I took the day off on Friday, March 11th, because I had to file an income tax return at the City Hall. More on that later, as it was an endeavor I’ve been dreading for months and it figures as soon as it was over with I’d have to have something else to panic about.
Around noon I was walking between a road full of speeding trucks and a sharp drop into a muddy rice field, on a crumbling verge barely a foot across - thankfully *it* didn’t happen then. I considering taking the train somewhere to have some fun on the rest of my free day – thankfully I decided to just have a “relaxing” day at home. I went back to my apartment to take a shower and clean up before my student came for her private English conversation lesson in the evening.
The world ended in the afternoon.
I’ve been in a lot of earthquakes in the three years I’ve lived here, and I’ve gotten fairly blasé about them. My first months I’d freak out at very single tiny tremor, which got old as I lived on a major road with many trucks. None of them have been enough to even knock a book over. Cue 2:46pm yesterday.
It started out small, enough so that I was thinking of just continuing to sit on my bed watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine on my laptop. Asking for a Darwin Award, I know, but it gets rather “boy who cried wolf” having to leap off my raised platform bed and hide in the doorway for something that will fade away even before I get one foot off.
This time it didn’t fade away. This time it just kept going, and got bigger. It wasn’t like the big earthquakes I’ve rarely felt before, either a rolling wave or a short sharp shaking from side to side. *This* was a nauseating array of jerks in every direction and a dizzying variety of lengths and speeds. It was like I was in the hand of a curious and careless giant, who had caught and shook me like a yellow jacket in a jar. Everything began to fell – all my books and magazines flung themselves across the room, in the kitchen the wire shelf holding my dishes tipped over, tiny of jars of herbs rained down. I had by that point tossed my laptop to the center of the bed where it couldn’t slide off, and cowered in the doorway so I could see both rooms dissolve.
And yet there were the most random things that didn’t fall. A porcelain bowl of dried rose petals jittered its way to the edge of a shelf and balanced there, as did a delicate sakura-patterned box that holds my pills, and the wooden block on top of my fridge with knives stuck in it. The things that would have done the most damage if they hadn’t fallen didn’t. None of my CDs or DVDs did more than shift slightly. I didn’t move until it all came to a standstill.
When I came back from the city hall I had removed my dress-pants (for the better lounging around in, my dear) so now I tentatively snaked out an arm – not wanting to step farther into the room than I had to – and snagged a corner, reeling them to me and pulling them on. Then I wobbled my way outside, not sure if the ground was moving oddly because of my weak legs or aftershocks. It had to happen on my day off – if I’d been at school I’d’ve been able to follow the example of all my coworkers and students, all of them Japanese and doubtless better prepared for this than I. Instead, I was alone, and it was the middle of the day so everyone was at work. Should I head for clear ground? But the nearest place was the distant park, and that meant a treacherous path over an overpass, and across a road already teeming with fire engines. I sat on the curb in front of my apartment, keeping a wary eye over the poles around in me in case one should start to fall. They didn’t, but the power lines whipped around like jump-ropes with every new aftershock. Every time it came to a standstill and I considered going back inside my apartment creaked ominously. It was freezing. Then it started to rain, which pretty much sums up my life.
At the station next door I saw one train had stopped, and another pulled up between aftershocks. I couldn’t believe that people were still driving past. One driver waved at me as I sat there, a dismal picture, and I saw it was the vice-principal. I felt as guilty as though I hadn’t gone through the proper channels for the day off, and probably terrified. He called out to me, “It was up in Miyagi. We’re all right here,” and I bowed and apologized and thanked him. I crept back inside, and darted out again a few minutes later with the next aftershock, though this time I brought my coat and phone. It wasn’t until near night-fall that I felt safe actually staying inside.
I cleaned up – I will swear to my dying day that all the mess then was the result of the quake and in no way partly preceded though exacerbated by it. I waited for my student, and when she didn’t came I tried contacting her only to figure out the phone system was done. I still had lights, water. and the internet – the last perhaps most thankfully as I am dependent on it even in the best of situations. I didn’t dare turn on the stove so I had cold rice and tuna for dinner, didn’t dare take a shower for fear something would happen while I was naked and wet.
Every aftershock made my head feel compressed by an unknown force, as though the air was squeezed up moments before to allow the earth also to rise. Even when nothing was moving, I felt dizzy. I tried continuing my Star Trek episode but then the ship was under attack and the shaking on screen made me feel sick. I had the Japanese television on for hours before I couldn’t stand it anymore. But I couldn’t stand to leave it turned off, either, so I left it running in the background, a screen saver of devastation.
At first there was a manageable checklist in my head of Things That Struck me the Worst, but then it grew too long, and then it shrunk to one item: Everything.
There is nothing like disaster that you have felt yourself, even from the outskirts. I know I am heartless and self-centered, but things like 9/11 or Katrina, I knew *of* but they had little to do with me personally. They were so far on other sides of the country that it was difficult to visualize. But all of Japan is *Japan*. Even where it is multiple islands it is one. There is as little separation between either point of the country as there might be between your next-door neighbor and you.
And it’s the country I chose, which means so much more to me than a country I happened to be born in. It felt like someone dear to me had been hurt, and I wanted to find the perpetrator and hit them with a shovel. And on the other hand, as the well-wishes poured in, I felt a surge of pride. I want the entire world to feel the same protective tenderness as I do, to see it as a country with as much strength as it has beauty.
Words I’ve learned that I really wish I hadn’t had to:
炊き出し – takidashi, an “emergency rice feeding” to provide food to large numbers of evacuees and victims after a disaster.
帰宅困難者 – kitakukonnansha, people who are unable to return home after a large-scale disaster, especially an earthquake. Thousands spent the night at stations, lobbies of hotels, even at Tokyo Disneyland.
安否不明 – anpifumei, “fate unknown.”