Eyewitness to Tragedy: Island Woman Survives in Japan

Teacher’s diary of her first week after earthquake shakes entire country

Maria Kenney and friend Angela in Japan

Maria Kenney and friend Angela in Japan

FRIDAY, MARCH 11

At 2:46 p.m. the ground starts shaking. I am mid-sentence, explaining something to a student. “Oh – earthquake!” I say. There was a small one yesterday, too. But wait – this one isn’t so small. It gets bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

Suddenly the building is shaking like a funhouse. It’s the 7th floor, and my students are clutching the flimsy desks they can’t possibly climb underneath. I get in a doorway. What are you supposed to do in an earthquake? I’m from Vancouver Island. I should know this.

After five minutes it passes. An alarm sounds. My students bolt. Shouldn’t they be used to earthquakes by now? They happen all the time in Japan.

We rush down seven stories and hit the uncharacteristically crowded streets of a quiet district in Yokohama, Tokyo’s conjoined twin. Kids are crying and there’s a line for the telephone booth. Other than that, it’s business as usual in the shops.

After several failed attempts, I reload facebook on my tiny Japanese flip phone. One of my friends has written on my wall. “Are you alive? I heard you had a big earthquake.” How did he hear about this? I cross my arms against the winter chill and wait for the OK to re-enter the building.

SATURDAY, MARCH 12

Apparently the quake was much bigger than I had anticipated. 8.9 on the Richter scale. That’s big, right?

The trains shut down last night, so I walk home. Two and a half hours to get from southern Yokohama to my house, wearing heels and clutching at my business jacket for warmth. The ground was rippling with aftershocks.

I was one of thousands in the country migrating by foot from work to home that night. But we were the lucky ones, as I later found out. An estimated 20,000 people were stranded at major stations in Tokyo alone.

I wake up and try to take a shower, but there’s no hot water. Work has been cancelled for today at my English conversation school. Thankfully. I need to recoup and call my mom.

“I’m happy you’re okay, but what about the tsunamis?” She’s been watching CNN.

“I’m far away from that, mom.”

“And all the people stranded?”

“I told you I made it home.”

“What about that nuclear plant business in the east? Fuku… wama… or something?”

“Don’t worry. I’m miles away from all that,” I say, and hang up the phone to go have a drink with friends.

SUNDAY, MARCH 13

I’m sensing the start of a pattern: every day I wake up, there will be bad news waiting for me.

Overnight, the death toll climbed to almost 2,000. There’s a 70 per cent chance of an earthquake stronger than 7.0 occurring in the next three days. Japan’s leading power company, TEPCO, has announced rolling blackouts that will leave myself and millions more without power daily until at least April. And they’re evacuating people within 20 kilometres of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

I call the Canadian embassy in Tokyo. Of course, the line is busy. Their offices must be stretched beyond their breaking point by now. I continue to watch the news with English subtitles.

It was the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan, and the fifth most powerful in recorded world history. These figures are incompatible with what I experienced on Friday. I’m filled with panic, like a four year old glimpsing her own scraped chin in the mirror. The earthquake shifted the earth’s axis, moved Japan closer to Canada, and shortened our days by a fraction of a second.

No work today, again. Who wants to study English after a national crisis? I’m left alone at home with my Japanese news, and still no hot water. Every time the ground rumbles today, I duck under my writing desk.

MONDAY, MARCH 14

The death toll continues to climb, but this morning the news is less concerned with the earthquake and tsunami. Instead, front page headlines are reporting a potential nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

There’s a huge discrepancy over the seriousness of the situation. The Japanese have rated the disaster a four out of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale, while the French are calling it a six.

How do you prepare for a nuclear meltdown? I’ve been through years of earthquake drills in my public school days, so those I can handle. But nuclear radiation? I’m clueless on that topic. All I know is I don’t want to turn green.

I call the Canadian embassy over and over until I finally reach the emergency line. I get a recording. “Please leave a message and we will return your call within two business days.”

That’s it? No warnings, no mention of a natural disaster. Thanks.

On the advice of my Japanese friends, I do what everyone in the Tokyo/Yokohama area is doing: put on a surgical mask and head for the supermarket. People are panic-buying enough supplies to last through a potential crisis. There’s very little on the shelves. No water, no bread, no toilet paper. I purchase enough rice and vitamin water to feed a football team for a week and get ready to stay indoors until the crisis boils over (so to speak).

