It was just a regular day in Bangkok, and I had just finished talking to my husband on Skype. He arrived that morning in Tokyo and was visiting his parents who live in Saitama, which is just north of Tokyo. We said our goodbyes, and I went to buy some lunch.
Came back to the flat, and was sitting watching the news, when suddenly they had a breaking story. Big earthquake in Japan. 7.7 on the Richter scale. Within 10 minutes it had gone up to 8.0.
I watched in horror when, about 30 minutes later, a helicopter news crew was flying over Miyagi prefecture. They turned, and the camera focused in on a massive wave which had formed in the sea and was heading to shore. I couldn’t believe my eyes — I was about to witness the tsunami live on TV. The helicopter crew went silent as the wave hit the shore. We could see cars on the road trying to leave the town. It was an eerie feeling watching their death, as there was nothing that could be done.
I sat silently, my heart sinking, as Miyagi got wiped out. After it was done, the news began showing Sendai Airport going underwater. They also showed the effects of the quake in Tokyo. All I could think was thank god the tsunami did not hit Tokyo and its population of 15 million people. If Miyagi was a disaster, a tsunami like that hitting Tokyo would be doomsday.
Over the next two hours I tried not to imagine the worst for my in-laws in Japan. Were they all right? Did they have any damage to their home? A lot of people imagine Tokyo as an ultra-modern place, but in fact many of the houses are built in the old style, with heavy tiled roofs. A show I once saw on earthquakes in Japan said a very common cause of death during earthquakes in the countryside are those heavy roofs falling down on the people inside.
I sent a message to my mother-in-law’s keitai (mobile phone). I guess there was nothing I could do but wait.
Well, I realised, I better cancel my ticket to Japan.
A friend and I were supposed to arrive in Tokyo in two day’s time. That wouldn’t be happening now. The airports were closed, the train lines were not running, and many parts of the city had no electricity. Friends in Tokyo were able to get online and tell me not to come, that the situation was bad and they were stuck downtown. One said she walked for three hours to get home. Another had to sleep in her office. She said when she got home, everything in her cupboards had fallen down and her whole place was a mess. Could have been worse though, she said.
After two days, with the quake and the tsunami morphing into a nuclear risk as the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant began to have technical problems, I began cancelling everything. I spent three hours in the All Nippon Airways office in downtown Bangkok waiting to apply for a cancellation and a refund. Actually, quite a few Japanese people were trying to buy tickets to get back home. I suppose if your old folks are back in Japan, they might need help, even if it means risking an unsure nuclear situation.
My husband, who had a trip to Hong Kong, went shopping to buy some necessities for his parents. According to family and friends in Tokyo, people had started stockpiling food and water, as well as batteries, flashlights and candles. Rolling blackouts were set for all of Tokyo, 3-6 hours a day. And in the winter, let me tell you those Japanese homes can get damn cold at night.
A few days later, with my Japan trip all cancelled, I decided to head to Koh Samui to visit my father and try to figure out what I was going to do. I booked a cheap overnight bus from Bangkok to head south. The van picked me up at 4 pm and around 6 pm as we were waiting for the big bus it started the pour. The tourists all shivered and tried to find shelter where they could. I could only think of all those people stranded in Sendai and Miyagi in the snow, with no electricity, no heat, and no supplies. Getting stuck in the rain is nothing in comparison.
Now it’s been almost a week, and while Fox News — a station which really does not deserve to have the word ‘news’ in its name — keeps harping about how the Fukushima power plant has some dirty secrets and Wikileaks claims there have been cover ups about rusty pipes and so on — the Japanese news seems reassuring. While some locals and of course many foreigners in Japan have been leaving the country, friends and family in Tokyo say things are slowly getting back to normal. I won’t be going to Japan for a while, but at least the news looks promising.
My mother keeps saying in amazement what an incredible society Japan must be, to go through such a crisis and still have order, calm, and patience. “Anywhere else and it would be looting, rioting, and chaos,” she wrote in an email. I have no doubt this is true.
According to a Trini friend who is teaching in Okinawa, there was actually a girl from Tobago living in Sendai, the town at the epicentre of the earthquake and tsunami. I hope she got out okay.
It is heartbreaking to see these things happen in any country, but when it is a country you know and love so well, it hits a bit closer to home. But thankfully Japan as a first-world country, and one that is accustomed to earthquakes, will be able to recover. But for the people of Sendai, there may not be anything left to salvage.