2011 Sendai Earthquake, first day

Friday 11 March 2011


I’m sitting on the 11th floor of my organisation’s office in central Tokyo, proofreading a document in English written by a co-worker: a “native check” as we call it. The building starts to shudder slightly. This is nothing too unusual – in four years living in seismically-hyperactive Japan, there have been hundreds of earthquakes, about ten which I’ve actually paid much attention to.

This one, however, feels different. It doesn’t stop within a few seconds: it gets stronger. And stronger. After ten seconds, alarmed faces pop up over cubicle walls, and people run to open the doors: standard procedure during a serious earthquake in case the doors are buckled closed. I have no idea now how I get there, but I end up clinging to the office entry doorframe as the building sways sickeningly. After ten more seconds, the vibrations get impossibly violent, and the building’s collapse seems very possible.

Books fall off shelves, earthquake warnings are blaring, people are screaming. A coworker is sitting on the floor next to me, legs splayed, staring into nothing and looking emotionless while all this is going on. I can’t tell if she’s supremely controlled or panicked beyond the point of emotion. For my part, I’m pretty sure my eyes are as wide as dinner plates. I realise at this perfectly late moment that I’ve never actually taken part in an earthquake drill, unlike all my Japanese co-workers who have done so from elementary school, learning how to get under desks and wear cushions on their heads as makeshift helmets.

Gradually, the vibrations stop, but the sirens are still howling. Everyone is rushing around, checking the extent of the damage. We’ve gotten off pretty lightly – a few objects fallen on to the floor and not much more. As we discover later, the base of one of the filing cabinets has warped, indicating how powerful the force of the quake was.

We switch on the TV, and the announcer on NHK is already halfway through his first report on the quake.  Japan has got it together when it comes to earthquake warnings and reporting.

A few small aftershocks follow. People seem to be debating whether to leave the office or not. Up here on 11F with the lifts automatically disabled following the quake, I know what I’m doing. I get out of there, leaving my bag and everything behind. A few co-workers follow me out, and we move with purpose down the twenty flights of stairs, joining a stream of others surging out. Everyone is very calm – no shouting or pushing. Everything is done in a very orderly – perhaps, Japanese, even? – manner.


My co-workers and I gather outside the building on the curb, along with throngs of people from nearby buildings. With aftershocks on the way, in hindsight it’s a bad move to be standing under tall buildings largely constructed from glass. People are trying to get through to family and friends, but inevitably, the cell phone network has collapsed under the sudden load.

A motorcycle cop snakes through the traffic in the intersection and pulls up to the curb. Through his headset microphone and personal PA system, he asks if everyone is okay. Seeing mostly nods, he moves on to the next clump of people.

We decide to set off for the open spaces of the Imperial Palace, only a five minute walk from where we are.

It turns out the palace and parkland itself has been closed, but everyone is congregating on the outskirts. We’re a good distance from any buildings now, so this seems like a good place to wait it out. Word is coming through that the quake was centred on Miyagi Prefecture in the north of Japan, about 300km from where we are now. If we were hit with so much force all the way in the south, it’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those in northern areas. People with families in Miyagi Prefecture are trying to get through on their cell phones, but they’re not even getting as far as a dial tone. Even if the local mobile cell was even up, the chance of getting through to the affected region seems very slim.


We’ve had a number of middling aftershocks in the wake of the main event, but this one is sizable. An hour ago, I would have called it the biggest earthquake I’d ever experienced. Cars and buses are rocking back and forth on their suspensions, and street signs are jinking around crazily. People get their cameras out – as do I – and learn that it’s difficult to film a minor earthquake outside. Are things wobbling, or is it just unsteady hands?  The initial surge of adrenaline hasn’t quite worn off yet.

Looking around at the immediate area stacked with high-rise offices of twenty stories or more, it seems miraculous that nothing appears to even be slightly damaged. It’s truly a tribute to Japanese engineering and building codes that the infrastructure has proved so resilient. Even the overhead expressways, the first thing to go in places like Kobe and San Francisco, look as normal.

