Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Big Earthquake

It's been a few days since the biggest earthquake on Japanese records took place, and even here in safe-old-Hirosaki things still seem quite weird. There's a lot of uncertainty in the air, particularly with regard to our power supply. I've just been forwarded a circular e-mail from the Tokyo Electric Company saying that we should be frugal with our use of electricity, and to expect further cuts in the near future. In addition, the mail, which is being spread as a viral message, has a note from the Jieitai (Special Defense Forces) advising people in Chiba and surrounding areas to make sure they wear raincoats and use umbrellas in the rain due to chemicals being dispersed into the atmosphere during the fire at two industrial plants down South.

I first noticed that the power had gone when crossing the road from the study centre where I was when the tremors started. The centre had closed due to the power cut, but I wasn't then aware it was city-wide. I had a strange feeling it was a serious earthquake though, since not only were the walls of the centre shaking and rattling, but the floor seemed to be moving around quite abruptly and it was hard to keep my balance. When we were stood outside waiting for it to die down I heard two very loud bangs coming from the direction of Hirosaki Gas, though no major problems have been reported since. Actually, I'm glad I no longer live in an apartment that backs onto the gas company premises because there's always the potential for disaster there.

When I got back to Aki's family home there was nobody else about and all the electric was off. I knew that Aki and everyone was safe though because I'd managed to get through to Aki previously after several attempts on a network that was clearly having trouble. There was nothing for me to do but wait, and when they came home eventually Aki's mum cracked straight on with the cooking before it got dark (luckily the gas doesn't depend on electricity to work in this house).

That night, there were about nine or ten of us sat around a few candles eating curry, occasionally watching the 1seg broadcast on our mobile phones. I couldn't watch too much though because my battery was running out and we weren't sure for how long the power was due to be down. At the dinner table Aki's mum and dad, who hadn't actually watched any footage on the phone broadcasts, played down the impact of the quake and didn't think much of it. The last thing I saw before I sat down for dinner was a boat tipping into the street in Hachinohe, onto a convenience store, and then cars being swept away. I thought that was the worst of it.

It was a lovely evening all in all, with the romantic aspect of having to eat by candlelight. Everybody got an early night and expected the power back by morning. I woke up again at two o'clock though, and quickly switched on the 1seg news. The footage had got a lot worse, showing pictures of masses of cars floating in the streets. I went back to sleep feeling a bit freaked out by it all, and then woke up once more at 4am to the bang and clatter of the second quake in Nagano. It shook the room really hard, so we leapt out of bed in an attempt to run downstairs quickly, Aki falling on her knees briefly in the dark. Typically, Aki's mum and dad were still in bed and they seemed a bit put out that we had made such a big deal of it all. I guess at this point I had seen a lot more images and video footage than they had and I was apparently a lot more edgy.

We went back to bed after the tremors had disappeared and we both watched a little bit more footage of what was obviously by this point a major disaster. I wasn't sure what I was looking at, but there was fire and houses floating down streets and all sorts of stuff that hadn't even entered my mind on the afternoon of the day before.

Two days prior to this 9.0 earthquake there was a small one, just off the coast of Aomori, that had reminded me about the occurrence of quakes in Japan and that they were very often nothing to worry about. I was in the same study centre when it happened, and the very second (literally) I felt the tremor, I walked downstairs and there was already a special news broadcast with a tsunami warning on the big widescreen TV for everyone to see. Absolutely no messing about there, it was up and broadcast within seconds. Nobody seemed all that interested though, and I can understand why since the vast majority of times you sit watching a webcam of a little fishing port where there is absolutely nothing going on, apart from some old Japanese fisherman fixing a pedal on his pushbike, absolutely oblivious to the fact that he's appearing on a national news-flash. These mundane tsunami warnings usually hog the TV schedule and become a real bore on the eyes.

The warning on Friday afternoon demonstrated why they take priority. Only a few hours after the earthquake a wall of sea water up to 10 metres high, and traveling at several hundred miles per hour, had battered the whole Northern stretch of the Honshuu Pacific Coastline, from Kanagawa to Hokkaido. When the power came back on midday Saturday I literally felt sick and deeply upset as I watched the world broadcasts from the previous twenty hours. I hadn't yet seen the images of whole towns, similar in size to places like Ajigasawa and Fukaura, being smashed to pieces by the water. I went through all of the footage I could stomach, and then went downstairs to find that there was a nuclear crisis in full swing in Fukushima (which is still getting worse by the looks of things).

Aki's brother is planning to go to Hachinohe to help with the recovery. He runs a transport company and wants to support another company that regularly supplies them with work. I would really love to go, but it's a week-long commitment and there are no places to stay in Hach either. What's more, gasoline is now in very short supply and to drive all that way would be a bit excessive. However, it seems wrong that we have all we need, and plenty more, up here while there is clearly desperation and poverty just down the road.