• My Earthquake in Japan

    April 30, 2016

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    Posted in: Other Ideas


    My heart goes out to everyone in Japan and in Ecuador affected by the recent series of terrible earthquakes. I was once where you are. My story isn’t meant to trivialize or generalize anyone else’s; it’s just mine.

    It is the sound I remember as much as the shaking — a train roaring under the ground, a zipper larger than a river untangling itself, a tremendous noise made by the living rock underneath us shifting. The earth/the apartment building/the room/the bed began moving up and down, all adding to the sound. My wife, seven months pregnant with our second child, began screaming. I began screaming. I was thrown from my bed. At 5:46 in the morning on January 17, 1995, in Nishinomiya, Japan, outside Kobe, my world changed, what came to be known as the Great Hanshin earthquake.

    I crawled to my four year old’s bedside, the floor still moving to make the trip of two or three yards uphill. I had not heard her scream. She was motionless on her futon, a heavy lamp knocked from the dresser on to the floor and I had that moment no parent should ever have that single flash of white and heat that lasted that ten hours the one second move to her side took me forever.

    She was alright, I was alright, but it took me years, and much help, to fully know that. She’s in her 20’s now and I still look at her in a different way sometimes.

    Stop now, wherever you are, and listen to everything around you made by the 21st century. Refrigerator hum, traffic noise, computer fan, water running, everything around you and try to subtract each away until you find yourself in the kind of silence that must have dominated life before technology. Everything was suddenly silent. The earthquake had taken the current century away in an instant, no water, no electricity, nothing able to move outside.

    My apartment was about three quarters of a mile from the collapsed highway that became something of a symbol of the quake:

    Outside the silence was bigger than inside, and I saw smoke columns in the distance and a home down the street collapsed. Traditional Japanese homes are built with heavy tile roofs on top of relatively spindly wooden frames. I don’t know why. I learned later that a lack of pressure-treated wood building products in older homes meant that termites were common, and so the structure holding up that heavy roof literally crumbled to dust with the shaking. The roof sat, more or less intact, on top of a pile of rubble; in a more comical mood, you could see it as that scene from the Wizard of Oz that claims the first wicked witch. Underneath the roof was everything that had been inside. We knew them as the Tanaka family. Mr. Tanaka and I had adjacent plots in the community garden, though we never really exchanged more than a few words of greeting and weather prediction. Guy could never get his damn tomatoes right, never more than hard, red stones really.

    While many things about such natural violence are universal, some are likely very much something a part of Japan.

    Moving off to the shopping street in search of bottled water and batteries an hour after the quake, I saw many stores were destroyed. Some were flattened, others just had windows and doors blown out. But there was no looting, just growing lines of Japanese shuffling through the dust, many in bedclothing, to join a line forming at the convenience store. The damn 7-11 had not only survived the quake, it was open. The lone minimum wage employee stood at the cash register, everything in the store thrown on to the floor around him. He was wearing his uniform, a little trickle of blood down the side of his head.

    The line had formed spontaneously, naturally, and the boy was shouting for everyone please to only buy a small amount so that there would be some for everyone. That’s what happened. When my turn came, I put two liters of water and a handful of batteries on the counter, and handed over the only cash I had on me. The clerk apologized that he could not make change, took my money, and wrote out a little note with my name and his, saying the store owed me and would pay up once things got back to order.

    Neighborhood people gathered in little knots because it seemed like what we should do. We exchanged information and luckily most were OK. We waited for someone — the police, the fire department, the army — to arrive and tell us what to do. When no one showed up, people left in ones and twos to clean up apartments and homes. Knowing we had a young child, a neighbor brought over some bottled juice she claimed she did not need.

    By day three or four the roads had been cleared enough and a few trains started back into service such that my wife and daughter could self-evacuate to a relative’s home far enough away. A doctor there pronounced both healthy. I stayed behind to work, the commute stretching to hours, and leading me to move into my office and sleep on the floor for a few weeks. Around me, centered in the city of Kobe, 6,434 people had died.

    It took a very long time for things to get back to what even then we dubbed the new normal. No one understood how long it would take, and a sense of frustration set in, a sense of wanting it all to be over.

    The water came back on, the emergency services engaged, things reopened and kids returned to school. My second child was born, and life went on. That spring I went to turn over the soil and get started back in the community garden.

    There was that good feeling of renewal, the moist smell of the earth ready. There was the empty plot where Mr. Tanaka was never really able to get his tomatoes to grow right.

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  • Recent Comments

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go through a life shattering event such as this. I did go through a very small earthquake in California during the late 60’s, and even that scared the shit out of me. But nothing like this. Also, I was only 70 miles from San Francisco when the last earthquake devastated a good portion of the freeway system there, but didn’t feel a thing.

      I feel fortunate that I’ve never been faced with a natural disaster. While I have been through a few severe weather occurrances, nothing happened that changed my life. Which reminds me, just this morning, people all across America are facing life threatening weather. 27 severe tornado’s since yesterday. Damn. My prayers go out to those who suffer from nature’s wrath. As natural disasters happens across the planet daily, it makes one wonder if and when it will happen to you.

      Speaking of Japan, the tsunami disaster there opened my eyes.

      I used to live along the Oregon coast, in Coos Bay, which, when a coastal earthquake happens again, a tsunami will destroy it. They have weekly tsunami warning tests there and preparedness classes too. Cause..when it happens..the entire west coast from California to British Columbia will be destroyed. One of the things that made me decide to move was this..


      What’s amazing is..governments and peoples lack of preparedness and utter disregard for the possibility.

      Preparedness is something I keep meaning to do too.
      Alas.. insert rolling eyes here.

      04/30/16 11:04 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      That is frightening to go through. Governments are never even a fraction prepared. Our DHS prints brochures, still, recommending people to check their website and call the utilities’ companies. If you remember that minor quake we had in DC 5 years ago (?) — fat luck with that since it was all down. Guess dHS has to make a showing they did something with the billions in tax payer money given to them for homeland (lack of) preparadeness

      04/30/16 11:26 AM | Comment Link

    • Helen Marshall said...


      Sadly beautiful Peter…

      An FS colleague in Lisbon used to spend a lot of time trying to get the USG to encourage tsunami warning systems in vulnerable countries, after learning that the destruction of Lisbon in 1755 was not so much from the earthquake but the tsunami that followed. Never got any traction…

      04/30/16 11:29 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Speaking of earthquakes, albeit political ones, the WaPost is reporting the Iraqi parliament and green zone being swarmed

      Is this really a Sadrist thing or is the Post failing to report it is bigger than that –

      THe video (was on the cover page, now moved off):

      The video caption just says: special now taking place, demonstrators in the parliament in Baghdad


      04/30/16 11:36 AM | Comment Link

    • My Earthquake in #Japan https://wemeantwell.com/blog/2016/04/30/my-e… | Roy Schestowitz - API Key Placeholder said...


      04/30/16 7:19 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Earthquakes seldom kill people. Stupidity does, like building houses that can fall on your head and kill you.

      Why so many earthquakes lately?

      Larry Wilmore: I am not surprised Donald Trump is happening to America because I watch movies, I do. And every time there’s a black president, something always comes to destroy the earth. Always.It’s true.

      05/1/16 10:35 AM | Comment Link

    • Links 1/5/2016: Wine 1.9.9, Devuan Jessie 1.0 Beta | Techrights said...


      […] My Earthquake in Japan […]

      05/1/16 1:56 PM | Comment Link

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