March 11, 2011 Tohoku Earthquake: What It Felt Like In Tokyo

(Originally published on March 12, 2011, 13:19, Tokyo time.)

IT STARTED SLOW, just like every other earthquake I’ve been in since I came to Japan 10 years ago. When you first arrive here (if you are not from Cali) and you are sitting in a Starbucks on the second floor somewhere in an incredibly dense Tokyo neighborhood and you feel the low rumble and very light shaking of a 1.0 or 2.0 quake, you might look up and around and wonder if you’re going to need to flee. You notice one or two other people looking around as well, but most are going on with their day with nary a glance. As Slate reported last week, “When a random group of people finds itself in a sudden emergency like a fire or a natural disaster, 10 to 15 percent will consistently freak out, 10 to 20 percent will stay cool, and the rest will become dazed and hesitant sheep.”

So if you stay here a few years longer, you learn stop noticing the really small ones. Don’t even look up anymore. And I’ve been in dozens of those since I came here. That’s how this one started, for a good twenty seconds. Staying very cool, not looking up from my just-finished lunch of grilled fish, rice and miso soup in a dark and moody urban-chic-traditional Japanese restaurant over Yotsuya station in central Tokyo.

(I only eat Japanese food for lunch about once every two weeks, so it’s convenient that this adds a nice little mise-en-scène to this story.)

But this one kept building, to the point where everyone did look up and started muttering and I heard some gasps (which in Japanese come out as “hooa”, with the highest pitch in the middle). This is the point when people start looking at each other with the question in their eyes, should we be doing something right about now? The first, not-noticed phase lasted maybe 30 seconds, and this next phase lasted another 30 seconds, people looking around at each other trying to decide what, if anything, to do. I’ve been in this situation in Japan perhaps a dozen times. Generally, it subsides with no one having done anything.

My impression, from earthquake simulators and talking to people who have been in big ones, is that if a really powerful quake hits you from right under you, it smacks into you like a linebacker and just shakes the absolute crud out of you, like that epilectic dryer with the brick thrown in it in the youtube video from last year (the good part starts at :50). If it’s a really slow build like this it is far away and so likely won’t be too crazily strong or do too much damage at your location. This quake was huge, 9.0, but several hundred kilometers from my location in Tokyo and out to sea, so this bears out the truth of the second half of that impression. With this understanding in my head, I was not worried at this point. I wasn’t certain if it even could build to a big one after such a slow start, which was part of my curiosity as I looked around in the restaurant, trying to read everyone else’s faces. Certainly, no one was panicking.

But then, for the first time in my ten years in Japan, it kept getting bigger. There was no mistaking it now. This was bigger than anything I had previously experienced. The shaking wasn’t what I would call violent though. It was just a very large back and forth movement. The staff at the restaurant had been conferring for about 30 seconds about what to do, and tentatively told everyone maybe they should evacuate out the emergency exit, but once the biggest shaking started, they were quite resolute, though still calm, that everyone should most definitely step out the door to the rear. We all got up, except curiously for one woman at the table next to me who sat working at her computer, not even looking up after we were told to evacuate. Top 10%.

I was on the ground floor, and the emergency exit was only about ten paces away, through an employee stairwell and right out onto the street. There was some eerie and pretty violent metal-on-metal banging in the stairwell, and within seconds I was outside in the open air and sunshine. I noted the white concrete curbing jostling against the black asphalt sidewalk as I stepped over the railing into the street, but saw nothing crack. The building I was in was an upper-middle end shopping complex over Yotsuya station with $10 lunches and a Godiva chocalatier. At only two stories, I didn’t feel a great danger of collapse, but still I felt that the street would be a fine place to stand. Curiously, I didn’t think until now that it was actually a bridge over the tracks I was on, so probably was one of the worst places to be. Mental note.

I looked up and saw among the taller buildings 1oo meters away a rather thin ten-story building swaying very noticeably back and forth, a good couple meters each way. Hundreds of people poured into the streets. Everyone was pretty calm, talking excitedly to each other like a fire drill, but no one was panicking or screaming. One woman seemed pretty shaken and was being comforted by a co-worker, and after I had been outside about a minute and the shaking mostly subsided, an 8-year old boy came down in a large group from the second floor, holding his mother’s hand and screaming and crying, with everyone around chuckling in sympathy. I imagine feeling trapped on the second floor was a much more harrowing experience for him than my quick egress on the first.

