The Big One

Only a flesh wound


That was a doozy. I have just survived the largest earthquake in the recorded history of Japan. Fifth largest on a global scale. At 2:46 PM Friday afternoon, March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck 130 kilometers off the northeast coast of Japan. It originated only 10 km deep and soon sent shock waves throughout the country. An hour later a 10 meter tall tsunami slammed into Sendai harbor. All of the Pacific Ocean was put on alert.

373 kilometers south, Tokyo swayed back and forth. Buildings were evacuated, trains shut down, nuclear plants seized up, the whole city became suspended. Everyone stood paralyzed.

From chaos came order. Communications, initially under a blackout gradually came back online. The panic calmed and a rhythm was found. By night’s end the city’s gears began to turn once more.

My day started innocently enough. Breakfast, coffee, shower, necktie, just the usual. Perhaps too usual. Whilst in the shower I thought to myself, “This has been a really quiet week, I’m not going to have much to blog about.” Irony it seems, has a sense of humor. Following the typical routine I went to work. The day started out normal. One class, one check test. The next class started well enough.

It had been two long minutes since I asked a question to the class. I was getting a long winded philosophical answer from a delightful student. The man, a 75 year old retiree, had long ago suffered a serious stroke. He had since relearned both Japanese and English. I scratched my neck and looked at the clock above his head. “Give him another half minute, be patient with him…” I thought. I stood up and stretched.

The other man, a 45 year old dentist, looked tired. He is also very articulate. We often converse at a native pace. He only needs assistance when his tongue is tied by SAT words. Very commendable. Together these two men attend our highest level discussion course. Their personalities are very Japanese. Polite, refrained and always well spoken.

That’s a very good point, but what about…” I was just about to assume the advocacy of the devil when the dentist cut me off. “Earthquake,” he said.

I stopped speaking and stood perfectly still. Sure enough the room was swaying very slightly. My two students twisted around in their seats to look out and down the window. I walked between them and peered down. Everything looked normal. I then noticed a small child below. He must have been four years old and was clutching his mother for dear life.

“There’s no need to exaggerate,” I thought. Yet while leaning forward I stumbled and fell against the desk in front of me. I straightened up to feel the building shaking harder. “This is longer than usual, isn’t it,” I said to my students.

Just then I was jerked sideways with the whole building. I slammed against the wall next to me. “This is also harder than normal,”  I thought it to myself.

“Gentlemen, please take care and hold on.” I laughed to myself after this comment. Here’s the foreign boy, several times their junior, telling them to be safe. I lodged my swivel chair in the corner and took a seat. I stretched out my legs to lock into place. Finally I was firmly planted. Just like buckling into a roller coaster.

Meanwhile the dentist had discreetly slid out of his chair and had his back pressed against the wall. He spread his arms out wide to find a balance and closed his eyes. He mumbled under his breath. But his face showed his true emotions; terror. “That’s an unconventional position,” I thought, “must be a Tokyo thing.” I looked across the room.

Meanwhile the retiree was a model of calmness. He sat firmly in his desk and put his bifocals on. He reached deep into his bag and pulled out a small gray radio. Closely examining the dial, he switched it on. He changed stations until he had a strong signal. A calm Japanese voice rang out through the room, supplying with what I presume was emergency news. My student held the radio in my direction so I could hear. I said with a smile, “Thanks for the thought, but I don’t know Japanese.” He nodded and set the radio on the adjacent desk where it soon rattled and fell to the floor. I looked over at the other man. He was humming with eyes tightly shut.

The earthquake continued. It now became apparent that this was a big one. The tremors were intensified on the eighth floor. The building swayed side to side. I looked out the window across the street. The other buildings rocked hard. I heard the ventilation in the ceiling start to break free. Flakes of plaster snowed down in front of me. I heard a woman shriek.

Another half minute passed and the tremors slowly subsided. I stood up and collected my teaching materials. “Thank you gentlemen, and that concludes today’s class,” I said with obvious sarcasm. Before I could open the door Emma burst her head in, and with it came insanity. She asked if we were okay. I confirmed and returned the question. She and her students were fine. Moments later, Moto came sliding down the hallway. “Time to go,” he said.

