By Higuchi Takayuki
April 16, 2011 (Tokyo)—After living in San Diego for three years, while I attended grad school at SDSU and worked as an intern for East County Magazine, I returned home to Tokyo and now live about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from where the powerful 9.0 earthquake struck. My friend, a student in Sendai, witnessed the devastation first-hand near the epicenter of the quake, then experienced a harrowing survival following the tsunami.
Each person has his or her own story in life. Yet, often we are too busy to share it. Strangely, a tragedy like this gives us the opportunity to show we are each a piece of a moment in time. So, I would like to share our stories.
Keisuke Masuda, a student in Sendai: “I saw near the end was coming.”
One of my friends happened to be in the school near the Sendai airport where the tsunami hit. His name is Keisuke Masuda who is an aspiring pilot trainee, and he was studying hard as usual when the tragedy struck. The nightmare came suddenly. A teacher’s loud voice ordered all of the students to evacuate to the roof of the school. From the roof, he caught the scene as the waters flowed by. View video:
Right after this shocking scene, all the students and teachers at the school had to experience the worse night ever. He told me, “Many of my classmates screamed and cried, saying ‘I don’t wanna die.’” Fortunately, he was courageous enough to calm some of those crowded around him. “I was scared, of course, because I could see the sea level gradually going up to the roof,” he said. The sea level came up to the second floor of the third story building.
After surviving the tsunami, the students and teachers had to deal with another challenge.
Because nobody would be coming to save them at that moment, they had to spend the night at the building surrounded by water. “The temperature outside was below 0 degrees C, and it was snowing. All of the blankets were swept away, so we had no choice but stay as tight as possible,” he told me. “Some of my classmates have some snacks with them. What we did was to share each little piece. In my group, there were four of us, and we were given one calorie bar. Four people--one snack bar. I was this close to being crazy.”
With the fear of death in the worst environment, they barely survived the night. The next day, all the people were rescued by a boat. My friend is now in Tokyo, and told us all the story the other night.
“I still can’t believe this happened to me,” he reported. “All I have done so far was to eat, drink and sleep just to fulfill basic human needs.” He is such a strong person and I believe that he could manage all the emotion step by step. As friends, all we can do is keep supporting him as well as appreciate at each moment of life. It sounds cheesy, but there is no other way I could describe this experience.
Higuchi Takayuki, ECM’s intern in Tokyo: “I never felt such indescribable fear before.”
“This is just another earthquake,” I thought at first during the Sendai earthquake. Quakes have struck Japan countless times before, and we had thought of this one as part of that normal pattern. Yes, the last century’s history has witnessed two major earthquakes in Japan: the Tokyo earthquake in 1923 and Han-shin earthquake in 1995. However, who would have imagined that history would repeat itself a month ago? At around 2 p.m. on March 11th 2011, we experienced the most dangerous and disastrous earthquake ever to strike our nation. The magnitude was 9.0, which makes it the sixth largest earthquake in world history.
A Ship Named GROUND
The night before the earthquake, I stayed at my friend’s place. We enjoyed eating dinner and drinking and had a great conversation as usual. I even forgot the time and missed the last train. So, I asked to crash at his place for the night. The conversation still kept going on and on until we were both passed out.
The next day, I woke up at around 11 a.m. Even though I had lots of work to do, I couldn’t get up from the bed. Finally, I prepared to leave and was about to walk out the door when I felt the shake. Me and my friend each looked at each other and smiled. “Wow, did you feel that?” If you grow up in Japan, the reaction to an earthquake is like when riding on rollercoaster or watching a scary movie: fear with a little excitement. Trust me, few people hide under the desks like we learned in earthquake drills at school.
However, we soon found this time unusual. The shaking didn’t stop and was getting bigger and bigger. We both thought of the same thing: go outside. Once there, I never felt such indescribable fear before. I felt as if I were on a ship shaken by waves at the sea. I saw neighbors pouring outside and cables of utility poles above swinging wildly.
