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general unease.. (quake update)

March 15, 2011

I think there was a general sense after Friday that we here in Tokyo would take the weekend to absorb the shock and horror of what had happened, and that come Monday we would do our best under the current  circumstances to return to our usual routines. Despite the threat of rolling blackouts, and difficult commutes, I think many of us expected to see a relatively normal Tokyo come Monday. I even mentioned how weird it would be walking around with the knowledge of what had happened and what was continuing to happen in the North while seeing Tokyo continue on relatively unaffected.

Unfortunately, it seems that rather than improving over the last two days the situation has come to a standstill, or even gradually worsened. Focus has been shifting from mourning the tragedy and absorbing shock, to the nuclear situation, to aftershocks, and back to the nuclear situation again, with each day having a different focus.

Leaving home on Monday, things seemed to be going along inline with expectations. The train to Shinjuku at 9:30 am was packed, as expected, but no more so than I’ve experienced earlier int he day, such as at around 7:30-9 am.

Sign by the gates to the Seibu Shinjuku line informing passengers of the changes to the schedule to conserve power.

The first setback to normalcy occurred at 10:02 am, right after I arrived at the gym and was leaving the locker room, when a relatively strong aftershock hit somewhere off the coast of Chiba and rattled the whole building. I’m fairly certain it was the strongest tremor we’ve had since the quake, but it’s hard to tell as I’ve been at home for most of them.

Gym signage noting changes in the schedule due to power saving efforts & staff commuting problems

The rest of my gym-time went off without incident. The gym was much emptier than usual, but many of the regulars were there chatting about their own experiences. Somehow even just being there in the building was oddly much more comforting that I’d expected, despite the small reminders that things were not all business as usual.

I left the gym at 11 am, as usual, and began my hour-long walk to work. I used to walk this route regularly, but stopped over the summer due to the record high temperatures and never quite got back into the habit again. Along the way I say a few people walking home with supplies and a few other reminders of what was going on, but other than that it was a relatively pleasant walk.

Woman walking with about 12 boxes of tissues, and someone loading futons and blankets into a truck at the Totsuka Police Station.

Right before arriving I received a message from my German friend/coworker saying he was headed to Kyushu  for a while and asking if I was sticking around.

Work was relatively normal, though dark as we opted to keep all the lights off to conserve power. There was a lot of chatter about what had happened and everyone’s experiences, and two of our Japanese staff who I have never seen away from their desks short of illness and lunch scurried off mid-day to make sure they got home before their train lines stopped running, but other than that things were fine. It was also good to hear that the scheduled blackouts, which wouldn’t have affected Eric and I directly, were not implemented as planned as the city had manage to pull together and saved enough energy to render them unnecessary for the time being.

I think things started to take a nosedive after work, when reports of the commuting and food situations started coming in over Twitter. I had been toying with the idea of trying out the train on my way home, but that idea was quickly nixed when Eric checked in to report only half of those on the platforms at Shinagawa were making it on board the Yamanote line trains before they were packed to capacity. He said he was lucky enough to get sucked in with a surge, and continued to document the situation on his way home.

I decided that it would probably be best for me to walk home, and set off in that direction around 5:30 pm. Along the way I decided to stop into the Ikebukuro Seiyu supermarket to see for myself if reports of a rush on food were true.

It was much, much worse than I’d expected. Many of the shelves of the rather large store were cleaned out of certain produce, meats, breads, etc. And almost everything in the cup noodle aisle was gone.

I think many of us expected there to be a panicked rush for food after the quake, especially considering the government reiterating its warning that there was a 70% chance of a 7.0 or higher aftershock hitting us over the next three days, and had taken precautions over the weekend to avoid being affected. But seeing all those empty shelves suddenly made it all more real. Tokyo is panicking.

I took pictures of the situation for Twitter before continuing on my way. Shortly after I sent them, pictures came from my friend Keiko, across town, showing a similar situation at her neighborhood Olympic.

I had not planned to stop for food at all, but decided to take a minor detour to the local Niku no Hanamasa bulk supply store to see if it was as bad as the more centrally located and popular Seiyu. It wasn’t quite as cleaned out, but still enough to surprise me. I decided while I was there I might as well take advantage of the low prices, and loaded up two bags of produce to carry with me the remaining 30-40m walk home.

