“I feel the earth move under my feet. I feel the sky tumbling down.”
Those who know how much I love music, and what a central place it has in my daily consciousness, will understand why that melody began playing inside my head as the rumble of the angry earth rose up around me. Some say that their mind goes totally blank at such a moment, but for me at least, Carole King’s voice echoed loud and clear, even above the din that rose from every beam and floorboard in our house. It was 2:45 on Friday afternoon, and I was sitting at the computer as I usually do, collecting match reports from the people who contribute to my website, and preparing to send them off in the weekend news feed. At first the rocking was nothing more than a curiosity.
“Jishin” (earthquake), I called out to my wife, and I leaned back to try to analyze the vibrations and try to estimate the magnitude. This is a pretty common experience for anyone who lives in Japan. Most of the time, when an earthquake hits, people will just fall silent and gaze at one another until the shaking stops, then exchange estimates.: “Three ?” . . . “Naaahhh 2.5 at the most.” “Oh yeah? Turn on the TV. Ill bet you a beer it was at least a 3”.
This time, however the shaking didnt stop. 20 seconds went by, then 30, and the intensity kept increasing. Already it was clear that this was a big one. The only question in my mind was – is it THE big one? As the seconds ticked by, the quake just kept on building. In a panic I leapt up and dashed downstairs to make sure my wife was OK. Looking outside, I could see the pond in our back yard erupt, with water sloshing wildly in foot-high waves. The sound of wood creaking and ceiling tiles rattling was enough to trigger panic. This was like nothing I had imagined in even my worst nightmares, and inside my head the Carole King melody began to echo. It seemed like the only solid thing to grasp hold of: “I feel the earth move under my feet. I feel the sky tumbling down. Tumbling down.”
At last – after the longest three minutes of my life, the shaking began to ease, and the panic receded. It was another long minute or two before the shaking ceased completely, and we rushed to the TV to find out where the quake had hit, and how severe it had been. My first image was Tokyo in chaos. We live about 60km from the city, and I assumed that any quake of that size must have been centered in Tokyo or somewhere else nearby. Japan has been waiting for just such an event, for years, since the fault lines that run underneath the city are overdue for a major rumble. But the reality was far worse than I could have imagined.
The magnitude in our area has been estimated at 5.0 – a serious quake, but not enough to do more than minor damage to buildings. Tokyo experienced shaking of between 5.5 and 6 – again, a severe shock but one that doesn’t do too much damage to the heavily earthquake-proofed infrastructure. According to the news flashes, however, the epicenter was nearly 500km away, near Sendai. It was like getting hit in the pit of the stomach with a two-by-four. Impossible! Five hundred kilometers? Good lord, how could any building in Sendai still be standing?
Japan’s earthquake warning system is quite phenomenal. The news flashes and earthquake warnings filled the airwaves from the second the first tiny wobble was detected, and By the time we got the TV switched on the news was already providing precise detail on areas hit, potential risks and what people should do in response. At first the images coming in over the TV were reassuring. There was smoke rising from some buildings in cities like Tokyo and Mito, but the video cameras located near Sendai showed very little real damage. On the other hand, the tsunami warnings and projections were offering truly inconceivable numbers, when notifying people of the potential size of the surge. Ten meters? No. That has to be a misprint. A tsunami couldnt possibly be that large . . . .
By now, everyone on the planet is aware of what happened next. There is no point in even trying to express it in words, or describe what we felt as the scenes unfolded in front of our eyes. Words are crude, stumbling things that may allow us to reach across the miles and report events or express simple ideas, but in all the languages ever employed by men or angels, there are no words to convey the human agony and emotional shock that swept across Japan like a black wave. As afternoon advanced towards the horizon, the aftershocks kept coming, the TV screens continued to deliver an unbroken stream of images that could only be some Hollywood trick of light and shadow. Silence fell across the entire country, and the eyes that gleamed in the fading light seemed fathomless in the depth of their shock. As darkness descended on Japan, every living thing fell silent in disbelief, as if waiting to awaken from a bad dream. All that can be said about that impenetrably dark first night is that at long last, as it always somehow does, the sun returned and a new day began.