I escorted our students down the hallway. In the teachers room Hamish was frantically grabbing packs and purses. He threw them to me and I handed them out. “Need my phone,” and so I slipped in behind him. The room was a disaster. All of the books and teaching materials had been shaken from their shelves. Luckily no one had been present in the room, or they would have been buried alive. I tiptoed through the carnage and exited with my phone. We hustled the students past out our doors and past the broken glass from the restaurants.

We wound down and around the stairs. Much of the dry wall in the stairwell had been cracked and badly damaged. I stopped to take a picture. “Don’t be an idiot, let’s go. Now!” Hamish barked at me. My inner tourist was amazed. The older student and I calmly walked down the stairs.

“Don’t worry, Alex. This is a well built building. We’re safe here.” His voice was calm and cooling. This man was keeping a cool composure and it was contagious. I exited the stairs and entered the cool air perfectly composed. He and I shook hands and went our separate ways.

The scene outside the station was the polar opposite of my student. Hysteria. Women everywhere were shrieking and screaming. People ran past in every direction. Water was dripping down from somewhere above, a broken pipe. A few walls showed cracks and damage. All of our students left and soon it was just the employees; three Japanese and three foreigners. “We need to stay together,” Moto said. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We originally were huddled just outside the exit. Everyone’s phones were out in their hands, but no one had service. We obsessively refreshed our phones hoping for a connection. No luck. Total blackout. I looked across at Sari, she was nervous and freezing. I took off my jacket and put it over her shoulders. The adrenaline and testosterone coursing through my veins was keeping me plenty warm.

I discreetly slid away from our small circle and began to assess the situation. I climbed on a raised edge to take a survey. Hundreds if not thousands of people have filed out of their buildings and stood everywhere. An air of calm now hung over the crowd. People chatted quietly. The data networks were coming back online, everyone was plugged in and reading the updates. Below the station I spotted an ideal location to wait. Nothing tall or artificial surrounded the area, there were places to sit, and it wasn’t full of people. Best of all it was an open area that would allow us to quickly relocate in any direction.

I returned to my friends and led them to the spot I had found. By now we all had limited access on our phones. The lot of us began checking in with family and friends. Fortunately I was able to make a quick Skype call back home to tell my family I was okay. My call came before they heard the news, they were as confused as I was.

More time passed and clouds covered the sky, obscuring the sun and all its warmth. A chill overtook the city. We migrated across the street to a hospital. The hospital had heaters, vending machines, chairs, a television and a pay phone. We each bought a hot drink and sat in front of the tv. The program showed images from across the country. Tokyo’s train stations were overflowing with people displaced. Citizens in Kanagawa stood outside of their offices waiting for direction. An oil refinery in Chiba burned widely and uncontrolled. But there was nothing more terrifying than the images of Sendai.

Sendai is the capital city of Miyagi prefecture. It was the city closest to epicenter, only 130 kilometers away. The city was badly shaken by the quake but was relatively intact. However it wasn’t the earthquake that was scary. The ensuing tsunami was catastrophic. At it’s peak, the waves measured 10 meters high. The helicopters and local films crews showed the tide regressing into the ocean, only to be taken up by the wave barreling toward the city. Although an immediate tsunami warning had been issued, little time was afforded. The proximity of the epicenter meant the waves came crashing into the city too quick for many to evacuate.

The humanity was horrific. Large fishing ships capsized. Boats were ripped over dikes. The airport was inundated with waves. Cars slammed into houses. People stood stranded on top of buildings praying for a miracle.

Many times my attention drifted as I thought back to the terrorist attacks on September 11. I remembered the panic and terror all Americans shared. I recalled every news channel fixated on the story. Today was exactly eight months shy of the 10 year anniversary of that day. Here again I sat in front of the television, fixated on the images before.

My attention was snapped when I noticed the lead news anchors. Dressed in professional business suits, they were wearing hardhats upon their heads. The other employees in the newsroom, busy working behind them, did not wear such hats. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight. Leave it to the Japanese to illustrate the earthquake by wearing safety wear during a broadcast. I wondered to myself whether they also had typhoon hats, or fire hats, a choice for every occasion.

My laugh brought back to reality. I looked around the room and felt the still air. I looked at Moto. I told him, “we need to go somewhere… to do something.” I was growing restless sitting. Doing nothing. He and I stepped out into the cold March air. Some of the crowd had dispersed. Restaurants everywhere were overflowing with patrons. We returned to the troops and mobilized. Time to head out.

