‘“Don’t know whether it’ll make the news but there was a very big earthquake in Japan just now,” I started texting my mother...'
Crisis in JapanSimon Hull
- 19 March 2011As the quake hit, an English student was in his room at the Jesuit university in Tokyo, working on the history of Japanese Catholicism. This is his first-hand account of the moment when for him and millions of others in the Pacific nation, life was torn apart by a primal force of nature
My fingers were still trembling and my legs still shaking. I had been in my room at the time. At first, I felt a little prolonged tremor, but I continued what I was doing because that is a common occurrence here in Tokyo. As it got stronger, however, I opened my door and looked down the gloomy second-floor corridor of the dormitory for foreign researchers where I live. By this time, a Spanish student who lives opposite me had also opened his door.
As the shaking continued and more doors began to open, my Spanish friend and I looked at each other with increasing alarm, nervously joking that this one was bigger than usual. Then, as plates started to clink and things began to rattle in my room, I decided it was time to get out. At first, I jogged swiftly down the long corridor towards the stairs but, as soon as I saw tiny bits of debris falling from the ceiling of a building that is old by Japanese standards, I started to run for my life.
By the time I reached the front entrance, the building was shaking violently. Realising that the glass doors (which operate electronically) were shut and had stopped working, I tried to force them open with my hands. As I did so, I remember seeing through the two thin panes of glass a small haze of worried Japanese faces looking directly at me from out in the street.
Thankfully, the doors opened with ease and my friends and I spilled out into the road, panting and watching as more and more people from different buildings did the same. The shaking was still happening so no one knew what to do other than to stand well away from the building I live in, which is six storeys high, and watch. I had my arm around a young Taiwanese woman, who had started to cry.
After a short while, we were advised that it was OK to go back inside. In my room, the large wooden crucifix, which normally sits on top of my bookcase, was lying face down in the middle of my floor.
I was reminded that two days earlier, on Ash Wednesday, I had been kneeling in a deserted church in Tokyo as the sun was setting and the traffic whizzed by, quietly reading aloud T.S. Eliot's poem of the same name. "Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still", I had whispered. "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."
At that moment, as I was remembering, came a huge aftershock. I grabbed the rosary beads by my bed in sheer terror and this time sprinted all the way to the entrance, following after the many others who were doing the same.
Tokyo had grown eerie. The trains had stopped, sirens were ringing, it became very windy and overcast, there were helicopters overhead, and the phone lines were down. Children wearing protective hoods were being taken home from school early by their parents, and people were crowding into the convenience stores buying whole basketsful of cup noodles and water before they sold out. Some people were wearing helmets. It was as if we had stepped into a film.
Some of my friends and I headed for the Tokyo University campus, which is near our dormitory. It has some big open spaces, and we wanted to get away from high buildings and overhead wires. I felt horribly seasick and I could no longer tell whether the shakes I kept feeling were coming from my legs or from the aftershocks beneath me.
I began talking to an elderly Japanese man who had been born before the Second World War. As we walked around the campus, he recalled his student days there more than half a century ago, telling me with a smile about how Communism had been rife among the student body back in his day. I think he could tell I was a bit shaken, so he took me to a local coffee shop and bought me a slice of strawberry cake and some hot green tea. He was a really delightful man, and upon parting we decided we would stay in touch. It was getting dark, so I began to make my way back to the dormitory, still feeling stunned.
Last summer, I spent a week with some Japanese friends at their summer house deep in the mountains outside Tokyo. My hosts, a family of four, said to me when I arrived: "Oobune ni note kudasai". This touching expression literally means "Please ride in a big boat", and what they wanted to convey to me through it was their boundless hospitality, their wish that I should "ride in a big boat" and feel totally at ease and secure during my stay with them. I now find these words to be intensely poignant, for not even a big boat could survive the tsunami. The sea, as in Hokusai's woodblock, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, rose up, enveloping all in its path.
It is now just days since the initial earthquake hit, and it is hard to convey just how anxious I have been feeling. At one point, I realised that I had managed only three hours' sleep in the past 36. Hundreds of aftershocks are occurring every day, and many of them can be felt here in Tokyo, the most built-up city on earth. The Japanese authorities are warning that a severe one is expected within the next three days. This morning, as I was waking up, my room shook for several seconds.
As I type, my room is shaking again and there are reports that a second nuclear reactor has just exploded. Some people in the streets were wearing facemasks when I walked to the local McDonald's to buy lunch. Food and water supplies in Tokyo are lower than usual, power cuts are planned, and no one here quite knows what is going to happen next. Many of my friends have left the capital. Some have even left the country.
How to tell of the sheer terror of what is happening further north? As a Japanese woman from Sendai has just said on the news: "Kotoba ga denai" ("Words fail me").
Just before midday on Sunday, as I was making my way to Mass at the vast Jesuit church in central Tokyo, my eyes were drawn to its tall, slender bell tower. I noticed that the metal cross at the top had come loose and was dangling upside down by a thin wire, as if at half-mast. It glistened in the sun, clearly visible against the watery blue sky. During Mass, I watched as Christ's body was broken into pieces by the priest. People prayed, and I appeal to all who are reading this to do likewise, and to donate what they can. For Japan, too, was broken into pieces by this disaster.
Four days on, and the mood in Tokyo is subdued and tense. There is much less food in the shops than usual, and I have not been able to buy water or milk. People are definitely becoming nervous about the situation regarding the nuclear reactors. It's difficult to know which information to trust.
The official advice from the British Foreign Office is that there is currently no need to leave Tokyo, although many other foreign governments (noticeably the French) do not seem so sure. The majority of foreigners I know have now left, although most of my Japanese friends seem to be trying to carry on as usual. Some foreign airlines, however, are beginning to cancel all flights into Tokyo. I have protective face masks, and also some food and water supplies, just in case things do get any worse. Although the nuclear threat looks increasingly serious, I personally am equally worried about another big aftershock. That is the thought that is keeping me awake at night.
Simon Hull is currently researching the history of Japanese Catholicism at Sophia University in Tokyo. Sophia is run by the Jesuits and is Japan's main Catholic university.