I don't sit by the glow of cable news, I get out on the streets and look for the pulse of the event. Preferably at night, preferably on a bike.

Hey, if one is "cursed to live in interesting times," one should at least respect the moment's historical import and drink deep of the eschatological trough.

The homeward bound crowds filling the streets seemed to peak at 4 p.m. Yet by 11 p.m. the streets were still jam packed with office workers walking home, only now framed by bumper-to-bumper traffic that moved far slower than anyone on foot.

Here and there you could see a mother holding the hand of a child wearing what I can only describe as a platinum colored hood-hat that was so cute, yet simultaneously utilitarian I can only assume this is a widely used safety hat given out to children in lieu of a full on helmet to guard against falling debris.

A trip to five different convenience stores to replenish my battery supply revealed only clean and completely empty shelves, dutifully manned by store workers who, despite the fact that they had nothing to sell, continued to energetically issue that familiar "irreshaimase!" (welcome) refrain. In the face of the empty shelves that hinted at social panic if left to continue another day, the Japanese sense of duty was a reassuring touchstone.

Now looking at the facts emerging in the aftermath of the quake, the truth of exactly how epic this whole thing was (is) becomes more tangible. Reports have the death toll at 200-300 people, and authorities expect that number to pass 1,000. As I write this there are an estimated 4 million buildings in Tokyo without power as a 23-foot wall of water bears down on the country and places as far away as Hawaii brace for the worst.

In what may come to be known historically as the Sendai Earthquake, we now learn that it was the fifth largest on the entire planet since 1900, and the largest ever in the history of earthquake-prone Japan.

Yes, this was historic, but it was also somehow personally cathartic. Today I watched one of the most crowded cities on Earth--not New York--comport itself with grace and aplomb in the face of swaying skyscrapers and a severe interruption (and in some cases, ending) to life as we know it.

As a native New Yorker who experienced my city's massive blackouts and riots, and finally the end of the World Trade Center, I recognize this business of being cosmopolitan, fragile, tough and empathic all at once.

What surprised me today is that within a culture I've spent so much time studying, and highlighting the differences of, I now understand--no, intuit that these people born on the opposite side of the planet are nothing less than exactly as courageous, terrified, and optimistically unsure as everyone I grew up with in the U.S.

The Western sci-fi novels are wrong. Japan is not Mars. It's more like a space station in which our distant cousins simply have different ways.

Ultimately, days like these give rise to a kind of pan-cultural adhesive that serves to bind us together no matter how different we want to think we are.

And despite the pain and the loss, that's what I think these moments in history are really for. We should not waste such opportunities. I still have butterflies in my stomach, but this space station doesn't feel as strange as it used to, and I like that.


  1. “What I find odd is that I’m not hearing the major cable news channels mention the fact that we experienced a similar (albeit far weaker), very long precursor earthquake earlier in the week.”

    Not sure what channel you’ve been watching, but since the quake, CNN has mentioned the pre-quakes. I was up late and caught the early broadcasts, and they mentioned it, pretty often.

      1. That’s what I was thinking. I’m watching a Japanese news station right now and they are busy showing the damage and reporting aftershocks every couple of minutes. Not much else right now.

        I guess most people in Japan are aware of what happened earlier in the week. On the other hand, there are rather strong earthquakes (magnitude 5 or 6) every couple of days and up to 4 almost every day somewhere in Japan. Usually not newsworthy, just scrolls across TV screens and that’s it.

    1. Be safe and i wish more people though like you do about people on the other side of the world. I think people should have a open mind and not judge. I was just surfing the tweets to see how it is going over there. My consern is the nuc plant seem that it could be a problem for the ones that live close by there.

  2. “Japan is not Mars. It’s more like a space station in which our distant cousins simply have different ways.”

    That’s poetry, philosophy and a way we should look at the world at large more often.

  3. “I explored the underground train stations and queried the obaasans (grandmothers) who seemed determined to wait for a train that had no promise of arriving any time soon…”

    Pure poetry.

    Great essay, thank you!

  4. If you can write this well after going through the biggest earthquake in a thousand years, how do you write on a normal day? Great job, Adario, and thank you.

  5. A bit to worn out 2day from the heavy online vortex and processing, but i’ll thro this out without much of a preface… since there’s a bit of a discussion here on other quakes, this should probably be looked at :

  6. Everyone in my office was cool and calm. The president of my company asked everyone to stay in the office as we all knew the roads and trains would be packed.

    About 6pm or so me and my coworkers went to a neighborhood Italian place(always fully booked but somehow we could get a seat lol) and had a nice dinner before heading back to the office to have a few more drinks and catch a little sleep. I slept on a card board box and found my way home in the morning. Everyone knows the big quake was coming and most people were rather well prepared and took it very well.

    The first quake was very scary to be sure but people have faith in the buildings here so actually I was the only person in my company (as the only American) to run out of the building. I knew logically that the inside of the building is safer than outside but I just felt so scared and claustrophobic I had to get out. Actually many of the other offices in my building evacuated as well.

    Overall not that bad in Tokyo, now Sendai and the coast is just to heart wrenching to watch. I am just counting my blessings today.