Our next move was back to Station Square. We entered through the discreet employee entrance. The building had been evacuated of customers, but was now full of employees running around assessing the damage. We returned to our office to collect our coats. The teacher’s room was still a mess. It will take weeks to sort all the material out. We took a few moments to explore the rooms and assess the damage. A light fixture had fallen from the ceiling. One large book case was knocked over. Hundreds of papers had been thrown around the room. But overall, it wasn’t too bad.

We collected our coats, and I grabbed my lunch sandwiches from the refrigerator. In the teachers’ room I was on scavenger mode. I crawled around on knees in the office looking for anything that could be valuable. I grabbed my half drunk two liter bottle of water. I picked up Emma’s Kiwi-asprin. I found a few pieces of candy, good for quick energy. Pen and paper for notes. I neatly placed the items into my pack. I was set.

Back downstairs, on the street, we huddled together. It had been more than four hours since the quake hit. The crowd around the station had partially dispersed and our nerves were calmed. We decided to split up. The Japanese teachers would all go home. The foreign teachers… we went for a drink. Angie’s, our favorite bar, was just around the corner. Normally when I drink, I order beer. Today however, I ordered whiskey. On the rocks. No need to fool around. The single drink did us all some good. We were more relaxed. We all badly wanted to get home to see the damage in our apartments. Time to go solo. We bid farewell and went home.

My walk home was completed in record time. I did not want to get caught alone in the open should another earthquake occur. However on my way back, it seemed as if civilization was returning to normal. I passed hair salons full of people. The pachinko parlor was packed, per usual. Restaurants everywhere overflowed with customers. The grocery store had a normal, steady stream of people. It occurred to me just how far away from the tsunami we were.

I arrived at my doorstop greeted with a sign in English. “Gas STOP. Tell landlord.” I looked down at my neighbors’ doors, their signs were in Japanese. “How nice,” I thought. The landlord correctly assumed I didn’t read Japanese. I inserted my key into the deadbolt and turned the door handle, moment of truth. In the dark room my senses were first greeted by a sweet & pleasant smell. I turned on the kitchen light. My air freshener had knocked over and spilled its contents on the floor. I ventured into the main room, a stack of papers was on the floor. That was it. A few small items had rattled around, but nothing else had fallen over or was damaged. What a relief.

After cleaning up I sat down at my computer with my lunch and a bottle of sake. I called my grandmothers to tell them I was okay. I read every piece of news the internet could offer. All the while dozens of aftershocks made my apartment sway. As I was approaching desensitization from the news and quakes, I stopped. I brushed my teeth and crawled into bed. My mind and spirit totally drained. I needed to rest. That night the aftershocks rocked me to sleep.

I woke up Saturday at 10 AM. Work was cancelled, our building was closed. I called Moto, the phones were working. At 1 PM I met up with Hamish, Emma and Moto for lunch. I pressed hard for a diner. I wanted comfort food. I got a club sandwich and fries. We recounted our evenings and nights. Moto was forced to walk back to Machida in Tokyo. A feat he accomplished in 20 minutes. Emma’s kitchen had been hit hard, and she was without half her dishes. Hamish, like me, had been spared from the worst of the quake.

We spent the next several hours together. Window shopping and sharing a drink. Moto and I spent most the day together. Neither of us wanted to go home. We played games at an arcade. Did some karaoking and had a light dinner at Angies.  Finally we split up. As I walked through the station I was amazed at how normal everything was. Despite the death and destruction just a few hours north, the world kept spinning.

My daze was broken shortly after. News of an explosion at a nuclear reactor in Fukushima had spread. 150 kilometers north of my city, a compromised power plant was spinning out of control. Later I received a few emails, rumors mostly, about a pending blackout. The sunny & upbeat day from a few hours early came crashing down. We were not out of the woods yet.

Sunday morning started where Saturday afternoon ended. The sun was high and the air was warm. I had a lovely cross breeze flowing through my apartment. I set a large mirror on my balcony to reflect light into my apartment. I cleaned. I listened to music. I ate good food. I was content.

The reactor situation had been “rectified.” I left my apartment for Shinjuku. Dinner with the ladies and later Eiko. The aftershocks were limited to maybe ten or twenty. Tokyo was busy, per usual. We had a great time. Eiko and I caught a train back home without any hitches.

