Japan: On Catastrophes and Miracles, a Personal Account

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

Personal stories of survival are beginning to be told by bloggers in the aftermath of the earthquake that shook Japan on Friday 11 March, 2011.

One such example is Chikirin, who shared her experience of the earthquake on March 13, 2011, with the post “On Catastrophes and Miracles” (大惨事とミラクル). She was on a business trip from her home in capital Tokyo to the Ibaraki Prefecture in the northeast, which is about 250 kilometers from the epicenter.

Chikirin is a fulltime blogger and writer who publishes astute observations about social issues at the popular blog Chikirin's Diary (Chikirinの日記). She tweets in Japanese at @InsideCHIKIRIN.

The post was translated in its entirety with permission from the author.

On the day of the earthquake, the staff of the hotel where I took refuge placed a television in the lobby for us to watch. People who had been sleeping on the floor gathered around it, and I too followed, crawling out of the blanket in which I was bundled up. Seven hours after the quake hit at 2:46 pm in the afternoon – this was the first time I came into contact with real news about the quake.

Unbelievable images appeared on the screen. Towns were swept away by tsunamis, literally, within an instant. The people watching television didn’t say a word. Everyone remained silent while staring at the screen. Some who couldn’t stand it any longer began to look away.

As I watched whole towns being swallowed by the tsunami on television, I was reminded of the Kobe earthquake [in 1995]. I was watching television at the time too. When the earthquake hit Kobe in the morning, I was in Tokyo. Throughout the day while I was at work, I tried to contact my family in Kansai where the earthquake happened, but I couldn’t get through to anyone.

Fearing that I had become all alone in the world, I kept staring at the television footage of the fires all night. “Why are the fire trucks not here when the TV vans are?” pleaded a lady who could only watch the city turning into ash with nothing being done to stop the fires. It was painful to watch.

It was the same with the tsunami this time: it wasn’t the earthquake, but the fires and the tsunami, everything that comes *after* the actual earthquake destroys the cities. The cameras capture the images as it happens, but no one can do anything about it. In a matter of a few moments, the lives of countless people were lost while being documented in videos.

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I was in Ibaraki Prefecture when the earthquake hit. The tremor must have been stronger than in Tokyo. Luckily, I was not hurt. I knew immediately that it was no ordinary earthquake because it was shaking for a long time and the lights went out immediately. The meeting I was attending was promptly dismissed, and we walked down the stairs from the 7th floor to take refuge outside the building.

I was the only one who had come to the meeting from Tokyo, and hence the only one who needed to take a train back to Tokyo. I took a local bus and hurried to the closest station.

Now that I think about it, some cities along the coasts were already engulfed by the tsunami by that time. Not even an hour had passed since the first quake, and people were struggling to make well-informed decisions. I too only knew that the epicenter was in Touhoku, and that it was a very severe earthquake. My mobile phone was dead.

All modes of mass transit at the station were halted and many people were forming lines (meaninglessly so, in retrospect). Only the local buses were functional, but that didn’t help me because I didn’t know the area very well. I looked for information on how to get back to Tokyo.

There was a vending machine that was still working so I bought some juice and tea. I wanted to get some food too but all the stores had their doors shut. I understood: the cash registers would not have worked because of the power failure, and it is dangerous to have customers in a store during an earthquake. But I thought at least those shops selling food should have accepted customers.

There was a long line for the toilet as well and the water was not running, but people used the facilities with humility. It had somehow become a routine for the person coming out of the toilet to advise the next person not to throw used paper into the toilet.

I stayed at the train station for around four hours, until sunset. It was clear that there was nothing to be done. The greatest difficulty for me was the fact that I didn’t know anything about the area. I didn’t know what kind of hotels, with what kind of capacity the city had, nor what other forms of transport I could find to get home, or how far I could get on foot. Without knowing such things, it was difficult to make appropriate decisions. I learnt a lesson there: learn the basic geography of a place before venturing far from home.

Image of Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture by Twitpic user emewmew.

Image of Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture by Twitpic user emewmew.

When it started getting darker, the people at the station told us that we should look for a place to spend the night, and that they had been advised to say so by the government. People started dispersing. Those who worked nearby went back to their offices.

The only ones left were people who didn’t know much about the place and had nowhere to go. I had to find somewhere to stay, it was cold and it was windy. So I asked the station staff for a hotel and headed in that direction. The first hotel I found kindly offered to let me sleep in the lobby because all their rooms were taken. I was wearing a short skirt, so they even provided me with a blanket right after the children got theirs.

