Saturday, 12 March 2011

"Holy fuck that was a big one"

Words of wisdom, those, posted on Facebook at about 2.49pm yesterday, Friday 11th March, after the first big shake of the earthquake.

I was working in the office in Shibuya, over the road from the school (where, incidentally, the little fella attends). I was just sending a last few emails before heading over to our other campus down in Sangenjaya when the shaking started. As earthquakes go it started off fairly innocuously, a bit of shaking, yes, perhaps a bit more than 'normal', but nothing to get too excited about. Then after about 5 or 6 seconds it got a bit stronger.

"This is quite a big one..." said one of my colleagues

"Ha, this? If you think this is big then you've never been in a big earth..." started our boss but was cut short by the increase in violent shaking that then began.

Earthquakes are a fact of life here. I won't say you get used to them, they are too intense for that, but you do get, well, accustomed to the fact that there will, about once a month, be a bit of a shake. It will keep you on your toes so you don't get too complacent, but they don't tend to scare the bejayzus out of you. This one started as a regular, keep-you-on-your-toes kind of one,but this one kept going and kept getting stronger. Having read a few things about the Kobe/Hanshin quake my basic philosophy was 'if you have time to think you're in an earthquake then the chances are it's not going to kill you', as Kobe, apparently, went from nothing to unimaginable violence in a split second, meaning many people didn't have time to wake up before they died.And I suppose, on reflection, that is still true as yesterday I had the time to think, "I'm in an earthquake" and I'm still alive, but this time was more of a close run thing.

As this one got stronger reflex took over, to an extent. I had been waiting by my desk, as others were in the office. As the shaking got stronger I grabbed my hard hat from the cupboard behind me and put it on. Now it was strong but at a level i'd experienced before. Then, it got worse and for the first time in my life in Japan I got down under my desk (well, almost under my desk) as one is meant to do.

Hindsight is a weird thing. The brain, I am sure, is very good at blocking out unpleasant memories, as now, barely 24 hours later, it is hard to remember exactly what was going on. The things I can recall are:
Grabbing my mobile phones and disconnecting one of them from its cable
Thinking 'this might well be it...'
My computer monitors moving across my desk
Hoping that it would stop soon

That's about it. I'm glad I thought about the phones as if the building were to collapse around me better to have something like a phone available to contact the outside world. But I'm a bit disappointed that my life didn't flash before me or that I didn't think of the Guru or the little fella. Then again at that moment, when you can't move and the world is almost crashing around your ears, perhaps all you can do is hope you aren't about to die.

But die I did not, obviously. Then, first priority, post the above words on facebook - don't know why, but it was. Actually I tried to post 'Holly fuck...' due to shaking fingers and adrenaline OD, but managed to correct myself. The second thing I did was fire off a quick email to family to say I was alive as I knew they'd be worried. Then, hat on head, I'm glad to say I headed straight over to the school whilst most to the other staff stood around saying 'my wasn't that a strong quake!'. I quickly looked over the outside of the building and saw that no windows were broken so went inside and upstairs to the 2nd floor. Two teachers were waiting by their classroom doors, ready to evacuate, the kids were silent as church mice, waiting under their desks (good 'duck and cover' awareness). I told the teachers that I didn't think we'd need to evacuate but to be ready just in case. Then I walked towards the 'bridge' that joins our 2 buildings and, on the other side of the emergency door, met a senior staff member picking up posters that had fallen to the floor. Afterwards I remember thinking that it was perhaps not the most pressing need at that time, but at that moment I was just glad to see her as I knew she needed to make an announcement about staying or evacuating.

She also realised this so I figured it was better to check the lower parts of the building to see if there was any significant damage. I did and there was none that I saw, so I went back and told her so we stayed put, or rather, as it was that time of the day, we proceeded with the kids dismissal as normal. As She made the announcement I went back over the road to the office, part of me thinking 'well that's all right then' - I went back to my computer to see if there was any info, that's when the first reports started coming in about the size and location - off the Miyagi coast and a 7 on the Japanese scale (that goes up to 7). Whoa!

(Just thought about those last 2 paragraphs and if they make it sound like I had a plan then it shouldn't, I think i was on instinct and trying not to panic (as panicking is a very bad thing, as I always tell the youngster)).

Then it was back into the school as I realised I should probably make a more thorough check of the buildings. At this time parents were turning up to collect their kids and I'm happy to say the guru arrived to pick up the little fella. She was fine, had been in a train that had automatically stopped at Harajuku, the stop before Shibuya, and she has run from there to the school. The buildings seemed fine, a cracked pane of glass here or a crack in the plasterboard join there, but nothing looking too severe. Then it was back to the office for more info.

We were very lucky in that though the phone network went into meltdown, email and the internet were still working. This was great so we could see what was happening, the 7 in Miyagi was a 5+ in Tokyo (on the j-scale) which later transpired to be at magnitude 8.9, possibly the biggest quake to hit Japan. Facebook became the school communication saviour as it was one of the few things that was updating constantly, so our Communications Manager was able to get the message out to parents that they needed to be here, or to teachers that parents were on their way. The manager in question did an amazing job, hats very much off to her.

At this point, though the trains were stopped we were hopeful that they might start again. So we went into pretend-work but really what's-going-on mode. Then the first images of Miyagi and the tsunami started to come through. This really was a 'holy fuck...' was devastation, no other word for it, like Hiroshima after they dropped the bomb. Some of the images were unbelievable, they still are.

Anyway, enough for now, more tomorrow abut that night and how we got home


  1. Wow, so glad you are all OK! We have been watching things unfold in Australia and my thoughts are with Japan right now. Take care!

  2. Hi Kinki

    thanks, yes, all ok at the moment, just keeping an eye on Fukushima - and advice from the UK foreign office is that there is no danger whatsoever to Tokyo, even if things so mushroom shaped over there :)


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