The Great Earthquake – One Year On

11 03 2012

What follows is my remembrance of the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.

The day was a Friday.  I worked as a broadcaster for the American Forces Network (AFN) at Yokota Air Base located in Fussa, Japan, about an hour southwest of Tokyo proper.  Previously I had been invited to go with my fellow service members to speak at a junior high school in the area, part of a thing the military does in foreign countries to show that Americans aren’t so bad.  I really wasn’t looking forward to it.  Luckily for me, I had a separate meeting for Studio Happy Chicken that had popped up, giving me an alibi to cancel the junior high thing; but then shorty after lunch I got word that my meeting had been cancelled, so I was stuck at work practically alone because everyone else had run off to the school presentation.  One of my bosses was still in his office, and he told me to just go home for the day and enjoy the weekend.  I left work early, around 2pm.

I had been under quite a bit of stress recently.  My personal life was in shambles and professionally my military contract was coming to an end so I was getting ready to leave the service in a few months.  When I get stressed and depressed, I like to shop… specifically for video games.  I guess I find an aura of escapism in the nostalgia of old games.  Nintendo had recently released their 3DS game system, something I had been on the fence about; but that day I was able to convince myself that I should get one.  So I drove from work to the Yamada Electronics store that was a few blocks from my house, parked my car, and walked up the stairs to the second floor where there kept their games, DVDs, TVs, etc.  After browsing a bit, I decided on getting an aqua blue colored system and two games: the puzzle game Puzzle Bobble 3D and Blaz Blue, a fighting game.  In Japan, when you buy a new game system, the retailer stamps the box in a specific place, enacting a warranty.  This, plus the receipt, allows you to return the system if something is wrong.  The stamp on my 3DS read “Yamada Electronics, Musashimurayama, March 11, 2011, 2:44pm”.  I thanked the cashier, took my bag, and made my way down the stairs to the sliding glass doors and my car.  As I neared the bottom of the steps, I noticed a clattering coming ever so lightly from the automatic doors.  The weather was nice, so the sensor had been turned off and they were stuck in an open position.  Casually, two employees walked over to see what the trouble was.  I thought maybe the sensors had been tripped and they were trying to close.  The two guys looking at them didn’t seem to know what was going on.  The thought did cross my mind that we might have been experiencing a very slight earthquake; but those happen, so no big deal.  As I passed through the doors, something caught my attention to the right of me, and I looked to see a woman standing, just looking up at the Yamada Electronics sign that rose high above the store.  This made me curious, so I stopped and looked, too.  That’s when everything went to hell.

The best way to describe what it was like standing outside that day at 2:46pm, is to imagine that you’re standing on a bed sheet that been pulled taunt.  Suddenly, the people holding the four corners begin tugging it this way and that, and you’re doing your best not to fall down.  That’s what it was like… sudden and violent.  I don’t remember any sound while it was happening, although I’m sure there was.  I think there was an extreme clattering.  It was so unexpected that your mind stops paying attention to the little things and starts to focus on survival.  I remember people running out of the electronics store and onto the sidewalk, I remember looking at the power lines above my head and watching the wooden poles bend this way and that like they were made of rubber.  I thought that if one was to break, we’d all be electrocuted; but there was really nowhere to go, really.  It seemed to last forever.  Then, suddenly, it stopped.  Everyone just stood out there by the street and waited.  I looked around me… traffic was moving regularly… there was no broken glass, no sirens, no announcements over the city’s PA system (this is a common thing in Japan).  Eventually, everyone just started returning to their normal lives.  I took out my iPhone and used Skype to call my mother in McPherson, Kansas.

“We just had a pretty big earthquake,” I said.  “I felt that one!”

We chatted for a minute or two, then I started up the car and drove home.  As I pulled into my driveway, the kids that lived in the surrounding houses were outside playing.  Surely, I thought, had this been a serious earthquake there would have been sirens.  Children wouldn’t be outside enjoying the nice weather.  So I went in my home, dropped my bag on the couch, and went to the bathroom.  I hadn’t been sitting on the toilet for a minute when the house started violently shaking.  This alarmed me greatly:  I had no intention of dying on the toilet.  I pulled up my pants and dashed to stand in a doorframe.  Once the shaking subsided, I called my mother again.  Another short call; but everything seemed as normal as it could be when the world wasn’t trying to fall down.  It was around this time I realized that I had no cell phone reception, and I went online to see if there had been any news about the quake.  Reading the chatter on Facebook, I could see that it had originally been reported to be an earthquake in the high 6’s… then people were reporting it was in mid 7’s.  The numbers were rising.  I turned around from where my computer was situated and turned on the TV to see if there were any news updates.  I flipped through the channels until I hit a local station and I stopped, absolutely stunned.  I saw a wall of water engulfing a city.  I had no idea where it was, but I knew this was a terrible, terrible thing.

