March 11th And After

My Experience of The Great Tohoku Earthquake

Me performing standup comedy in a radiation suit.
Me leading the latest in nuclear fashion trends. (Photo by Will Bolt)

How I Experienced It

First, just a smidgen of background. I've been in Japan for over a decade and a half, and I don't think earthquakes ever made much impact on me. We get them all the time, every few months, and they just sort of rattle the room you're in, and that's about it. The first time I ever experienced one, I thought something along the lines of "Huh... that was weird. I thought it would be scarier." Then as time went on, I barely even thought about them. Although one time I did experience an earthquake while walking outside and was impressed at how it made the street lights sway.

On that Friday afternoon when the shaking started, right away it felt different. I felt the tremors first in my chair, and then saw that my ceiling light, which hangs from a cord, was swinging in wider swoops than I had ever seen it do before. Things in my apartment began to rattle a little more enthusiastically than previous times. Soon I had a gut feeling that this wasn't the usual deal.

Once in a while with a big tremor, I've thought about getting under my desk, which is a rather sturdy thing with a metal top, but I've never actually done it. This time, I did. I stopped mid-typing and got down to where there is just enough room for me to sit between my computers.

Just as I got under the desk, shit got real. It's hard to describe the feeling of being in a real earthquake. It's not like being shaken in a car driving over bumps, or rocking on a boat, or anything else. It has its own sensation. The floor felt like it was the surface skin over a really thick liquid. It felt like my small two story apartment building, where I'm on the top floor, was now hovering just a little over the ground and was on it's way somewhere.

It's terrifying because you just don't know if the next moment is when the situation crosses that line from being in danger of something happening to something actually happening. All you know is that you're right on that line, and all you can do is hope. You're totally helpless, completely mortal, and absolutely insignificant in size compared to the scale of the force of nature being acted upon you.

The fear made it feel like it took forever, while the excitement seemed to make it pass quickly, as is often the case with situations on the edge. In reality, according to this USGS PDF file, the shaking took about 6 minutes. For at least forty minutes after, the ground had an unsteady movement to it, and within that there were some significant aftershocks, two of which were large enough to make me duck under my desk again, just in case.

After about two hours, I was reasonably sure the worst had passed, and I emailed family and friends to tell them I was okay. However, I knew that for an earthquake that big, somewhere else in the country must have been hit really hard, and the only question was how much devastation the evening news would reveal.

Placing Bets

For about a week after the main event, the ground in Tokyo seemed to rumble and move so much that I know I wasn't the only one who developed a near constant uncertainty of whether or not the ground was moving. In between the significant and obvious tremors, I'd often be looking around at other people and asking "Do you feel something? Is that another tremor?"

With the ground constantly moving, it certainly felt that another significant aftershock was going to happen. There are, however, models that look at the history of large earthquakes, and by looking at the frequency of aftershocks in the past try to determine their likelihood in present situations.

The bottom line is that the probability of an aftershock decreases exponentially, being quite likely in the first day, and then dropping in probability and intensity within the first week. The Japan meteorological agency predicted a 70% chance of an M7 quake for a few days, and then later adjusted to near 20% for a M5 or so as the week came to a close. (Every aftershock is evidence of continued activity, so with each tremor, they adjust the odds accordingly.)

Which means that by the time most people, including me, could arrange a flight out of the country, the threat of a significant aftershock would have passed anyway.

Could another big one hit, though? Just because mother nature decides it's amusing to bitch slap us again? Sure, but it doesn't seem likely. Even before the scientists had settled on the magnitude 9.0 rating, it was generally agreed that this was the largest quake to hit Japan in 140 years. If that's true, and I don't see a reason to doubt it, it seems reasonable to assume that an event like that only happens once a century or so. That being the case, then statistically the odds are that something this big won't happen again for another hundred years, give or take some decades.

Which means that statistically, we might be safer in Tokyo now, since another big one isn't likely to come round again in so short a time. However, from a probabilistic point of view, it could happen any time, but it's no more likely now than it ever was.

In other words, the danger of a large earthquake has returned to what it was before, so if you were willing to accept the risk before March 11, you should be comfortable with the risk after. I know I am.

I checked that logic with my father, who is a bit of an expert in game theory and knows his probabilities. He made a good point, which was that while my conclusions more or less defensible, it would make sense for someone to reassess their willingness to put up with the risk now that they can viscerally appreciate the consequences of losing that bet. So if someone left Tokyo because they thought that the risks were the same, but the consequences were worse than they imagined, that seems reasonable to me.

I never heard anyone make that claim, though. Everyone I've talked to throughout have expressed, erroneously, that they felt it was more dangerous to live here now.

Though as days went by that had less to do with mother nature and more to do with man made problems.

