March 13th 2011

Yesterday I sent out e-mails to lots of people, for 2 reasons; to reassure everyone that I was OK, and also to counter some of the wilder reporting I had seen on TV. I have received a lot of positive replies and so I am going to try to continue as this awful situation develops. I am not claiming to represent what the whole of Tokyo is going through, but I will try to include as many snapshots of what I see and hear so you get as full a picture as possible.

So: Day 3.

Let me start where I left off with my last e-mail.

Yesterday morning I spent several hours in school. At 6:30, when I first went in, there were still around 100 students in school, and maybe 25 members of staff, many of whom had not really slept overnight. The headmaster was not at school on Friday, but the 3 other senior members of staff, and the office manager, chaplain and school nurse were all there. Straight after the earthquake, all phones stopped working, and so the headmaster couldn’t get through to the school, neither could the school contact him to tell him everyone was OK.

But wait! Someone remembered that there was a ‘special black emergency telephone’ in the headmaster’s office that would work come what may, and they hunted it out and called the head. Step 1: communication re-established.

All the train lines had stopped too, but some parents drove, rode bicycles or walked to school to collect their daughters, so from an original group of around 200 girls only half of them slept at school. (We only have one more week of school and all classes and tests have finished. These students were at school for club activities, and the teachers were there working on grading.) Some parents went to great lengths to get their daughters home; one father arrived at school at 2am (a few train lines were working then) to pick up his daughter, he said he ‘just wanted to see her face’. Another father walked for 5 hours to come to get his daughter. Her reaction on being told they had to walk 5 hours home was apparently less than enthusiastic!

As I wrote before, the girls were calm and smiley yesterday morning. They were mainly wearing their uniform, with bits of their sports clothes added to keep them warm. 2 students had been out when the earthquake happened, and because they were closer to school than their homes they very sensibly came to school; they were not in uniform. I think they must have been making for Harajuku to hang out with their teen tribe and dress up, because one of them was wearing a full Rirakkuma costume!  (Imagine this, lifesize!  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rirakkuma)

By noon all the students had left school, and then the staff went home, mission accomplished. I am in awe of the work they did, how calm everyone was and how everyone supported each other.

I told you that 3 members of the ladies’ reading group were stranded and stayed at my apartment on Friday night. They left very early on Saturday morning and then called me later to say they had managed to get home, but it took them 3 or 4 hours because train service was patchy. I went to the supermarket after I left school, and all the shops along the shopping street were open, people were going about their business like any Saturday morning. The supermarket seemed busier than usual, but since I assume people could go there on Friday it may just have been twice as many people as usual, I didn’t see any panic buying, though at church this morning some people said some shops and convenience stores had empty shelves. However, the lines to pay were very long, and when I left I saw they had closed the doors and were making people wait outside until some of the people already inside had left. (But it is a very small supermarket!)

I spent the afternoon and evening at home, e-mailing and watching TV. Generally, I am finding the BBC to be very good, measured and calm but getting information out quickly. CNN is markedly shriller and I think anyone relying on that for news will be in a much more distressed state than someone watching the BBC. By the end of the day I was frustrated to see that all the American channels are sending teams of their big-hitters to cover the earthquake and tsunami; it seems to me that what is needed in the worst-hit areas is teams of rescuers to try to find anyone missing but still alive, and to give emergency help to all the survivors who have lost their homes. (Anderson Cooper said on CNN that he wants to get to the epicentre, but since that is miles under the ocean, good luck with that!)

We had a number of aftershocks yesterday, and late in the evening we had several big ones. Since the earthquake on Friday started as a moderate one and just kept getting worse, every aftershock is scary, you wonder how big it’s going to be.

An update on what information I can give you about the earthquake: today it has been upgraded to a 9, not 8.8, so truly a monster. I said before that this had been The Big One that we had been waiting for. Having spoken to some people at church I can now say, the jury is still out. Some say it was, some say it wasn’t, and that Tokyo will get its very own monster quake at some point in the future. I must say, this is an upsetting thought. On a positive note, what we went through on Friday was big enough to test our buildings. My own apartment seemed to be rolling with the quake, and while it probably sounds alarming it is actually a good sign. Rolling with the quake is good, juddering about is not.

There has been remarkably little damage in Tokyo and Yokohama. Apparently one building front fell off in Yokohama and someone said they had seen on TV that a crack about 30cm wide had opened on a road in Yokohama. More worrying, I heard from 2 people that there were instances of what I think is called liquefaction, when water comes up through the ground and turns it from solid to liquid. Quite a lot of Tokyo is built on reclaimed land, so the danger of liquefaction and also being low-lying makes these areas not the best places to be. (I live on a hill, and not on reclaimed land, so I am not in that kind of area.)

Next, the threat of nuclear meltdown. Clearly, Not A Good Thing. I suppose at this point we just hope and pray and keep up with the latest information. Again, CNN is making it all sound worse than the BBC, and since they have more professors and people who I would think know what they’re talking about, I am listening to them and trying to stay calm. I bought some dried kombu (kelp) at the convenience store yesterday; it contains a lot of iodine and therefore protects the thyroid. Last time there was an emergency at a power station here that is what a Japanese friend told me to do, so I did it again!

I went to church this morning. I had not planned to, because now we are into Lent and the priest has a liking for what he calls ‘traditional language’ (Book of Common Prayer, lots of thee and thou etc.) and I do not connect with it at all. I knew he was planning to use it this morning, but decided to go anywhere because I needed to connect with other people, get out and see what Tokyo was doing, and just pray. Ironically, we had quite a large aftershock during the prayers, and we ended up not using the language I don’t like.

All conversations were of the ‘where-were-you-what was-it-like?’ variety. Many people spoke of being relieved that they had not been alone at the time, and anyone who had not been at home had either walked home or stayed at work until the trains started working, which may have been late at night or early yesterday morning. The lucky ones only walked 5km, some walked as far as 14km. All said it was eerie walking home since so many thousands of people were doing the same.

Another question frequently asked: Do you have friends or family in the tsunami-affected area? Some people do and are having trouble getting through to confirm everyone is OK, we can only hope that once the phone networks get back to 100% they will be able to find their people. One friend at church is the Director of Studies at the school I used to work at (though he wasn’t there when I was). The main school (I worked at another one) is a boarding school, and they have a number of students from Miyagi prefecture. He said some students and teachers watched the TV coverage and said, as they looked at the tsunami, that’s my house, or, that’s the building where my father-in-law works. Just heartbreaking.

In terms of damage to homes, I heard only about things falling off shelves and out of cupboards, I heard of no injuries. Coming home, I went to National Azabu supermarket, which caters to expats and the general need for PG Tips teabags, Marmite, marmalade etc. Their stocks seemed a little lower than usual, but again, no panic buying. When I passed Segafredo coffee shop (where people go when they are too cool for Starbucks) all the conversations I overheard were about what has happened.

So now I am home and am planning a quiet afternoon doing laundry! I think I have brought you up to date; more soon! In the meantime, please keep the people of Miyagi prefecture in your prayers and don’t let any shrill TV reporters alarm you excessively. If there is anyone else you know who may be concerned about the situation here, please forward my e-mail to them.

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