Many men who had also sought refuge in the lobby, spent the night on chairs without even a blanket. The emergency blanket was made of thickly woven lambs wool and kept us very warm. The entire city had blacked out, but the hotel still had electricity, so some people came to the hotel to recharge the batteries of their mobile phones. (Some people seemed to have no electricity, water or gas at their homes.)

On this day, I was wearing a skirt for the first time in six months. It’s just so typical for an earthquake to hit when I’m wearing a skirt. Once, when I was wearing plain Uniqlo clothing and sneakers, I ran into an ex-boyfriend! Anyway, the blanket I had was very big, so I considered taking off my skirt and just wrapping myself up in the blanket. The aftershocks were continuing though, and I thought I probably wouldn’t have enough time to slip it back on if we had to flee, so I let that idea go.

There were many people who stayed awake the whole time, but I tried to sleep. I felt chilled because I had been exposed to the wind outdoors for as long as four hours, and I knew I had to gather my strength to get through the situation. I bundled myself and my valuables into the blanket and slept as much as I could.

Late at night, the hotel staff provided us with a small salted rice ball and a half cup of miso-soup per head. Many people in the lobby waited quietly in lines to receive them. I was grateful to the entire staff of the hotel who supported us throughout the night, and the unbelievably well-organised manner in which the evacuees behaved. Everyone was so quiet.

The hotel let us use some power chargers for our mobile phones, but there weren’t enough because there were so many people who wanted to use them. And anyway, the mobile phones were still useless. There was one public telephone in the lobby, so I joined the queue and called home. I got through at 3 a.m. in the morning. When I hung up after telling my family that I was fine, the 100 yen coin that I had dropped in was returned to me. The NTT phone company had made it free to use the public telephone lines.

Another image of Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture by Twitpic user chatokun.

Another image of Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture by Twitpic user chatokun.

In the morning I received one rice ball from the hotel. From the time the earthquake hit [on Friday 11 March] until 8pm [on Saturday 12 March] when I got back to Ueno [in Tokyo], the only things I’d eaten were two rice balls from the hotel, so I was really thankful to them. Everything was closed including the convenience stores and restaurants around the station, so I wouldn’t have been able to eat anything otherwise.

There were aftershocks throughout the night, but I was strangely not afraid. What did scare me was the devastation in Touhoku on the television. I stopped watching after a while. I felt that there were some things that perhaps were better left unseen.

The next morning, I got an update at the station that the trains were unlikely to arrive. However, I was glad to hear that a special bus would go to the closest station from which trains were about to depart. I waited in a long, long line. I passed an extra mask to someone suffering from hay fever. I began to really hate my pumps. I wanted to buy sneakers, but the store wasn’t open.

What I thought unbelievable was that no stores, including food retailers, had been attacked. When I stayed in California during some wildfires, I was surprised by the sudden attacks on the windows of downtown stores. In New Orleans, where a great hurricane raged, the National Guard took to the streets with rifles soon after the disaster.

In this country, the fact that things like that don’t happen, is truly a miracle. No one went to ask for another rice ball at the hotel even when there were some left. (The hotel staff took the remaining ones, and went to check whether there was anyone on other floors who hadn’t eaten yet). In those 24 hours, I don’t know how many times I thought, “this country is unreal”.

Chikirin goes on to describe her long journey to Ueno railway station in Tokyo, where another mass of people were patiently and courteously waiting for transportation. The English translation of this section of her story can be read here, omitted from this article for the sake of brevity.

Ueno Station on March 12, 2011. Image by Plixi user Shunsuke Koga.

Ueno Station on March 12, 2011. Image by Plixi user Shunsuke Koga.

I’m not writing to advertise what a terrible experience I had. What I experienced was not the damage of an earthquake. It was a minor inconvenience that might not even deserve to be described as “confusion”, but I wanted to write down what it was like, while I clearly remembered the events.

What I want to communicate, is the miraculous behavior of the people of this country. I didn’t encounter a single “angry”, “shouting” or “complaining” person in the 24 hours. I only saw one drunk middle-aged guy who was having a fit in Ueno station. This country is truly miraculous.

I’m watching the television in my apartment while clearing up bits and things that have fallen on the floor. Companies and individual people, everyone is doing so much. In particular, I’d like to pay my deepest gratitude and respect for those people who are working at the site of nuclear power plants amidst repeated aftershocks.

There are many more things I want to commit to writing, but that’s it for now.

I am at a loss for words for the people who suffered direct consequences or lost their family members.

Here’s to praying for many miracles.

Many thanks to Naoki Matsuyama and Eric Yap for translating this post.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.


  • 計画停電2日目の本日…

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