Surviving the Japanese Earthquake

A lesson in courage and grace

Posted Mar 30, 2015

“There was a small quake this morning, but I’m sure the Japanese weren’t even nervous.” My husband winked before he left our Tokyo apartment—four years ago—bound for business in Hong Kong. We knew not to worry until the famously stoic Japanese did, so I put the thought of another earthquake out of my mind.

Later that day, as I was eating a late lunch at our dining table, the room began to rock gently and the building started creaking. Soon, the hanging lamp over the table was arching wildly, the walls were swaying and the doors flapping open and shut. When the creaking escalated to a deafening roar, I couldn’t help wondering if the Japanese were scared yet.

Just as I stood up, the floor lurched away from under my feet, and I fell to the carpet.  The building is collapsing floor by floor, I thought, as I crawled frantically into the bathroom, cursing myself for not knowing what to do in an earthquake. Looking up at the sheet of glass separating the shower area, I pictured enormous shards slicing the air when the walls gave way. “Please God, don’t let me die...” I prayed aloud, scurrying from room to room, trying to keep away from the windows.

I thought of the millions of Japanese in Tokyo, bravely facing their fate. Suddenly I was ashamed. Why should I be spared? Then it hit me. I’m on the 13th floor. I’m going to die. “Please God, take me quickly,” I cried. I thought of the milestones in my children’s lives that I would miss—the graduations, the weddings, the grandchildren. 

My cellphone was dead, so I emailed my husband. BAD EARTHQUAKE. TELL THE CHILDREN I LOVE THEM. I leaned back against the lurching wall, forcing myself to breathe deeply, to find my inner harmony, my wa. (I was in Japan, after all.) Just as the endless shaking began to subside, the phone rang. 

“Run downstairs and get to Shiba Coen. No buildings can fall on you there.” My husband was calm, insistent. I headed down the emergency stairs, past the building’s blue-uniformed maintenance workers, who were already inspecting the crumbling plaster flakes still falling from the ceiling. When I saw the giant, spring-like shock absorbers imbedded in the walls on every landing, I was reminded that the Japanese are experts in earthquake technology. 

The cavernous lobby was filled with dazed ex-pats wandering around in everything from bathrobes to street clothes—many wearing yellow hardhats—almost everyone in slippers, as is the custom indoors in Japan. The staff, helmetless and polite, was calmly handing out water, answering questions, setting up folding chairs. 

“I’m going to the park,” I told the baby-faced female attendant guarding the lobby doors.

“And we’re coming with you.” The young Indian gentleman behind me smiled as I turned to face him. “I’m Angat, and this is Ericka. She just moved here from Bangkok.” The German woman nodded.

“It’s safer in the building,” the attendant politely insisted, until I played the Confucian age and sex cards, informing her that my husband had instructed me to go to Shiba Coen. “Then please hurry and watch out for the falling debris.”  

We huddled together for hours amidst the young Japanese office workers, locking arms when the aftershocks made the grass under our feet buck like the deck of a ship in a squall. Erika and I spoke of raising our children—she in Bavaria, I in New York.  Angat reminisced about growing up in India. Helicopters crisscrossed above us, loud speakers blaring so unintelligibly that the Japanese couldn’t understand what they were saying.    

When it began to rain, we flowed with the hushed, orderly crowds onto the sidewalks. The street was like a parking lot, the cars full of dazed occupants waiting patiently for the traffic to move even a centimeter. Not one person honked their horn. 

Returning to our building, we discovered that the ever-efficient staff had already restored power and gas. The aftershocks were so jarring, I stayed up all night on the spotty Internet, connecting with worried family and friends until I dozed off at 6:00 a.m. Two hours later, the maintenance staff arrived with fresh towels, apologizing that the maids couldn’t come because of the earthquake. Only in Japan would they think anyone would expect the maids to come after such a disaster.

Throughout the day, weary businessmen trickled into the lobby after having spent the night in a park, unable to return home until the subways were running again. The ex-pats shared their stories, some almost indignantly; the Japanese bore their hardships with quiet resignation. 

Erika told me her husband’s company was predicting a nuclear disaster and was planning to evacuate them. Turning on the TV, I learned of the terrible tsunami, and the dire situation at Fukushima.

Our medical evacuation company confirmed all transportation to and from Tokyo had been canceled or diverted, including my husband’s return flight. English-speaking TV stations were predicting nuclear meltdown. If that occurred, we were told there would be mass casualties in Tokyo. The U.S. Embassy was not yet offering guidance. The front desk staff told me that foreigners were leaving in droves and that Japanese officials (renowned masters of understatement) were reporting things were “very, very bad.” Hearing Narita was damaged, I decided to leave for Haneda Airport, hoping the new international wing would reopen in the morning, and I could get a seat on a flight.  The solemn, young front desk attendant urged me to leave, whispering that many Japanese wished they could too, but they were honor-bound to stay.    

Just as I was packing a mismatched bag of clothing—not knowing if I’d end up in Fiji or Siberia—my husband walked in the door. His flight had somehow landed, and the airport shuttle was running. He hadn’t heard of the impending disaster and wasn’t keen on leaving; he didn’t want to lose face with the Japanese in his office.

“You’re coming with me! I’m not telling the children I left you here!” I gave him the fiercest look imaginable. There was simply no time for patient persuasion.

When we left our building, the staff bowed deeply, solemnly, as did the white-gloved taxi driver who drove us to Haneda. I felt my heart would burst with indescribable sadness for these brave, noble people. After another sleepless night, we watched on TV the prime minister’s spokesperson announce “partial nuclear meltdown,” while aftershocks rocked the airport terminal. As we left the lounge, bound for our plane, a row of immaculately dressed attendants smiled graciously, apologizing in unison for the earthquake. I was terrified our flight wouldn’t take off, mute with guilt that if it did, we’d be leaving these people to their deaths, since we had been told that meltdown equaled apocalypse.

Automated earthquake warnings droned on and on, as we hurried to our gate. Once aboard, flight attendants repeatedly apologized for the earthquake, while I choked back my fear. As soon as our wheels left the runway, relief swept over me, quickly followed by a crushing wave of guilt that we were escaping what most Japanese couldn’t, or wouldn’t even if they could.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the stories of courage and selflessness coming out of Japan were overwhelming—the mother racing ahead of the tsunami waters to her in-laws elevated house, where she managed to hand her two children up to safety before being swept away; the daring helicopter pilots who dumped containers of seawater over the melting reactors at Fukushima; the Tepco workers who exposed themselves to lethal amounts of radiation in an ultimately successful attempt to save their countrymen. Even the smaller acts were telling of the Japanese group ethic—the absence of looting, despite the complete devastation in the wake of the tsunami; people waiting patiently for hours to buy what meager supplies were available, even returning items to stores when they heard there were shortages. After experiencing the worst earthquake in recent history, I will never forget the awesome heroism and kindness of the Japanese people. We can all learn something from their selflessness.