And then it was over. All told, it lasted about 2-3 minutes, at least how I remember it. I walked the seven minutes back to my office along the major street. I saw no injuries and no damage. Just thousands of people out on the sidewalks talking with each other, but no one panicked. And I didn’t hear any ambulances in my neighborhood then or at any time afterward. I suppose that doesn’t preclude injuries, as they may have been occupied elsewhere, but from my view I didn’t see any evidence of injuries among the thousands of people in the area. Some of the major buildings had been evacuated as a matter of policy, other buildings such as my own had no official policy. When I got back to my office there were a dozen or so of my colleagues standing about talking with each other outside, with hundreds of people from other offices milling about, and the very small park just across the street full to the gills. I went inside and saw that most people were still there. My friend said that many had not evacuated at all. By the time I sat back down at my desk a half hour after the first quake, many were back to work.

The first aftershock hit just as I sat down. With that kind of timing I thought I surely must have been imagining it. I’m on the 3rd floor of a building, and it occurred to me then for the first time that all my office mates and anyone on a high floor in a building (up to the 6th floor in my office, a very small and older building) must have experienced a much more dramatic situation than I had on the ground floor in that restaurant. But I got up from my desk and bopped down the stairs again at this aftershock, and the others on my floor started to exit again as well. But of course it was smaller than the first one, which hadn’t produced any noticeable damage itself in my area, so this aftershock and the subsequent ones were pretty benign.

At this point, I was completely expecting this to be the end of it for Tokyo. I figured there was likely much worse damage somewhere else in Japan, but from my perch Tokyo seemed to have gotten through it shaken but unscathed. People were going back to work in my office. Only the buildings with mandatory evacuation still had their workforce outside. I assumed the trains would start running within a few hours, surely by late in the evening, to get everyone home for the weekend. They usually start up again after the tracks have been checked.

And I was not alone in thinking this was a relatively minor event. The initial Facebook updates from friends around town were surprised at the size, but it was not regarded as a disaster by many, based on what we personally experienced. The shaking never got nearly as bad as we know it can get; it was not significantly different in quality from ones we’ve experienced a half-dozen times before, just the biggest and longest so far. But not violent. And there were no lasting (or at least serious) effects after the fact in our immediate purview, out of thousands of buildings and tens of thousands of people. Friends wrote a few hours after the quake to ask about plans to go out Saturday night. I think many of us assumed it would be something to talk about that evening and nothing more.

What I learned about earthquakes in the ensuing hours is that even if everything is physically pretty much the same after the quake as it was before, it can still have lasting effects. And also that I was much more sanguine about this one than a lot of other people in town. The rest of my report is not of the earthquake, but of it’s effect on the people and the city. And of course of the tsunami that hit the east coast of Japan, which if you look at a map, Tokyo is protected from by the Chiba peninsula. The tsunami gets the lion’s share of the credit for the devastation visited upon this country, as it was an offshore quake.

Facebook updates from friends who could understand the Japanese news reports better than I told of a fire in Odaiba and one in Ikebukuro, and a couple down Yokohama way. People who were at home at the time reported broken dishes and fallen books. I expected at minimum my two-meter tall bookshelf at my place to be on the floor when I got home.

It was 2:30 when I got back to the office. By 4:30 I got a Facebook report from a friend at Shinjuku station, the biggest of a half dozen or so major transportation hubs in Tokyo, that all commuter trains were cancelled for the remainder of the day and into the night, likely due to the continued threat of aftershocks and the impossibility of ensuring the integrity of the tracks under those conditions. I live centrally in the city, in an area that has a higher population during workdays than after work, so I went to my friend who lives in a commuter town in Saitama and told her that her and her husband could stay over at my place if they needed to. She was estimating a 5-hour walk home, and my place was perhaps an hour’s walk from the office, though I would be including a stop at the Mermaid on the way, a British pub, to get some news and possibly see a friend I knew who often went there after work from his office nearby who might need a place to crash for the night.

I left the office at 6:00 pm, by now almost completely dark outside. I had checked the sky earlier when I noticed in clouding over, thinking it might be smoke, but it was just clouds. Didn’t see any smoke in my area, and have not heard reports of fired beyond the ones mentioned before.

