My experience in Japan. Thirty seconds I never thought would happen to me.


By Cathy Chen
<[email protected]>

Friday, March 11 was our last full day in Japan. My mom and I had been doing touristy things like visiting shrines and eating sushi in and around Tokyo for a few days, and we were nearing the end of our trip. That morning my mind was filled with plans of shopping in Ginza and Asakusa, and I distinctly remember thinking I was going to have a great day.

Later that afternoon as my mom and I were descending a metal staircase outside Venus Fort shopping mall, the steps started to tremble a bit. When my mom mentioned it, I had barely even noticed so I told her it was probably just the wind. If only…

By the time we reached the ground at the bottom of the stairs, the trembling was much stronger, and it was clear I had been terribly wrong. A tour guide ran out of a nearby bus toward us, shouting that an earthquake was happening, just in case we hadn’t figured it out yet.

At this point I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to feel. All my firsthand experiences with earthquakes (all two of them) had been from those tiny, early-morning Indiana quakes that ended as soon as they succeeded in waking me up an hour before my alarm clock.

I didn’t know how strong this earthquake was relative to other ones, or where I should go for maximum safety. But the fact that someone native to Japan (and therefore at least somewhat used to earthquakes) was running toward me in a semi-panic crying “Earthquake!” was enough to make me semi-panic.

Then a strange noise made me look up, and I realized there was a set of railroad tracks a couple stories above. On those tracks sat a train stopped right over where we stood, and it was rocking violently, tipping dangerously over the edge of the railing with each rock. At this point, I was in full panic because I realized if this earthquake got any stronger, things could get really ugly really fast for both the passengers inside that train and also for us standing below. To make matters worse, a huge fire broke out right then a few buildings over.

Now here comes the cliché line: The event only lasted 30 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. There’s really no other way to put it. But after 30 seconds, it did stop. The earth stopped moving. The train stopped rocking. I stopped panicking (kind of), and we were eventually able to leave the scene unscathed.

At the time, we had no idea how bad the situation really was, and we only gradually learned of the true extent of the damage throughout the rest of the day. The phone lines went down, so there was an absurdly long line at every pay phone in the city as everyone scrambled to contact their family and friends. All the highways were closed off for safety inspections, so traffic in and around Tokyo was impossible.

Because so many people couldn’t get home, hotels turned into emergency shelters, allowing those stranded in the city to sleep on couches or the floor of the lobby. We opted to stay on the bus and try to reach our own hotel, which was right outside the city, but the drive there ended up taking all night—15 hours instead of 45 minutes.

On our way there, we stopped at a gas station to buy some water, but the convenience store was completely sold out of food and drink. Drivers started to pull over and sleep in their cars around 3 or 4 a.m. when they realized they wouldn’t be able to reach their homes that night. The next day when we arrived at the airport, it was a mess. The lines were horrendously long as everyone tried to re-book canceled flights, and there were people sleeping everywhere inside the terminals.

It was the first time I had seen these types of post-disaster scenes in person instead of in pictures on the news. That, combined with the small aftershocks that kept scaring me, made me feel like I was in some kind of bad dream. It didn’t feel real. After reading about awful earthquakes in faraway places like Haiti, Chile and New Zealand, I never imagined that I would experience something like that firsthand, especially not now in my life when I’m spending most of my time in New Hampshire, far from natural-disaster-prone areas. I’m just some girl from Carmel, IN. How did I end up there in this catastrophic event being covered for hours on end by every news station in the world?

Yet notice how my story doesn’t even come close to what you’ve been seeing on the news. The earthquake we experienced only had a magnitude of 6.7, the tsunami was on a different coast, and we were able to leave the country before the radiation levels became a serious threat. Needless to say, we were incredibly fortunate. The level of fear that I felt for the amount of trauma that I actually experienced probably makes me a certified wimp, but it only makes me respect the victims of this tragedy all the more.

When people ask me about what the earthquake was like, I obviously have an answer because I was there, but I’m almost ashamed to answer because I don’t feel like I have the right to. I just happened to be in the area, standing on the sidelines. But from the sidelines, I saw real damage and fear in a way photos can’t convey. I saw how I could’ve easily not been in Japan at the time of the earthquake, but also how I could’ve just as easily been in the tourist-prone northern region where the tsunami hit the worst. I saw how none of us are exempt from the possibility of experiencing unexpected, scary and sorrowful events, and it’s all the more reason for us to reach out and help others when they do.