When the earth shook in Japan

A firsthand account of the quake in Japan and the behavior of the people in the aftermath of the disaster and the government’s response. Tokyo based business executive Ashiq Masood writes.

My second floor office at a Tokyo commercial hub Roppongi was bubbling with routine activity. First it was like sound of a cracker and then the building started swinging like a pendulum. The chair in the cabin had already turned upside down. My lunch box, the papers and laptop were kissing the ground. After weeks of vacation and travel to Middle East and Europe, it was my first day in the office on March 11, when earthquake of an enormous magnitude shook the land of the rising sun.

But now as everyone wanted to leave the shocks of tremors behind, nuclear radiations have now been source of concern. The government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that radiation levels at the plant have shot up after an apparent blast at its No. 2 reactor, and the operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.has ordered some workers at the site to temporarily evacuate the area. Many Indian families are heading home and others are watching situation with concern.

Though no advisory had come from Indian embassy, officials are telling us they are monitoring and assessing the situation.

More than a decade, I have spent in Japan I have been witness to many tremors, as the region stands on high seismic zone. But those shakes have rarely taken away the routine or hustle and bustle of life. Sirens and shrieks were renting the air on March 11. All my staff ran away to seek shelter in the ground floor. Even then we could see buildings around us swaying. Once out of the building, I kept trying to call my wife back home, but could only manage to get her on phone only after five hours. All the communication lines had snapped.

Key to Japan’s success is discipline and sense of responsibility. As I had witnessed a lesser magnitude of earthquake back home in Kashmir in October 2004, it was a contrast. There was no panic, though concern was palpable on the faces. People were calm alongside the road, till tremors phased out. Within minutes police was in action. They came enquiring if there was any causality in our building or if we need any help.

Japan is well equipped to handle disasters unlike back home, where we attend to post-disaster management only. Here schools and offices conduct earthquake and fire drills twice a year. It is mandatory for every child to carry an earthquake kit comprising essentials like water bottle, biscuits (with long expiry date), helmet, torch and first aid.

After an hour, when the quake and aftershocks subsided, the news of Tsunami started coming. Still, we returned to the office intermittently to complete the day’s work braving at least five aftershocks. It was only after we switched on the TV and internet, we realized coastal city of Miyagi had taken the much brunt.

Transport system had come to a standstill, as Tokyo Metro services were stopped as a precautionary measure. At 5.00 pm I along with my three colleagues started to head home, 13 kilometers from office. Taxis were off the roads. Tyota’s rent a car showroom had rented out all the cars. In the chilling cold, we kept on searching for transport, till we spotted the only working public telephone at Tokoy metro station. People were standing in queue and waiting patiently for their turn. It was a height of discipline under worst possible condition.

After an hour, I got my turn and succeeded to connect with my wife. She was safe along with the children but scared. She also informed that water pipes in the locality have given up and streets were flooded.

There was no choice but to travel on foot. The streets, which looked like a war zone with debris strewn here and there few hours ago, had been amazingly cleaned. However, private transport had choked roads. Still there was no honking and overtakes. They were moving at snail’s pace. Using the GPS on my phone, I kept walking, until, after covering a large distance, I managed to get a taxi.

It was past midnight when I reached home. The taxi driver charged normal fare against South Asian traditions under such circumstances, when he had every opportunity to fleece me. My wife just few hours before had told me the area was flooded as water pipes had burst open. But to my surprise the area had been cleaned. Local authorities had already fixed the pipes.

Next day in the morning, I could see craters and cracks in the roads. A nearby children’s park was devastated. However, even after such an unparalleled tragedy, essential commodities were available.

But everybody was now taking about a nuclear disaster and radiation coming out of the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant. So far there have been three blasts in three reactors causing concerns of emission of hazardous radiations.

Although authorities have declared the situation to be under control and have only asked people within 30-kilometre radius to evacuate but there is a degree of concern. Foreigners around the area have been migrating to Tokyo.

A friend, Mohammed Arif from Pakistan, living just 60 kilometres from the plant vacated the area this morning. He was confident few days ago, but gave up after the blast at the third reactor. Though the authorities had shut down the reactors well in time, the cores need to be cooled down to avoid the blast of main container of the nuclear fuel which as per reports has not been done yet. The high temperature and non-functioning of coolant, the outer cover has blasted so far, though the core is still intact.

In Tokyo some five Indian families, whom I know personally, left for Hong Kong. Some more are assessing the situation on minute to minute basis and weighing options to leave. If the local authorities are to be believed then it should not be of major concern but with the debates and commentary of international media, foreigners here are a worried lot. Japanese, however, have full faith in their system and believe things will be sorted out.

One thing which is worth mentioning here that despite such a big disaster the society has remained calm, disciplined and continues to do their work. There were no thefts, reports of robberies, price rise, or similar such incidents we South Asians are accustomed to in such situations.

Such is the resolution of these Japanese, that when on last Monday, the first working day after the quake, I rang up Takahashi, a supplier of our company, whose brother and close relatives were missing. To my horror, he was in his office, doing daily business, attending his clients.  His relatives lived in Miyagi Ken, which was close to the epicentre of the high magnitude quake.

He had no contact with them and authorities were unable to trace them.

The authorities are also fulfilling their responsibilities. People assiduously follow their guidelines. There were no long queues to get relief. Neither are any protests from public nor any criticism in the media. Political parties have kept politicking aside and have joined hands to bring the nation back on to the rails. Anyway, response to this huge disaster is a great lesson for us. Anybody listing back home!

(Ashiq Masood is a top executive in a Tokyo-based Japanese Shipping Company. He was in his Tokyo office, when the tragedy struck. He has left for Osaka due to presence of high radiation in Tokyo.)

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