I HAVE LIVED through many earthquakes since I reside in Tokyo. Most of them are harmless. Just a few moments of jiggling and swaying, and they are gone.
But, the earthquake – at 2.46pm on March 11, 2011 – was different. I knew it wasn’t the ordinary quake. I knew it wasn’t harmless.
I was sitting in my office on the ninth floor of a building in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. I felt a jiggle in my chair and saw that my computer monitor was swaying. All of a sudden, it seem that the building was jumping. It started to swing crazily and things were toppling from all directions. Bookshelves fell and their contents scattered on the floor.
I saw my Japanese colleagues smiled and tell me, “Daijoubu desu” which means, “It’s alright”. But as the rattling became intense and violent, they tried to smile again at me, but this time in the way people smile when they are scared.
The building management advised us to be calm and stay inside the building during the quake. My Japanese friends also convinced me that staying in the building is the safest way during the quake. All the Japanese know that. They know because they are very prepared and well trained in such kind of disaster. They even were automatically preparing the “earthquake kit”, which consists of water, food, and flashlight.
After we stayed in the building for more than three hours, the quake was fading out. I turned on the TV and saw that a big tsunami has hit the northeastern part of Japan, around 250 km from Tokyo. All the buildings, roads, ships, cars, were smacked by the big tsunami. I then managed to get out of the building and tried to get home.
In Tokyo, due to the big quake, all the train schedule were cancelled and the railway system stopped operating. Some buses were still plying the street, but the traffic was horrible. I thought that Tokyo would be in a chaos, but I was mistaken. Although Yurakucho Station was packed, people were standing in line, not pushing or shoving, to wait for the train, bus, or taxi. Even at such a critical time, they were very calm.
On the streets, cars were stuck and moving very slowly, but everyone was letting each other pass. At one intersection, I saw the traffic was at a complete standstill, but I didn’t hear a single honk. It was a terrifying day, but scenes I saw of how the Japanese reacted the way they did, helped me to stay calm.
I was also amazed at how everyone in Tokyo was mindful of others. There was no rush in buying things in the supermarkets or convenience stores. They bought only as much as they needed and left the rest for the people behind them. Everyone was patiently lined up waiting for his or her turn at the check-out counters.
The next day, an old Japanese woman gave my family a small bag of honey, milk, and cookies. I knew that she might also need those things during the time of scarcity. But she said, “You have children. Take these for them”. I was so touched by her kindness. The Japanese people have shown their cultural ability to remain calm and still care for each others.
It was one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded in history. Japan experienced an arduous moment, suffering three crisis all at the same time – an intensity 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear crisis. The number of those dead or missing has reached more than 27.000. If they haven’t prepared and established an early warning system, constructed state-of-art infrastructure, and coordinated a strong government response, the casualties would have been bigger.
Tokyo has changed since the big Quake hit. Many people are worried about the nuclear crisis and energy shortage as a result of the damaged power plant. But, I believe that the people of Japan will not surrender. I have seen the spirit of “Kizuna” (bond, trust, sharing, and caring each others), and the undefeatable spirit of “Gambaru” (try hard, never surrender), in the heart of the Japanese people.
I can only bow my head at the persistent efforts of the rescue workers, the heroic endeavors of the nuclear reactor workers, and the endurance of the survivors. Buildings and bodies could break, but the human hearts are made of much stronger stuff. This strength will lead the Japanese people to overcome their sorrows and rebuild the devastated villages and countryside.
I am only hoping that their suffering will no longer be compounded by many more complications. Although, I have now realized that it will take so much more to destroy the Japanese Spirit. It is not only rich in culture and advanced in technology, but also a nation that have proven to the world that they are truly a “very dignified and highly civilized society”. Not only does the world sympathize with them, but has also come to admire the much, much more.
This article is also published in Venture Magazine – Indonesia, June 2011.
My experiences during Japan’s earthquake, 11 March 2011, can also be read in my book “Japan Aftershock” (written together with Hani Yamashita). This books is available in book stores in Indonesia (written in Bahasa Indonesia).