Last July, about a month and a half after I moved to Japan, I was sitting in a training class on the eight floor of a Tokyo office building. The building began to sway. Pens rolled across the desk. Laptop computers jiggled. My heart crept up in my throat.
Everybody in the class glanced from side to side, uneasily gripping the corners of their desk, ready to flee as soon as somebody gave the signal.
The signal never came. The instructor assured us that everything would be okay. And 15 seconds later, though it felt like minutes, the shaking stopped and life returned to normal.
This was my first earthquake experience in Japan. That particular earthquake registered at a 5 on the Richter scale and incurred minimal destruction, if any at all.
There would be more earthquakes. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night as the bed gently rocked. My wife Lisa, who grew up in Tokyo, never felt them.
Sometimes we would be sitting at the dinner table and my glass of water would start to tremble like a scene from Jurassic Park minus the ominous music, and I would ask Lisa, “Did you feel that?”
“Feel what?” she would ask and nonchalantly munch on her tofu.
Over the course of the last seven months I have become more accustomed to these small rumblings that occur perhaps once a month. So much that last Friday when Japan was hit with a 7.3 earthquake, for once, panic did not register. I was on the fourth floor of my office building and the entire room gently rocked back and forth. Some nearby co-workers made quizzical eye contact. This event lasted a little bit longer than the average quake, taking about 30 seconds, the trembling growing slightly with each quiver. One co-worker (from Britain) grabbed his jacket and swiftly vacated the office.
As for my response, I realized I wasn’t smart enough to panic. I grew up in Iowa where tornadoes are a regular occurrence. Our springtime family entertainment was to set up the lawn chairs in the driveway and watch the clouds.
But with a tornado, I knew the proper safety protocol. You go to the basement or hide in the bathtub. However, when an earthquake hits, the emergency procedures are more confounding. You can’t trust the ground for protection, since it is the ground that is attacking.
As I learned, you are supposed to hide underneath a table or desk to protect yourself from falling debris. And that’s about it. It is a national law that companies are required to provide a hardhat for every employee. One friend told me that after last Friday’s earthquake one of her co-workers sat at his desk the rest of the night wearing his bright yellow helmet, calmly typing away.
So while I may never get used to the sensation of an earthquake, by the time I finished work last Friday, I had already forgotten about the incident and moved on to more important things like where to find a can of chu-hi, a grapefruit flavored beer with 8 percent alcohol.
On my way to the convenience store, I checked my email on my cell phone. I had received several messages from friends and family all over the States, branching from Tampa to San Francisco, asking me if I was all right.
Of course I was all right, and I would be even better once I had a can of chu-hi.
The trembler, which struck near the same spot as the March 11, 2011, catastrophe, was considered an aftershock of that event, and because of this fact, it became international news.
If you recall the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami, now referred to as 3-11 in Japan, its effects still resonate throughout the country.
Over 20,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the 8.9 quake, which where I am from constitutes the population of a large town. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless, and many of them are still without homes while an ineffectual government continues to sort through paperwork and red tape.
When 3-11 happened I was living in Philadelphia, and Lisa was visiting Tokyo with a group of university students. While I knew from news reports that Tokyo didn’t sustain much damage from that earthquake and that Lisa was more than likely perfectly safe, I still wanted confirmation.
Of course, cell phone access was out of the question. Finally about six hours after news broke, I received a brief email from Lisa telling me she was okay. It would be another six hours before we were able to have a brief phone conversation.
She was of course fine, but there were several inconveniences in the city. The subway and the airport were shut down. Water and basic goods were being rationed, as was electricity.
Lisa was with several American students who parents were freaking out. One mom was certain that all of Tokyo had been wiped off the face of the planet. Even when the student told her mom that, no, we are okay, she still didn’t believe it.
The worst part was wondering if there would be another, larger, earthquake on the way. Luckily, it never came, though it is a bit unnerving that a 7.3 aftershock struck a year and a half later.
As I type this I am wearing a shiny, yellow helmet.