I’m chatting with my mom over Facebook, attempting to convince her in the most electronically reassuring tone possible that I am, in fact, very much alive. We did feel the earthquake, but up here in Sapporo, we’re well removed from the ensuing tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown.
My husband and I were eating at a popular second-floor soup curry shop with our Japanese friends when we felt the quake. Derek’s legs jiggled compulsively under our lunch table, so at first it didn’t concern me that my soup was mimicking a scene from Jurassic Park. Not until he said, “Is the whole building shaking?” with a nervous laugh.
Outside, lampposts wavered precariously in the street. Iron fixtures and concrete foundations never felt so unreliable as in the moment Naoki told us that we were experiencing our first Japanese earthquake. He and Yurika were excited for us, taking pictures of our bemused faces. Then they eyed each other and frowned.
“This is lasting too long,” said Yurika, her lower lip puckered out in confusion.
My heart raced and I gulped in deep breaths of air to slow it down. A waiter came out and turned on a small TV mounted to a wall. A multi-colored map of the country lit up the screen, red indicating the greatest damage. The earthquake’s epicenter had reached a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter Scale (the highest being 10.0), and here in Sapporo we’d felt a 3.0.
I’d underestimated the lack of control that an earthquake can elicit. The lack of anywhere to go–whether inside or out, higher up or underground–where you can’t feel the shaking. There’s nothing to grab hold of to steady yourself. Feet are unreliable.
The aftershocks lasted for hours; the first of which we felt from inside a nearby Pachinko Parlor. The cacophony of slot machines cycling thousands of little metal balls through their thick groves of pins, the TVs at full volume declaring public transit closures, and the rumbling echo of exposed heating vents, did little to disguise the reality that dozens of people just lost their balance at the same time.
With an uncharacteristic scowl, Naoki left to catch a train back home to Chitose. The rest of us decided to do the same, boarding a jam-packed shuttle through the city.
In Yurika’s apartment, I sit next to her grieving family as we watch the helmeted news anchors update us on the death toll; thousands are missing, nine hundred (the number growing by the minute) are confirmed dead. Aftershocks will likely continue for months.
An entire country has felt this disaster–in their homes and in their hearts. I suddenly feel as though I’ve overstayed my welcome. It seems inappropriate to be American in this time and place. I can escape; I can cross the ocean to where radiation isn’t an immediate threat to my well-being. Where many people haven’t even heard of the tragedy, let alone succumbed to it.
Derek wants to stay and help with the recovery efforts. But how? And is it practical? At times like this, family matters most; and in their minds the most helpful thing we can do is return to them in safety.
Friday, Mar. 11th, 2011