Navigating Japan’s Day of Disaster

March 13, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — As I sat down with my laptop that evening, some hours after the massive earthquake had struck Japan, my cellphone emitted a grating squeal. It was a signal from the National Meteorological Agency warning that a large aftershock was about to hit the Kanto area, which includes Tokyo. Luckily, I had made it back home and was sitting in my sturdy apartment building; my 12-year-old son nearby in our living room. There wasn’t much more I could do except wait for Mother Nature to take her course.

That particular temblor didn’t strike Tokyo hard, but the city shook intermittently throughout the night, prompting my son and me to cross our fingers and hope that the shaking wouldn’t grow stronger. There’s nothing like a natural disaster to put us in our place.

Friday’s earthquake was a vivid reminder to all of us in the country that, yes, the Big One really does come. Japan sits on extremely unstable land. Tiny tremors are common. We all know the drill: Dive under the table or go into an open field, turn off the gas. And always keep a supply of food, water, flashlights and helmets at home. My son’s primary school had actually held a practice evacuation on the previous day.

But, not surprisingly, we become complacent. Years can go by without a destructive temblor. I’m pretty sure I have a box of portable emergency toilet kits somewhere, for example, but who knows exactly where. The last earthquake to hit Japan with major casualties was in 1995 in the Western city of Kobe, where more than 6,000 people died. Tokyo hasn’t been the focal point of a devastating one since the Great Kanto quake in 1923.

Just a few days ago a friend told me she was reconsidering her plans to send her daughter to school overseas after last month’s earthquake in New Zealand left nearly 30 Japanese students dead or missing. I told her that I thought the risk of being in a strong quake was far higher in Japan. But like most Japanese, I didn’t actually fear that a temblor would strike any time soon.

My jolt back to reality came as I was riding a train home after a morning of work and errands. The conductor announced that he would be braking hard, and a few seconds later we screeched to a halt. My first reaction was that someone had jumped onto the tracks, a common occurrence in this nation with a high rate of suicide. But then I felt the train sway. “It’s like we’re being rocked in a cradle,” the elderly woman sitting next to me said. Back and forth like one of those magic carpet rides in amusement parks, the compartment swung in increasingly wider angles, making us fear that the car might flip over. Outside I could see the utility poles shaking. The passengers in the half-full train were quiet and calm. After a few minutes, the train crawled into the next station. The rail system then closed down, and I embarked on a 90-minute walk home.

Outside, people were milling about, afraid of staying inside where things might collapse. Nearly everyone clutched a cellphone even though the lines were jammed. I walked briskly because I wanted to meet up with my son. I was not particularly worried because he would still be at his school, which has a large open campus and new buildings that adhere to strict building codes. Still, when I looked down at my suede boots and saw his footprints on them — he must have stepped on my shoes on his way out the door in the morning — I decided not to brush away the dirt. Those imprints just might turn out to be a memento, I thought morbidly.

A few minutes into my journey, I got that queasy feeling again. I stopped and looked up at a lamp post. Yes. Swaying. Pedestrians halted, but cars continued on the road. Apparently the tremors weren’t big enough for drivers to notice. When the shaking stopped I continued along, looking into store windows to survey the damage. It seemed surprisingly light, with the hardest hit being liquor stores where shattered bottles and dark-colored liquids covered the floor. I saw a man standing on a roof trying to fix an antenna. Some people! Not wanting to see him thrown off with the next tremor, I hurried on.

I knew things were really bad when I caught a glimpse of a TV screen through an office window. The entire map of Japan seemed to be surrounded by the flashing lines that indicate a tsunami warning. My thoughts meandered along with my fast pace. Would the nuclear power plants in the area hold up? There wouldn’t be any looting, I was sure. I’ve never sensed any large-scale anger here that could explode in such times of chaos. How about our gold fish? Had it been thrown out of its tank?

Damage at home was minimal. The fish was safe. CDs and other items were strewn on the floor. I grabbed my bicycle to head to my son’s school. The work day was ending, and hordes of stranded commuters stood by the train station wondering how to get home. About a hundred people were lined up for cabs.

As I pedaled my way in the dark, I thought about how my son and I would bond on the way home over our first big earthquake. But that fantasy was short-lived. When the teacher brought him out, he was fuming. “Why did you come? I really wanted to stay the night at school,” he said. The children had been lounging around in brand new blankets, watching DVDs and eating emergency ration cookies.

We spent the rest of the evening watching TV footage. We saw tsunamis sweeping over towns; ceilings collapsing and bright orange fires in the black night. My son grudgingly said, “I guess it’s best to be home.”