There are a great many of you out there that weren’t here in Japan on that fateful day, but just about everyone saw it play out in the media around the world. Most of the current Japan Daily staff was in-country on March 11, 2011, and these are their stories. First up is Jason Gatewood, who was closest to the epicenter of the jolt as he had just moved to Tokyo.
Even now, seeing the number sequence “two-four-six” or “three-eleven” these days sends an involuntary chill down my spine. I was standing on a small backstreet between Gotanda and Fudou-Mae stations in Tokyo when those insignificant numbers became emblazoned onto my consciousness forever. For many of us, March 11, 2011 will always be about the day The Great East Japan Earthquake struck and kicked off a chain of events that still governs daily life in Japan five years later.
It started out as a very benign and optimistic Thursday for me though. It was rather warm for the late winter season, I recall not having to wear anything more than a windbreaker and a sweater and some trousers…slightly above average temperatures that had more than a few people chomping at the bit for the hanami parties that would soon happen a few weeks later. I had just moved to Greater Tokyo to start a new job at a software company as their International CSR Manager (shorthand for “all-purpose English translation and localization monkey/fallguy if we can’t do this right). After having been in Nagoya for three years teaching English at junior high schools, I was chomping at the bit to get some semblance of my media communications career back on track, and what better place to hit the bricks again than the big T-K-O?
I’d only been in town for 3 weeks, but in that time, I found a nice apartment in Yokohama only a 5 minute walk from the train station on a major train line that fit in my budget and even came with a parking space. I hit the “gaijin jackpot” for real. Everything was going way better than I planned as far as getting things done was concerned… But that all changed at 2:46pm that sunny day in early March.
I was sitting at my desk on the 2nd floor in our 5 story office when there was a very steady wobble. My colleagues were trying to work through the shaker but it just kept going. After 20 seconds of that I announced, “Hey y’all, this ain’t stopping, so I’m out.” and just stood up and walked over towards the doorway…right as the main jolts started arriving from their origins 300km away. KER-BLAAAM! Just about everything that could topple over in an office environment kinda did all at once, and my slow saunter over to the doorway to ride out the quake turned into a mad sprint down the stairs and out into the parking lot below.
“f#$% that $#!+, I’m not about to die being flattened by second-hand office equipment in a nondescript building in Gotanda.”
I expected the tremors to be over by the time I got outside, but the quake got worse. WAY worse. I actually saw the asphalt undulating in the parking lot around me, jostling cars and swaying the buildings. The buildings themselves were making hideous creaking noises not unlike the kind old metal ships make during storms as they buck against their moors. I looked up to see waves rippling across the glass fronts of the buildings around me and in particular, a man on the 4th floor crouching with a look of fear on his face as he held on to the glass and floor in front of him; he couldn’t even stand up.
After what seemed like an eternity, the shaking stopped. People stood in the middle of the street looking dumbfounded, and more of my colleagues started coming out of the building. “Holy s#!% I’ve never felt anything that strong!” said one of them. “You think it was the ‘big one?” asked another. I was hurriedly pecking my iPhone looking for any information about what we just felt; a magnitude, an epicenter…something… Then I noticed something. We still had cellular service…electricity was still on… no significant damage though. “Wherever this quake hit probably isn’t on the map anymore,” I thought out loud to the crowd of co-workers that gathered in the lot. I had lived in Southern California as a teenager during the ’90s, so I’d felt more than a few serious earthquakes before. This one was serious, but I never felt that “snap” that came with the closer shallow quakes like I did with the Northridge shaker 17 years earlier. As we would find out later, I was right in the most horrible way ever.
Tokyo only caught the serious fringe ripples from the magnitude 9.0 jolt that actually originated deep in the Pacific Ocean.
I immediately called my parents (before the internet service was jammed up) and left a message on their voice-mails saying I was OK and updated my status on twitter and Facebook saying the same, along with a few pictures to show the lack of damage around me; all so my family wouldn’t worry when the news caught up to them. I then joined my co-workers in the conference room and watched as all of Japan and the world started finding out what we had just felt a few minutes earlier.
Many people tried to go back to doing work (because in Japan, dammit we work until we die!) But that mindset changed about thirty minutes later, because while we were getting aftershocks that were larger than most of the earthquakes we had felt prior to that date, tsunami warnings started going off along the northeastern coast of Japan, from the tip of Hokkaido in the north, all the way down to Shizuoka, to our southwest. For a while, we thought Tokyo Bay would swallow us up too. All we could do is stand there and wait for NHK to tell us where the waves were. Then we saw places like Sendai, Sanriku, and Fukushima get inundated by a never ending wave of water on live TV. That’s when I got up and walked out the door and straight to the train station. I just wanted to get to my apartment just to see if I even had an apartment left. But I live in Yokohama and at that point I was prepared for a 4~5 hour walk home.
I got lucky. I know a thing or two about trains and how they run in Tokyo. My train line ends at my station on one end, but goes through the middle of Tokyo and out the other side, some 30kms in total. One of the main train yards is steps away from my front door, so I figured at some point they’d have to run a few trains down to the depot to clear the railway as long as no tunnels or bridges collapsed. I told one of the station attendants that fact and he confirmed that they would let passengers ride just to that point if they wanted to, but there was no schedule at all at this point. After 4 hours of waiting, I got a train home, which is a lot better than most of Tokyo because many of my cohorts either spent the night, walked 6+ hours back home, borrowed (or stole) bicycles, or hitchhiked.
In the weeks to come, most of the employees at my company (including all the executives) moved back to their home countries leaving me without a job.
The aftershocks never seemed to stop, food and gasoline were hard to come by because all the supply chains broke down, and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down 4 times. My parents wanted me to “just leave that damn Japan and come on home,” but I couldn’t even book a flight out if I had wanted to because the prices had become bonkers. The police were even turning people away from Narita and Haneda airports because it was too crowded from people just trying to leave on whatever flight they could, going anywhere. One of my friends wound up in Korea “because eff it, I don’t wanna be a nuke-powered human glow stick.” Another one rode his motorcycle over to Nagano, got a bus to Osaka, then wound up in Taiwan…or the Philippines… I really don’t remember, but they both never came back to Japan.
I kept thinking I didn’t wanna become a “fly-jin” but I at least wanted to get away from the chaos for a bit. So I hopped a highway bus and went back to Nagoya and crashed on a friend’s couch for a week. “If it’s still looking bad after a week, I’m getting a plane outta here” was my general thinking. In the end, I stayed. As foreigners were leaving, Japanese people were trying to put their country back together. Japanese folks can’t escape, this is home for them. “Damn cowards! Y’all got easy lives and cushy jobs over here but couldn’t even stay long enough to help out once the going got rough!” I drew my line in the sand. I came to Japan to find myself, and decided that this was just part of the program. So I dug in.
I wasn’t gonna run out on Japan.
I volunteered. I filed news reports that told the story of what was going on over here as a resident of Japan first and a newsman second. I raised money and had fund-raising events. I also met a lot of like-minded people and networked my way into a better gig than the one that I had. I did it because I came over to Japan and Tokyo as a way of controlling my own destiny, and by deciding to stay… Well that too is a symbol of my resolve.