I've been waiting for this

If you had asked me when I was 13 what 2011 might be like, "radioactive" would probably be part of my prediction. I was a kid during the tail end of the cold war, when there was constant fear of a global atomic war that would plunge the world into an endless nuclear winter, where one was either dying of radiation exposure or being killed by mutants.

The realities of what is essentially an engineering problem at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant seem mundane in comparison to the hellscape of Threads, which probably helped me remain suitably underwhelmed by the media hysteria. I might even be a little disappointed that combined driving and crossbow skills won't be called for.

In any case, in the age of the internet, information to help make an informed decision is widely available. Just to rattle off a few examples, you could read why Fukushima is not like Chernobyl, what the real dangers of radiation are, and real time Geiger counter readings of radiation levels in Tokyo.

However, while some swam in the ocean of data, others seemed to drown in it. Some people seemed to be buffeted by each individual piece of information, without the willingness or ability to correlate it against other available information to look for consistency. They got swept up by the fickle hyperbole of the media, and carried out to into the sea of panic.

I've written out many drafts trying to come to a pithy explanation of why some people could not be consoled, but I can't seem to do it without having to go into the quagmire of explaining just why it is that the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were at a manageable level of risk for people living in Tokyo.

It doesn't matter, though. I now have enough experience both online and in person to know that no matter how concisely you make the case, even if you have helpfulvisuals to make your points clear, the fear of the invisible and complicated threat of radioactivity overwhelms people. I have literally (and yes, I literally mean literally) had people tell me that the facts don't sway them, they suspect there are unknowns that can't be accounted for, and so they know it's dangerous, and that's that.

Unfortunately, once panic started, it perpetuated as people took other people's panic as evidence that there is something to panic about. For example, people would cite the fact that the US military offered to evacuate some people, as if the US military had never made a disproportionate reaction based on unfounded speculation. In any case, it doesn't matter who is panicked, or how many are, it matters why.

Note I'm not saying there was no risk(and at the time of writing, still some), just that the risk level was manageable. A likely result is that I will pass on eating carrots grown within a few kilometres of the reactors, but that if things got worse, there would be plenty of time to leave and on the way out maybe be exposed to an amount of radiation that would be well within safe limits. There is a point where the danger justifies evacuation, and if it reaches that level, then it makes sense for everyone, regardless of how much they consider Tokyo a home, to leave.

The bottom line is that this was never a situation of unknowns, like flipping a coin, where one outcome was as likely as the other. The information was there, one could evaluate it, and there was never any evidence that evacuation was merited. Anyone who tries to make the claim that they left "just to be on the safe side" is merely consoling themselves that they let primal irrational fears dictate their actions.

The Diminishing Returns of Facebook

Facebook seemed to be really awesome at first. Right after the earthquake, people started sharing information, some of it really helpful. For example, it was through Facebook that my friends told me that my gas meter has an automatic shut off switch that is triggered by larger quakes, and that I had to go outside and hit a reset button. Good to know.

When the trains stopped running on Friday night, people started posting offers that anyone too far from home to walk could spend the night at their place. Within the first twenty four hours, people were posting suggestions on how to give aid to the affected. And of course, people were posting lots of information about what was happening, linking to news sources and videos.

For a little while, I thought I could now see some validation in some of the hype about Facebook that one hears, especially in the context of how it's a useful tool for overthrowing dictatorships.

Naively, I thought I was being helpful by posting information about radiation levels and why we weren't in much danger, the low statistical possibility of more quakes, and that sort of thing. Sometimes someone would post some kind of worrisome detail from the hysterical western media, and I, or others, would post calming facts to dispel the myths. However, within twelve hours or so, the people who were expressing panic would usually be expressing yet more panic on the same issues, or new panic about something else.

The amount of noise on Facebook doesn't necessarily negate the quality information, but overall, I found that my enthusiasm waned. It became less a source of good information, or a place to help others with information, and just a large virtual market square with all the townsfolk shouting over each other to try and make their point of view heard. Nothing we haven't seen on mailing lists, web forums, and any other kind of internet social space. And I'm one who has a hard time turning from a debate, so I found myself wanting to try and convince people of what I was saying, knowing I was probably just being argumentative and fostering defensiveness in others, and hating myself for being unable to stop. I was as much a part of the noise problem as anyone else.

After about five days, it was clear that the people who were panicked were determined to stay that way, and countering them was whistling into the wind. I made a commitment to re-evaluate how much I used Facebook, and how.

Right in the middle of this, Facebook changed their text entry system for writing comments, leading to lots of half-thought statements being posted before they were done, and an increase in muddled grammar and spelling. At least it was something that both sides of the stay-or-flee debate could agree on: Facebook's new system sucks.

Fair Weather Gaijin

Surprisingly quickly after the quake, foreigners started evacuating the city. Japanese did too, for a variety of reasons. But with foreigners living here, there is extra dimension to the decision to leave, which has been the source of some controversy.