Just as the world was right, and I was laying down for sleep, my phone rang. It was Moto. The blackouts were real and they were coming. He gave me details and specifics. The information posted online was only available in Japanese. He was kind of enough to call and provide everything I should know. For the next two months there would be rotating power outages in my part of the country. For three hour increments power would be shut off, regardless of business or residence. The initial period would leave me powerless for eight hours.

My planned trip with Eiko to Kamakura the next day would be put on hold. No sense worrying tonight. Heavy eyes; sleep.

I woke early and turned on a lamp. I returned to bed and laid quietly, transfixed by the soft glow. My clock struck and passed nine, the predetermined time of the blackout in my neighborhood. The light shined in defiance. The Japanese are punctual. If it didn’t shut off right at nine, it wouldn’t go off at all. Time to wake up. Breakfast. I assessed my groceries. I could survive a full week off my rice and ramen, if necessary. However living in comfort would be preferable. Better get to the market before everyone else has the same thought. Eiko and I laced up our shoes and left.

The grocery store was insane. People everywhere. Foods that should never be eaten was bought off the shelf. I grabbed a basket and kept Eiko in tow. “Time to optimize and utilize our tools,” I thought. I found the shortest line for checkout; Register Four. The line stretched 60 feet long. I put Eiko in line with the basket. “Ittekimasu,” I said, literally, “I’ll go and come back.” “Ittereashai,” she said, “Please go and come back.”

I walked up and the down the aisles with determination. I navigated past the hundreds of clueless locals. I had a mission. I needed food for five days. I needed to maximize my diet and my pocketbook. I could only shop with what was left. Rice was all but gone. Water gone. Bread gone. Ramen gone. I approached my shopping like a dietician. Protein; tuna. Carbohydrates; rice. Liquid; tea. Sugars; fruit. I observed the Japanese with fascination. With pending blackouts for two months, refrigerators would be useless. Still most people were loading up on cold food. They filled their baskets with milk and yogurt. “Fools,” I muttered. I put some more items into the basket with Eiko. Next I visited the canned foods aisle. I scored soup, fruit, veggies, meat. This was one of the few sections still left with ample choices. Why was I the only person with common sense?

I returned and placed the last of the food in the basket and waited with Eiko. The line moved very slowly. We waited 45 minutes to checkout. The duration of this time we were in the candy aisle. I laughed out loud at the irony. I had carefully chosen my provisions based on the food pyramid. I wanted to be healthy. Now I had to stand and stare at temptation. I made it out of the aisle without any new additions to the cart. I exhaled a heavy sigh.

Finally I approached the cashier and set down my basket. She was a sweet old lady that was beyond stressed out. I greeted her good afternoon and commented on the busy nature of the store, “isogashii,” I said. She laughed at my remark and went into a long Japanese spiel. I politely nodded my head and chimed in with many “yes’s” (はい.) I only caught every 20th word that she said, but I definitely heard her say “are you okay? (大丈夫ですか?) “Yes, I’m fine. (大丈夫です.)” I paid the sweet lady and left the store.

Back home I prepared lunch and dinner for the two of us. Again I was strategic in choosing my foods. Use the perishables first. Empty the fridge. Eat only enough. Although a language barrier separated Eiko and I from full understanding, she knew what I was doing and why. And she was very helpful with everything.

I was happy to have Eiko with me. Apart from enjoying her company, she was a strategic benefit. If anything serious were to happen I would be responsible for two people. Something tells me I’m a faster runner and higher jumper than she is, but we were tied together. I would protect her. She was out of the potential insanity of central Tokyo In turn, she could translate Japanese and point me in the right direction. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

In the end, Monday’s black outs never happened in my neighborhood. I closely watched the nuclear power plant situation to the north. It seemed each piece of good news was immediately counter acted by new bad news. A second reactor had created a hydrogen explosion. My stress level continued to slowly rise.

I did receive two welcome phone calls on Monday. A trainer from the head office, called me. He wanted to make sure I was surviving and to ask if I needed anything. He was calling all foreign teachers to give a quick check up. He even asked if I had called my mother yet. I laughed and told him “of course.”

