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.


1000 Bar Mitzvahs

My little brother (who’s taller than me) was in town a while back, so we decided to go out and find some tradition outside of the neon jungle of Tokyo.  We settled on Nara, which is a forty minute train ride from Kyoto.  Nara is like Kyoto, focusing on history, but is a little more low-key and very slightly less touristy than its bigger neighbour.

What’s amazing is that this year, Nara is celebrating their 1300th anniversary, complete with a special commemorative Kirin beer to celebrate (the coloured band along the bottom is the special edition part):

It’s mainly famous for impressive places like this and the ant-like people who visit them:

This is Todai Temple, the largest wooden building in the world.  It’s difficult to fathom the scale when you’re standing in front of it. It’s build to house this massive statue of the Buddha, one of the biggest in Japan:

How’s this for some history?  The temple was built in 752 AD.  In 855, the Buddha’s head fell off after an earthquake.  Shortly after they fixed it, the whole building was burned down in a war.  Then they rebuilt it.  Then it got burned down again in another war in 1180.  They they rebuilt it.  Then in 1567, it got burned out in another war.  Then they rebuilt it.  In 1610 it collapsed in gale-force winds.  Since 1709, the current building has endured.

For a life of 1258 years, I guess that’s a pretty good track record, but I can’t help but think of another famous building:

The Yamato

If you ever go to Hiroshima, there’s one often overlooked place nearby called Kure.  It’s about half an hour by train and a nice half day trip.

Kure is most famous for being the naval base where the Yamato, the one-time flagship of Japan’s navy during World War II, was built.  Today, the Yamato Museum commemorates the ship itself as well as a lot of the naval history of Kure.

The central feature of the museum is an enormous 1:10 scale model of the Yamato.  The original ship was the crown jewel of the Japanese navy and packed a massive amount of firepower, one of the largest battleships ever built.  It didn’t see nearly as much combat action as might be  expected for the sizable amount of resources devoted to its construction, and it was sunk near Okinawa near the end of the war without having made much of an impact.

Yamato Museum, Kure

The attention to detail in this model is really something:

Yamato Museum, Kure

There are also a selection of other large exhibits around the museum.  One of the most sobering this this one, a Kaiten human torpedo.  These were employed in desperation by the Japanese navy in the later stages of the war, and were designed for a single, doomed pilot to steer their explosive payload into an enemy ship.  Talking to a co-worker about this, he said that most of these torpedoes were gunned down before reaching their target, making the waste of life mind-bogglingly senseless.

Next to this suicide torpedo are the pictures of a couple of its 18 year old pilots.  Standing in front of its narrow dimensions, you can’t help but imagine the horror of these boys of being sealed into a dark, metal tube, sailing off on a one-way trip to their certain deaths, whether colliding with an enemy ship, destroyed before reaching their objective, or just failing to get there altogether.  Thinking about modern day school boys you see on the train every day horsing around with their friends being forced to lay down their lives in such a horrific way leaves a lasting impression.

Yamato Museum, Kure

The plane you can see here is of course the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter.  At the back is a two-man midget sub along with a selection of shells.

Yamato Museum, Kure

Nearby the museum is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Museum, with its main attraction, the submarine Akishio:

Yamato Museum, Kure

Yamato Museum, Kure

If you ever end up visiting Hiroshima, have an afternoon to spare and have even a passing interest in history, a trip to Kure and the Yamato Museum should be on your list of things to do.  It’s an educational, if grim, experience, but if you’re visiting Hiroshima, that’s probably why you’re there, after all.


This week is Golden Week in Japan, a series of three public holidays which give an almost unheard-of five days of consecutive holidays.  Normally, Tokyo empties and people use this rare opportunity to get out of town and travel.  This year, I did the same, jumping on a bullet train and heading for Hiroshima.

