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.