If you don't happen to have experience living in Japan, people leaving a situation they think is dangerous might seem a strange source of controversy. To start by explaining it, though, you have to start from the context that within the foreign community there are many divergent reasons to be here. Those reasons range from just passing through to wanting to make a life here.

For the most part, no reason is any better than any other. However, within Japanese society, there are threads of stereotypes about foreigners here, and one of those threads is that we're all essentially tourists. For those of us trying to be a part of society, we sometimes struggle to be taken seriously, from frivolous matters like whether or not the Japanese person we're speaking to assumes we couldn't possibly speak Japanese, up to more serious situations, like a bank not willing to grant a loan on the perception that if anything goes wrong, we will immediately flee the country and any obligations.

Very soon after March 11th, Japanese that I bumped into began asking me if I was going to leave, as so many others had. That I lived here for over fifteen years and consider this a home that I wouldn't just ditch, anymore than a Japanese person would, just isn't their first impression. It felt kind of hollow when they praised me for staying, because I knew I wasn't doing anything special, I was just beating a stereotype. Kind of like when they compliment you on how well you can use chopsticks.

One of the aspects of the debate that inflamed a lot of heated talk is that foreigners in Japan don't fall into neat categories. So it wasn't easy to just create broad strokes and create two groups of who was just a flighty good time gaijin and who was making an effort to be a part of a broader Japanese society. Sure, it was easy to tar bankers and the wealthy with the brush of being evacuees of convenience. Nobody likes bankers anyway.

But it was hard to not sympathize with, say, someone who hasn't been here very long, works at a low paying job like English conversation teaching, doesn't have a network of community support, and feels a little lost when the most important information is in a language they don't yet grasp. If that person chose now to be with their family instead of here, then who can blame them?

So there is a bit of a hodgepodge of class issues, motivations, and actions that make the situation murky.

Within that, though, I know both directly and indirectly of specific instances of people who have enjoyed a life in Japan as more than a tourist, and yet were a little too quick to man the escape pods, reinforcing a stereotype on their way out.

Does it matter, though, to call them out on it?

It matters to me, and here's why.

I think there is such a thing as a fairweather friend, and fairweather friends can be okay. Like, there are people you know at your local dance club or bar or sports group or whatever that you have fun with, but wouldn't call up when you're in trouble, and that's fine. Some people you just want to have a good time with.

However, in the context of foreigners in Japan, while that distinction is clear to me, it is not so clear to the Japanese society around me. I would like it if Japanese people had more of distinction in their mind between tourists and those who live here.

The actions of the so-called "flyjin" is an opportunity to change perceptions, maybe just a little. If I could tell a Japanese person that I'm not a flyjin, and with that one word differentiate myself from the stereotype, that's good by me.

Sure, that means selling out the foreigners who that label might apply to, but what do they care? By definition they aren't invested in the problem.

Suck It Up

I caused a bit of strong debate by posting on Facebook that foreigners who stayed should form Tonton Macoute style death squads and single out and execute the flyjin...

Oh wait, that's right, I never said that. What I did say in a Facebook posting was that "foreigners who leave aren't obligated to come back." In other words, if you were quick to give up this country, then maybe that's something to consider when thinking about how much you want to be here. God forbid I suggest people think about their actions. Yes, it does reveal a slight disdain for those who might be too quick to leave, as described above. But no, it doesn't mean I'm about to initiate a pogrom.

What I really think is that the punishment should fit the crime. The flyjin will get teased. Not killed or ostracized. Just teased. Hardly a violation of the Hague Conventions.

And for the people who stay? They don't get medals or praise just for not leaving.

However, the other day I was in a Starbucks, and I bumped into a foreign guy who commented that he hadn't seen so many foreign faces around recently. I commented that I stayed because this was home. He nodded, and we had our shared moment of knowing we both felt the same way about this place.

That's what we get, those of us who stayed. We get that knowing nod. That's all, and in some ways, it's a lot.

Interior of a grocery store in Tokyo.
Me leading the latest in nuclear fashion trends.

Life In Tokyo

I opted not to watch foreign coverage of the events in Fukushima, as most of what I saw convinced me it was shit anyway. However, it must have been really crazy because I was getting a lot of email from family and friends that made it seem that they thought I was in Damnation Alley.

Here's what it was really like in Tokyo in the weeks after March 11th:


Stores were having a little trouble maintaining stock, but there's a huge difference between a lack of stock and a lack of supply. The fact is that importation and transportation of food was continuing largely interrupted, so no one was ever in danger of starving. In fact, restaurants had full stocks of food as people were for some reason staying at home to use up the supplies they had presumably bought for worse times. I even heard that by the end of the week, restaurants were throwing out unused and spoiled ingredients.

One day I walked by a drug store near my house and saw a line up. I asked a woman why, and she said to buy tissue paper. Three days later, there was more tissue paper on the shelves.

Some people were suffering scheduled blackouts, which must have sucked a little, though most people I know never bitched about it. Respect to them for that. I was lucky in that I was not part of the rolling black out schedule - it's not entirely clear why some areas were chosen and not others, and many conspiracy theories abound. However, I tried to do my bit by keeping my heaters and computers off as much as possible. One thing I kept doing was accidentally using the elevator at my gym, and then feeling like a bit of a jerk when I realized I had forgot, yet again, to take the stairs.

Shops cut back on lights as well as hours. The shorter hours was a mild inconvenience now and again, but the reduced lights was actually kind of pleasant. I'm hoping, probably in vain, that some of the energy saving mentality will spill over into a new aesthetic of how stores and businesses light their premises.

People were a little nicer. Japanese people that I ordinarily might not interact with were suddenly more chatty, and we exchanged stories about where we were when the earthquake happened.

Our comedy group had to cancel one comedy show due to the power outages, but then the next two we had went really well. I think that it wasn't just a return to normal for both performers and audience, there was also a palpable effort to rediscover what it was we live in Tokyo for.

It was nice.

A Moral In The Story

One of the compelling stories that came out of this disaster was how the Japanese as a society overall responded to the disaster with grace. There was no looting reported, and no civil unrest in general. Some reporters are even incredulous, citing legal reasons, as if the concept of a fundamentally civil society is just not quite believable to the cynical western mind.

Of course, I wouldn't jump to the opposite extreme to say that there is some inherent quality of the Japanese that makes them so admirably stoic. The idea of "nihonjinron" is just fucking stupid. Too stupid for me to even really devote any time to debunking it.

However, like a lot of stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in the idea that there is a sacrifice of individuality in favour of harmony with the community. And, like a lot of choices, it comes with good and bad. The bad is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit and unwillingness to change. The good are things like low crime and strong community support in times of crises.

The question really is whether or not these are antithetical in some way so that a society has to choose whether or not to lean toward the exaltation of the individual or the community.

I don't see them as mutually exclusive options, though. The foreigners who stayed on in Japan because they considered it home did not respond to the problems in any way that differentiated them from the Japanese around them. And yet at the same time, you would probably start a fight if you suggested to any one of them that they have shed any of the sense of individuality that they were taught from a young age to cherish.

In other words, the model exists to consider yourself an individual who is part of a community. Which I know comes across as self congratulatory, being that I would include myself in that group. I'm not saying that I, or the other foreigners living in Japan represent some kind of ideal. Just that from my vantage point, I think the lesson learned in this crisis is simply that it is possible to have a society that does not reduce itself to a Hobbesian state of individual competition at the first hint of trouble. Japan has shown that. And that the pursuit of that ideal doesn't mean individual expression necessarily has to be squashed on the way, because that's not my experience.

Me giving blood at the Red Cross.
I discovered that being able to give blood is kind of a point of pride - they wouldn't take it unless you were "clean", in a sense, so it's actually kind of a self serving form of validation.

Help out

I want to promote my favoured charities, but of course, that shouldn't be taken to mean that I think other charities that I don't mention are in any way lacking. These just happen to be the ones I have supported with donations, and I hope you will too.

I'm not fond of having possessions which means I don't keep much excess that I can offer as far as food or clothes. So for me, the two things I feel are most valuable to give are blood and money.

Thus, I donate to the Red Cross. When it comes to blood, there can be some restrictions that will exclude most foreigners from donating in Japan. However, as a person who has donated blood here and gone through their screening process, I can tell you for sure that there is no particular bias against foreigners. All the rules they impose are exactly the same for Japanese people. The thing is that they have restrictions regarding how recently you've travelled and what countries you've been to, which is more likely to apply to foreigners.

I also give them my money, motivated not just by the simple fact that they do great work regardless, but also because I figure that if I'm going to trust them with my precious blood, I want to make sure they have the financial resources to take care of it and get it to someone who needs it.

If you read Japanese, you can go to their donations page and find out how to do donations by bank transfer and credit card. Otherwise, a quick donate button, along with other charity options, can be found on this Google crises response page.

I've also long supported Second Harvest Japan, and they've continually done good work, and will no doubt extend that same quality of help to the affected areas. If you are in Japan, they have a list of goods they need. However, if, like me, you don't have goods, you can cut out the middle man, send them some money, and let them work out what they need to do. In some ways, I think that might be the better way to go, since they have the experience to know what items in what proportions they need, and so I trust them to make better choices than me. If I were in charge, I'd probably screw it up and get cans of beans for everyone and not think of getting things like diapers and ear plugs.

Um.. diapers and ear plugs is kind of a weird note to end on, but, to paraphrase my late grandmother, "if that's your blog post, then you've had it."