TUESDAY, MARCH 15

Hang on – I don’t want to stay indoors forever. I call my friend Angela, a teacher in Tokyo.

“This stuff’s pretty serious,” she says. “One of the reactors is on fire again. Radiation levels have spiked. My friend said the radiation will spread to Tokyo in ten hours.”

She says most of our foreign friends have just booked flights to their home countries – Canada, America, Australia, Britain.

“I want to get out of Tokyo.”

I agree. “Where should we go?”

“I dunno. The middle?”

We decide to meet at Shinagawa station in Tokyo in two hours to catch the bullet train out west. I throw almost everything I own – passport, unpaid bills, clothes, books – into a suitcase and I’m on my way.

Unfortunately, we miss the last bullet train. Also, because of the rolling blackouts across Tokyo, neither of our train lines is working any longer. We end up falling asleep in an internet cafe to the unsoothing rumble of another aftershock.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16

When I wake up, I instinctively search the news and discover that it wasn’t an aftershock last night – it was a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Shizuoka. Some quick research tells me that that’s exactly where we would have been if we had caught the last bullet train yesterday evening. Where can we get to that’ll be safe? There’s no way to tell.

Of course, no one was put in much danger and the earthquake did little but stop the train in its tracks. The trains are still not running from Shinagawa station, but we head there anyway and arrive just as they start up again. It’s our first bit of luck in days.

Three hours later we reach “the middle”: Osaka, the third largest city in Japan. We book into a hostel for two nights and feel a massive weight lifted from our chests. What could happen to us this far west? We begin to make travel plans for Osaka and its neighbouring cities, Kyoto and Nara, the cultural capitals of Japan.

THURSDAY, MARCH 17

Of course, relief was a bit premature. When we wake up the hostel is full to capacity with Tokyo escapees, both foreign and Japanese. If they’re foreign, they’re taking flights within 24 hours. If they’re Japanese, they’ve brought their entire families and all household pets. The place is a zoo, and booked up for the next week at least.

We panic again and call our company’s head office. In less than an hour we’re on another bullet train speeding away from Osaka, through empty rice paddies, along the Pacific coast, and down toward Hiroshima, the first city destroyed by a nuclear weapon.

While on the train, we search the news and find what we’ve been waiting for: directions from our countries’ governments. Angela’s is simple: the Australian government is urging its citizens to consider leaving Japan. An escape plan has been devised for the evacuation of all Australians, and an aircraft is on standby should the situation worsen.

The Canadian government, on the other hand, advises its citizens to evacuate only from the 80 kilometres surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi plant. I’m thinking, Thanks, but the Americans have already told me that.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada has also issued a travel warning for Tokyo and northern Honshu.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “There continues to be large-scale, for the most part normal, commercial airline service from Japan, so if people want to leave they have that option.”

Basically, If you want to leave, there’s the door. No matter that most of my expat friends have spent between $2,000 and $3,000 to fly home when a one-way ticket is normally under $1,000. Personally, I can’t afford my own safety.

FRIDAY, MARCH 18

It’s been one week since the earthquake and the ground in Tokyo still hasn’t stopped shaking. The death toll has passed 8,000, with more than that figure still missing. Here in west Japan, however, all is calm and safe. The locals say they didn’t even feel the initial earthquake that rocked the rest of the country.

We’re staying in a hotel with a group of teachers from our company. Only a handful escaped from the Tokyo area, while the rest have come from the tsunami-drenched coastal areas of Sendai, Miyagi, and Ibaraki. Some have even come from Fukushima, where they were forced to take a taxi to the next functioning train station, costing them hundreds of dollars each. Their stories are sad yet humble, and remind me that I am no victim.

“Honestly, we’re the lucky ones,” one teacher told me. “We were the ones with enough money to leave Fukushima. Most of the locals are stuck in their houses, if they haven’t been washed away. These people can listen to the radiation warnings all day and they won’t leave. They don’t have a choice.”

I, on the other hand, have many choices to make: do I leave Japan for somewhere safer, like South Korea or Taiwan, or do I stay and make my way in the crushed economy? My family is begging me to come home, but would I really feel safer on Vancouver Island? An earthquake of lesser magnitude would cripple my hometown.

On another island, my new home, Yokohama, is picking up the pieces and staggering forward. Even after a such a crisis, life goes on. I’m left with no plans and no sense of direction, but I’m two life lessons heavier: roll with the punches, and never count on the ground to stay steady.

— Maria Kenney

Maria Kenney is from Vancouver Island, now living in Japan.

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