The stories that have been pouring in from all over the country, in the days since that dark tide rolled over Japan, leave one feeling very small indeed. It isnt the tragedy of entire towns being erased from the map, or of massive ships carried miles inland, that elicits silent awe. Rather, it is the stories of remarkable poise, dignity, character, and human compassion.
- The clothing store near a major train station in Shinbashi, where the owner rounded up his staff, packed his entire inventory into boxes, and then carried them out into the square distributing warm coats to the office workers stranded in the cold by motionless trains.
- The shopping streets in Kawasaki, Mitaka, Ueno, and no doubt hundreds of other towns around Tokyo, where restaurant owners dragged tables outside and spent the wee hours handing out hot coffee, food and drinks to the thousands of weary commuters who were trying to walk home through the darkness.
- The newspaper delivery boys and post office workers in small Tohoku towns, who gathered at their offices, revved up their motor scooters and set off through the darkness to cover their usual routes – making their way through rubble-strewn streets and checking every house, to make sure that nobody was trapped inside.
In reading through the news reports from around the world that have inundated the Internet in recent days, I have noted dozens of headlines which warn of “Panic and Destruction in Japan”. . . . And my stomach churns in angry rebuttal at the crass sensationalism. Destruction? Yes. There is destruction here that defies description. Destruction that the human mind is powerless to comprehend. Destruction that can drive one to weep at their own helplessness, and rail angrily at whatever jealous god or cruel force of nature would do such a thing to this country.
Im sorry, but anyone foolish enough to even speak the word knows nothing at all about Japan. Panic is a word that can never settle on this country. It melts away like April snow, in the face of the quiet poise, the silent strength, and the humble resilience of the Japanese people.
The destruction wrought by the Great Eastern Japan and Pacific Earthquake (as it has now been dubbed) is impossible for any mere human to fully calculate or appreciate. It will be years – maybe even decades – before the area can be rebuilt and return to anything approaching normalcy. And yet, the images that I see all about me – millions of Japanese people calmly, stoically cleaning up the rubble, putting their homes, stores and businesses back in order, and getting on with their lives – leave me with a sense of tremendous awe and admiration.
A mere 24 hours after a natural disaster ripped the northern half of the country apart, people have already made their peace with the past, gone back to work, and moved on with their lives. The faces are tired, battered, exhausted, yet strangely serene. As the masses of homeless go about the task of cleaning up, and recovering what little they can, every one of them seems to glow with a wry, poignant smile of triumph – of certainty that this, too, will pass away. Like the winter snow or the cherry blossoms of spring, the dark wave of destruction will roll back into the sea, and life will go on. The Japanese people will respond as they always have to incidents of this sort: They will pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and get on with it.
For all the Hollywood movie images, the dashing myths of bold and daring samurai which captivate audiences outside Japan, in truth, this has never been a country that spawns dashing, heroic individuals who rush in to save the day, create magnificent monuments to individuality, or lead revolutionary movements of great significance or high principle. The true heroes of Japan have always been the masses of simple, faceless, hard-working anybodies – people who you meet on the street each day and give barely a second glance. Their heroism lies in their incredible, awe-inspiring ability to hunker down and ride out the most thunderous quake, the fiercest tsunami, the deepest recession, the darkest era of warlike excess – the very worst that life and nature can possibly throw at them.
And when the tempest subsides and the rays of a new dawn creep across the land, they calmly pick themselves up, and with a sigh that mingles resignation and hope, they turn their faces to the future and get on with their lives. Today, I think I finally understand why Japan is called “The Land of the Rising Sun”.
A new day always dawns
A new sun always climbs into the sky
And life moves on.