  7. You’ve painted a superb picture of an evolved city and culture coping with crisis.

    Well-written but far too complimentary of North Americans who by monitor of social media are prone to panicked hysteria and turning natural disasters elsewhere into an overdrawn concern for themselves.

    PS The second word ‘I’ in the 4th last paragraph needs to be omitted.

    1. “Well-written but far too complimentary of North Americans who by monitor of social media are prone to panicked hysteria and turning natural disasters elsewhere into an overdrawn concern for themselves.”

      I both resemble and resent that, since this Midwesterner sits less than 100 miles away from a fault line which, historically, has unleashed a Big One every 200 years, and the last time it did so was 200 years ago.

      I’m sure some people in Japan thought the same thing when they saw coverage of Chile a few years ago.

  8. Thank you for this. I visited Japan in 2007 and was instantly smitten. For a place so incredibly foreign, it felt safer than home and just as welcoming. I wish the best to all those caught up in this catastrophe.

  9. Great article. But this paragraph was a bit of a surprise.

    “What I surprised me today is that within a culture I’ve spent so much time studying, and highlighting the differences of, I now understand–no, intuit that these people born on the opposite side of the planet are nothing less than exactly as courageous, terrified, and optimistically unsure as everyone I grew up with in the U.S.”

    As they say “people are people, wherever you go”. Why was the author assuming that the Japanese would be less courageous than people in the U.S.?

    1. Funny how our assumptions color how we interpret things. I read that passage as the writer being (mildly) surprised that Tokyoites were just as likely to panic/worry but still go on as New Yorkers–not that he expected them to be less courageous, but that he assumed they’d be more blasé, more acclimated to earth tremors.

  10. Funny, Japanese people think that Americans are the “martians”. We’re the ones running around with guns and eating poor diets…

  11. In San Francisco a shake or a shudder is as described. Duration is everything because then really heavy objects start to dance about and fall over. When it goes on for much over 30 or 40 seconds with no sign of a letup I defy anyone to remain cool.

  12. In Tokyo, to be honest, the earthquake was nothing at all like it is in TV images of Miyagi prefecture.

    It did go on for a very long time — and there continue to be aftershocks even now, almost a whole day later — but in my apartment nothing at all broke. A couple of picture frames fell over, but that’s it.

    I suspect, had the writer been in Sendai, he’d have seen more flipping out. I’d have flipped out, that’s for sure. Instead, I just ran out of the subway station and held on to something for the duration of the gentle swaying. And then I went home and watched TV, where there were really really bad things happening in other parts of Japan.

  13. The thing that struck me during a visit to Tokyo, while recalling for a moment that I was in an area prone to quakes, is the number of large construction cranes perched atop very narrow, very tall buildings sometimes 2 cranes on one rooftop. These very narrow, very tall buildings often cap labyrinthine subway lines and train station attached to underground shopping malls. There’s a lot of stuff to fall on your head.

  14. Already posted my impressions here

    Sounds like our man spends too much time with moneyed Japanese and doesn’t like what he sees, not earning enough maybe?

  15. No reaction would be surprising from any group of people given a 8.9 magnitude quake.

    I enjoyed the piece as well – just not the title.
    The ‘light’ side of Japan is what is showing through here – people are surprisingly collected and cooperative given the turn of events here. (Though we are not out of the woods yet)

  16. Just wanted to comment on the photo accompanying the article, which I have seen in other places, with a similarly misleading tagline. Those people are not “evacuating the city”: they are passengers who have been on a train which stopped and they are walking to the nearest station, where they would get out onto the streets. There was no need to walk along train tracks otherwise, as the streets were easily walkable, though very crowded with people, including myself, walking home.

  17. good essay, Adario.

    wish these darn aftershocks would stop.

    but more than anything, my heart goes out to all who lost loved ones and I hope the rescue efforts are more successful than anyone can imagine.

    and that the damn nuke plants don’t blow.

    from a native new yorker, expat in tokyo for 14 years.

  18. A well-written view of Tokyoites.

    Walking through Tokyo today to put my niece on the train to Kyoto was a surreal experience. I knew, and everyone around me knew, and we all knew that each other knew, that something horrible had happened and that we had escaped unscathed. “The Big One” still lurks under Tokyo and we’ve just been reminded. But there was an eerie back-to-business feel around the neighborhood mixed with a little more chattiness than usual at the corner store as we all reassured each other for a moment.

    I was fortunate to have friends and family come through OK and have some of them spend the night at my more centrally-located apartment.

    Re Anon #14, just reread it. “nothing less than *exactly as* $ as everyone I grew up with in the U.S.” He is is saying not only that people were not less, but also not more (insert expected quality). People can have a good freakout just as well as the famously stereotypical stoicism.

    Saw a bit of both at work on Friday. The university cheerleading squad alternately squealed and dropped to the ground at each aftershock or got up to continue marshaling preparations like first-aid kits and stretchers to the designated gathering point (fortunately not a graveyard).

