2 years ago today, March 11th, at around 2:50 PM, I was walking through the hallways of Yoshiwara Elementary School, not long after I had finished my final class as their Assistant Language Teacher, when the floor started to sway. It wasn't a violent sway, but like the rocking of a big boat. My first earthquake would ultimately be the biggest to ever hit Japan and also create a devestating tsunami and nuclear disaster, causing well over 18,000 deaths and destroying the homes of an additional 300,000.
There was minimal damage where I was living in Fuji City, some areas were without power or water, but little else. However, the atmosphere was tense. Cars lined up at gas stations, water bottles started selling out, cell phone networks were jammed and tsunami warnings for much of the east coast went into effect. All TV networks switched to tsunami coverage. The city-wide PA system gave updates every 15 minutes. My cell phone was getting aftershock and tsunami alerts well into 4am. Me and a bunch of friends continued through with plans to have a takoyaki, fried octopus ball, party that night. We cooked and drank beer as we watched the terrible tsunami footage pour in while we were walking distance from the ocean.
Me and a student take cover during an aftershock.
The school evacuates after the first shock subsides. The students are wearing their seat cushions which convert into protective headgear specifically for an event like this.
I had friends who were on the subway in Tokyo at the time, ultimately having to walk for hours to get home after the subway shutdown. I met a guy living in a rural area near Fukushima whose whole town went dark and he walked into the night until he reached the next town to be able to contact someone.
There was talk of how sometimes what may seem like the main seismic event may simply be a precursor for an even larger one. Talk that only made some people even more unsettled. Aftershocks came constantly over the following weeks, all of which had me much more worried than the initial quake, especially with the looming fears of Fukushima. During one aftershock, I jumped out of my backdoor and into the neighboring rice field, just to be 100% safe from possible falling object inside. From there I'd realize that I was standing a 2 minute drive from the Fuji River, a fault line overdue for a large earthquake that could be set off by one of these aftershocks. Then I looked up at Mt. Fuji, an active volcano that is due to erupt literally any day now. It was unsettling to say the least.
Somewhat fortunately, I had already scheduled to take a trip to Shanghai about a week after the earthquake. When I arrived to Narita airport it was at the height of the radiation scare. People were everywhere trying to get out. The majority of which were tourists and foreign residents of Japan. Lines had formed everywhere, I have never seen so many people in an airport in my life. An announcement came over the PA system stating that all flights, on all airlines, to all of Asia and North America were sold out for the next week. It was insane. When I would ultimately leave Japan for the United States two weeks later, the airport was absolutely empty. Everyone that wanted to get out had done so and no one else was coming in.
Before I left Japan, which had been planned before the earthquake, I spent a week in Tokyo. It was an eerie, changed place. The entire country was in a power saving fervor since Fukushima supplied at least a quarter of the region's power, so the neon lights of Shibuya were off. Most lights inside subway stations and stores were shut off as well. Reports had recently come in that Tokyo's tapwater had trace elements of radiation in it that may be unsafe for infants to drink. So naturally, no one was drinking the tap water. All liquids began to sell out. In a city with 3 vending machines on every corner and a convenience store on every block, it was a rare site to see anything sold out, let alone all forms of liquid.
Leaving Japan in that mess, with terrible destruction and death in the north, left me feeling guilty that I wasn't lending a hand, especially since I was returning to the US without any purpose or job to fill. Japan has certainly gotten along well enough without me, but there is still a lot that needs to be done in Tohoku. A friend of mine living in Fukushima regularly makes trips out of town just in hopes of getting away from radiation. This certainly will not be the last major earthquake in Japan, but hopefully it remains the biggest and hopefully the scientists saying that Mt. Fuji will erupt in less than 2 years are wrong.
Additional reading on the Tohoku Earthquake: