The following is a note to myself in order to remember what I have encountered on that day. Countless individuals have experience the earthquake, and for those who have been through so much more, this note means absolutely nothing. However, I think I also know as a researcher what is the power of individual insights and how accumulation of life bits can turn into life logs, and on the other hand, how forgetful I am without. Using yourself as an instrument to learn what is happening in the context you are in, and make sure to share when necessary, that is what I believe any researchers in field do. Taking the advantage of being cut from the current projects, I will try to write up my experiences in chronological order.
Pure facts would remain in an official history, when tsunami happened or when the reactor in Fukushima power plant exploded, media would be able to track them down easily. But what individuals went through on that day, can perhaps only be tracked down by that individual alone. If we are to think of how to solve the similar crisis in the near future in a human-centric manner, in fact I encourage who is not in the worst situation to consider each experience being precious and keep personal log of any kind.
Friday, March 11th 14:00 –
Together with the team, I came into Osaka from the night before to run observations on retail space in one store in Tennoji area. When the earthquake hit us, I was in a Korean restaurant on tenth floor, taking some break as we downloaded our findings from the morning and reviewing check points for the following hours.
Although I was seated, I suddenly felt sick, as if I was going to faint. Strange, I thought, as I am not the type to faint usually. Then I mumbled without confidence, “shaking?” Maio, who was with me and eating Korean lunch set at the time, agreed, as she told me that she as well thought that she was being sick for some reason.
We both started to look around. The lamp shade hanging from the ceiling with a wire was swinging. So was the small dangling thing hanging from the blind curtain. It was shaky and we did not feel too well. We both said to each other, “oh this earthquake is long.” “I don’t feel well, it has to stop real soon!” We also realized that other customers in the restaurants started to feel uneasy about the situation.
The earthquake was quite long. To me it felt like it lasted for three minutes or so. In fact it may have been shorter. Mao and I, we both agreed, this was the biggest earthquake we have ever experienced, and then started to wonder whether the tenth floor of a building is the right place to be in this circumstance. Many people seemed to have thought the same. Two ladies in 40s stood up, as the earthquake seemed to settle down. “Let’s leave,” they said, and rushed to the cashier. I, too, thought it is a good idea to finish payment right now, so even if we feel the urge to leave right now, we are at least reasonable citizens. I stood up with my wallet in my hand, and saw upwards to check how much the ceiling light is swinging. I felt I should not have done that, because the tip of the light was swinging sideways in an abnormal angle, and it reminded me how much the building is still shaking. Then I glanced at the table next to us. Two ladies, who just stood and left as they paid in rush, were eating bibimbap, rice stirred with variety of vegetables, served on a heated stone bowl. Both bowls were half full.
I realized that Mao also lost her appetite. When the earthquake happened, her meal was just served. I, on the other hand, finished lunch an hour ago, and was sipping sweet, plum tea. Her speed of eating accelerated, bringing her long silver spoon into her mouth without much break in between. “I’m just bringing the food into my mouth without tasting anything,” she said and eventually stopped eating her bibimbap.
We both checked outside of the window. From meters above the ground, nothing seem to have changed down below. We also told ourselves, “Aren’t high-rise buildings built for earthquakes?” and tried to calm down. I think the building was still shaking. The ceiling lamps, which I hoped to have ceased to shake by then, was still swinging. In fact, I think there was the second big earthquake around this time, and lights seem to be losing control.
Around then, we heard the building announcement. In department stores and shopping malls, background music is usually so constant and mind-numbing that I found the sane male voice quite odd to hear in such a set-up. The details of the announcement did not go through, I guess I was quite disturbed, then Mao said with a mildly surprising manner, “Did he say the source is Kanto?” (Kanto is the region which includes Tokyo metropolitan area). I didn’t quite believe her. I thought she misheard Kansai, which was where we were in, an area that includes Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and other major cities of the West. Knowing that Kobe was earlier struck by a large earthquake, to me it was an easier conclusion to think that we are much closer to the source than where we usually live in.
I don’t remember the exact sequence any longer, but I think around then, Mao took out her ‘gara-kei’: Gara-kei is an abbreviation for “garapagos keitai”, a term which locals have been using ironically, to describe the domestic mobile phones that are so isolated and unusable elsewhere. She took out her gara-kei, stretched the antenna, and started to check NHK, the national broadcasting channel. Checking the TV, we confirmed that the earthquake was indeed from the North. Gradually, the fear was replaced by the concern to whoever I was not with. First, we tried to call up Chika, another team member in Osaka who was then away for shadowing one informant for simulated retail experience in the neighborhood. Then we started to think about our family members in Tokyo. Both of us took out phones, but there was no ringback tone. Obviously, everyone in the area was reaching to their loved ones over the mobile. Our call was not even picked up by the base station in Osaka, let alone go through to reach people in Tokyo. I quickly switched to SMS, thinking I would have better luck with data. I realized after several trials that my messages are not delivered.
After making alternative calls to Chika and my husband in Tokyo, we had a luck and somewhat managed to reach Chika first. She eventually joined us and now there were three of us in a Korean restaurant, all of us trying to understand the situation and to reach to our family. I somehow gave up quite quickly, perhaps because of my background in telecommunications that in such circumstances chances are slim that my phone call would go through. Chika then reached to her husband. She was for sure the most desperate one of all, as she was planning to leave Osaka on that day. Her husband was also away from their home, which left them to think of the consequences as they try to pick up their two year old daughter at daycare. We left the restaurant, and head back to the fourth floor where the shop we are observing locates. I went back to the observation, Mao did more interviews, while Chika tried to confirm the situation.
At this point, there were two things we learned. One, was that trains stopped moving, including bullet trains heading for Tokyo. This meant that Chika, who initially planned to head back home, might have to stay overnight in Osaka and if so, have to find a place to stay. But it was Friday evening. No hotel near the station had vacancy, and I called the hotel for extra bed, which, we did not get as the hotel staffs for such ‘labor’ left the hotel already. The staff in any case promised to leave us an extra blanket, pajamas, and towels. Two, was the phone battery. We did have our equipments with us, but phone batteries were off the list as typically during observations, we are concerned of batteries for video cameras or data storage. Unreachable mobile network, mobile phone battery drainage, and irregular train schedules are three things we have learned to be a serious psychological constraints every time earthquake happened. But on Friday, I was naive. It felt so strange as something that usually works perfectly stopped working all of a sudden.
And this was also the moment I realized how much we are dependent on an orchestrated public services. Had this been a typical day, working parents would work until they have absolutely no time left and rush to day cares to pick up their children. In Chika’s case, what I ironically call as “Cinderella time”, takes place around 17:00, and mine 18:00. Just like any other moms, we all take for granted that trains come one after another, and in an accuracy of one to two minutes, we would be able to arrive at the destination. But on that day things turned out different. Elevators stopped working and people had to take stairs in their office towers. Trains stopped and people had no choice but to walk. Roads were packed, taxis occupied. Although Chika confirmed her husband and her daughter are safe, she continued to feel helpless as her husband was stuck in a taxi and had no chance of arriving to the daycare to pick the daughter up in the normal hours. In the end it was around 20:00, which is way later than daycare closing time. Chika knew very well there was nothing she could do. But thinking about her two year old daughter, she was constantly concerned that her daughter would have a traumatic memory about the day as neither parent appeared way past the normal pick up time.
As there was nothing we could do at that point, we continued the observations as planned. I received a text message from my husband a few hours after. It said “ca va?”, which made me slightly angry, because I wanted to know if he was ok rather than him asking me. The network was still occasional and my reply to him was not delivered for coming hours. Around the time, I learned that all trains in Tokyo have stopped. By six in the evening, I managed to reach my family in Tokyo, and was surprised to hear my young sister joining my husband and my daughter. She told me there was no way she could walk back to Kichijoji, where she lives in an apartment with his husband. So instead, she walked about one hour or so from Tokyo station. Trains did not recover on that day, she slept over at our place.
Chika tried to go to the railway stations, however, learned that in Shin-Osaka, there are people forming a big crowd, waiting for bullet trains to recover. By the time we finished observation around 20:30, we learned that there will be no trains heading back to Tokyo tonight. We all packed our stuff tried cheering ourselves with delicious udon in town, and head back to our hotel.
By the time we arrived to our hotel, it was around 23:30. I immediately turned the TV on, and I think it was only after then that we have learned the magnitude of the earthquake. TV channels showed us countless consequences of the natural disaster for those who reside much closer to the origin. On one side, there was tsunami washing away the entire town. On another, there was Kesen numa city, filled with fire. The top left side of the screen showed the death polls. Numbers were slightly different by the channel (typically NHK, the national broadcasting channel somehow estimates smaller numbers than other channels for any polls), but ranged between 200 to 300. As I read a book called “Disaster Ethnography,” which counted the death poll from Kobe’s earthquake as 6,500, at this point I thought that perhaps the Tohoku region miraculously avoided the impact. I thought that perhaps because Tohoku tends to be less populous, the casualty could be less than populated, big city Kobe.