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sangatsu 20 (mar)
At 2:46pm on Friday afternoon, March 11th, the earth moved, literally. One of the most massive earthquakes the world has seen in the last century, 9.0 in magnitude, shook Japan off the coast of Sendai, about 150 miles northeast of Tokyo. Although I wasn't injured or in the badly hit areas, living another 15 miles west of Tokyo, it certainly rocked my world.

I was at home on the computer when my sliding glass door began clattering madly. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary tremor and was not stopping; the medicine cabinet door opened and things started falling out; so I bolted out the door and down the second floor stairs. Standing in the middle of the street with neighbors, everyone was silent, looking up and staring around in circles, just waiting to see what would happen. I could feel the movement under my feet as if I were standing on a ship. It lasted for about five minutes, all the phone and electrical wires swinging wildly, the tall buildings down the road swaying. Most buildings in Japan are designed to withstand a quake, and this was quite a test; Tokyo city did well considering the intensity.

There were many sizeable aftershocks, some significant enough to rouse me in the middle of the night, then stopping as I jumped up and grabbed my jeans. The ensuing tsunami devastated the northeast coast, as you have all learned from the international media, easily sliding over the high sea walls built to keep out the highest wave imaginable at the time they were constructed, wiping out entire villages and sweeping thousands of villagers, who had scrambled to leave after the massive quake hit, only to find damaged and littered highways and gas pumps with no power, the distance the tsunami came inland was more than they could cover in less than an hour with those obstacles, into the sea, some to wash up with hundreds of bodies on desolate shores, others never to be seen again.

In Tokyo, the external damage was minimal, although inside the skyscrapers and taller buildings there was considerable surface destruction and contents dumped, fires in some places. There was some confusion because the trains were stopped. I knew one person who walked home three hours, another who spent the night in her office, the journey home too far on foot. But the worst damage and loss of life, possessions and livelihood was along the northeast coast. And the most foreboding of all was the damage to several nuclear power plants. Frantic efforts began to cool the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, with amounts of radiation released in small quantities periodically to relieve pressure building up in the core, hoping to forestall a major meltdown as each cycle brought things closer to the brink of catastrophic disaster, threatening to breach the containment. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area around the plant, and given iodine to help immunize against the possibility of thyroid cancer. I have no doubt that, had this situation happened elsewhere in the world, all might have blown by now, but the Japanese, diligent, detail oriented and resourceful, were doing all they could to keep it together.

I became obsessed with following the breaking news on the Internet, difficult to tear myself away, watching the power plant developments, the levels of radiation released, and the direction of the winds. I spent an evening in tears, feeling helpless and empty, watching videos online, reading so many human stories of people shivering in unheated shelters with nothing left to go back to, selfless efforts of workers knowing they are in harm's way at the power plant and at rescue sites.

Since the power plants, that were now not functioning, provided 20% of power to the rest of Japan, rolling blackouts were scheduled, reasonable disaster precautions recommended. A Japanese friend advised me, to mention just a few, to fill my bathtub with water so I could use it to flush, eat perishables first. In preparation for another quake, prop open the door, keep your shoes by the bed in case there is broken glass. The store shelves were becoming bare, no bread, and shops closing early. I went into six convenience stores in search of batteries for my flashlight, in vain. Long lines formed in front of supermarkets and other shops as people tried to stock up. There was no looting, though, only in Japan, where there is virtually no theft, nor panic, as news reports showed people in shelters patiently waiting in long queues for meager supplies and food rations.

On Monday, things seemed to conspire to tell me it was time to leave. The authorities admitted that the problems at the Fukushima plant were not at all under control and would go on for months; more significant aftershocks were predicted; I wasn't working this semester, so had no commitments to keep; a close Japanese friend encouraged me to leave, for my own safety; but the overriding impetus was that the growing terror of radiation would find its way to Tokyo. A friend from Guatemala was in Tokyo visiting family and flying out Thursday. I booked a last minute ticket so we could leave together.

A group gathered at my favorite jazz club, to say goodbye for now. Japanese friends traded stories about contacting family in affected areas: a set of elderly parents, living on higher ground in Iwate, were all right but had no power; a friend from one of the disappeared villages just happened to be out of town; a young man went back to work at Fukushima and hasn't been heard from. While we sat, an aftershock hit, lights swaying; we all watched deciding whether to go outside, until it subsided. Afterwards, everyone checked the news on their cell phones, a 4.something centered in Shizoka, a western island. Two people there were from Shizoka and called to check with family there.

My heart goes out to those kind and gentle people whose lives were taken or irreversibly altered by these events, and aches for my Japanese friends for whom daily life is fraught with fear and uncertainty.


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