Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Earthquake Memories


Tuesday, 8 March 2011, was the first day of my six-month secondment to my law firm's office in Tokyo. Upon arrival, I got a health-and-safety briefing which, among other things, introduced me to the earthquake pack under my desk. It had a hard hat, fire-blanket, rope, torch, whistle, bottled water, tinned food and biscuits. The biscuits interested me particularly. They were not very tasty, but when I ate a few and then drank some water, I felt as full as if I had eaten a big meal.

On Wednesday morning, there was a 7.2-magnitude quake off the coast of Japan, and the high-rise building I was in swayed noticeably. I was thrilled to be in my first real earthquake, but after that I left the biscuits alone.

Later that day I had a Japanese lesson. Among the first words my teacher taught me were emergency words, "just in case": 地震 (jishin: earthquake), 火 (hi: fire) and 火山 (kazan: volcano). "And of course, tsunami is already a word in English," she said.

On Friday afternoon there was a 9.0: the fifth most powerful earthquake in recorded history.

The alerts began to sound seconds before the tremors began. The recorded announcements were in Japanese, followed by English. My supervisor translated the Japanese announcements as they sounded, giving me a few seconds' advantage. The first one told us to put on our hard hats. The second one told us to get under our desks. It was not yet necessary to evacuate; we were actually safer in the earthquake-resistant building than in the street outside, where we might be endangered by falling objects.

When the tremors subsided, we were told to keep our hard hats on because there might be aftershocks. The Japanese people seemed composed; they went around switching off the air-conditioners because they said after an earthquake that size, some power stations had probably switched off. Some of the expats were freaking out, but I remember feeling excited rather than fearful or panicky (news from Fukushima was yet to filter through, so we had not realised the scale of the disaster). Rather than adding to the uproar, I went back to work. My supervisor was so amused that she took a photo on her phone.


Out of the whole episode, what impressed me most was Japan's disaster preparedness and recovery (at least so far as the earthquake is concerned; the Japan government's reaction to the Fukushima meltdown has perhaps not been beyond reproach). The earthquake registered an upper five in Tokyo, but there was little damage to property because the buildings, like in the parable of the Oak and the Reed, are designed to sway with the tremors rather than stiffly resist. In my flat, picture frames were askew and a few books fell off the shelves. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen resumed limited service late in the day, and the next day it was back to its normal schedule. By next week, my hotel was issuing notices about bicycle parking.

1 comment:

Shrabasti Banerjee said...

Haha I remember emailing you after the earthquake and being astounded that you were going to work as usual! What a country.