When the quake hit Friday afternoon, it took me about 20 seconds to realize this was not an average tremor: instead of the normal side-to-side shimmy, the ground was undulating in an unnervingly fluid manner. That it hadn't stopped after 20 seconds was an even worse sign. Not wishing to die pancaked under concrete, I dashed out into the street. I couldn't immediately tell quite how frightened I should've felt: my neighbourhood is populated largely by stoics, slackers, and seniors, all of whom were stolidly standing around watching the streetlights & stop signs rattle and groan. Taxi cabs and bicyclists obstinately struggled to steer straight as the asphalt warped beneath their wheels. Was this a fucking disaster or not?
Once the shaking stopped, I ran back inside to find my apartment totally intact - a minor miracle, considering its seemingly-shoddy construction and our laissez-faire approach to storage. Returning to my computer, I noticed my Caltech scientist friend had just logged on. I broke the news, to which he replied with the appropriate amount of incredulity:
me: Dude, we just had the biggest earthquake I've ever felt.We then spent the better part of an hour swapping links & updates as information began flooding in... 7.9, epicenter near Sendai, 8.8, tsunami warnings, 8.9, the largest earthquake in Japan's history. This was a fucking disaster.
Scientist Friend: !!!
hasn't shown up on my feed yet
me: No, I mean like JUST hit.
Scientist Friend: oh shiiiit
Wow, what an grossly unsuitable turn-of-phrase I just used. "Flooding in..." Less than an hour after the quake, I sat slack-jawed & stupefied watching live coverage of tsunamis bulldozing whole towns along the Pacific coast. There's no point in trying to describe the sight. Not only has the 24-hour news cycle chiseled these images into everyone's retinas, but there's no joy in, uh, eloquently and succinctly relating the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands of people.*
Having had my fill of calamity-porn infotainment, I stepped out for some fresh air. The streets were eerily empty for a Friday evening. With mass transportation at a stand-still, everyone was still stuck at work. The signs of catastrophe were quietly obvious, as most shops were either shuttered or sweeping up their shattered wares. (As unpleasant as it is clearing away smashed liquor bottles or ceramics, I can't imagine how exasperating it must be to tidy up a pachinko parlour after an earthquake - ball bearings all over that sumbitch...) A couple of billboards threatened to fall from their perches. The ferroconcrete facade of one shop had collapsed, exposing the building's dainty wood skeleton. But mercifully, Koenji had escaped the quake largely unscathed.
Later Friday night, my wife & I were interviewed by CBC Radio as "eyewitnesses" to the disaster. We were dramatic enough to keep our account interesting, while at the same time emphasizing how little we could justifiably complain. Our misadventure wasn't a pale shade of the terror experienced by residents up north. We were speaking from a heated apartment with hot coffee and clean socks - how bad off could we really be?
Yesterday was a gorgeous blue-sky day with the resiny chill of early spring in the air. A friend & I enjoyed a lengthy hike across Western Tokyo to cure ourselves of cabin fever and the lingering stink of apocalyptic presentiment. However, whatever cheerfulness we'd won during the walk evaporated upon arrival at a friend's house, where we learned that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor had just popped its top. Our immediate course of action was obvious: start drinking like a bastard and pray the jet stream would whisk any & all radioactive toxins up over Siberia, because fuck reindeer, man.
I was spurred to an early retreat home by sudden rumours of rolling blackouts and supply shortages. I must have been slow off the blocks because already there was not a slice of bread, not a carton of milk to be found in any shop I entered. Faced with such a depleted selection, many shoppers had opted for foodstuffs that would strike a penniless college student as grossly unhealthy: boxes of Frosted Flakes, microwave pasta, chocolate-covered potato chips, and enough six-packs to make the U.S. marine corps plotz. I suppose diabetes kills you slower than starvation.
Today, further steps towards normalcy have been made. Electricity, gas, and water are still running. Bread & milk are back on the shelves and the trains are on time. But again, I speak from the privileged position of the resource-greedy capitol almost 400km from the epicenter. The slowly-unfolding horror of nuclear meltdown continues, and the people of Tohoku are in desperate need of assistance. If you're so inclined, donations can be made to the Red Cross and Globalgiving.org. It may seem unlikely that a first-world nation would so be in need, but remember: this is a first-world whose debt is over twice the value of its GDP with a population so aged that it makes the SCOTUS look like spring chickens. If the West still wants someone to manufacture semiconducters and service the American national debt, then help is absolutely necessary.
* - Having neither a television nor the interest, I haven't really watched CNN outside of hotel rooms until this weekend - wow, I had no idea they were such a lousy network. Not "lousy" meaning "transparently propagandist," à la Fox News, just straight-up bad. They've got analytical prowess of a 10-year-old and the emotional tenor of Woody Allen after a bout of heavy drinking. The spectacle will no doubt reach its faked climax Monday night when Anderson Cooper will stroll around the demolished mise-en-scène where the news used to be, feeling the story at us. Ugh.
And I swear, come Monday, if Stewart or Colbert falls back on one goddamned Godzilla joke...