Once the first shake calmed down, I tried to call family members and friends on the cell phone. However, this modern convenience wasn’t convenient at all but kept giving me some tu-tu-tu-tu noise over and over again. We decided to walk around to look for a public phone as well as somewhere that might be safe, such as a park or a school yard for evacuation. The town was buzzing with excitement. Some shared the concerns, some cried, and some called to people. Others sat on the ground from dizziness; some nervously laughed.
During this time, many aftershocks struck. The more that occurred, the more the scene became drastic. Even though it seemed that the situation would be the same no matter where we might go, I watched many trying to move somewhere so they could find some safe place.
To make it worse, all the transportation stopped, which forced mainly workers either to stay where they were, try to find somewhere other than home to take shelter, or to try to make their way home by foot or by taxi. The police became very busy. The police station near my friend’s house was full of people asking what is going on and trying to get as much as information possible.
Attempt to know the UNKNOWN
Under circumstances like this, uncertainty is the biggest concern. What happened, what is happening and what will happen? It was not until this time that we really appreciated the Internet. To my surprise, we could start gathering some pieces for the puzzle only about four hours after the event.
Among all the information we saw, one web site with video showed us how serious the situation was cross much of my homeland. The video showed the tsunami sweeping the cars and houses away, invading and eating a town as if black ink was dropped and ran over a pure white board. In addition, Social networking service including Twitter and Facebook helped confirm your friends’ and family’s safety. I was surprised at the long list of comments and concerns on Facebook. My friends not only in Japan, but in San Diego and around the world were trying to get a hold of me to make sure I was okay.
This is not a drama but reality: MASS PSYCHOLOGY
A couple days after the tragedy, it appeared that everyone started to move on. At the same time, under the surface of daily life, I could witness rationality losing out. Some examples: First of all, some emergency items were gone from all the supermarkets and convenience store: instant noodles, drinks, batteries and toilet papers. It was unusual that certain sections of store shelves were empty everywhere I went.
Secondly, scheduled blackouts were executed. With so many power lines down and power generators turned off, there isn’t enough energy to run Tokyo at once, so power was rationed mostly in the west part of Tokyo including where I live; each area would be turned off for three hours a day. However, people, including my family, were confused by which group we belonged to and what time our lights would be going out. And in reality, it wasn’t just our confusion; there was confusion on the part of the government and utilities. For example, they announced some area as Group 2 even though they were actually Group 3. Then the actual blackout happened 20 to 30 minutes after the scheduled time.
Finally, we are facing the issue that has the rest of the world concerned: radiation leaking from the nuclear plants. Because of this, some people decided to evacuate either to the western part of Japan or to flee to other countries. Even though the official figure of radiation level was high enough to harm the human body only around the plants, people living even in the eastern part of Japan were paranoid to some level.
The unrealistic, and at times unbelievable, suddenly seems rational. It is understandable that neither the media nor anyone else has a clear idea of what is going on in a situation like this. Because, honestly, there has never been a situation like this. Every single day, the news and rumors and many kinds of communication have crossed over so drastically that we don’t have time to absorb it, but just act in every direction.
After having said that, I am also proud that the great aspect of our nationality has been exposed in public. I have heard that the world praises our beautiful national traits including respecting each other, being polite and being patient. Particularly, the news that there was no looting after the earthquake was seen all over the world as a beautiful act. In addition, the news reported that some residents who had rented DVDs called rental shops to ask how they should return the item within days after their houses were washed by tsunami.
Up until now, many entertainment events were cancelled. Since it is considered inappropriate to do those things, everyone has been waiting until it is appropriate. So from what I see, our challenge is how and when to get back to our normal lives?
I agree with what a news commentator said: “There is no timing for whether it is appropriate or not.” And I am concerned about “jishuku mood” (which means to voluntarily refrain from anything.) I can see our spirit somehow shrinking with fear of this tragedy and uncertainty and what-if possibilities. A couple of my friends have to be absent from work because of the stress. Also, some experts are concerned about PTSD.
But, I believe that shrinking leads to more shrinking. In that sense, I am glad that the scene in Tokyo seems to be getting back to normal. The cherry blossoms are in bloom. People work, have fun, do chores; lots of laugh and smiles.