Quake in Otemachi [Essay]

17 Apr

We’re used to minor earthquakes here. Happens all the time. Few people at work really paid attention when the ground started shaking this time. I was in a conference call and saw people smiling and talking unconcerned at first, until we realized the tremors were getting unusually big.

Office buildings here tend of have earthquake survival kits, containing a helmet, flashlight, and other necessities, under each desk. We all took cover under our desks, opened the kits—most of us for the first time ever—and took out the helmets. The scene looked like a drill of some kind. Our building, which is built like a tank and probably as wide and deep as it is tall, began swaying heavily, and monitors on our desks moved freely from side to side.

Everyone, except for a few battle hardened traders, left the building as soon as the first tremor abated. A second one came soon after, and cranes on top of Marunouchi’s skyscrapers swung back and forth like pendulums.

Mobile phone networks quickly broke down, unable to handle the millions of people trying to call or send messages. With no means to contact friends and family, some of us decided to leave. However, all trains had stopped, busses were either out of service or already packed with people, all taxis were immediately taken, and traffic jam was building up everywhere.

Many people, me included, decided to walk home. It was as if the whole city suddenly turned into a gigantic marathon walking course. For some people the distance was just too great, and the city offered temporary shelters in parks and arenas for those.

Aftershocks continued during the evening, night, and the following morning. Power outages in Tohoku made it difficult to reach friends and relatives others up north, and tsunami disaster reports began sharing airtime with another developing story: Malfunctioning reactors in Fukushima.

The next few days were equally surreal: Constant sound of ambulances and fire trucks rushing by, empty shelves and impossibly long lines at otherwise quiet and well stocked supermarkets, and 24 hours news frequently interrupted by early warnings about imminent aftershocks. Shock and sorrow after a natural disaster combined with an increasing fear for an unfolding man-made disaster.

Tokyo has since largely returned to business as usual. Trains are as packed as always, shops restocked, and after-work izakaya bars once again full of intoxicated salarymen sharing a few yakitori skewers before heading home. However, the wide ranging energy saving measures, from escalators taken out of service to dimly lit stores and signs, serves a reminder to us in the mostly unscathed capital of the tragedies in the Tohoku area and the work ahead.

Submitted by: Jacob Ehnmark.

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