Monday, March 14, 2011


It is a testament to how well-prepared and organized for disasters Japan is that I was able to return home on my originally scheduled flight--I thought I'd be stuck for a couple of days for sure.  Yokohama had power and water services back up within six hours of the quake, Tokyo a bit longer.  By Saturday morning, most train and subway lines in Tokyo and all (I think) lines in Yokohama were running normally.  Narita and Haneda were opened Saturday.  My flight arrived 4:30am Sunday morning.  Had I not been watching TV, I wouldn't have known from the way Tokyo and Yokohama look (at least from the train) that anything had happened an hour or so to the north.

In Sendai and coastal villages the rescue effort is non-stop.  The most recent figures I heard (on tv this morning) were 688 confirmed dead, and 642 missing.  That figure was from the National Police Agency, though, as doesn't include figures from the Sendai police, who said 200 to 300 bodies had been found on the shoreline.  Near 900 confirmed deaths, in other words--and I doubt they've even begun to find all those whose were swept out to sea.  Over twelve thousand homes are destroyed, flooded, or damaged.  Some images I saw on CNN do, however, seem to have been over-reported.  A photo I saw on the front page of this morning's newspaper showed a train that had been swept away by the tsunami.  I showed it to my husband, who said that the train had been empty--all the people on it had gotten out and fled.  Which made me feel a little better, though of course I have no way of knowing whether those people were able to flee to safety.  I want to believe that they did.


  This morning's news said 1596 confirmed dead in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures.

It is almost surreal to sit here in my house with my husband, all of my children, and two of their friends....I went out a minute ago to bang the futons and bring them in.  It's hard to believe, looking out my window, that anything at all is wrong a few hours north.

The boys told me they were scared when the earthquake hit while they were at school.  Their teacher told them immediately to get under their desks (standard earthquake drill procedure) and to cover their heads with the Bosaizukin (literally "disaster prevention cushion"--it sounds so normal in Japanese and so weird in English) from their chairs.  Every schoolchild in Japan has one--it's a required purchase when your child starts school, along with pencil cases and crayons and such.  I had to write in permanent marker their names, addresses, blood type, and my name and phone number on the cushion.

Cici's Bosaizukin (contact info is on the other side of it)

 They have 4 or 5 earthquake drills per year, plus practices that include having mothers go to school to practice exactly how to line up in the gymnasium to be directed to pick up their children in the event of a disaster.  Elementary school gymnasiums are the most usual place to go for evacuations.  Most of the photos you see of evacuees sitting on the floor of a large room are school gymnasiums.  Teddy, my middle one, was in the house by himself when the quake hit because my husband had gone up to school to pick up Cici.  Teddy said he was scared, but scooted right under the table as soon as the room started shaking.  He was still sitting under the table when Papa came back to get him--good boy.  That's the sort of nation-wide, basic-level preparation they do that reduces deaths and injuries.  The death toll in the northeast will be high because the Tsunami hit so quickly following the quake, but not as high as it would have been were Japan not so well-prepared.  In our apartment, as in most people's in the Yokohama area, some things fell off shelves.  Shelves themselves didn't fall over because they are bolted to the wall or have tension rods to the ceiling--a basic precaution that pretty much everyone follows.  The kitchen cabinets that I bought when we moved here came with tough plastic strips that I bolted to the cabinet, then into the wall to prevent their falling over in an earthquake.  Not that that helps during a massive tsunami, but almost nothing helps against a force as elemental as a huge wall of fast-moving water.


On the news last night, the Japan Meteorological Agency stated that the magnitude of the quake at the epicenter has been designated a 9.0 on the Richter scale as additional evidence became available.  This quake was felt literally throughout the country, as the Earthquake Information map from the JMA shows.  The numbers on that map are the Japanese Shindo scale of the magnitude as it is actually experienced at sites away from the epicenter.  The strongest is Shindo 7 (at the seismic station in Kurihara City), and you can see Strong 6/Weak6/Strong 5/Weak 5 radiating out from that area.  Clicking on the map linked below will zoom in on a particular area.  The Yokohama Totsuka-ku station (where we are) registered a Shindo4, while Tokyo Suginami-ku (where we used to live) registered a Strong5.  The only reason the quake numbers aren't higher is that the epicenter was at the subduction zone some 80 miles offshore.  The magnitude of the subduction zone quake, however, is what triggered the Tsunami.

Japan Meterological Agency--Map of Seismic Activity

And here's why not one single building in Tokyo fell down, in spite of seismic stations registering strong5/weak6 activity:

After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe, the Japanese did not sit around saying "everything happens for a reason". They got busy inventing some of the most amazing earthquake building technology in the world.  That quake may have bent the top of Tokyo Tower--but it didn't fall over.   The vast majority of the deaths from this earthquake will not be from the quake itself, but rather from the monster Tsunami that hit only minutes after the quake.


Concerning the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini Nuclear Reactors--last night's newspaper reported that they are using seawater to cool the cores, people have been ordered to evacuate in a 12 mile radius of the plant, and they are being checked for radiation exposure (watched that on the news last night).  At this time, there is no meltdown--they are working against multiple factors (quake, tsunami, loss of power, loss of water) to avoid a full-scale meltdown.  Here are the most recent news releases I've found (click to open the pdf file):


My husband just got up and said there will be scheduled country-wide rolling blackouts, though he doesn't know when ours will be.  I assume it's to divert power to the tsunami-affected areas that are still without power, and probably to the nuclear reactors that are in danger of meltdown (though as far as I know, there has been no actual meltdown).

I'll post more when I know more.  Thank you so much to all who commented and emailed--I can't tell you what your concern has meant, and how much it helped when I was thousands of miles from my family during the disaster.


  1. This might sound callous if read wrong. If it does, it'll be my fault for not phrasing it right.

    The amazing thing to me is that, in an area so densely populated, the numbers of dead are so low. Not that it's not a heart-wrenching number, but it could have been very very much higher. A great testament to the preparedness of the Japanese people, I think. I love the way they seem to not waste time moaning about the unfairness of it all, or wailing to the heavens, but just get on with fixing stuff. What we in Britain call the 'blitz-spirit'. A country and a people to be proud of.

  2. Daz--I know exactly what you mean. Because of their preparation (and that it hit a not-quite-so-populous area), the death toll will be high, but nowhere near as high as the Haiti quake, for example. Things are starting to get a little crazy now with the blackouts--but, honestly, if they actually can keep those Fukushima reactors from melting down (they'll never be used again--at least reactors one and two, not sure about the other two), that will be amazing. Power shortages will ensue, but if they actually avoid a meltdown, it will be a major win in an otherwise horrible disaster.

  3. I am amazed you made it home so quickly and uneventfully! This update was fascinating--definitely not the sort of information we'll ever see in the media.

    I'm sure I won't be the first to compare the schoolchildren's "disaster prevention pillows" with the nuclear bomb drills we used to have in the 50's in the States...but in this case the reason is far less macabre. Still, there is that sobering juxtaposition of innocent kids and world realities we wish we could shield them from...

    I agree with the first commenter that the casualty toll, while horrific, is still something like an order of magnitude less than one would expect. May we all learn from the Japanese!

    That video was wonderful; do you have any idea how widely used that technology is? Makes me wonder what damage was done to historic buildings and landmarks. Though of course the human drama eclipses everything else at the moment.

    --Diane G.

  4. The one that scares the hell out of me, both in lives, and the historic buildings c'est ma mentions is Istanbul.

    I'm trying not to think about 'what ifs' if the reactors go.

  5. I'm glad you're back safely, and in a way I rather envy you. It is such a strange feeling to be here, away from home (Japan), knowing what is going on, and being unable to be involved or to do anything. A sort of horrible limbo. I have managed at last to get in touch with old friends in Iwate, and everybody there is safe, so that was a relief. jya, gambarimashou!(Tim Harris)

  6. I really appreciate you blogging through all this. It gives a much more complete picture than the coverage on CNN. I live in tornado country in Indiana and I'm pretty sure kids here aren't as well prepared for disaster.

    I'm so happy your family is safe and that you were able to make it back home so quickly.

  7. I'm glad to hear you got out on time - i really thought you'd be stuck away from home for a while.
    the preparation is such a good idea. We were talking about how ingrained it must be for so many japanese citizens and then we realized that we have the same sort of ingrained trainging for tornadoes, from all the drills they make us practice in school as well.
    I can't imagine how frightening an earthquake would be.

  8. I'm glad you got home.

    I was wondering if Teddy stayed under the table the whole time. Good boy indeed.

  9. C'est ma-- I just realized that you are Diane G. That's how distracted I have been. Diane, thank you so much. The bosaizukin have always put me in mind of those 50's duck-and-cover drills, too. But these make sense for protecting the head from breaking glass. I can hardly bear to think, either, how many irreplaceable historical monuments and buildings have been lost--I cried when I saw the Toori gate of a beautiful shrine smashed to bits on the ground.

    Daz-- I know what you mean about Istanbul. Don't you want to want to tell everyone in that part of the world that they are just simply *not allowed* to have any wars, for fear of destroying the historical cradle of civilization!

    Tim--so glad you've heard from your family! I'm relieved for you. You should be able to get home without any problem (though you'll be flying opposite all the embassy personnel).

    Erika--yokoso! Please comment any time--from one Indiana Girl to another:-) I'm a Hoosier born and bred. Grew up on Tornado Alley, but married a guy who lives on Earthquake Boulevard...

    Sarah-- thanks. I thought sure I'd get stuck, too, and was so relieved to be able to take my original flight home *and* to get back before they shut the trains down on Monday. You're right--we do have pretty ingrained training for tornados. Only one time have I ever here seen the sky look... you know what it looks like. We were on the way home from the store--and my husband was completely nonchalant about it! No, honey, we need to *run*. Now. Got in seconds before the hail started.

    Ophelia-- thanks so much. Teddy *was* a good boy--never moved from under the table 'til papa came in to get him.