Firsthand experience of the Japanese earthquake

Rieko Noland

Yes, I happened to be in Gunma, Japan when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit. Gunma experienced the seismic intensity of 5, which was two levels lower than the highest intensity recorded from this earthquake, but still could cause walls to crack in old houses. It was only a day after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived in Tokyo. My husband had just started a new job in Los Angeles this spring, so he decided not to accompany us to Japan this time. It was also my first time to be in Japan with my daughter without my husband by our side.

I’m originally from Tochigi Japan, but since my parents have retired in Gunma, we were in Takasaki City, Gunma the day of incident. My dad was driving his mini-van, and I was talking to him from the passenger seat. My daughter was in a car seat in the back, with my mom sitting next to her. As I was looking out from the car, I saw that the traffic light ahead was shaking vertically. I remember telling my dad “Look, the traffic light is shaking from the famous dry wind of Gunma…” A moment later, we suddenly felt this strong push from the ground, and my dad said “No… this must be an earthquake!” He slowed down, but did not stop the car yet. We are used to earthquakes, but it’s seldom that anything is felt in a running car. The next second, we heard objects all around us make a strange loud rubbing noise as if we were in a sifter, and our mini-van was shaken violently from side to side. At this point, my dad stopped the car on the side of the street and I could barely tell him that we should avoid stopping next to a concrete utility pole, just in case. We just stared at anything moving that we could see from the car. Floor to ceiling glass windows at the Lexus showroom warped like the surface of a big bubble and kept waving. Cars parked on the sides of the road started shifting by themselves and many alarms started beeping. Buildings on both sides of the street started spitting people out, all talking on their cell phones. Japanese normally avoid looking into strangers’ eyes, but at that moment, several people had looked at me in the car, wanting to confirm that we were all acknowledging this shocking incident. Probably after a minute, though it felt like a long, long time, my dad started the car again, and we continued to the hospital where we were going to visit my grandpa. We wanted to make sure that the damage was not out of control at the hospital as well.

Within minutes, we arrived at the hospital where my grandpa had been hospitalized for a couple weeks. He’s 92 years old, and on bed rest. A few hospital staff in white uniforms were evacuating in the parking lot. We stayed in the car and my dad turned on the onboard TV. It instantly displayed a news anchor trying to control her voice, but unable to stay completely calm because the TV station in Tokyo was also shaking. The anchor was repeating “There was a strong earthquake and tsunami warnings have just been issued for Hokkaido, Iwate, Miyagi… (she continued to read list of regions). Please evacuate to the nearest high ground. It is only a few minutes before the tsunami arrives. ”  The map of Japan displayed on the lower right hand corner was rimmed with bright red and yellow flashing lines that indicated severe tsunami warnings. Even in years of living through earthquakes, my parents and I had never experienced anything like this. Then we started shaking again…! We looked up to the hospital next to us, and its windows were visibly shaking. The ground shook so much that we once again could feel it in the car. More hospital staff came out of the building and joined us in the parking lot. We could only hope that my grandpa was evacuated to some safe spot in the building. Again, the TV sounded the earthquake warning electronic sound – that sound haunted me for a long time, even after I returned to LA. The tsunami warning red and yellow lines became longer and longer on the screen, and it was now almost surrounding the entire coastline of Japan. It looked as if all the Japanese islands were about to sink into the ocean. Terrible, terrible thought, but the picture was beyond anything we could imagine. Even that terrible thought seemed surreal and disconnected from my reality. Could this really be happening to Japan at this moment?

About 10 to 15 minutes after the second earthquake, my dad and I decided to go into the hospital just to see how things were. When we entered the door, the 1st floor was dark and filled with patients and staff. My dad found my grandpa’s doctor in the corner, but he could only tell us that my grandpa was safely evacuated to the 1st floor, and that they were working on getting back the power. He was directing nurses and other questions from other visitors, and didn’t even have time to tell us where we may find my grandpa. It was better for the visitors not to interfere. We decided to leave the hospital trusting them to take care of my grandpa.

On the way back from Takasaki city (where the hospital is located) to Tomioka city (where my parents live), we found a drug store that was still open. Many of the big grocery stores were already closed and were directing people away at that point. When we entered the store, we understood why some stores had to close immediately. The wine aisle was covered with red wine with just the broken glasses being cleaned away, and there were many soda and juice bottles shoved away to the sides on the floor. Those must have fallen during the earthquake. The bread section was nearly empty, and tap ramen section was very sparse already. It seemed that people were grabbing things that they can eat without much cooking…

The roads to my parents’ place were absolutely jammed. Even with my dad’s navigation system that detects traffic and re-routes you, it took us a couple hours when it usually takes 30 minutes to get home. We also realized that, at a certain point during the trip, things got absolutely dark. So dark to the point we could not see any street lights nor traffic lights for miles and miles ahead. My parents and I suddenly realized that we may not have power at home, and this made us realize that the degree of damages from the earthquake may be completely different from anything we had ever seen. When we finally arrived home, the parking lot, the apartment building, and everything else around them was completely blanketed by the darkness.

My three year old daughter by then, was sound asleep in her car seat. She had been dealing with a cold, and I was concerned to bring her into the parent’s place with no heat. The outside temperature at night was going down near freezing that week. My dad suggested to keep running the car with the heater on until my mom could prepare some food. Ironically and also miraculously, just a day before, I gifted my parents LED headlamps for their weekend hikes as souvenirs from the States! As I sat in the mini-van whose room light was the only light I could see around us, I watched my parents come in and out of the building with their blue LED lights on their heads. Meanwhile, the radio in the car was continuing to announce more aftershocks and also, various announcements were starting about how to learn of your loved ones’ whereabouts. The cell phone network was not functional at all, and it was impossible to make calls regardless of cell carrier. It was also reported that nearly all trains, including bullet trains, had stopped and people working in Tokyo were having a hard time getting home. I worried about my brother Akira who was to have his wedding in Tokyo in only a couple days. I could only wish that he and his fiance had taken that day off and stayed home for their wedding preparation.

