On Moving Ground

Living in Japan one always lives with the knowledge that there will be earthquakes, it sits on the junction of five tectonic plates, yet they were easy to dismiss, despite wonderings about the "big one" coming up in conversation now and again. Occasionally the ground would shake and one would say, "it's an earthquake", but it would pass and life would continue on much as usual. It was just another part of living the Japanese life.

I remember being rather disappointed, when I first visited Japan, at not experiencing an earthquake; it was something that I admittedly took all too lightly. In the several years that I've been here since only once did I feel a fairly big shake, and that was also my first real experience of earthquakes. I remember almost being excited however this quickly turned to grave concern when I realised how seriously the Japanese I was with took the situation. Earthquakes, and indeed Mother Nature, are not something to be taken lightly.

I've likened my experiences with earthquakes to trains. I don't know why, but it seems the simplest analogy to describe what's it like to someone who's never experienced one. That first experience of an earthquake was rather like being in a house right next to a mainline railway line. Everything rattled, swayed, rumbled and shook as if the 10:24 for Edinburgh just came past the door at full speed, except there was an eerie silence. There was no express train roaring past.

Since then there have been many small moving ground events, occasions when I've woken in the night because the room was moving and the door was rattling, or felt the office building shake slightly, but these recent weeks have been something altogether different.

There were warning signs. Two days before the March 11th event, the office building rattled and shook, significantly so, with blinds knocking against the window and the creaking of the building as it swayed under the strain. Most high-rise buildings in Tokyo are designed to sway in the event of an earthquake, that way they manage to disperse most of the energy. For people on the upper floors it feels a lot like being at sea and getting seasick.

I was outside when it hit, almost in the suburbs, enjoying the walk between stations on a sunny afternoon, on my way to teach a drum lesson. I remember thinking, oh it's an earthquake, followed by, oh it's a BIG earthquake. There is something extremely disconcerting about walking on ground that you think is solid, but is visibly moving underneath you. It felt like trying to walk down the aisle of the bullet train as it races along at 300kph, or standing on the deck of a ship at sea, but what caught me again was the relative silence of it all. Yes the houses rattled, the kids screamed and crouched down with their school bags over the heads, and the concrete telephone poles groaned as they swayed like elderly trees in the wind, yet despite that, there was an uneasy quiet. I moved quickly away from the houses, and the telephone cables hanging overhead, lest they fall on my head, to a relatively clear car park, although having done that it was all but over.

The second one hit about thirty minutes later. It didn't seem as strong, although all the some people in central Tokyo thought the contrary because the epicentre was closer despite it being a smaller earthquake. Once again there was the strange moving sensation as the road itself swayed and almost warped in front of my eyes. I was surprised when an African American lady came running out of a nearby house shouting, "Don't you know it's an earthquake?" She sounded panicked. "I know!" I heard myself say, yet I was surprised how unperturbed I was.

I walked, almost ran home, knowing somehow that this wasn't the usual kind of quake and that I wouldn't be able to take the train back, it wasn't nearly as far as some people would have to walk that night, but it wasn't until I saw the scenes on T.V. of the tsunami hitting northern Japan that I really knew how big this earthquake had been. I watched on in horror and disbelief as walls of water swept away everything in its path, nonetheless only when I finally went to bed and tried to sleep did I start to comprehend the potentially life changing significance. We had just felt the 4th biggest earthquake in recorded history.

The continual aftershocks have constantly played on the nerves since then, with major ones, the size of the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand only 3 weeks earlier 1, occurring several times a day and as many as 30 smaller aftershocks happening an hour, in the days immediately after the main event. I was constantly prepared to run outside should another big one occur, I would even go to bed fully clothed just in case. Once, in the middle of the night, the bed unexpectedly jumped, as if something beneath it had suddenly violently kicked upwards. It wasn't just the bed but the whole of Tokyo that jumped. I have since learnt that there are two types of earthquakes, those that move from side to side, and those that jolt violently vertically!

People still talk about the "big one" as if this wasn't it. Despite everything Tokyo itself has been relatively unscathed, even the aftershocks have circled the metropolis, but people fear that one day a big earthquake will hit Tokyo directly. There is talk of the Tokai earthquake, a devastating earthquake that happens at the junction of two fault lines west of Tokyo every 150 years. The last one occurred 160 years ago! But this could just be random, there are no certainties in seismology, and the enigmatic "big one" might never come. For now we have to deal with the aftermath of the biggest so far.

April 2011


1. It is worth noting that the Christchurch earthquake occurred at a depth of only 5km where as the recent Japanese earthquake occurred at a depth of 32km, so it was very destructive despite being smaller in terms of magnitude.

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