March 13, 2011

JAPAN: First-hand account of the devastating earthquake

BANGKOK, Thailand/ The Nation / March 13, 2011

A letter from Tokyo

Christopher Johnson, author of "Siamese Dream" and former reporter of The Nation, provides a first-hand account of Japan's devastating earthquake in this letter from Tokyo, where he lives.

I was taking a shower at 2.46 on Friday afternoon when our old Japanese house started to shake.

At first, I thought this is no big deal. We get tremors in Tokyo almost every month, and our house shivers even in strong winds. I had been finishing up a novel about the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which I had covered. Today's earthquake seemed almost fictional at first.

When the shaking got worse, and it was hard to stand up, I grabbed a towel and called out to my partner Qumico, who was upstairs working on a new album with her band The Sherbets.

Like millions of Japanese living in densely populated cities along the Pacific coast, she was too stunned to move at first. We keep a rope, flashlight and other earthquake essentials upstairs, but she decided to take her chances and run down the stairs to get out of the house before the roof and second floor might flatten the ground floor.

Dripping wet, I ran out of our kitchen door in my barefeet and called for her to get out of the house. We met up outside at the front of the house. The world beneath our feet was shaking side to side, up and down: yokoyure and chokagata in Japanese, a language rich in earthquake terminology.

It was like being on a ship in stormy seas. Careful that only the sky was above our heads, we watched our old wooden Japanese house sway from side to side, for what seemed like longer than a minute.

Stunned, I didn't feel cold, but Qumico bravely opened the front door and grabbed a big warm coat to put around me. We were afraid at first to go back in the house, fearing it might collapse, as weakened structures often do in Japan. I remembered how the Kobe earthquake destroyed almost every old house in the city, and I thought we were next. We thought for sure it was the Big One that everybody in Tokyo fears.

A few minutes later, we went back inside, shivering, and saw flowers and spices on the floor. Strangely, our guitars were still on their stands. I remembered a guy in Kobe, crawling out a hole in his destroyed house with a Fender Stratocaster in his hands.

Our phones didn't work, but the Internet and TV did. We were amazed to hear the epicenter was 300 kilometres north of Tokyo, near Sendai city in Miyagi prefecture.

Like many Japanese, Qumico opened the various sliding glass doors around the house, and turned off the gas. Many Japanese remember how lunch-time cooking fires destroyed Yokohama and Tokyo after a massive quake at noon on September 1, 1923, and how a blaze through shoe factories in Nagata-ku added to the death toll of more than 6000 in Kobe.

Putting on warm clothes, we checked on senior citizens living next door, who were OK, and saw frightened neighbours standing out in their gardens, or on the street. Luckily, we didn't see any fires or collapsed buildings, though helicopters sped overhead and firetrucks blared around the Setagaya ward where we live, about 10-minutes by train from the Shibuya entertainment district in central Tokyo.

For the next hour or so, I tried to contact friends online from my desk near an open door in about 5 degrees temperature, and we ran in and out of the house after about 5 or 6 aftershocks, which felt like serious quakes of their own. The Earth seemed to be angry at us for over-constructing our cities upon her, and we wondered when this horror movie would stop.

With phones down, hundreds of friends around Japan sent Facebook messages around. "Are you OK?" "I'm OK". "That was scary." Qumico's family members and friends across Tokyo were unscathed, but scared. Her brother on the 16th floor felt his apartment building swaying like a ship in a storm. I was most concerned about my friend Fred Varcoe, a British journalist whose family lives just a few metres from the Pacific Ocean, where 10-metre high walls of water were reportedly wiping villages off the map.

My friend British journalist Robert Michael Poole said his apartment in central Tokyo was trashed. Many others said they were safely outside buildings, but worried how they would get home, with all the train lines down. Nobody could reach friends in Sendai. Everybody was relieved that it wasn't a direct hit on Tokyo, but nobody could reach friends in Sendai, near the epicenter in northeastern Japan.

I sent e-mails to Maynard Plant in Sendai, with no reply. I hoped that Maynard and his brother Blaise, two Canadians who lead one of Japan's most popular bands, Monkey Majik, were on tour or recording somewhere not in the Sendai area.

Japanese TV, which is bizarre in normal times, was even more surreal. Newscasters wearing helmets. Flashing red lines along the entire Pacific coast of Japan, home to most of the country's 125 million people. Images of the ocean smothering whole towns and cities. Repeated mantras of warnings: take cover, evacuate coastal areas, stay evacuated, try and help senior citizens who can't escape on their own. And endless reports about train lines down, airlines cancelling flights, millions of people without power.

It was comforting to see Prime Minister Naoto Kan on TV, especially because of the rumours that he was going to resign today, due to an illegal donation scandal. But it seemed he also had no idea of what was really happening around Japan.

About six hours after the quake, I finally got a Facebook message from Fred Varcoe. He said his house was still standing. He escaped up a cliff and watched massive waves rolling in from the Pacific. He was too scared to go home, and was looking for an emergency shelter for his wife and two-year old daughter. It was impossible to call him.

Strangely, I could call producers in Canada, but not anybody in Japan. By 3 am, I still couldn't reach Maynard in Sendai. I could only hope that he was somewhere safe, in a country where thousands, perhaps millions, would be sleeping outside in minus zero temperatures, too scared to sleep with a collapsible roof over their heads.

(c) 2007