I tried calling my husband in LA from my rental cell phone, but that only proved that the cell network was completely overwhelmed. Luckily, the web browsing was working, and I was able to find an emergency messaging service page where I could type in my  message: “We were driving, but we are all safe. Power is out and being scared, but we are OK.” and input my husband’s email address to deliver it. It was remarkable for everyone in Japan that day, that the internet was functional for the most part. Later I found out that, some stores in Tokyo, out of generosity, provided power strips to people who were stranded and needed to recharge their cell phones. The cell phones for network access were their lifelines.

In any case, the gas line was apparently working for my parents, and my mom cooked some udon noodles for me. My daughter was not going to wake up anytime soon, so I tucked her into my futon and kept us warm and slept. Just in case we had to run outside, I kept our coats within reach, and also kept my jeans on me. The scary thing was, as I was sleeping on the futon on tatami floor, I heard low frequency noise as if someone was listening to loud music couple doors down. I knew that was not the case and wondered what it was… then the next moment, the aftershock came and the ground below us swayed side to side. I wonder to this day, if the noise was coming from the ground beneath us.

When I woke up, it was around 4AM. The power was back on, and my parents were watching TV news. The scene displayed on the TV screen was absolutely terrifying, or I want to find a word that is hundred times worse than terrifying. It was the footage of Sanriku region hit by the 30 some feet high tsunami, and as many of you already saw, it was showing the reality of unrealistic “liquid” mixed with houses and cars and debris being pulled back into the ocean. My parents and I could only groan while several variations of equality horrifying pictures were shown to us. The number of deaths reported then I believe, was below hundred. People missing were estimated to be in the hundreds. But everyone knew that the numbers we would be seeing for both deaths and missing people would not be anywhere near those numbers.

That day, we kept the TV on the whole time, and watched the reports of damages get worse and worse. We were still on guard for any more strong aftershocks as well. The day consisted of following routine:

– TV is showing the stories of people in Northern Japan crying because their family members are missing. Once in a while, new footages that the TV station obtained of the moment of the tsunami gets shown.

– Suddenly the program is interrupted and the electronic sound of the earthquake warning comes on. Our eyes freeze on the text that lists the regions affected by this warning. The anchor repeats the warning message over and over; “Please prepare for the strong shake. Please make sure that you are safe from fallen objects.”

–  We stare at the windows and mirrors to see how much of movement we can feel, so that we can decide whether to take a cover. I go closer to my daughter to make sure I have her just in case.

– TV screen switches to the earthquake report which shows the origin of the earthquake and the seismic intensity numbers for each region. They mention whether there is a tsunami warning associated with it. We all wish for no more tsunami waves to those coastal regions.

– The program comes back on, where they report more damages and lost loved ones.

– Repeat all of the above again. Again and again day and night.

My parents, my daughter and I did not get hit by the tsunami. My parents’ apartment did not get crushed by the earthquake either. However, I certainly thought that, if you were in the region where aftershocks were (and still are) hitting, you already are victims of this giant quake from being under this extreme pressure for your safety. It is also not negligible to count the stress from feeling the sorrow from watching so many families being destroyed, all day long, while you stare at the TV screen for any vital aftershock information.

After I reported to my family members in the States about us being safe, many came back and told me to just come home to the States as soon as possible. It was so hard to think that I could indeed escape this whole danger by leaving everything behind, including my friends and family. If it wasn’t for my daughter’s safety, I’m not sure if I could decide to change our trip plan and leave two weeks earlier than planned. My dad stayed in line for an hour to fill his mini-van and used up the gas to take me and my daughter to the airport and to return to their home. After two weeks from the giant earthquake, the gas shortage had finally softened where my parents live, but until then, my dad had to use a scooter in that cold weather for a week to go check on my grandpa and grandma 30 minutes away.

As we all know, the current concern is not just the damage from the earthquake and tsunami. People near Fukushima nuclear plant had to be evacuated, including the families whose houses just survived the tsunami. People more than hundred miles away are now fearing for their water being contaminated with the radioactive particles. Spinach from a 100-mile radius is found contaminated, and some milk is suspended from the market. Many evacuated people in shelters only get two meals a day even after two weeks. When does their suffering end? What else could go wrong in Japan?

When I was still in Japan, when Fukushima nuclear plant issue started becoming the main topic on the TV news, and the aftershocks were of course still continuing, everything started feeling like a cheap Hollywood movie. A movie where all bad fortune thinkable would attack people one after another. Doesn’t matter why or how, just the bad things keep happening until you go “Please, when does this end?” Unfortunately, I certainly don’t see it ending anytime soon; for the evacuated people who are still not getting enough food, for the workers in radiation protection suits, for my parents who have to watch for their food safety, for my brother and his new wife who just decided to quit their jobs in Tokyo to move down to Southern Japan, for my cousin whose employer moved their headquarter from Tokyo to Osaka, and probably needs to move away from her family, the list just goes on and on.

When I think about the future of Japan – I’m very confident that Japan will come out stronger than ever, and I’m even thinking that this recovery may revitalize its economy that suffered for more than a decade after a bubble bursted. But, I’m just sad. The stress and anxiety that people have to go through to get there will be enormous. The tranquility and beauty in the nature that Japanese are proud of, will be forever changed because of the vast area affected by the radiation. I know that there is a bright future ahead, but for now, I’m just filled with the somber feelings.

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