Sunday, 20 March 2011


So as you probably know, Tohoku, or the North East area of Japan suffered a huge earthquake on Friday March 11th. It was 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale and is now being classed as the 4th biggest earthquake in recorded history. The earthquake happened just off the East coast of Japan and created a tsunami that caused destruction to many of the prefectures in that part of the country. The resulting tsunami also caused all the problems with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. There seems to be a few different names for the earthquake at the moment, such as 東日本大震災 (Great Earthquake Disaster of Eastern Japan) or 2011年東北地方太平洋沖地震 (Tohoku Region Pacific Ocean Offshore Earthquake).

I was in no way badly affected in Aomori City. We certainly felt it, but experienced nothing like the terrible damage and destruction witnessed in Miyagi Prefecture and Iwate Prefecture. I'd just like to record a few of my thoughts here.

I was actually in the shower when the earthquake struck. I'd finished work early, as I do every Friday, and I'd gone to get my hair cut. I then came back home and went straight in the shower. After about 5 minutes I stepped out of the shower room to grab a flannel from the shelf where I keep them. Just to left of this shelf I have my umbrella hung up on the wall, and as I grabbed my flannel I saw the umbrella swinging back and forth. My first thought was that I'd perhaps jumped out of the shower a bit more heavily than intended, but as I looked out into my living room I started to see everything swaying and hear the walls creaking and cracking. I looked back into the shower room and the light had now gone off. Soon the water stopped running and I just stood in my living room, wondering whether to grab a pair of trousers and dash outside.

By my counting this was the fourth earthquake I've experienced since coming to Aomori last August, which is odd, as I didn't feel one earthquake during my whole year in Kobe. And every earthquake has happened while I've been working at the city hall, but this one came while I was in my apartment, meaning I had no way to tell whether this was big or small compared to what I'd experienced before. I would later discover that this had indeed been a big earthquake, but didn't know it at the time. I did notice that it was especially long though. It lasted around 2 minutes, where as the ones before had only been about 20 to 30 seconds.

The water had come back on in the shower, but the electricity hadn't. I waited a while, thinking it would eventually. It didn't and I tried flipping the breaker in my apartment on and off, but no luck. I tried to finish off washing in a freezing cold shower, but another earthquake came, and then another. By this time I'd gauged that my apartment wasn't going to fall apart, I'd just have to endure the swaying. I finished showering and put some clothes on, and then a couple of emails came to my mobile phone. One from my supervisor from work, asking if I was OK. I told him I was. Then another came from a Japanese friend, currently in the UK. She'd heard about the quake and asked whether I was OK, and it was at this point I realised this might have been a big quake. I heard people leaving their apartments in my building, and then I started to hear sirens on the streets outside.

There was still no electricity so I couldn't watch TV, use the internet or turn on the radio to check what had just happened, but I did have my mobile phone, which can pick up TV signals, so I tuned in to various channels and all of them were showing footage of the earthquake and the damage it had caused. I got another email from my sister back in the UK who seemed extremely worried, and I messaged her back to reassure her I was OK. It was only later when I managed to log in to Facebook that I noticed a large number of posts on my wall asking if I was OK, and my sister also posted on my wall to reassure everyone I was fine.

After receiving more emails I gathered a tsunami warning had been issued. Aomori City is very near the water, and so it seemed like a good idea to get away from the coast. My girlfriend came to pick me up in her car and we travelled to her house which was a bit more inland. In the end it turned out that Aomori City didn't get hit by the tsunami because of its location within the 'natural harbour' of Mutsu Bay, but at this time nobody was sure what would happen; panic had started to spread and the roads were jam-packed. We tuned in to the radio which was broadcasting advice and messages about staying calm. More earthquakes came while were on the road, and eventually we reached my girlfriend's house. We'd seen that none of the traffic lights were working, and piecing together various reports from various sources we realised that power was still completely out everywhere in the area.

A few of the local JETs gathered together at my girlfriend's house, partly to stay warm and for something to do, as everyone's plans for the evening obviously had to be cut short. With a combination of torches and candles we managed to cook some dinner and entertain ourselves for a while, but not before one of the JETs set a blanket on fire with a candle.

We received more emails and phone calls from concerned Japanese friends across the country as well as people back home. People had been trying to get through to us for a while, but because of the earthquake everyone had been making calls and the networks were too busy to put all calls through. 'au', one of the mobile phone companies was especially bad, and I have friends with au phones who say they're now going to change to a different network. I have a 'Docomo' phone, and it seemed to be working more than anyone else's, so a lot of people ended up using my phone to email friends back home. In the end the battery got really low and I had to turn it off to conserve what power I had left - we didn't know when the power would come back on for us to be able to charge our phones. Some people were saying it could take up to a week.

Eventually we went to bed, and when we woke up in the morning the electricity was back on. We got online to check reports and contact people, and turned on the TV to see every channel still running reports on the earthquake. In fact, it had turned out to be a lot worst than we had all expected. Even in Hachinohe, a city fairly close by in Aomori Prefecture, there had been a huge tsunami that washed up on the coast sending cars and boats floating down the street.

After getting in touch with more JETs around the prefecture we realised we were in one of the only areas to have electricity, and therefore internet, back on. More JETs came round and watched TV and used the internet, and we spent the rest of the day watching movies and cooking with the few bits of food we had in the house. We heard that some コンビニs (convenience stores) were still closed, which is basically unheard of in Japan, and our thoughts turned to buying supplies of food to make sure we could last the next week.

The next day we headed home to Aomori City in the car as none of the trains or buses were running. Electricity had now been restored, but it was becoming apparent that stocks of food, petrol and kerosene - widely used for heating in this part of Japan - were running out. We stopped off at a supermarket and I bought lots of pasta and instant ramen, and that turned out to be a good move - it's been all I've been eating all week. Due to the shortages of petrol, no-one was able make deliveries, so there were no fresh fruit or vegetables, milk, bread etc. Just backup stocks of dry, snack foods, and most of those backup stocks went as well.

Work carried on as normal on Monday, although the city hall was taking part in energy saving procedures, meaning no lights or heating. I think most countries would have called off going to work, but the Japanese take great pride in carrying on with work in such situations. There are pros and cons to this idea. In some ways it helps prevent panic and helps get society back up and running quickly, but it can also be counter productive when you're trying to conserve electricity and petrol and there's not really much work to do anyway.

This past weekend things have just about got back to normal round here. Bars and entertainment venues are opening up again, and shops are restocking their shelves. You can also buy petrol now. Aomori even avoided the scheduled power outages which have been affecting parts of Japan. In fact, the only real visible signs of the earthquake round here were a couple of cracks in the pavement, which were quickly filled in by construction workers.

We've been experiencing aftershocks and other small earthquakes this week, and I've had a lot of friends leave Japan because of the fear of radiation travelling up from the nuclear plant in Fukushima. I'm staying for the time being. Basically, I've been extremely fortunate throughout this whole thing and very lucky to not have been affected much by the earthquake. I hope the country as a whole can pull together in the way it is so famous for. One, to help the badly affected areas to get back on their feet as quickly as possible, and two, to take steps to limit damage if such an earthquake is ever to strike Japan again.

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Anonymous Edward Allen said...

Glad to know you're safe. Keep us posted. all the best from the Sherwood Park Four.

20/03/2011, 14:56  

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