Remember, my training in the military was newsgathering and public affairs work.  In a way, that’s a lot like disaster response.  I also worked for the American Government’s central news hub in the Pacific.  I knew that if this was happening, the American military would need to mobilize immediately, and my office would need to begin broadcasting disaster information and report on the story. Because the phones were down, I couldn’t reach anyone by cell or landline; but the internet still worked and I had Skype, so I started calling everyone I could to report that I was safe, and to find out what I needed to do as we swung into action.  The only person I could reach was a civilian news head that worked in my office; but he was one of the top 3 decision makers, so I had confidence in his decision-making.  I ask him how we were responding to the earthquake.  He said that there was nothing to respond to, that it had been a medium-sized tumbler.  Everything was OK, no worries.  I told him that that’s not what I was getting looking at the TV.  He said that he was watching TV and that there wasn’t any quake related programming going on.  I ask him what TV he was watching, and he said he was watching base TV.

Let me explain to you how television programming works on America’s foreign bases.  Programming is sent overseas via satellite to AFN stations that rebroadcast it, minus the commercials.  Because of the time difference, the programming we show is usually not live and often a day behind what people see in America.  That means that the programming that my boss was watching was what happened a day prior to what was happening now.

I ask him if he had access to Japanese TV, and he said he didn’t.  Luckily, the base also has a CNN Japan channel, so I suggested he might change to that.  While I waited I could see on my TV huge explosions that I recognized were near Narita International Airport.  It seemed as if the whole place had blown up.  My boss came back on the phone and said that he had to go and would call me back.

Now that I had checked in with the military (who seemed clueless) my attention turned to the people who worked at Studio Happy Chicken.  I had no way of getting ahold of our models; but my good friend and Happy Chicken photographer Jarod Hodge was staying in Fussa, a 15 minute drive from my home.  No phone meant the only way I could check to see if he was OK was to drive there, so I got in my car and headed out.

In my 4 years in Japan, I have never seen so much traffic.  I didn’t know it at the time, but all of the trains were shut down.  Trains are the main way people commute in Japan; the roads aren’t designed for heavy traffic.  The streets were gridlocked in every direction, and my 15-minute trip took more than 2 hours that day.  As I passed the base, I could see commercial jet liners littering the runway.  All air traffic had been diverted from Narita Airport to Yokota Air Base.  I made my way to where Jared was; he was OK.  While we were talking, the Skype on my phone started ringing; it was the boss I had called earlier.  In an emergency situation, the military enacts a system where every office calls everyone in that office to make sure they’re OK.  There’s an order to this… one person calls another person, and they in turn call another person, who calls another person, and so on.  They even give you a sheet of paper telling you which specific person you’re supposed to call.  My boss ask me if I was OK, and I said that I was.  He sounded panicked.  He told me to just call as many people as I could get ahold of and then he hung up.  Of course, with no phones and only Skype, I couldn’t get ahold of anyone.  It was evening by this time, and I suggested to Jarod that we go to dinner.  I didn’t want to drive on the main roads because traffic was so bad, so we went to a nearby hamburger steak restaurant.  Jarod was concerned because he couldn’t reach his girlfriend; she lived next to the coast near Yokohama.

At some point, cell phones began working intermittently.  Jarod was able to find out that his girlfriend was OK.  I was able to call all our models and confirm their safety.  In the coming days we learned of the nuclear crisis.  This was handled poorly by the American military in Japan and by the Japanese government.  A sense of dread and panic hung over the Tokyo area for a long time.  Trains were unreliable as rolling blackouts threatened the city.  My office would bungle news coverage of the disaster to the point where it was taken out of our hands and given to the Washington DC bureau.  They even flew in their own reporters; effectively neutering AFN Tokyo.  What should have been the high water mark in my career as a military journalist ended up being a muddy hole that gets my dander up every time I think about it.

It’s been a year now, to the day, since the earthquake.  I don’t know if it will ever fully sink in that I was there for one of the earth major disasters.  The closest I could equate to it would be having been there in downtown New York on September 11.  Because of the world we now live in, there’s a plethora of film footage from a year ago, and I’m sure they’ll show it over and over again on TV today.  I’ll probably avoid it.  I get too emotional.  One thing that I think the world should be aware of is how very little has been done for the areas that have been devastated.   The Japanese government has done practically nothing to help those in need and to help rebuild.   TEPCO, the company that owns and operates the nuclear plant had no repercussions following the incident.  They like to blame the nuclear disaster on the US, saying that they were sold a faulty nuclear system back in the 70’s; but the real reason there was a meltdown was because they hadn’t maintained the plant for over 20 years and had a record of falsifying repairs and bribing government officials to pass inspections.  The fact that no one lost their job following the incident, that the government stepped in to give TEPCO money to pay people who had been “inconvenienced” by radioactive fallout, and that they’ve raised electric prices to make sure they stay clearly in the black in the past year only speaks to the gross corruption found in the Japanese government.

The loss of life in this disaster is truly a tragedy; natural disasters are difficult to predict and death often times unavoidable.  But what’s worse is that the earthquake and following tsunami revealed the Japanese government for what it truly is: an ineffective, totally corrupt, selfish monster.  And nobody seems to care.


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