My other call came from an old friend, Nick. Nick was a professor I had in college. He was the person that recommended ETERNAL and greatly helped me land the job. He now lives in Germany and was calling from from Dresden. He too wanted to know how I was. He gave me some useful advice and offered to put me in touch with his wife’s parents, who live far from the current nuclear fiasco. His call was very unexpected but very welcomed.

I finished my current book, The Monkey Wrench Gang (which I highly recommend). I settled in bed early in the night. Tomorrow would bring a whole new set of possibilities. I turned off the light and was soon asleep.

In conclusion, it has been a rough week for the country. At this time the government has confirmed over 2,400 deaths. That number is very likely to jump to over 10,000. While the earthquake was terrible it was really the tsunami that was catastrophic. The water and waves destroyed the city of Sendai and left other villages eviscerated.

The largest threat now looming from the initial quake is the nuclear situation in Fukushima. Three of the four cores have been damaged and are beginning to emit high levels of radiation. The government has been insistent that they have the situation under control. But as time passes that optimism continues to grow thin.

The loss of a major power plant in north-central Japan has created an energy crisis. The government is enacting rolling blackouts, projected to last the next two months. Even the train system in Tokyo has been moderately crippled by the energy scare.

All of the above does paint a very grim picture. But the country has not seized up. We are continuing to work and live on a daily basis. A calm concern lingers over the country, but it has not negatively impacted us. It will have to get worse to cause the hysteria I fear.

Finally, I am going to stay in Japan. I have created a life here in Japan. If I leave it, it will be detrimental to my future. However I am no fool. A total nuclear meltdown is far more problematic to my future plans. So if I leave, it will be for good. It is now to early to make any finite decisions either way. But don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted.


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About japanesealex

Alexander lived in Japan from 2010 to 2013. He is now pursuing a career in public service in Honolulu, Hawaii.

10 responses to “The Big One”

  1. Aaron Ball says :

    Great stuff, Alex

  2. Tony says :

    Your experience at the grocery store made me laugh, what with people not going for the non-perishable canned food and all, but I get the distinct impression that the chaos is very localized in Sendai and near the nuclear reactors while in the rest of the country life goes on. I’m keeping the whole country in my thoughts, especially you. I think you are right to stay for now. This might be a time when you can really make a difference, I mean, who knows. But the possibility of a reactor meltdown is pretty serious stuff, so do take care.



  3. Judy Janssen says :

    Alex, I’m remembering you in my prayers.

  4. Mikala says :

    Hey Alex,

    Thanks for posting this blog; I’ve been looking forward to it all week. This is all fascinating to learn from a friend and someone who is experiencing the crisis first-hand. Coming from tornado alley, I can’t believe you weren’t more scared of the earthquake! I’m so glad you got ahold of your parents right away before they learned about everything. I bet they would have freaked out if they found out before you reached them. The blackouts are extremely concerning, but at least you know what food to go for at the market :). Take care of yourself and keep us all updated. Don’t do anything stupid.


  5. Verena says :


    thanks for your detailed update. I talked to Mike Hennings (do you know he’s in Tokyo, too?) who had a very different experience.
    I am glad you are safe. Stay that way!


    PS: I liked your comment about the Japanese movie theaters. No worries, German movie theaters are no worse: you get a seating chart, and people (including me) usually watch the credits, but it’s still a nice experience… :o)

  6. Randy says :

    Well done, Alex! I’m glad you are OK! I’m also proud of how you kept your head and thought strategically.
    All the best.

  7. Donald says :

    You lucky bastard Alex! What a story. Glad you’re well, get your travel arrangements in order-things don’t look good at Fukushima. Bang on!

  8. kellee says :

    second to last sentence: “too”, not “to”.

    THANKS for the update. You are in my thoughts everyday!

  9. Kaeli's Dad says :

    Alex, Kaeli was kind enough to forward your blog as we watch the events unfold in Japan. LOL I agree with you, I enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang also. Was a fun read. You might like Clive Cussler’s books with Dirk Pit also.

    I have a friend in Tokyo I have been emailing with also to get a local flavor on what is going on.

    Say safe.


  10. jj says :

    STEVE, wassup? glad you are safe. did not know you carried so much logic in that hat rack of yours! your blog is very interesting and captivating. it reads like a first person novel, waiting in anticipation for the next chapter! you and Mr. HEMINGWAY would have made excellent friends! be careful; we do not want you coming home with that “irradiant glow!” peace out. jj

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