The Impermanence of It All

By now you will have heard the news; the largest earthquake in Japan since records began hit the north of Honshu (the big, main island with Tokyo on it) on Friday. I’m sure you’ve read the reports, seen the footage, heard about the nuclear reactors possibly melting down, scoured Youtube for more footage and maybe, you’ve looked for or stumbled across articles about the possibility of more earthquakes in the country.

I have.

Long before we even arrived in Japan we were told that a huge earthquake was due any time soon. This earthquake, known as the Tokai earthquake, has hit the same area in 1854, 1707, 1605 and 1498 according to historical records, which means that it reoccurs every 110 years (give or take 33 years). This “same area” is not Sendai, but Shizuoka. What does that mean? Well dear readers, it means that even though 157 years have passed since the last Tokai earthquake and despite Friday’s events, it still has not happened, and experts reckon that it could happen 30 years from now or tomorrow. No-one knows when; just that it will. This has always freaked me out a little bit and every now and again I find myself somewhere, wondering what I’d do if an earthquake hit at that moment in time. Am I far enough away from power lines? Will this building hold its own or collapse on top of me? Could roof tiles fall off and hit me? But then the thoughts sink into the back of my head where they belong and I resume my giggling at the eccentricities of Japanese culture. The Sendai earthquake has only served to put it back, firmly, in the forefront of my mind.

But let’s forget about that for a moment and talk about Sendai itself. I was at work, getting my computer fixed, having a chat to the IT guy about how busy he looked and suddenly, I thought I was going to faint. I was getting ready to say something (“catch me”, maybe?) when he looked at me and said inquisitively, “jishin?” (“earthquake?”). A few people across the office heard and nodded in agreement, and then it became obvious; the whole building started rocking calmly like a ship in the ocean. Surprisingly, it was nothing like the bone-shaking, brain melting, crashing and rumbling nightmare that you see at the movies or on TV. There was no noise; no rumbling of the earth, no smashing of plates, no screaming or shouting, just a gentle “ohhhhhh…. nagai…. nagai ne?” (“long… long isn’t it?”) from a few of the staff in the room. This gentle rocking lasted for a good minute, before one of my JTEs scrambled for the TV remote and started to look for coverage. She needn’t look for long – it was on every channel.

There was a map of Japan with little flashing lines all around the coasts showing the different tsunami warning levels; red, yellow and green depending on the severity. The whole of the north coast was lit up in red, but by the time it got round to Shizuoka it was a slightly more reassuring yellow colour. At the top of the screen was an estimated time of arrival, which said 2 minutes, and we were presented with a static view of the sea from a camera mounted on a building in Sendai. Two minutes passed and nothing was happening. I wondered if it had been and gone and we hadn’t seen it, but then everything just started filling up with water. My image of a tsunami had always been this enormous wall of water that comes flying towards the coast but at first, it wasn’t like that; the tide just got higher and higher, the port started filling up with water, boats were getting chucked around and huge lorries were suddenly being picked up and swept away like they were Matchbox toys. Someone changed the channel, and there was the Hollywood wave, except it was no longer a wave of water, but a mountain of sludge carrying cars, houses, trucks, ships and fires for miles across pristine tea fields and strawberry greenhouses, smashing over barriers and roads with no signs of losing momentum or power. We watched in horror (footage here) as cars sped along roads, desperately trying to outrun the wall of sludge but then getting swallowed up by it on live television. What had started off as something a little bit exciting was quickly and tragically turning into one of the biggest natural disasters of this century.

Shizuoka, and indeed much of the country below us, is the same as it ever was. Besides the earthquake itself (around 4 on the Richter Scale here apparently) life continues as usual, and all the news of melting nuclear power plants and total devastation seems like it is coming out of a different country. The fact that you could get to Sendai in a little under 3 hours on the Shinkansen only makes it more surreal.

We were fortunate, and for now my thoughts go to the people in the north and those who have friends and family there. I read one story about a man who was picked up in his car by the very wave in that footage; it floated on top, and he lived to tell the tale. I can only hope there are many more stories like his.

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