You also have to credit the culture in Japan of preparedness. One look at the group of nervous-looking company employees across from me in their identical white hard hats, and you know that if anywhere is going to survive an earthquake like this, it’s Japan.


A few co-workers have brought laptops with 3G cards; while voice networks and cellular email are down, roaming data is miraculously up. Gradually, people are piecing together what’s happening, including the devastating tsunami in the north. We’re not quite sure what to do at this point. I’m quite happy to wait outside, but it’s also getting cold and I don’t have any way to work out what’s really happening. We head back to the office.


The doors of the office have been propped open with water bottles. Our office is highly security conscious, and we have two secure entry points that you usually have to negotiate to get into the office proper. That everything is wide open today certainly highlights the extra-ordinariness of the situation.

There’s word that Tokyo’s train lines have sensibly been stopped for the moment. I learn that lots of infrastructure, notably the famous bullet trains, automatically stop or go into shutdown mode on first detection of an earthquake. That does leave us with the slight problem of how to get home later on.


We’ve had a number of aftershocks now. With each aftershock, my nerves get pulled a little more taut. The memory of the initial shock is still in my mind, and my heart rate hasn’t returned to normal just yet. My co-workers seem to be handling this better than I am. Unlike me, they’ve been preparing for a day like this since they were children. I have little idea about what to expect at this point. Sitting in a high rise building, the scene of initial drama only two hours ago, is not helping my anxiety.  To give my jangling nerves a break, I tell my co-workers I’ll head to the park opposite the palace to read my Kindle and take my mind off things for a while. Grabbing my bag and overcoat, I head back down the stairs.


I’m sitting on a cold marble bench facing the palace moat, trying to read but finding it hard to concentrate. There are more aftershocks, but they’re decidedly easier to cope with on ground level. Workers are continually streaming past in throngs, having decided to head home before things get worse.

Everyone is very calm in spite of what’s happened and the news filtering out about the north of Japan. I briefly think of my apartment out near Tokyo Disneyland and wonder what state it’s in at the moment. I sit there failing to concentrate on my book, watching people walking past, until it gets cold enough and dark enough that I decide it’s best to go back to the office.


Climbing twenty flights of steps for the second time today, I get back to the warm confines of the office. Amazingly, power and internet have not even blipped through the whole afternoon here, though that’s apparently not true in other parts of Tokyo.

NHK is on the office TV. Footage of the devastation in the north of Japan is being shown on a loop. Helicopters track along the tsunami’s front, in footage I suspect is unprecedented. This footage will be replayed again and again until it’s somehow even more unreal than it initially was.

When I get back to my desk, I’m surprised by the number of people who have emailed and messaged through Twitter to see how I’m going. Even more helpfully, they’ve compiled some links about the situation and sent them through, which gives me a big head start. I’m at a informational disadvantage compared to my co-workers watching the Japanese broadcast on NHK. My Japanese gets me by, but I’ve never acquired the vocabulary required to describe large scale natural disasters. I run Al Jazeera’s English streaming web service in the background and keep one ear on it. It’s mostly focused on the drama of the situation, and is not so helpful for on-the-ground advice.  Twitter, however, is an excellent resource, and it’s definitely proved its value today.


All Tokyo train lines are confirmed as cancelled for tonight, at least. The only choices right now are to walk home or to stay in the office. With a four hour walk home to a messed up apartment potentially without power or heating, staying in the office with my co-workers sounds much more appealing.  I’ve managed to email everyone I care about in Tokyo, and they all seem okay where they are.  The phones are still down.


A raiding party returns from the convenience store with cups of instant ramen, toothbrushes, disposable chopsticks, and lollies. They say that just about everything else has been cleaned out, especially bento lunchboxes and onigiri riceballs.


Japan has a remarkable earthquake early warning system. Using a network of sensors around the country, they can triangulate the early stages of an earthquake in sub-second times. These warnings are automatically send out via TV and radio broadcast, as well as to a special cell phone service.  The warning will beat the tremors to regions away from the epicentre.

It’s quite eerie when every mobile phone in the area starts to go off simultaneously.  TV anchors quickly report the source of the next tremor and areas expected to get hit. Then there’s nothing to do but wait and see how bad it is. Of course, if the aftershock is right under you, you get next to no warning. Comforting.


A number of my coworkers decided to walk home earlier in the afternoon. One reports in that he has walked five hours already, and expects to walk another 1.5 before he gets home.

In a prudent move, the guys in the office are keeping an up-to-the-minute list on who’s checked in and where they are at the present moment.


Following the situation on Twitter and NHK, updates are coming in minute by minute to make a very fluid situation. With the sun having set some hours ago and a lack of new material, TV news is replaying the same footage over and over again from the afternoon. The thought of people homeless, cold and separated from their families up north is very sobering.

Word comes in that my train line is running again. The thought of going home crosses my mind, but there’s sure to be a crush of people all trying to do the same. Decide there’s strength in numbers, and will wait it out until morning. It’s also good to have people around who can help me understand the subtleties what’s being reported on the TV.

Saturday 12 March 2011


Down below the office, the normally moderately-frequented streets – and never at this hour – are in gridlock as far as the eye can see. The overhead expressways have been closed down for safety, and everyone needing to get across town is trying the backstreets. This proves to not be such a great idea.


There are around 15 or so of us left in the office. Everyone else seems to have found their way home on foot. Most of us are watching TV or gathering information on Twitter and the Internet. Some dedicated souls are using the opportunity to catch up on work.


Outside the window, the cars haven’t really moved from when I checked an hour ago. I feel for the drivers, who might have been sitting in their cars for four hours or more with nary a break. Two ambulances, sirens blazing, try to get through the gridlock, but the traffic ahead seems unable or unwilling to move aside for them.


I should be sleeping, but with all the aftershocks, I’m more than a little wired. Everyone seems to be in that strange caffeinated-zombie state of exhaustion bolstered by adrenaline. I’m still focused on Twitter and email, finding out what’s going on and talking to others. The amount of information I’m obsessively consuming is unhealthy, and not all of it useful.  Someone says there are going to be blackouts this morning, but they retract this later without a source.


Everyone is getting very tired now. A few people are sleeping under their desks. I’m picking through the scavenged remains of our convenience store haul for sugar and caffeine, but little remains. Looking out the window, the gridlock seems to have dissipated for the most part, so hopefully motorists are getting closer to home.


I’ve been taking little cat naps at my desk. Every 20 minutes the cell phone early warning tones shriek again, and everyone jumps out of their seats to find out the affected areas.  The initial quake was to the north, but the aftershocks have been steadily been moving south.  Several have come from as far west as Nagano, to the north-west of Tokyo.  I’m getting steadily more confident with the integrity of the building with each one.


Sunrise is here. With the trains running, I decide to head home. I’m not sure what I’m going to find there or what the weekend will bring, but I make my way to the station.

To be continued…

Update: whatever happens here, it’s incomparable to the devastation in the northern areas of Honshu.  Please give to recognised charities such as Doctors Without Borders.

Update 2: I’ve been planning to do an update on the situation here, but it’s currently too much in flux.  For now, it feels more important to focus on the situation at hand rather than doing a detailed analysis. I’ll provide shorter updates at Twitter.


4 thoughts on “2011 Sendai Earthquake, first day

  1. Can’t imagine how unnerving the whole situation must be. So glad you guys are ok where you are but we’re thinking of you both. The images coming out of Japan further north are heartbreaking.

    Stay safe.

  2. Having never experienced any kind of earthquake, I have trouble even imagining what it must be like, so thankyou for writing up your experience.

    Also, I’m so glad that you’re ok!

  3. Glad you scraped through ok with support from your coworkers! I don’t have twitter to keep with the updates so I’ll wish you good luck. Stay safe. 🙂

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