A First Person Account From Japan's Ground Zero

Jason Kelly, a financial writer living in Sano, Japan, shares his first person experience of the stunning events from the past several days.

First, from "In the Quake Zone":

The ground here in Sano, Japan is still shaking as I write at noon on Saturday, March 12, 2011, the day after the largest earthquake in the nation’s history. It struck 21.5 hours ago.

I was working at my desk as usual when my shoji — sliding doors of translucent veneer in the case of my office, though covered in white paper in most cases — began rattling on their rails. They’re the best early warning system I’ve found, so I knew an earthquake was arriving but had no idea how big it would be.

The early tremors that shook my shoji were nothing. The roar of the earth that followed is what really tipped me off that this was no ordinary wineglass rattler. Imagine a wind you might have heard high on a mountain sweeping down toward you. That’s scary enough. Now imagine that wind not being made of air overhead, but of earth underfoot, barreling up at you.

I shot from my chair to secure the office. I covered the computer, put my expensive vase on the floor, unplugged equipment, and was just heading for the kitchen when the quake slammed the building. The neighborhood surfed on dirt. The lights swung from the ceiling, then blinked out. For a second I thought they were smart earthquake lights that sensed the tremors and turned themselves off to avoid sparking a fire, but then I noticed that all the power was out.

From inside every cabinet came a delightful tinkling of glass as if a small party had broken out to toast the arrival of spring, then the party turned horrible in a fight between stemware and cookware in the kitchen, books and printer paper in the office, with a great attempt on all fronts to pour forth in a tidal wave of debris across the floor. The quake-resistant, spring-secured kitchen and office cabinet doors held fast, though, and no tidal wave appeared — at least not in my building. Farther north, a tidal wave of the real variety gathered strength to devastate the coastline with such fury that Hollywood special effects departments are going to need to rethink the way they’ve depicted such events. They’re even worse than portrayed.

Once the initial slam subsided, people rushed into the streets. The elderly, who are legion in Japan and prepared for anything, arrived in white hard hats. One of them asked me if that wasn’t an incredible quake, and I tried to lighten the mood by pretending I hadn’t noticed.

“Quake?” I replied. “Nothing happened here,” I said, gesturing to my place.

She looked confused, then turned toward her home. “This house has always given me trouble,” she began, and started to describe how it had shaken the dickens out of her. I felt bad and cut in.

“I was just joking,” I told her. “I felt it, too.” I thought for sure she would have known I was kidding. Pretending not to notice that quake was like pretending not to notice daylight. She looked at me without smiling, then said sternly, “This is no time for telling lies, Mr. Kelly.”

That’s what the Japanese call jokes like the one I’d just attempted, lies, and she was right. It was no time for that. I got caught up in the thrill of danger and my sense of humor is what I use to deal with such moments, but I cast it aside in a hurry and joined in conversations about who needed what, when the next wave of the quake crashed upon us. Then the next. Then the next.

So it went. Wave after wave coursed through the land, sending power lines swinging and roofs crashing and the ocean surging. The trains stopped. The emergency announcement system blared that the power had gone out due to the quake.

As darkness descended and still the power stayed out, people lit candles in their homes. I moved around the city to see how it coped with the situation, even as the tremors continued. Traffic lights didn’t work, so cars edged their way cautiously into big intersections until the police showed up later to direct. Islands of light betrayed where emergency power had kicked in: the hospital standing tall and staying busy, a home for the elderly that was a type of hospital itself, vending machines that apparently contain batteries to keep selling drinks through any crisis.

A few convenience stores had power, but quickly no food except the dried, instant variety, and then even that was gone. People bought magazines, which I thought odd until I saw by the looks on their faces that what they sought was a part of normal life that had seemed so banal half a day earlier. In a snap, anything that symbolized that placid pace through a typical day became valuable, so off the shelves it flew.

Darkness fell, really fell when no man-made glows pushed against it in a million domes of modernity. The stars came out. I noticed them with joy because they were much brighter in the purer darkness. They made me think of soldier stories where men noticed something beautiful in nature as they fought, like a flower on the edge of a foxhole or a red-winged bird singing on a branch shot through with holes. I observed the world through no such dire circumstance, but the post-quake landscape gave me enough of a nudge in that direction to better understand my fellow man under duress.

I climbed a hill at the edge of town to look down on the sea of darkness. It was creepy. Where usually an endless field of lights extends to Tokyo, only a few areas of light appeared. Directly below the hill, eerie pools of headlights moved slowly around, many looking for missing family members who were unable to take the trains home. There were no city lights around the cars, just the headlight pools drifting along invisible grids like ghosts shaken from their graves.

With most people early in bed, the shaking continued. Isolated reports from community leaders holding radios on the streets informed me on the way home that northern Japan lay in ruin. The voices came leaden, delivering facts so directly that their effort to suppress emotion was in a way more emotional than if they’d cried out their sadness at each collapsed school or deluged farmhouse.

The chain of facts overwhelmed me. There was no break, no “In other news” transition to a different grim event, much less a weekend human interest sideshow. One statistic after another emanated from the radios in a legato of misfortune.

Eventually I reached a saturation point. There’s a limit to how much disaster I’m capable of processing. The adjectives peter out somewhere beyond tragic and catastrophic and devastating, and then those once horrible emotionless facts become welcome as a way to make sense of the event and form a plan for moving ahead. Let’s reduce that number of missing people. Let’s get the lights back on. Let’s make toilets flush again. How about some real food on shelves? The disaster list turns into a checklist. That’s the human spirit, alright. Let’s crawl up out of this hole!

Through the night we huddled in our capsules atop the rumbling island. When the first photon of sunlight touched the Land of the Rising Sun, we became the land of the rising determined and got straight to work on our checklists. One day, they’ll be complete and life will become a boring string of daily predictability again, within which some kid is bound to complain, “Nothing interesting ever happens to me.”

To be so lucky, young one.

And a follow up showing the empty shelves in local stores:

The power interruptions and damage to infrastructure are leaving stores in Japan’s earthquake area sold out. Gas stations are rationing, but closing one by one as they go dry. Between a third and half of the shops in my town, Sano, are closed for various reasons, not least of which is to let society catch its breath. The following pictures were taken by mobile phone at stores in Sano: