Sunday, March 13, 2011

Diary From the Last Couple of Days in Japan

Dave, others:

This is a collection of notes, lightly edited, compiled over the last
two days, so the voice and time line move around a bit.  Apologies.

OK, first impressions:

1. The earthquake was by far the biggest I've ever been in (or hope to
be in), but the building we are in is brand new and very well built,
so it swayed a lot but never felt dangerous.
2. Being a refugee is both stressful and boring at the same time, even
when you're with friends in a place you know is safe.  The biggest
thing, of course, is the lack of reliable information; several
people around me have 1seg keitai which give a *very* poor TV image,
enough to be scary but not provide a lot of detail.


1. It's a rule of mine not to leave the house without clothing warm
enough for the possiblity of being stuck outside for hours; I think
I'll keep that rule.
2. I carry millions of transistors in my pocket, billions in my
backpack.  One would be enough for an AM radio, but no one around me
seemed to have one.

Rolling back to 14:45 Friday...

"Earthquake," I said quietly.  Nobody noticed, Kei-san kept on
talking.  Even I wasn't completely sure at first, and I'm pretty quick
to pick up on them.

"Earthquake, we're having an earthquake," I said, a little louder.

Kei-san said, "Earthquake?...You're right..."

Osamu-san said, "Earthquake?  Really?"

By this time, it had already been swaying for several seconds.

"It's getting bigger," someone said.

Kusumoto-san got up and walked across the room and peeked through the
blinds.  "Electric poles are swaying," he said.  I got up and walked
across the room to join him.

"It's getting even worse," someone said.  "Better get away from the

"Wow, it's big...this is far away and big..."

Comments like that continued for what seemed like two minutes, before
it calmed down.  The electricity went out.

Shortly, the announcement came to evacuate the building, so we grabbed
our jackets and went out.  Several of us helped a man in an electric
wheelchair, lifting him down the stairs.

This building includes a gym and pool; dozens of kids in speedos and
googles were forced out into the cold.  I handed out a shirt and
fleece I was carrying (which haven't come back, but if that's my
biggest loss, I'm fine).

While we were outside, I got email on my cell phone (DoCoMo mail)
from my wife, letting me know that she was okay, had one of our
daughters, and was getting the other.  It would be fifteen hours
before we would be able to connect via voice or SMS, but DoCoMo mail
and their 3G packet service operated sporadically from the beginning.
I was able to access Gmail, Facebook and Twitter, enough to get a
message to friends who relayed it to my parents.

Eventually, they announced that they would inspect the building top to
bottom, starting on the 7th floor, before we were allowed back in the
building.  A few minutes later, it started to rain, and a stream of
people went back into the building -- with permission or without, I
don't know.

With power out, we had some emergency lights; our local blackout
continued until 11pm, eight hours after the first shock (but when it
got dark, we could tell that surrounding areas still had power).  We
grabbed our stuff, and were herded into a few rooms on the lower
floors, where sat on classroom chairs or stretched out on the floor.
Decks of cards and various drinks, including Dad's Root Beer (which
some student literally mistook for a type of beer -- to her disgust
and my delight) and some sort of avowedly foul Korean liquor, and
snacks materialized, and the students and younger folks quickly
settled into a social mood.  I'm fighting either allergies or a bit of
a cold, so I stretched out on the floor to rest.

About a half a dozen faculty were in the early part of an overnight
retreat, here on Keio's Hiyoshi Campus rather than at SFC, so I had
extra shirts and some bread and cheese on hand.

Most of the other faculty that I came with have gone home to check on
their own families, moving via car, but none were going in my
direction, so I elected to stay here.  Some of the faculty and staff
and a fair number of students from this campus remain; some live close
enough to walk, but have no power or simply prefer to be with friends

Fighting a cold and stress, and with nothing but emergency lights,
didn't feel like reading.  Little information coming in; we were safe,
with nothing particular to do.  No one around needed immediate help,
and simply adding people to the streets and stations was clearly a bad
idea.  I now understand the empty look on the faces you see in refugee

Eventually, the campus security and general affairs folks came around
and handed out canned water, crackers, and rather musty blankets.

Some people had keitai (cell phones) with one-seg (1seg) receivers,
very low-bandwidth digital TV.  The images we could see were
appalling, with fires burning across broad areas, in the dark.

About 10pm, the Toyoko Line reopened to Shibuya, and people began
filtering out.  I stuck with my resolution to stay put until morning,
or JR began running again.  (I later heard that some faculty took more
than ten hours to get home; those of us who stayed warm, fed and
comfortable certainly didn't regret that decision the next morning.)

Overnight there were a number of aftershocks, and the second major
quake in Nagano, which they asserted was not related.

I was beside myself with worry about the possibility of tsunami coming
to Kamakura.  Our house sits 800 meters from the beach.  A couple of
years ago, they handed out a community disaster handbook that included
a tsunami map, which suggested that 7m is a high enough altitude.
Friday's events clearly show that to be false.  Our house sits right
on the isoline at 7m, but clearly would have been swept away.

The lights came back on at 11pm.  About 1am, I laid down to sleep for
a while; when I woke up at 2:30, many of the students had gone.

More earthquakes, more worries, watching NHK on a big projector screen
until 430am, then slept until 6.

When they announced the reopening of some of the JR lines at 700, I
left.  Getting to Yokohama was easy, from there was slow as they kept
trains running at 35km/hr and stopping at every intersection.  The
platforms and trains were crowded, but not intolerably so.

From Kamakura Station, it's a ten-minute walk home.  I detoured
through the area I think my family should use as an escape route in
the event of a tsunami.  The official map recommends that we make our
way to one of the nearby junior high schools, on higher ground, but
their recommended route passes through a stretch of very low ground
several hundred meters long, and crosses the river.  I'm revising ours
to what I think is a less-exposed route, though we have to cross a
branch of the river somewhere and there's still one low stretch in

That takes us up to the start of the nuclear reactor concerns, which
will have to be a separate post.  I'm struggling with the technical
explanations in Japanese, anyway, so those reading the
English-language press may be better informed.

Over time, as the information flow peaks, my posts will probably lack
originality and insight, but I hope this gives you some idea of what
it's like here on the ground, for a typical family in the Kanto area,
well away from the most seriously hit areas.

Will mine my FB posts and tweets for further material at some point.

Comments and reassurances always welcome; if I seem abrupt via email,
it's just trying to handle the flood of check-in emails from both
people here locally and those from outside asking about us.

We *definitely* appreciate the concerns!  Keep us in mind not just
today but over the coming months; recovery here is going to take time.