Four years is an odd amount of time. It feels very recent and very long ago at the same time. Just think of something that you know for sure was four years ago and you will see what I mean.
Four years ago an earthquake the Northeastern area of Japan, a region called Tohuku. Tohuku covers a large area and indeed a large area was damaged so I will not attempt to name them all. I am sure I would leave somewhere out. As just about everyone knows the earthquake triggered a tsunami. This is turn resulted in the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
At the time I lived in Gunma prefecture, which was close enough to get a decent shake but far enough away to be safe from any real damage. I know of a few buildings that got cracked and maybe there were some that toppled. I can’t say for sure. My story of that day in no way compares to anyone living closer to or in the areas that were truly effected on that day.
On March 3, 2011 I was in a meeting with the senior high school JET ALTs (English teachers) of Gunma. That meant rather than being on the 23rd floor where I normally worked, I was on the second, or perhaps it was the third, floor of a neighboring building. I can’t remember the exact number that was there. I think it was around twenty. I doubt it was more than thirty. We had this meeting two or three times a year. At these meetings I basically served as a moderator as the teachers shared lesson plans. There were generally some announcement and what not that also needed to be made and the Board of Education head of the SHS English let me make the announcement both to make his life a touch easier and because I enjoy speaking.
We had just gone on break. Which means that when the first shakes began I was in the bathroom in front of a urinal. Fill in the rest yourself. To my right was a Japanese office worker. The first shakes were light. Gunma prefectures is known for the strong winds that rush off the mountains and for a moment we both thought it was the wind shaking the building. I know because we traded a few words about it. Then the real shaking began. All I could do was stand there, since I was in front of a urinal.
One interesting thing abut that bathroom was that there was a window you could stare out of while occupied. The window looked out on a parking lot. In the middle of the earthquake the cars were dancing. They rhythmically rocked and rose in a way that I had never seen before.
When I made it back to the meeting room there were a few questions. This was a strong earthquake but I don’t think we knew how strong. I remember there being a few worries, but nothing serious. At some point we found out that the trains had stopped which was troubling since the teachers came from around the prefecture and not all had cars. We continued the meeting for want of anything else to do. There was the occasional aftershock and the occasional announcement over the speakers in the room, basically reminders that the elevators were not running and the like. I remember making jokes after those announcements. Generally saying things like we were encouraged to use the elevators or that now would be the time to use rickety furniture. Cornball stuff but it got chuckles and I like to think it helped release any mounting tension.
After the meeting, everyone left. For a while it was impossible to send messages or to make calls. Lines were jammed. I lived a few blocks away. I wasn’t really worried. We were safe in Gunma. I can’t remember if I heard from my wife before she arrived back at home or if that was when I really knew she was safe.
Honestly, that day was fairly normal. Soon after we had to deal with scarcity on the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores and rolling brownouts. But that was all later.
As I said, my experience during the earthquake doesn’t compare to the many tragic or heroic stories of that day. But that is how I spent the earthquake.