Saturday, March 12, 2011

World Turned Upside Down

One afternoon when I was 24 years old, I left my office on the 4th floor of a five story building in Hitachi City, Japan. I was on my lunch break, and I walked to a department store called Isejin to get something to eat. (Department stores are probably not good lunch choices here in the US, but in Japan, at the time at least, the bottom floor of a department store was likely to have a grocery, a ramen noodle stand, and a bakery.)

When I returned to my office building after lunch, I walked into the elevator, hitting the button for the 4th floor, and the elevator began to rise, and then...

The elevator stopped, and the lights went out, and the elevator car began to shake violently, and it tilted for one brief and horrible moment, smacking against the walls of the elevator shaft.

I clung to the railing inside the elevator and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

Seconds passed. I don't know how many. It felt like a lot, but it was less than 2 minutes.

The lights came back on, and the elevator continued its ascent. When the doors opened, three of my co-workers were standing in the vestibule, staring at the elevator. (I believe they had been standing in the door frame between our office and the lobby, seeking the soundest structural place to wait out the earthquake, and then they stayed there when the realized the elevator was moving and someone must have been stuck inside during the earthquake.)

I stumbled out of the elevator and grabbed my friend Riyako's hand. She squeezed my hand back. "Jishin," she said, her eyes wide. Yes. Earthquake.

I took the stairs for the next four months.

I experienced a few more earthquakes during the time I lived in Japan, and while only one was anywhere near as frightening as those moments in the elevator, they still scared the crap out of me. (My husband slept through that one, he has no memory of me dragging him by the hand to stand in doorway of our apartment building in the middle of the night, or of watching the lamp hanging from our kitchen ceiling sway back and forth.) (I wish I did not have that memory myself.)

There is something indescribably terrifying about what happens during an earthquake - that the ground, the earth, the very thing that is supposed to be IMMOBILE and SOLID and RELIABLE, is shaking violently. There really isn't anything to hold onto when the ground beneath your feet begins to tremble. So you pray that it passes, and that it's small and that it isn't "the big one".

When I turned on my phone yesterday morning, there were two emails at the top of my inbox, one from our friend Keiko and another from our friend Miho. Both were short, "I am okay."

But you have two emails from two Japanese people that you hear from a few times a year, both saying, "Hey, I'm okay." You KNOW something bad happened.

The images and news stories are horrifying and I cannot wrap my head around it. Trains? NOT RUNNING? IN JAPAN THE TRAINS ARE NOT RUNNING? If you've never been to Japan, the gravity of this statement might be lost on you. I cannot even begin to describe the Japanese rail system in a single blog post, but the adjectives generally used to describe it are "precise" and "punctual" and "efficient" and "reliable" and "like clockwork".

If you get on a train in Tokyo, and the schedule says it will stop in Sendai at 4:17 PM, it WILL stop in Sendai at 4:17 exactly. They are not late, they do not fail to arrive. It is admirable, this efficiency. And the Japanese people rely on these trains. They are used by TENS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE every day.

So to hear that they ARE NOT RUNNING and that FOUR OF THEM ARE MISSING - (FOUR TRAINS ARE MISSING. MISSING!!) - I cannot even begin to fathom the chaos.

I have had to stop watching the footage coming out of Japan. Because while I know that Keiko and Miho are okay - so many others, so many other people I cared about and have lost touch with - I don't know.

We've lived less than a mile from the beach on the Pacific Ocean, south of Sendai, north of Tokyo...I don't imagine that area could possibly have come through this unscathed.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It truly is unfathomable to think that the trains are not running in Japan. There is now some news coming out that there was a radiation release of unknown proportions. The whole country is just an incredible place, and the fact that it's built on land prone to these earthquakes--it's just impossible to contemplate. They have devoted so much of their resources to surviving an event like this. The fact of inevitable earthquakes is an indelible feature of their national consciousness.

It makes my snow drama this winter seem trivial, that's for sure.

Saturday, March 12, 2011 12:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally thought of you yesterday when I heard about the quake. (I remembered you lived in Japan for a bit.)
I also rode out a quake once, in Seattle, that was terrifying at the time and yet completely nothing in comparison to what Japan experienced yesterday (or even some of their "aftershocks" which are bigger than anything that's hit the US in many years).
I almost can't watch the videos, it's too horrifying to think of all those people and how terrified they must have been in their last minutes.

Saturday, March 12, 2011 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We turned on the tv at work during friday night drinks to check the football score and couldn't believe what we were seeing. One of the young grads asked me why 'they werent saving the people they were filming on their roof' and I felt incredibly old telling him that there was nothing they could do.

I work in Singapore sometimes and have experienced a few quakes (during which I have been told that if the exterior glass on our building window cracks- run) but nothing of this magnitude obviously, we are floored by this.

Monday, March 14, 2011 7:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We lived just south of Yokohama (I taught English there) for about 2.5 years. The last time I was in Japan was 2009. I am at a loss for words about what's going on over there. It's unbelievable.

Monday, March 14, 2011 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger teahouse said...

It's really horrible, isn't it?

The trains are unbelievable there. One of my friends told me that there is no such thing in Japan as saying, "Sorry I'm a few minutes late; the train was delayed." If you say that, people look at you like you're crazy.

I'm glad your friends are ok.

This reminds me of a good Japan story I have. I'm going to update my blog and share it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 9:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a roommate from Japan when I was in college. I totally lost touch after she went back to Japan, but I have been thinking about her so much over the past few days. I just can't even imagine . . .

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:28:00 PM  

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