If you are looking for information in an emergency, please skip to the links at the end. Thank you.
It was an ordinary afternoon at my workplace in Saitama. I was just about to start marking my fifth graders’ classwork when the windows started rattling. Neither of the other two teachers in the staffroom had reacted, but I had stopped hunching over my desk and was bolt upright, looking around the room. As a foreigner from England, where we don’t have earthquakes, I often find myself more interested and worried about even the smallest tremors than the average Japanese person.
It continued, but I’ve been here long enough to see that too. Just the other day we had a smaller quake (7.2 magnitude, but much further away from civilisation) while I was teaching a class. The kids got under their desks for a few minutes, then we learned ‘earthquake’ in English.
This earthquake intensified. The vice principal realised something was wrong then and sprang to the PA system near her desk. The curriculum advisor threw open the staffroom doors and rushed out into the corridor. The whole building shook violently and things fell off the shelves. I braced myself against the white painted cupboards by the window and my desk.
There was a row of potted plants on the cupboards by the window. One by one, they rolled off and smashed. Mugs tumbled out of the cupboard in the hot drinks area and the photocopiers came away from the wall and smashed into the metal cases filled with English teaching material.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes. My first thought when there’s an earthquake is ‘is the epicentre close to us, or is the earthquake very far away and even worse?’ I thought about my partner, working in a tall building in Tokyo and then what a stupid, boring day I’d had. When I came in to the school that morning, the secretary exclaimed how much weight I’d lost recently. I thanked her and mentioned it was thanks to her responding to my request to give me less rice (etc) for school lunch than the other teachers (and about the same amount as the kids). But when I got to lunch, I had even fewer noodles than my usual half-portion to go with my miso ramen! So what would be a funny anecdote otherwise was going to be part of my last day alive…
After what seemed like several minutes, it stopped. A class all wearing their bousai zukin filed out into the playground. A bousai zukin is a padded and reflective silver hood worn during fire drills that — for 99% of the school year — is hidden away inside a blue or red cushion cover and used as seat padding in class. I looked around the staffroom, decided that there was nothing I could do and dashed out into the corridor and ankle-depth water.
It wasn’t a burst pipe, but the row of goldfish tanks outside had been shaken so much that they’d thrown about half their contents (sans goldfish — I checked) over the side. I ran through it and towards the shoe lockers and school entrance. The classes kept coming and I took charge of the kids in tears.
The principal brought out an envelope with registers for all the classes — but no one had any pens. By chance, I had a pink gel pen in my trouser pocket. An hour or so ago, I’d been drawing pictures of animals and signing notebooks for Class 3-X, who’d just had their final English lesson of the year with me (The school year ends in March in Japan). I handed over my pen to the nearest homeroom teacher and apologised for its pinkness. She didn’t seem to mind.
Registers completed, the teachers all gathered in a circle and were given the briefest details based on what could be figured out by cellphone – there had been a Shindo Level 3 earthquake in Iwate prefecture (Completely incorrect). By that time, a large group of mothers had arrived at the school gates and, once the signal was given, charged inside the playground to take their kids home.
In many ways, that made things worse.
Because all the kids whose parents weren’t able to make it there yet didn’t understand why and assumed the worst. Momo (8) kept sobbing and repeating her older brother’s name again and again. He was a middle school student right next door to the school, so why wasn’t he there yet? She rose up on her knees and threw her arms around me. Next to her, Ume (also 8) was crying for her mother. Sakura (12) sat with her arms around her legs, her face blotchy from crying. I sat with her for a bit and she told me she was perfectly fine and eventually started smiling when I switched to English, because she thinks it sounds funny.
Some kids were enjoying it. Sugi (10) wanted to play rock, paper, scissors with me and Kashiwa (7) didn’t understand what was going on and wanted to chat with me about cats. Another kid exclaimed that it wasn’t scary, it was FUN. Some of the kids pointed to the outside of the gymnasium with excitement, where a huge chunk of metal casing had fallen from the wall.
I approached a teacher and asked if there was any news from Tokyo, because that was where my partner worked. No news, although they speculated that while it was further from the epicentre, the ground was softer, and so it could go either way. An aftershock hit and, even though the ground was shaking, I ran back to hug Momo and Ume.