By this time all of the roads were bumper to bumper in both directions. I think a lot of people who have not been here will be surprised to hear that the street level traffic in Tokyo is generally pretty fluid at all times of the day an night. The overhead toll expressways can get pretty jammed up, belying their name, but at street level in the city driving is reserved for businesses, taxis, and only a few private cars. I’d say well over 90% of all movement in the city on any given day is on foot and by train and subway. So, without trains and subways, the street traffic quickly filled up to an absolute standstill. Normally traffic is about 60% percent taxis, but now there were none. Walking was much quicker, so naturally no one would have needed to hail one, but I wonder where they all went anyway.

The sidewalks and side streets were full of pedestrians moving this way and that. I got to the Mermaid in Akasaka, a very lively pedestrian district with hundreds of eating and drinking establishments servicing the many offices in the area, and struck up a few conversations, and found out how different some people’s experience of the quake had been from mine. People on higher floors (13th-26th) of some of the skyscrapers said computers were falling off desks and people were unable to stand up. No time for evacuation up there, even with a minute’s build-up. One woman said she had resigned herself to dying right then and there. Everyone in these buildings had been much more scared than I had been from my ground floor perch. Another guy said he had been walking on the street when it hit, and had had to grab on to man who was about to be knocked off his feet, and saw another guy standing directly under a lamp post swinging wildly and was afraid it was going to fall on him.

It was at the Mermaid that I saw the first news reports of the devastation elsewhere. A raging blaze at an oil refinery in Chiba, which is close enough to be a part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Statistical Area. Fires in Iwate. But the tsunami was the worst of it. Ships banging into bridges. Dozens of cars floating in debris. Water washing over rice paddies, carrying boats and houses with it. All of this was happening to the north, far away from Tokyo. I knew that someplace outside of Tokyo was going to be taking the brunt of this, but I hadn’t anticipated how extensive the devastation would be for them.

I also saw video of the throngs of people crowding the bus depot just outside of Shibuya station, one of the other major transportation hubs in Tokyo. I was very grateful I was not in their situation. I hadn’t seen the friend I knew at the Mermaid, but I did hang around for a couple of hours, had a few pints, and invited a friend of that friend I had remembered from our last meeting over if she needed it, handing her my address and saying she could ring my bell at any time of the night.

After the two pints of Guinness, I was feeling quite tired (been sick the past few days) and so I headed home. It was 7:30 and the streets were still bumper to bumper with cars and a flood of people walking, most I imagine setting out on a many-hour journey to take them to homes much more distant than mine. No risk of a stampede, most people were either resigned to their fate or trying to enjoy it. Lots of restaurants along the way packed full of people eating, drinking and being merry, though some places were closed altogether, such as Azabu Ramen, an institution in the Azabu-Juban area that I’ve never seen closed at any hour before.

My jouney took me along a major street-level thoroughfare heading out of the city, and the cars were all but stopped. I marked a teal Porsche trundling along just ahead of me at a rare moment of traffic movement and decided I would watch that one and see how his progress related to mine. This exercise only lasted about a minute, because I outpaced him right away and never saw him again. But the pedestrians were all moving along at a good clip. I stepped into the street to wend a shortcut between the cars at one point and walked right by the open driver’s side window of a workman’s van with three people crammed in up front and several more in the back, all laughing and enjoying the moment, going absolutely nowhere. Like most things that require patience and stoicism, the Japanese are better at sitting in traffic than anyone else on the planet.

I got home by 8:30, and there were long lines at the bus stops near my house, for bus routes almost no one takes under normal conditions. Traffic was still at standstill. I pulled away from the crowd at the entranceway to my high rise apartment building, perhaps a hundred people passing by every minute, and felt a strange sensation at being home and safe already while so many were just starting their journey.

My apartment was completely intact. Not even the two-meter tall bookshelf had fallen. I had power and hot water. A friend nearby had neither, so I was indeed one of the lucky ones. After a little more Facebooking, I was able to turn in by about 11:00. I took a peak outside to the street just before shutting out the light, and the traffic was still largely at a standstill, but the people walking by had been reduced to a trickle, perhaps only a dozen or two a minute.

In the end, no one stayed over at my place. My co-worker and her husband walked home to Saitama late Friday night/Saturday morning (she in heels and sandals), and it took them 4 hours, a little less than estimated. A lot of people slept over night in their offices. A Mr. Donuts the next morning had long lines people buying donuts piled up on trays, perhaps to bring back to the office. Convenience stores and groceries were cleaned out of ready-to-eat foods. There were some emergency shelters set up for those with no other recourse. Some people went without power or gas, even up to the present moment I’m writing this, Saturday morning. Some trouble at some nuclear power plants is making electricity more scarce. Trains are tentatively started up this Saturday morning, so I expect most people will be heading home, albeit under crowded, slow, and unpleasant conditions.

So that’s my story. I had initially thought the Western media was over blowing the significance of this earthquake, but I was wrong about that. The problem was not that they overreacted, but that they didn’t distinguish between Tokyo and the north coast of Japan. The reports all said something to effect that “Japan including Tokyo were struck by the most powerful earthquake in recorded history, and there is widespread damage.” This is misleading. Tokyo was hit by a large earthquake, but it was not devastated by one. The north coast was, mainly from the tsunami.  I’ve since heard reports of some structural damage in Tokyo, such as the U.S. Navy’s Hardy Barracks in central Tokyo having a four-story long crack along one side of it, but in the scheme of things, the damage to Tokyo is not the story of this quake.

It also may be misleading to say this was the most powerful quake in recorded history to hit Japan. The quake was an 9.0. But it was offshore. A 9.0 didn’t hit Japan. A lesser impact hit Japan. In 1995, a 6.8 hit Kobe, Japan (also known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake), with the focus only 20km from Kobe on a nearby island. In this case, a 6.8 earthquake really did hit Japan, and 6,434 people lost their lives, and over US$100 billion in damage was incurred. The one on March 11, 2011, was 130 km off the coast, the closest major city being Sendai, so the magnitude of the earthquake as felt by anyone in Japan was less than 9.0.

Interestingly, the Japanese scale used to measure earthquakes, the Shindo scale (or Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale), takes this into account. It’s not an absolute scale, but is based on the energy at each location. The focus will have the highest number, and the number will decrease as you get further away from the focus. On the Japanese scale, a direct comparison can be made between how different regions experience a quake. The March 11, 2011 quake reached a maximum of 7 on this scale, at Kurihari in Miyagi prefecture, and was similar in Sendai. It was an upper 5 in Tokyo. These numbers will be made more precise as the event is more closely studied. The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 measured a 7.3 on this scale in Kobe and the nearby environs. Thus, these quakes are comparable, though there is probably still a difference in quality between being at the epicenter and being 130km away from it. Also, the Kobe region is more densely populated than the Sendai region, and has an overall higher population, with many sizable cities in a small region. Sendai is a lone major metropolis surrounded by towns and rural areas, with other large cities being further away.

So far the official death toll is under 1,000 , but is expected to outstrip a thousand when all is said and done [update: the reality has, of course, proved to be much worse, possibly topping 20,000]. I believe almost none of these will be from the Tokyo region, although many might be from the coastal areas just north of Tokyo in Ibaraki and Chiba, which are not protected by the Chiba peninsula the way Tokyo is. A report from a friend up there says the streets in many of the towns are covered in mud and water. Still a few hundred kilometers from the worst of the devastation though.

-Joe Kern, March 12, 2011 13:00 Japan Time

Update, 20:00 same day: Walked around a bit today just after posting that and then took the train to nearby Shibuya. I did not see a single bit of damage anywhere. Most of the perishables have been snatched up at the grocery and convenience stores, as there may be power outages coming up. Trains in the city were off schedule but frequent, but many of the longer distance ones were delayed or still stopped. Most people who wanted to get home have managed to do so. Shibuya Hachiko (kind of like the Tokyo Times Square) was relatively empty, and as the huge TVs were off (possibly to preserve power?), quiet for once. Some of the shops, like Tower Records, were closed. Will be a quiet weekend in the city.

The biggest threat in progress now is the nuclear reactors, particularly one on the southern border of Fukushima prefecture in Iwaki. I have no expertise in these things, but I think Tokyo is sufficiently far to not be in immediate danger from this, even if the worst were to happen there.

Here’s a video of the entire quake as it happens, with English language commentary and swearing. It gives you an idea of how it never got too violent in Tokyo, how slowly it built (it gets serious at :50 in this video, which was turned on after the quake had already started), and also why people on the 22nd floor were more scared than I was.

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Published on March 25, 2011 at 6:54 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Spelling Error:
    so this aftershock and the subsequent ones were pretty benign.

  2. […] This is my report of what the experience of the quake and the immediate aftermath was like in Tokyo. […]

  3. […] This is my report of what the experience of the quake and the immediate aftermath was like in Tokyo. […]


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