Feeling the earth move

&quotSeeing video of an actual quake makes you think you can imagine what one really feels like,&quot a colleague with us here in Japan said after the 7.1-magnitude quake rocked the northeast coast the other night, &quotbut boy was I wrong!&quot

“Seeing video of an actual quake makes you think you can imagine what one really feels like,” a colleague with us here in Japan said after the magnitude 7.1 quake rocked the northeast coast the other night, “but boy was I wrong!”, he finished. 

And he was right.

There have been many aftershocks since the big one on March 11… but they were all “just” in the high 5s or low 6s on the scale. It had gotten so that you became so used to the ground intermittently moving underneath you that you just kept right on doing what you were doing throughout the shaking. Sleeping. Eating. Trying to walk. Whatever. We had all by now developed “sea-legs”. Or so we thought.

That’s because we’d as yet felt nothing as powerful as the one on Thursday night. (It’s been two days since, and my knees are still wobbly!)

It was nearly midnight and we were just wrapping up another day’s coverage of post-quake-tsunami-&-nuclear-crisis Japan and preparing for the next day’s work. Suddenly, the floor began to tremble underneath us.

“Another aftershock,” many of us thought, or perhaps just another moment when – due to the long hours – our legs were just unsteady again. It was getting hard to distinguish between real seismic tremors and an almost regular state of personal shakes. So when you first feel the ground begin to rock, it’s very easy to presume you are just reliving an earlier, now-cellular, memory of an aftershock. 

But the trembling didn’t stop – no matter how much I tried to pull myself together and tell myself it was just me. I was thrown to one side and the wall closest seemed to be unable to stay put so I might lean on it. Things began falling off the shelves and the tables. Lamps were swinging to a beat totally in counterpoint to the one pounding out of our chests. Something more was going on here. The electricity shut down and the emergency lights came on. Bottles began to roll on the ground….and the movement just seemed endless. It was like being trapped in the bowels of a ship on a stormy night on very very rough seas. My mind froze. It was the only thing that did. Everything else kept on swaying in unsyncopated rhythm. Then panic sets in as you realise the earth could crumble under your feet or the roof could collapse over your head – and there is nothing, nothing, you can do about it.

An eternity later, 60 seconds apparently, and it was over. I could hear the sound of people coming out of their rooms, and there were muted voices in the hall. My knees were trembling still and I could not as yet get my feet to move. It’s as if they couldn’t believe the ground would stay in place if they did. 

Eventually, we all made it to the hotel foyer. People were gathered around in their nightwear. Some in bathrobes, or pajamas. Carrying torches to light their way in the dark. Everyone with a look of absolute shock on their faces. What struck me most was the almost reverential silence. No one was really speaking. Some made their way outdoors, others huddled around battery-powered transistor radios or watched national broadcasts on their advanced mobile phones. A tsunami alert was issued, and I could only imagine how the hundreds of thousands of evacuees now housed in temporary shelters across this very area would have thought the nightmare of March 11th would unravel again. They had already lost their homes, loved ones, their livelihoods. They were so looking forward to rebuilding… and this, this, would’ve been the last thing their traumatised souls would’ve needed. 

Fortunately, this time, the sea stayed put. Or at least, it did not come rampaging in to claim what did not belong to it. 

About an hour later, government officials appeared on TV to calm fears that more damage may have been done to the already crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima. “Work continues,” they said, “and the workers are safe.”

But things are far from stable in post-disaster Japan. And the continuing earth tremors are a constant reminder of that. People remain worried, and insecure. And on top of that, the now-protracted battle to control Fukushima, and contain radiation leaking from it, reaches its first month. A number of countries have banned exports from Japan, fishermen and farmers have lost the means to earn a living. Manufacturers try to make do with rolling power blackouts and disrupted supply chains. The economy is feeling the pressure as the nation struggles to rebuild. 

But then again, “struggle” isn’t quite the right word as it implies an indelicate toiling. Difficulty. And hardship. But that is not what you really see. 

Everywhere you look it is the indomitable spirit of the Japanese that strikes you. By no means are these easy days, of course, but there is a grace with which they are handling the adversity. A splendid coming-together of broken communities. A shared moment of elegant labour.

An economist Al Jazeera interviewed earlier pointed out that everyone knew it wasn’t a question of if Japan would rise from this latest round of catastrophes, but when. 

And when it does, the triumph will be shared by all.

A resident was asked a few days ago what this, his hometown, was known for … and with a soft chuckle and without batting an eye, he replied: “Earthquakes!”.

Then he carried on doing what he was doing, no matter how unsteady the ground.


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