Eight Years

Today marks the 8th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. While Reiko, Nozomi, and I were able to get through the disaster relatively unscathed, a lot of people were not nearly as fortunate. Buildings were destroyed. Towns were wiped off the map. Lives were lost. In the days that followed, the full scale of destruction and loss began to unfold as well as the media blackout imposed by the Japanese government on all topics related to radiation. The reactors in Fukushima that had suffered containment explosions showered radioactive dust across large parts of the country, including sections of Tokyo. Fearing an uncontrollable panic, the government kept the extent of the damage under wraps for months. Even today there are some things that the news organisations are not permitted to talk about, as an informed populace might try to hold leaders responsible for their secrecy.

Despite the contamination, the affected regions managed to organize, clean up, and restore as much as possible. As time went on, people forgot about or ignored the lingering concerns posed by the particles ejected from three nuclear reactors in Ōkuma, a city on the east coast of Fukushima prefecture. Some of us, however, continue to be cautious about where our food comes from.

For a lot of people it's the events of Friday March 11th that changed the direction of their life. For me, it's the days afterwards.

I was working at a startup in Tokyo at the time. Friday afternoons were generally slower than the rest of the week as people started to think about their weekend plans. Being Tokyo, there were a couple of small tremors in the morning and again around lunch, but something was different about the shaking that started at 2:46pm. This one was accompanied by the earthquake warnings that were sent to every cell phone in the area and, being a company that wrote software for cell phones, we had a lot of devices screaming about the impending Magnitude 9 event. The building shook … and shook … then changed direction and shook some more. Tiles on the stairwell wall came loose and fell, echoing all the way. My phone rang and Reiko told me to get out of the building, which I was in complete agreement with. Being on the third floor, this was relatively easy to accomplish.

Two minutes later the ground stopped moving and Tokyo was absolutely silent. People outside looked up at the buildings to make sure that nothing would fall on them. Cars were stopped at the side of the road. Electrical poles swayed. The moment of silence was then broken by the sound of sirens. Fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars were quickly mobilized. People made their way back into buildings.

Being Japan, my colleagues and I were told to stay at our desks as the day hadn't finished, yet. I was responsible for the server infrastructure of a popular Twitter client for flip phones, and this quake was going to see a much larger than normal spike in traffic. I hopped onto the server control panel and checked out the usage statistics. As expected, the spike was incredible. The servers did their job, though, and people were able to keep in touch with friends and family as the cell phone networks were overloaded, making phone calls completely impossible. Land-line phone calls were still possible, though, which is how I kept in touch with Reiko and her parents throughout the day.

At 5:00pm the president of the company told everyone to go home. By this point the roads were completely congested with 35-million other people trying to do the same. The trains were all stopped. The subways as well. Emergency shelters were overcrowded. Convenience and grocery stores completely emptied out, with just about every product on the shelves sold. My colleagues could all walk home. I might have been able to do the same, but opted to stay in the office overnight. This would allow me to keep an eye on the servers and ensure they could keep up with the load. More importantly, though, it would allow me to relax despite the endless series of tremors that shook the building every few minutes. I am not comfortable in crowds, and even less so when in crowds of anxious people.

Reiko and Nozomi were together at our apartment in Kashiwa, and we made use of MSN Messenger for the first time in years to keep in touch. The cell phone networks wouldn't come back online until the 13th, but data traffic was unaffected1.

Sleep was fleeting that night, as tremors ensured that everything that wasn't nailed down in the office would shake and rattle. One of my Tweets made it onto German TV, and the company's servers performed admirably. Traffic in the city was gone by sunrise and an eerie calm had descended. Tokyo, despite its tens of millions of people, was absolutely silent. Getting home wasn't easy, nor was it easy to find any good quantity of clean drinking water. We managed to make it through, though. Two weeks later, we moved back to central Japan.

Nozomi wasn't the same puppy after the earthquake. She became much more nervous and didn't want to be left alone for any length of time. It wasn't until several months later that she would eat food without our help. Sometimes I wonder about Nozomi's family as she is from Miyagi prefecture, just north of Fukushima. Were they near the ocean when the tsunami struck? Were they affected as severely as Nozomi? I don't know the answer to these questions, and maybe that's for the better.

Earthquakes are to be expected when living in this part of the world. Once is enough for me.

  1. Smartphones were not very common in Japan before the Tohoku Earthquake. However, after the troubles people had calling friends and family from their cell phones, iPhones and Android devices flew off the shelves. Within two years, the flip phone was a relic of the past.