[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.