We’ve been hit with unpredictable weather lately from days as warm as in early summer to snow. Yesterday was cold and the children were freezing. My legs were still shaking, but I claimed to be cold too. A few children asked me if we had earthquakes in England, and when I said we didn’t, replied wistfully, “Wow, that would be nice…” The principal and vice-principal made the decision to move the few remaining children into the gymnasium. We were surrounded by graduation posters, including one with 1000 paper cranes. It was just like a scene out of a zombie movie, with all the survivors holed up together, and thinking about it like that made it feel a bit less real. One by one, more parents turned up and their kids ran to them, grabbing their waists. Eventually, they were all reunited with their parents and big brothers, including Momo and Ume.
At last, I was given permission to enter the main building and I went straight for my phone. Partner was safe and had texted me already. A teacher asked me if I was okay and, away from the kids, I completely lost it.
Now I had to get home. Although my workplace is in Saitama, I live in Tokyo. A teacher told me that the new teacher, Momiji-sensei, also lived in Tokyo and, although the trains were probably stopped, we could attempt the journey together. Momiji stopped off at a convenience store first, which was packed with people. You couldn’t move in there. All the ready-to-eat items (bread and onigiri, mainly) were gone. At the train station, there were barriers up and guards in place. They told us the elevated track had fallen down, but we could get a discount on the buses, if they came. Momiji and I took a step back to discuss our options and, as we did so, the guards brought down the shutters. I guess I’d thought the trains would stop for a few hours and then start right back up again.
We had no choice but to walk into Tokyo. There was a steady stream of salarymen coming at us, who were walking out of the city. We passed a large number of shops on the way that were open and doing great business — mainly restaurants and bicycle shops. One of them was a second-hand shop which prominently displayed a wide-screen TV showing footage from Shinjuku station. We all stood around it and watched. It was chaos and I knew then that I would have to walk all the way home, without trains or buses. I parted ways with Momiji-sensei and plotted a direct route to my apartment on my phone with Google Maps across the middle of nowhere. In total, I would have to walk 32km. Luckily, I’m physically fit and walk around Tokyo quite regularly, although my record up until that point was 22km in one day.
A very strange thing happened next. I was walking through said middle of nowhere, when suddenly one of my foreign coworkers (an English teacher in the same district, many kilometres away) appeared in front of me. I explained what I was doing and he took me home where I got a mug of coffee, his wife cooked a delicious Japanese meal and he charged up my phone. There was also a TV and every single terrestrial channel had earthquake and tsunami news. It was currently on an NHK affiliate which had dedicated itself to broadcasting messages from viewers to their loved ones who were missing. It was heartbreaking — and I was also starting to get a sense of the scale of the quake.
He said I could stay the night in his mother-in-law’s house. I thanked him and said I wanted to continue walking. More than anything, I wanted to get back to my partner and check on my cat, but if I hadn’t met him there, I would never have made it. The local Metro station was now open, and I took the train straight to a connecting station on the Chuo Line (the central line connecting Tokyo and its western suburbs). Unfortunately, that line was down, like all other JR lines. In total, it cut around 2km off my journey. And so I replotted my route and resumed walking. I was now walking away from Tokyo, along the main commuter route. Thousands of salarymen and university students were walking side-by-side. Along the way, I realised that while my phone wasn’t sending messages to my partner, I could reach him if I used e-mail because the data network was still working. And so we met up about 5km later.
We got back just before 2:00am, having walked just over 29km. The cat was safe (not even particularly flustered!) and a pile of papers had fallen down — suggesting nothing like what had happened in Saitama. I charged my phone and read the internet, looking up everyone I know in Japan. Everyone is safe, even one doujinshi artist who lives in Sendai.
Note: This is a completely true account of what happened… excluding the names of the people involved. Sorry if you feel it’s self-indulgent (it feels that way to me), but I had to type it all out. I will be remembering this day for a long time.
However, while Tokyo has barely been affected, Sendai and the surrounding areas are devastated. For more information on emergency procedures and how to help, try the following links:
Time Out: Emergency contact numbers and shelters Also states that Bic Camera are offering a free phone charging service at all their stores. Never underestimate the importance of a charged phone in an emergency.
Facebook: Tell your Facebook friends you’re okay, quickly
Google: Person Finder
Yahoo: Where To Donate
Here’s another personal account from a friend in Tokyo.
Those of you who read this blog for my movie and theatre reviews are probably wondering about the safety of your favourite celebrities in Japan. It’s okay, it’s only natural. Here are some lists of those who have checked in: voice actor listing, Musical Prince of Tennis listing, Jrock listing.