    People in my department all freaked and ran out of my building (foreigners and Japanese), but one young woman came out and calmly proclaimed “It’s only a four or a five” with her helmet tucked under her arm. None of us yet knew for sure how bad it really was, but we all dreaded finding out.

    The tough part will be university graduation on Tuesday when some of my students from Miyagi and Fukushima should be graduating. I don’t know how I will face them if they are there, and I’ll miss them if they are not. Tokyo had it very, very lucky.

  19. Was that not the “big one”? The biggest in japan ever.
    Close enough to say almost the biggest in the world- which was 9.2
    I believe in Chile? The only thing worse could be if it was centered in tokyo-

    Which could look more like the kansai quake- which had about 5100 death toll. I believe with time comes safer and better conditions and factors like building codes and prepardness. So cinsidering the lashing mother nature has dealt the whole country- id say japan has and is handeling very well and aside from the unfortunate tragic loss of lives- most negitive impact for all the people of japan will be a further crippled economy- one hour after the quake seismoligists in menlo park ca were predicting 1000 dead and $100 billion in damage, there death toll predictions look close so far, im really hoping there are not too many injured or dead to be found in the massive clean up.

    My main point here is- I think- and am wrong often, but I think that was the big one- and now we can relax, im not in japan now but will return soon.
    And if there was another one- I think tokyo will be ready.

    Now, I need to stockpile emergency sulplies here in the sf bay area, too.

  20. Thoroughly appreciated the insight; especially as I am also a native NYer. Profound. Humorous, at times. Award winning. Great article.

  21. nuclear reactors built in known high siesmic activity zones is at best madness, this will be a testament to the use of radioactive materials for decades to come, as it was since 1945

  22. We were also in Tokyo during the quake and incredibly impressed by the professionalism and brave behavior of the Japanese, even as they were very scared.

    The most amazing thing about this was how the buildings in Tokyo remained upright through massive shaking. Under normal business codes we could imagine hundreds of thousands dead. So the Japanese engineers are great heroes because they way they built their buildings WORKED.

    My wife had a nightmare about earthquakes earlier in the week about 2am a few hours before the two 6.3+ earthquakes hit. No one in Japan seemed affected at all. We started asking people in Japan how they adapt to cope with earthquakes. Our tour guide said the hardest part for her was that she worried about her kids being away at school when a quake hit. She said what Japanese mothers do to cope with that is to knit a special cloth cap for each of their children, who carry it in their backpacks until the age of 15 or so. During every earthquake drill, the children put on their caps and go under their desks. She said that even though the cap is cloth, the mothers say a special prayer with each stitch and it takes a very long time to sew. While not physical protection, the caps are a shelter of love for each child. We heard this story and felt that in some sense, they are magic hats. Little did we realize that a major quake would strike just 48 hours after this conversation. Thankfully our guide and her family were all OK.

  23. I lived in the Tokyo-Kamakura area in ’95, the time of the Great Hanshin quake. This essay very, very closely describes my experiences, from the long, rolling and very frightening precursor quake to the overwhelming talk of the “impending Big One that will kill us all.” It, and the fading economy, was what sent me back to the US in 1996.

    How remarkable how some things haven’t changed. In the meantime, my thoughts, prayers and donations are with the Japanese people.

  24. “What surprised me today is that within a culture I’ve spent so much time studying, and highlighting the differences of, I now understand–no, intuit that these people born on the opposite side of the planet are nothing less than exactly as courageous, terrified, and optimistically unsure as everyone I grew up with in the U.S.”

    I’m not the first person to take issue at this, but I suppose the whole tone of the article, not to mention the misleading headline, does sort of smell of confirmation bias and quasi-Orientalist attitudes. It’s well written in some ways, but what gets me here is that the author has handily, but apparently unwittingly, encapsulated the cause of his prolonged misunderstanding of the Japanese in the same sentence as he proclaims his belated understanding. If you spend your whole time in a foreign country going “wow, this is different! And that’s different!”, you are not being clever, insightful or productive; different country is different, this is known. Look for how weird and crazy the Japanese are, and you will of course find what you seek. If you spend your time trying to find similarities, instead of stumbling across them accidentally, you might find that more rewarding.

    Anon #34, that’s a wonderful story. I bet the hats have a practical benefit too – when mum turns up at school, it makes it easier to pick her kids out of a sea of children.

  25. I would just like to say that I read DVICE regularly, and am thankful you posted this. I cannot fathom all that has happened in Japan, and especially in Sendai. Thank you for writing your blog here, and your article on DVICE.

    I appreciated your tempered humor, and eyewitness account. Both helped the geek in me consider what might be helpful here in Colorado if something like this happened (the magnitude, not necessarily the same thing), and the person that watched the news and pictures thinking/feeling so much there were not enough words to capture everything.

    I hope you and those significant to you, remain safe, and that the reactors and emergencies associated with them are resolved quickly. I am very much a lover of superheroes and comic books… however, I can think of no better superheroes than those risking life and livelihoods to help others in the aftermath, and to work towards preventing nuclear meltdown.

    Thank you again for all that you shared.

    p.s. i definitely made a mental note about batteries… i had never considered that.

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