Saturday, 12 March 2011

a state of non-emergency

I was teaching when the earthquake started. Immediately before I had felt intensely nauseous, but then I saw the look of recognition in my student's face and I realised what it was. Earthquakes regularly interrupt my classes, so we waited quietly for the gentle motion to pass. The earthquake continued for some time, and I busied myself putting pencil-pots and plants back in their upright positions until the building was swaying so dramatically I had to forget the books and CDs that were flying from the shelves and back up against the wall to slowly slide into a sitting position on the floor. I thought to myself, when are you supposed to start thinking 'oh shit'?

I was just starting to think 'oh shit', and wondering where the emergency exits were, and what you're supposed to do in an earthquake, and how would I get the 91-year-old woman taking my class out of the building if the walls started caving in, when the motion subsided. At its most violent, the earthquake was rocking the old lady's chair back and forth, back and forth, repeatedly knocking it into the wall behind her. She smiled the entire time.

During the earthquake my overwhelming instinct was to be outside, which it transpires is the logical thing to do. For a time afterwards people gathered in the square in front of the station, watching the lampposts shaking in the tremors. It wasn't long before shops and restaurants were back open, and they quickly became full.

The school's entire contents had been emptied onto the floor, and our efforts to clear them away were hindered by frequent and significant aftershocks which, 36 hours later, I'm still experiencing as I type. Too sea-sick to help, and finally permitted to go home early, we attempted to make our way home. Trains were suspended, taxis scarce and inevitably occupied, and in the two hours we stood at the bus stop three packed buses passed us in line without stopping. We had just resolved to join the hoards of people marching by and walk along the train-line towards home, when I bumped into a friend I hadn't been able to call with the phone services down and, luckily, was offered a place to stay.

Sleep was uneasy, and we were frequently rocked awake by aftershocks or startled by the megaphone vans barking out unintelligible warnings outside.

There is no doubt in the news as to the scale of this disaster, and the risks still posed. Yet Tokyo appears to be continuing regardless. The shops have sold out of bread and tofu, anything that doesn't require electricity to prepare, and the the comforting drone of radio news broadcasts can be heard drifting out of most cafes and bars, but young Tokyoites are still stumbling out of izakayas and browsing through vintage clothing shops as usual. 14,000 supposed dead, and you wouldn't know it to look around town. What's the protocol here? Shouldn't Tokyo be a little more worried? For a country in red-alert, people seem remarkably inert, going about their day-to-day business in a state of distinct non-emergency.

In one of the aftershocks yesterday my manager shot out of the door while one of our students dashed under a table, leaving my colleague and I standing there wondering what on earth to do. That feeling still hasn't left me.

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