By the time I got home I was feeling very much under attack. The aftershock threat and the empty shelves were very disheartening to see, and after 3 days of constant warnings and lack of improvement, it was finally starting to wear me down.

Eric arrived shortly after I did and we decided it would be a good idea to fill up the bathtub as a precaution against another quake, and packed an emergency bag to leave by the door. We also spoke to our families before bed, who, much like the families of all/most of our friends, seemed to like the idea of sending us off to Thailand or thereabouts for a while.

I decided to sleep in my clothes again, which I hadn’t done the night before.

This morning things continued to deteriorate. We were jolted awake at 4:59 am by another aftershock. This one enough to rattle bottles in our kitchen. My iPhone app informed me that it was just a 4.1, but was centered somewhere in Tokyo Bay, whereas most of the larger tremors to date had been off the coast of Chiba or Iwate. That was unsettling, and it took me an hour or so to get back to sleep afterward.

Eric’s company had given him the okay to work from home for most of the week the previous day, so we got up an hour later than usual and had a slightly different routine. I made myself a really very tasty bowl of Scottish oats with molasses, blueberries, homemade yogurt, and tons of almonds and walnuts, and settled down to catch up on the situation around Japan, which had worsened overnight. I also checked my gym schedule online and learned that they had decided to close all Tokyo branches for both Tuesday and Wednesday, which was very disappointing.

Breakfast, the bright spot in my day so far. I obviously haven’t bothered with my DSLR in a while..

The good news of the morning was that the 70% warning of a major aftershock had been downgraded to just 40%, which was a tremendous relief to wake up to. The bad news was that the Nuclear Power Plant was facing even more problems than the previous evening. Enough to cause the Prime Minister to address the nation, and include an opener to the effect of “Please listen to my words calmly and do not panic.”

It was obvious by then that there had been definite shift in the atmosphere, and things were looking much more bleak than they had since the quake first hit. Several friends and acquaintances from about town messaged me throughout the morning with words to the effect of “I hadn’t been too worried until today” and “I think I’ve reached my limit of not panicking.”

Given the situation, I was very, very loathe to go to work. I was due in at noon, and my coworker had made a point of mailing me the night before to remind me that I had projects waiting for me and should avoid the temptation to stay home with Eric. I debated this for a while, and even mailed back to ask if he was SURE they needed me (his answer was yes), but ultimately decided to go. This time by train rather than foot.

Of course, after I arrived to work reports of a radioactive wind heading towards Tokyo in about 10 hours started to surface, so it’s been difficult to concentrate on the documents in front of me. The experts and analysts are assuring us here in Tokyo that it is minute enough to be negligible and not a danger to our long-term health, but it is getting very hard to distinguish between under and over reactions to the situation. People around here seem to be falling easily into either the ‘panic’ or ‘calm unconcern’ camp, and neither side is terribly good at understanding the other.

I can say definitively, though, that the lack of improvement and constant vigilance we have been under for the past few days is starting to wear on many residents of Tokyo, and the general feeling today seems to be one of greater unease than we were experiencing over the weekend, and even yesterday. It’s unpredictable at this point whether this will improve or remain the same tomorrow; there are far too many factors to consider and things have been changing from hour to hour thus far.

Please take my experiences with a grain of salt. I am trying to give an accurate depiction of the atmosphere here, but it’s a bit hard to really express the ‘normal but very much not’ feeling in words!

It was much, much worse than I’d expected. Many of the shelves of the store were cleaned out of certain produce, meats, breads, etc. And almost everything in the cup noodle aisle was gone.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 2:04 am

    I can’t even imagine how stressful and exhausting this must be but know that everywhere in the world we are holding Japan in our hearts. Hang in there!

    • March 18, 2011 2:05 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment! Things are stressful, but it’s honestly not as bad most of the time as I think the media might lead you to believe over there. Many people here are carrying on with life as usual, though some have definitely turned to panic. We are inbetween those extremes somewhat. We are carrying on as best we can at present, but keeping a cautious eye on the situation all the while. The juxtaposition of normal life over bizarre post-disaster life is really very surreal, and there have been many times we just catch ourselves mid sentence and can’t help but laugh in disbelief.

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