More Phantom Quakes

Japan was hit by one of its largest recorded quakes at 2:46pm on March 11, 2011. Measuring an incredible 9.0 on the Richter scale, a little more than half the island nation felt the ground beneath them move. I was working in Tokyo at the time, Reiko was at a clinic, Nozomi was alone in the apartment. A thousand aftershocks were recorded in the 34 days after the initial quake, and another 10,000 have been added to the tally over the years. To say that this six-minute seismic event directly influenced some immediate life decisions would be an understatement.

Growing up in the Great Lakes region of Canada, earthquakes were a relatively rare occurrence. I remember feeling one in 1986 and hearing about another in 19981. When I moved to Japan, where earthquakes happen far more frequently, one could be felt every couple of months. Rarely did this ever cause a problem and, more often than not, I was unworried given that the buildings and infrastructure across the country was generally designed to handle up to a magnitude 6.0 quake before showing signs of stress2. There was one quake I recall in 2009 that forced several local train lines to stop, stranding me in the middle of nowhere until a taxi could be hired, but nothing I had experienced before the Tohoku earthquake ever made me nervous. Since then, however ….

In the immediate aftermath of 3/11, Reiko and I made the decision to leave the Tokyo area to return to central Japan. This is the area where she grew up and has family, and this is also the area that I was most familiar with, having spent a couple of years working in Nagoya before heading to Tokyo to work at a start-up. Resources were scarce and, worse still, Nozomi was refusing to eat food. She was far too nervous after the quake to have any appetite. Her bones started to show despite her fur, and she was always shaking. Despite all the 頑張ろう日本!3 advertisements everywhere, none of us had any reason to stay close to Tokyo. I received permission from my employer to work remotely for a couple of months, and we made the move.

Nozomi needed almost 18 months to calm down and eat food on her own again4. Reiko was good after just a couple of weeks. I don't know if I've ever calmed down, though. Despite the relative lack of seismic activity in this part of the country, I am always on edge when I hear what I think is the telltale sound of an impending earthquake. There is a distinctive sound buildings in a neighbourhood collectively make when the ground begins to move, and I think I hear this a couple of times a week. Every time I do, I have a very "deer-in-the-headlights" reaction.

  1. Immediately stop whatever I'm doing
  2. Listen
  3. Really listen
  4. Are any of the phones in the house blaring the emergency earthquake notification?
  5. Are the windows shaking?
  6. Where are Nozomi and the boy?
  7. Choose the fastest route to collect everyone and be ready to move

And then, more often than not, what I thought was the vibration of dozens of houses turns out to be a passing truck that is ignoring the weight-restriction rules5 posted on the road some 15 metres away. The phones are silent. The windows are stationary. Nozomi's napping, and the boy — if he's awake — is probably playing in the living room. There's no need to collect everyone and move to the front entrance area, which is pretty much the safest place to be in the house should a large quake hit.

A "phantom quake".

Based on a number of articles I've read on the matter, these sort of imagined earthquakes should dissipate over time until they're essentially gone. In my case, they seem to be increasing. I doubt this is PTSD or some other condition as the only thing that was hurt long-term by the quake was my job at the start-up6, so what might be causing the uptick in nervousness? Work-related anxiety? Time pressures from all the competing voices who expect something done? Some combination thereof?

The one time I can safely say that phantom quakes do not happen is after I've spent some time on the hill in a nearby park. Listening to podcasts while enjoying some vodka has an incredibly calming effect on my nerves, but this is hardly a perfect solution.


  1. I was in a moving car with my mother at the time, so the magnitude 3-ish quake was pretty much dampened out. We didn't know there was a quake until arriving home later that day to a house full of agitated sisters. (My sisters, of course. My mother doesn't have any sisters.)

  2. The building codes have since been updated, of course. Now all buildings in the country must be able to withstand a 7.0 with 9.0 being the recommended goal. My house is supposedly capable of withstanding a series of 9.5 quakes before becoming structurally compromised. Hopefully this will never be put to the test.

  3. This was a government-sponsored advertising blitz that tried to raise the country's spirits after the 3/11 quake. It translates to "Let's do our best", which was also pretty much what people were saying while rebuilding the country between 1945 and the late 1970s.

  4. This was a pretty dark time for Nozomi. She sometimes needed to be force-fed, otherwise she would just avoid solid food for days at a time.

  5. There's a weight restriction of 5 tonnes, though it's not uncommon to see trucks that carry a lot more driving way too quickly down the residential street.

  6. This worked out for the better, though, as the company was sold to Mixi a few months later, and that's a company that I simply cannot work for.