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A View from Tokyo on March 11

Guest blogger John Mock (Temple U Japan) is a sociocultural anthropologist who lived in the Tohoku region of Japan for many years and now lives in Tokyo. He was at work in Tokyo during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. In this post, written just a few days after the earthquake, he shares the story of his own experiences that day.

When the earthquake struck, several hundred kilometers north of Tokyo, I was in my cubicle at Temple University Japan, on the 6th floor of the main university building.  At first I thought that this was just another quake, which are fairly common in Japan.  My second thought was, “Hmm, this seems to be a bit stronger than most,” particularly when a filing drawer, opening on its own with the power of the quake, attacked my leg.  My third thought was “Oh, my, this is a very big quake and a very, very long quake.”  In fact, the quake went for several more minutes.  .  After the quake was over (which was much smaller than the 8.9 Richter scale one that hit further north), the loud speaker told everyone to evacuate, which folks slowly did (it is a 12 story building), all very orderly and subdued.  After going in and out of the building a couple of times because of aftershocks, the Dean closed the university.

 We were then left with the problem of how to get home.  Many TUJ faculty, staff and students live a long way from the campus—some students have as much as a 2-hour commute each way. After talking to my students and finding out that they were OK, I I started the walk home around 5 pm.

Tokyo is not a particularly big city and I live toward the other side of the city from TUJ.  Since I have spent quite a lot of time bicycling around Tokyo, I had a pretty decent idea of how to get home.  In addition, Tokyo has “koban” (police boxes) every few blocks which display maps and have police answering questions.  As I started to walk through Roppongi (for those who know Tokyo), a couple of things struck me.  The first was that there were a lot of people walking. A terrific number, in fact.  With the trains and subways stopped— these are the heavy lifters of the Tokyo mass transit system—many people were walking.

Most of the walkers were very quiet, even when they were in groups.  There was very little loud noise of any kind.  In fact, because of the traffic jams, the city seemed amazingly quiet.  Many of my fellow pedestrians seemed bothered by the fact that cell phones weren’t working.  I tried mine and was told the system was flooded, so I did not try again for a couple of hours.  However, I saw other folks hitting redial over and over again, and shaking the cell phones as if it was a problem of the battery.  Rather puzzlingly, I also saw many people walking staring at their cell phones.  At first, I thought they were watching to see if they could get them to work but then I realized, in addition to folks texting, that other folks were watching news.  I also saw that folks with smart phones (unlike mine) had called up maps to figure out how to get home. 

Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I asked one of them how it worked and why he was using it.  After rather proudly showing me how it was a GPS system that moved when he did, thus always showing the route a few hundred meters ahead (but with a sidebar that showed the whole route along with a progress report on how far he had gone and how far he had to go), he seemed to have difficulty with the second part of the question.  At first I thought I had misstated my question (Japanese is not my native language), but I had stated it correctly. He thought I meant something beyond the obvious.  Rather quickly, we determined that while I was walking through Tokyo (his hometown), just using my memory of where I wanted to go and various landmarks, he had no idea even which direction to go.  Once we figured that out, it was easy.  Unfortunately, I also had to tell him that he had a really long way to go, which he had sort of realized, and his phone was trying to tell him, but he had not really understood.

Moving on through the quiet and very polite crowds, it got darker and became a bit eerie.  Tokyo is normally a very bright place but any of the lights were out.  There was no blackout; it was simply that quite a few places were closed.  The restaurants and such still open appeared to be doing a booming business.  At one point, not being so young and feeling a bit footsore, I thought about alternative modes of transportation.  It was obvious from the closed train and subway stations that the choice was either busses, taxis or continue on foot.  I saw dozens of people trying to waive down taxis with no success.  I saw a bus headed toward Shinjuku and thought momentarily about trying to take a bus.  I then realized that there was a long line of people at the bus stand—I counted more than 60 at about every stand I passed—and that the busses were absolutely packed with people.  I was actually walking faster than the busses were moving because of an almost solid traffic jam on all the main streets.

After a couple of hours of walking, I was home.  My apartment was a bit of a mess but nothing catastrophic had happened.  I have been wondering what this experience would have been like in another city.  I was born in New York and the great blackout a couple of decades ago might have been similar in some ways, but was it as quiet and polite?   Looking at the number of people crammed into the busses, would Americans have packed themselves so tightly, and politely, into busses? 

Later that night, the subway I usually ride came back on line.  That night and Saturday, line by line, the various trains and subways reported at least partial service.  All tracks need to be checked before the trains run again, and with the multiple aftershocks, delays are inevitable.  Even now, five days after the quake, the lines are running fewer trains than usual to conserve electricity. Fukushima #1 power plants provide a significant percentage of the electricity for Kanto. A policy of rolling blackouts has been instituted by the government to save electricity. March 11 is behind us, but we are all still feeling its effects.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the account! I will be coming to work with/at Temple while starting my fieldwork in Tokyo this summer. Thanks to my parents in Philadelphia and their vigilant sharing of articles from the Philly Inquirer, I’ve been able to follow Temple’s activities closely. (Although the American media is rather hysterical about everything.)

    The earthquake has meant that instead of having a careful plan for this summer, all of a sudden I don’t know what ground I am going to be able to gain with my fieldwork. Anxious position, and of course concerned about folks over there. Ganbatte!

  2. Interesting! I also walked back to a Tokyo suburb ater the earthquake (Kichijoji) through Roppongi–and Shibuya, and finally used the Inokashira line as a guide (along with the location of the moon) to find my way home. I appreciate your remarks–reading them was like going through my memories of my own experience!

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