Hiroshima is on the west coast of Japan, about five hours by bullet train from Tokyo.  Compared to the 13 million-odd people living in Tokyo, it’s home to a little over 1 million, and has a distinctly more laid-back feel than the capital.  However, it’s difficult to talk about Hiroshima too much more without talking about the event that really defines it for most people.  It’s one of the few cities in the world where the name of the city is more famous as a single event than as a city.

I wasn’t sure what to expect before visiting Hiroshima.  Would the atomic bomb be a taboo subject?  Not at all, as it turns out.  It’s very much a centerpiece of the city, centered on this building:

Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome

The above building is called the Atomic Bomb Dome, and it’s World Heritage listed.  At the time of the bombing at 8:15am on 6 August 1945, it was the pride and joy of Hiroshima, a beautifully designed regional trade hall.  The A-bomb exploded 600 meters almost directly above.  Since the incredible pressure and blast came from directly overhead, it was one of the few buildings to stay standing within two kilometers.  All the occupants of the building were instantly killed by the intense heat, along with 80 000 in the surrounding area.  By the end of 1945, 140 000 would be dead.

There was lots of debate in the following decades about whether to knock down the building and move on, or to preserve it as a memorial.  As Hiroshima’s reconstruction progressed and more reminders of the horrors of that day disappeared, it was decided it should stay.  It’s certainly eerie to be standing at the place of one of the most infamous events of the 20th century.  It’s one thing to read statistics about death and destruction, and another to be able to see them in the context of a living, breathing city.  It’s certainly something which leaves a deep impression.

The large area of Hiroshima surrounding the A-Bomb Dome, as it’s called, is devoted to the memory of the event: the 200 000 total deaths attributed to the bomb, and the ongoing effects through to the present, such as survivors affected by radiation, called hibakusha.  It’s a sobmre-looking building built in the middle of a beautiful Peace Park:

Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum

The museum is full of personal effects and models to demonstrate the scale of what happened on that day.  Here is Hiroshima before the bombing (the building with the green roof is the A-bomb Dome, near the centre of the explosion):

Scale model - Hiroshima before the bomb

… and here it is after the bombing, with everything bar a few buildings reduced to ashes:

After the Hiroshima Bomb - scale model

And here again on a bigger scale (the red orb is where the bomb detonated).  It’s staggering to think that this devastation was caused by a device not much bigger than a refrigerator:

Model of Hiroshima

Naturally, the museum contains a great amount of factual information about the bombing. To its credit, it has a lot of extra material looking at the complex causes and effects surrounding it.  It talks in fairly unvarnished terms about Japan’s militarism in the years leading up to the war, and about Japan’s aggressive acts during WWII.  It also spends some time talking about the development of the atomic bomb, discussion why America may have made the decision to drop the bomb without warning, why they picked Hiroshima (it was relatively unscathed by conventional bombing and so the Allies could accurately judge the success of the new technology), how dropping the bomb was thought to give America a strategic advantage against the Soviet Union in the post-war years, and how they needed to justify the enormous manpower and material costs of the Manhattan Project.  It never assigns blame or boils the whole affair down to any particular root cause, but rather presents a complex series of issues and decisions.

There are lots of personal effects of victims throughout the museum, some rather horrific in their implications of the injuries sustained by their owners.  Among the most haunting, perhaps, are the watches of victims which stopped at that exact moment in history:

Hiroshima watch

These days, the word you’ll notice in Hiroshima more than any other is heiwa, peace.  There’s a famous story about a young girl who survived the bombing, only to be diagnosed with leukemia a few years later.  To pray for her recovery, she folded over one thousand paper cranes.  Sadly, she succumbed to her illness, but the paper crane has become one of the symbols of Hiroshima, with visitors bringing thousands and thousands of them each year in tribute:

Hiroshima paper cranes

While the A-bomb in some ways defines the city of Hiroshima, there’s plenty of other great things to see too, which I hope to write about soon.  For a start, beautiful sunsets near rivers where paper cranes gently float:

Sunset in Hiroshima