Dispatches From Japan

Two Colorado College professors and a former employee were in Tokyo when the 8.9 earthquake struck March 11. Here is a round-up of messages and news they have sent:

Joan Ericson, Professor of Japanese Language and Literature
I appreciate all of the messages from many others who have asked about our welfare in Japan.
Jim and I are fine here in Kyoto.  It seems strange to think that just last Saturday I was up in Sendai to give a talk (through Fulbright) at Tohoku University. I’m sooo glad that we were safe at home Friday afternoon when the terrible earthquake hit the northeastern area of Japan.  We’ve been glued to the TV watching news – tsunami waves are unbelievably forceful – they have swept cars, houses, and large ships along in their wake. The three national TV stations canceled all of the usual programming from Friday afternoon to now (Sunday afternoon) to show news and real time footage of the disaster. For those who couldn’t stand the harsh reality any longer on Friday, there were several channels of soothing music and images (Grand Canyon and the like).
Unfortunately the news seems to get worse with the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant and aftershocks.  It’s also a shock to hear the words “being exposed to radiation” (hibaku) being applied to those who’ve been affected by the released nuclear vapr – up until now this was part of the word “hibaku-sha” which was used for those who experienced the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
People in this general area told us that they felt the tremors on Friday afternoon, but we must have assumed that any tremor was just part of the process of a large building being demolished near us.  We’re far enough away from the Tohoku (northeast) area which has felt the brunt of the earthquake and tsunami, but are ever mindful of the unpredictable nature of earthquakes.

Dan Johnson, Associate Economics Professor
Just got back to my hotel again, as it was evacuated again to check for structural damage as there were some superficial cracks in the walls when I first returned.
Here’s the story as it developed here: I’m at a conference here in downtown Tokyo, due to present some research in international trade.  Midway through someone else’s presentation, the room started to rumble more than shake.  It wasn’t heavy, but was noticeable as an earthquake.  The speaker stopped to wait for it, and it kept on and on, growing stronger and stronger.  As the light fixtures started to swing, we all climbed under our desks, hoping that the worst would pass quickly.  But for several minutes that seemed like hours, it grew even stronger.  The room really vibrated, and people grew genuinely terrified.  I wasn’t scared yet, just amused, so I smiled and cracked jokes with my colleagues to keep the mood light.  After all, what are the odds against a killer quake on my first day of my first trip to Japan, right?
During a lull in the shaking, we heard the public siren outside calling for building evacuations, along with instructions to reach high ground as a precaution against a tsunami coming ashore.  That’s actually when I started to get scared.  We filed out in orderly fashion, and were thankfully already on a hilltop, so could watch as dozens of others streamed out of nearby buildings to join us in the hilltop courtyard between buildings.  The trees were swaying, the ornamental caps on one building were vibrating precipitously, sirens were blaring, and people were starting to panic.  Everyone had cell phones out, trying to call loved ones or get news.
We remained outside for the better part of an hour, with the ground still regularly trembling with aftershocks.  Slowly word trickled in about the enormity of the quake, where it was centered, how big the tsunami wave would (and wouldn’t) be, etc.  Security teams were remarkably calm and professional in checking buildings for gas leaks and fires and structural damage.
We called off the remainder of the afternoon’s conference, and I went back to my hotel, where elevators were of course not working.  So I climbed the 13 flights to my room, passing cracks in the wall that the bellhop asserted had definitely not been there that morning.  Upstairs, my room was still frequently swaying and vibrating with aftershocks, so I changed into warmer clothes and went back downstairs and outside to wait it out.
Looking around at the skyline, it would have been a major humanitarian disaster had the quake been centered here.  With millions of people in the city, skyscrapers on every block, streets clogged with cars and buses, construction cranes and industrial facilities in close proximity, it could have been horrific.  As it is, by 11 p.m. this evening, most subway and train lines have been checked and are back on limited service, stores are still stocking food and water, restaurants are open to serve meals, and the city is a little subdued but not too much the worse for wear.
So to celebrate surviving the Tokyo Quake of ’11, the conference group went out this evening for a fugu dinner (the Japanese pufferfish that must be prepared by a licensed chef because if prepared incorrectly it is fatally poisonous).  It was sublime.  And so is Tokyo.

Bob Kerwin: Former CC director of communications
Most Japanese have expected a big quake their whole lives. We do regular drills in hard hats and carrying survival kits – these came out for sure last Friday. But Tokyo is built for quakes and there was little damage in the city.
 While we had no idea if our ordeal was over, as the aftershocks lasted for hours, everyone’s attention switched to the horrific images on TV of the tsunami coming ashore. No drill could have prepared for that. Surviving the quake suddenly seemed inconsequential. Only family counted as everyone struggled for hours to contact their homes, many finally walking for hours in the absence of train service.
 Things are tense in Tokyo as the nuclear crisis has now taken center stage, but one has to admire the calm, communal approach to the danger. I can only contrast this to the alarmist foreign press that appears to live on incomplete information, hyperbole and more than a few accusations. I have yet to hear one person complain or point a finger in Tokyo. Emphasis is on the well-being of families, with coming to work entirely voluntary for most companies.
 If I had one wish out of this, other of course than for the reactors to cool down, it would be for the foreign press to find some objectivity and stop upsetting people needlessly. I get the impression that people in the US are more upset than here in Japan, where I can assure you we take the danger very seriously. It is amazing how a few well placed seeds in a paragraph of bland copy, like “desperate bid”, ”catastrophic” (ahead of the fact) and, my own favorite, “apocalyptic” can stir people’s fears. We may have the radiation, but at least we don’t have such a toxic press to deal with.
All of my colleagues and I are buoyed by the many messages of support from friends over the horizon.

1 Comment

  1. Nathan says:

    Wow, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be over there and see such destruction. I hope that Americans can continue to band together and contribute to the Japanese people who have literally lost everything. Thanks for sharing!

Comments are now closed.